I studied the little foyer as I waited for Mr. Klieber.
Real marble floors. Nice touch.
A Hudson River School painting on the wall. It was in the books, but not one of the top artists of that school. Beautiful none the less.
A late 19th century French bronze based on a Roman marble that was a copy of on an earlier Greek bronze.
Mr. Klieber certainly knew what he was doing
And I knew that what lay behind the mahogany door was far more interesting than the art in the foyer, which was mostly high-priced decorative items to impress those who had more of a sense of price than of value. High culture for people who were uncultured.
The door opened and a middle-aged man entered. He frowned at me.
“Higsworth told me a known colleague was here. I don’t know you. You can see yourself out.”
He spun on his heel and was about to go back into the main house.
“We have a friend in common, Mr. Klieber. A Dr. Hancock. Dr. William Frances Hancock, to be precise. Frank.”
Mr. Klieber paused midstride then slowly turned. He gave me a once over, as if inspecting some dung on the ground before asking a gardener to remove it, just so he’d know the dimensions and the amount of work involved.
“You want to see it.”
“You are asking a lot. “
He narrowed his eyes.
“Do you really understand? Really? Frