Algorithm

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Chapter 4


The early evening sun cast deep shadows across Main Street, Maplewood. Tall maple and elm trees lining the road threw a shifting zebra pattern across Adam's car. The drive from PA to his hometown took only two hours, but it felt like ages. His mind's eye relentlessly reran the day's events. He had dropped off Linda at her car and promised to call her later.

A late night series of analyses of a mysterious medallion revealed an almost incomprehensible complexity buried within the enigma. The archeological ramifications of such a find could be colossal. The analyses were carried out on a networked computer system, so, to a paranoiac mind, someone could have been observing the data collection. Adam didn't think of himself as paranoiac.

Did I see someone in the laboratory hallway just before the explosion?

The explosion destroyed all the data acquired that night. It was an explosion that should not have happened, since there was no flammable gas stored in the lab. Adam was glad he still had the photos.

Who was rifling through the remains of the laboratory? What were they looking for?

All of this could simply be coincidental, but not to Adam. His skin prickled as he realized just how significant the medallion could be, and that someone else may know that as well. Scientific deductions had their limits, since such reasoning required hard facts. Intuition, on the other hand, was prone to fill in the voids between, and it was intuition that drove Adam to New Jersey, to Maplewood, and to Dr. Ben Wujciak's home. Why he decided to go see Dr. Wujciak wasn't entirely clear in his mind.

Why would Wujciak send me information about a gold necklace found in a lump of coal back in 1891? Why send it to me now?

The doctor had retired from practice several years ago. His home office was still in the same place, located on a quiet residential street behind Columbia High, a regional high school serving several surrounding communities. Adam parked his car on a nearby cross street, and walked over to the house. Incredibly, the place looked the same as he had remembered it nearly twenty years ago. Time's passage, so relentless in modernizing the surrounding neighborhood with new office buildings, had made a major detour to avoid the doctor's unassuming little one-family house. A recessed porch drew him up faded gray wooden steps. A rectangular patch of brighter paint over the door betrayed the former location of an office shingle. Adam pressed the doorbell, eliciting a muffled two-tone chime from within. After waiting a minute or so, he pressed the doorbell again, but to no avail. No one seemed to be in. Noticing a mail slot at the bottom of the front door, he stooped over, propped open the hinged flap and peered into the foyer. He spotted a small but dismaying pile of mail on the floor.

The doctor seems to be out … maybe for quite a while. I should have called before making the trip.

Disappointed, he walked down the short flight of wooden steps thinking about what he would do next. He was heading back to his car when he noticed the garage in back. It was a one-car affair separated from the house, and the folding door was down. He walked back along the gravel driveway and peeked in through one of the square windows. There was a car in the garage, a VW Beetle, and someone was seated on the driver's side. Adam pulled at the garage door handle and it rolled up with a screech. In moments, he was at the car door, and what he saw through the rolled down window broke his heart. Dr. Wujciak sat at the wheel, looking straight ahead, dressed in T-shirt and shorts, as if ready to start out on a routine trip to the local supermarket. His face and arms were a subtle shade of gray. The head lay back against the headrest, as if he was taking a moment to relax.

The one person I could trust is dead. I've got to call the police.

As Adam gradually recovered from the shock, he once again began thinking about the curious collection of events of the past twenty-four hours and decided to take a look around before making any calls. From where he stood, he saw a key in the ignition. He reached in, careful not to disturb anything. A slight but unsettling odor of decay wafted through his nostrils. Nausea and a headache began to queue up. Fighting to keep his stomach under control, he turned the key but found that it was already in the ON position, meaning that Dr. Wujciak had started the car before dying. And turning it produced a frail click. Adam noticed the gas tank needle was on empty and the silent starter confirmed the battery was dead. These observations were not alarming in themselves, however, looking up at the garage door assembly, Adam noted there was no automatic door opener. He frowned as he realized that the doctor had to be running the car with the garage doors closed. The facts could be consistent with a sudden death, as from a cardiac event. But it would mean that Wujciak rolled the door down, started the car and died before he could pull the door back up.

That made no sense at all.

He looked at Wujciak's face again. There was something doll-like about the pose, just sitting there, eyes closed, head back. Adam moved in for a closer look. The lips were red. The face was gray. Adam's limited knowledge of poisons was sufficient enough to suspect carbon monoxide which might leave its victims with blood red lips. Wujciak's red finger tips confirmed the diagnosis. The image of this old man sitting alone in his car leapt up at Adam as he played back the events.

The garage door was closed. The engine was running. Wujciak breathed in the monoxide fumes until he was gently swept away from this reality. He breathed in the fumes. This was not a sudden, unexpected death.

Adam pulled out his cell phone. It was dead. It was almost always dead, especially since he had the irritating habit of forgetting to recharge the phone. He walked out of the garage, leaving its door up, and walked briskly to the back of the house. Surprisingly, the back door opened with a gentle push.

"Anyone home?"

After waiting a moment to be sure that he was alone, he entered the breakfast nook adjacent to the kitchen. The dim afternoon light, coupled with the realization that he was in the house of a dead man, made the interior feel extra gloomy. Judging by the piles of unwashed dishes in the small stainless steel sink, Wujciak apparently lived alone. Adam jumped as the refrigerator wheezed and coughed through another pointless cooling cycle. After finding the light switch, he scanned the counters and walls but could not find phone. Wandering over to an adjoining bedroom, Adam stood at the doorway soaking in the scene laid out before him. He stepped inside and turned on a bedside lamp to get a better look at what appeared to be a curious wallpaper pattern. It was not wallpaper which caught his attention, but what was on the wall, all four walls—a collection of newspaper clippings, charts, computer printouts and photos, pasted and tacked to almost every available square inch. There were black and white, and color photos, scattered about in what seemed a random order, depicting various odd looking artifacts, as if taken from archeological digs. Pictures of gold and silver jewelry, coins, metal and stone ware, and assorted carvings of uncertain subject matter were mounted side-by-side and atop each other. An assortment of newspaper clippings and notes surrounded each with information about its point of origin, when discovered and by whom. As Adam scanned the unfolding panorama, he noticed that many photos also had associated post-it notes with hand-written scrawlings of numbers, some with question marks. In the center of one wall hung a photocopied clipping describing Mrs. Culp and her mystifying find in a lump of coal.

The same clipping I received in the mail yesterday.

There was a note here as well, but instead of a number or a question mark there was a marker-inked message: "See Old Flora."

That name was familiar. Why was it posted near the Mrs. Culp story?

As Adam collected his thoughts, it occurred to him that there might be a phone in the doctor's office. Although the office entrance was around the other side of the house, he was sure there was an inner access from the living quarters. He found it almost immediately, stepping into an unlit hallway leading to the holding rooms, as he used to refer to them as a child. He felt his way along, moving slowly toward a suggestion of light at the far end, near where he supposed the office might be. Hitting the wall switch at the end of the hall fired up a sputtering fluorescent ring, animated by a distinct, but uneven hum. Adam approached the desk beneath it, outlined in a surreal and continuous cacophony of flickering light. He saw the washboard shape of the fluoroscope in a corner off to the side.

That's Old Flora!

A rapping at the backdoor interrupted the almost mesmerizing, spastic humming. A shrill female voice followed. "Ben! Are you in there?"

His head began aching again. Adam heard the aluminum storm door creak open and a further knocking. He couldn't see the visitor, but called back. "Hello there. I'm a friend of Ben's. Wait a moment, I'll come to the door."

When Adam reached the kitchen area, he found the backdoor ajar, but there was no one in sight. A few steps took him outside, where he found the backyard empty. The garage was still open. He called out, but with no effect. Thinking that the visitor may have gone to the garage where she was about to discover Ben's body, Adam jogged over there but found no one. He was about to turn back toward the house when the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood tall. He stopped. He felt a light coat of sweat on his forehead even before he was consciously aware of the cause. It was something he saw in the garage.

Something was out of place.

He stood in the middle of the driveway staring at the car, reviewing the scene in miniscule detail. The sun had dipped behind the trees surrounding the property, leaving the interior of the garage shadowed, making it difficult to see details. As his eyes adjusted, he caught the discrepancy and his heart shifted a few gears. The driver side door of the VW was ajar.

I know I shut that door.

He remembered being careful when he reached in through the partially open side window. He was sure that the door had been closed.

Damned sure.

Someone had been here. Adam moved in for a closer look, and nearly jumped out of his shoes. The body was gone. His head started pounding.

It took an enormous effort to control his breathing and calm down. He stared at the empty seat in disbelief. A sickening, nervous feeling began its upward trek from stomach to head. He glanced into the garage and back again to the empty seat to confirm that his eyes weren't playing tricks on him. Then he noticed that the car keys were gone too. The panic light was on and he vaulted from the garage. He sprinted back to the house.

I have to call the police. Someone came for a visit and took the body away. Maybe it was a killer trying to cover his tracks, and I stepped into the middle of it.

But when he got to the kitchen, it occurred to him that getting the police involved could engender more questions than answers, especially since now that the body was gone.

How would I prove I saw it in the first place?

The police might consider him Looney Toons, or even worse, a suspect in the mysterious disappearance of a beloved old doctor. He wandered back into the bedroom, trying to calm himself down and gather his thoughts. That's when things went from pretty bad to clearly worse.

The walls were bare. Minutes before, hundreds of clippings covered all four. Now, there was nothing but faded wallpaper. A feeling of nausea once again flared up. After craning his head outside the bedroom door to make sure he was in the right room, Adam reached out to touch the wall, looking for some verification of what his eyes were telling him and what his mind refused to believe. His fingers felt nothing but the vague undulations of the wall and the velvet-like texture of its covering. Someone must have removed everything from the walls, and done that apparently in the time it took for him to go out to the garage and back. It seemed nearly impossible for someone to sneak in and abscond with everything so quickly.

Was it the same person who removed Wujciak's body? Was there an accomplice? And why remove the clippings?

Adam thought about looking for the office phone and calling the police, when all at once a Technicolor image of the 'See Old Flora' scrawl loomed in his mind.

The doctor had written it there for a purpose.

Wuijcak was referring to his pet name for the fluoroscope—a little secret shared years ago with a young friend and his curious lump of coal. Looking up through the bedroom doorway, Adam saw the quivering fluorescence at the far end of the hallway. He ran down the corridor, and, much to his relief, found that the office was as he had left it. Old Flora stood in the corner, unassuming and quiescent. A glance around the rest of the office confirmed that nothing obvious had changed. He also spotted a phone, an old black Bakelite model, sitting at the corner of the desk. First, he would examine the fluoroscope, and then he would call the police.

A thick layer of dust covered everything in the office, including Old Flora. He brushed off some of it, especially around the name plate. According to the faded metal tag on its side, this was a Westinghouse Mobile Fluoroscope Unit manufactured in 1951. The doctor's office unit essentially evolved from the early models which originally designed for shoe stores—a popular technological wonder designed to aid in fitting shoes before the dangers of x-ray exposure were truly recognized. This mobile unit consisted of two components, a high-voltage cathode tube to emit the x-rays and a phosphor-coated glass screen designed to light up when hit by them. The patient stood between the two as the doctor moved the screen, or washboard, to get a view. The early models had a chronic problem with image intensity, a problem which was eventually overcome with more sensitive fluors and the introduction of photoimaging technology. This instrument was a transitional one, and still required the use of red-lensed goggles to help see the image. It was a museum relic.

Adam grabbed both handles to either side of the screen and pulled. The hinged screen emitted a squeal as Adam brought it up to eye level. There was nothing remarkable about it. The aged wiring was either broken or severely frayed. Old Flora had clearly been in retirement for many years.

It was probably never used again after we shorted it out.

Adam looked over the cathode ray tube housing and found nothing out of the ordinary there either. He began to return the screen to its original position when a single sheet of paper wafted to the floor. Apparently, it had been hidden inside of the screen. He picked it up and found a type-written message from Dr. Wuijcak.

"Adam. Decades ago you discovered something that should not exist. Since the day you showed it to me, I began a methodical investigation into similar relics. I admit that over the years it has become my obsession. Objects out of time. Findings that made no sense in the scheme of things, in the history that we have come to believe. Of the many such items discovered by others, a few fall into a remarkable category. They share a similar fate, that is, they were found, made famous, and eventually were lost. The circumstances were always the same. Usually an accident. Fire, floods, you name it. In short, I believe you have such a relic. Perhaps it hasn't been lost yet."

Adam found himself rubbing his medallion as he read on.
"I found out that the last coal delivery to our neighborhood was made by Samson's Coal and Oil back in 1959. In fact, they serviced your neighborhood. Checking with the company's archives, I discovered the coal came from the Knox Coal Company, located near Pittston, PA. In 1959, the River Slope Mine, run by Knox, suffered a horrific accident when miners digging too close to the Susquehanna caused the waters of the river to rush in, drowning twelve people and closing the mine to this day. My gut tells me that the relic and the accident may be related. I do not think these relics are disappearing by accident. The answer to the mystery of your find may well lie in the River Slope Mine. I have faith in you, Adam. God bless you and your family. –Ben"

Then the phone rang.

Adam's heart flipped over a few times. It was the office phone. He let it ring several more times, hoping that whoever was calling would give up. However, he gave in, fumbling with the receiver and answering with as calm a voice as he could muster.

"Hello."

"Hi. Is this Dr. Woochak?"

It was a female voice, and vaguely familiar.

"No, I'm afraid he is not here."

"Who am I speaking with?"

"Just an old friend. Can I help you?"

"Is that you, Adam?"

Realization flooded over him. "Linda! How did you know I was here?"

"Adam. I'm glad I found you. I called George and he said something about New Jersey. Then I called your mom. After she finished complaining about your habit of coming and going at all hours, she mentioned that you had received a letter from this Dr. Woochak. She came across the letter you left behind. I just figured that was the friend in New Jersey you told George about."

Quite the detective. Now, what exactly should I tell her?

"Linda. For reasons I cannot share right now, I am going to Pittston. I don't know when I'll be ..."

"Adam. Let me guess, you're headed down to the coal mines where that object of yours may have come from."

Adam froze.

Was she a mystic?

As if sensing Adam's surprise, Linda explained. "It's obvious. You and George working late at night on your gold medallion, the cryptic note about a gold chain found in a lump of coal, and now, your intention to head up to Pittston, deep in the Wilkes-Barre coal-mining region—it wasn't very hard to draw some obvious conclusions. So, you're on a mission. But why go to all this trouble now, after so many years?"

Adam replied, "I'm impressed." After pausing a moment, he continued. "Something very odd has happened, something I am not sure I can explain."

"Adam. I think it would be a great idea if I joined you on this quest of yours."

"No way."

"Hey, there's nothing for me to do here while they're fixing up McArdle. Besides, this quest sounds like a neat adventure. And, an extra pair of eyes could come in handy, especially if you've got a mystery to solve."

Adam thought about the offer. Maybe it was the anxiety, maybe the need to share his experiences with someone he could trust, whatever it was, Adam relented. "Well. Okay. I'll head back home tonight. Why don't you come over in the morning for breakfast and we'll talk."


The next morning, Linda arrived at Adam's house in a denim jacket, blue jeans and cross-training shoes. It was no surprise to Adam that she had also brought an overnight bag. Between slugging down freshly brewed coffee and polishing off a hearty breakfast which Adam's mom was more than pleased to provide, he related the events of the previous evening. Although the story which unfolded over pancakes and syrup should have been nearly impossible for anyone to believe, Linda digested it along with the food, one extraordinary episode at a time, munching and nodding, and not once questioning the incredible details. When at last Adam finished with the note left behind by Dr. Wujciak, he pulled out the medallion for Linda to see.

"So, that's the mystery artifact," Linda stated, rather than asked. After a brief examination of the gold enigma hanging on Adam's neck, she looked into his green eyes and matter-of-factly said, "Let's go to Pittston."

Adam was tempted to call Wujciak's office just to see who would answer, but decided against it. There was the possibility that the police would answer and drag him into an investigation that was sure to bring up the medallion and generate many more questions than answers.

And then there is the possibility of someone else answering

Adam shuddered at the thought. He looked back at Linda. Her face glowed, bathed by the early morning sun streaming in through the kitchen window. Her eyes sparkled and the edges of her mouth turned up slightly in a suggestion of a grin. He felt his anxiety dissipate, and grinned back. "Then let's get to it."
They boarded his '94 Pathfinder and took off for Pittston.

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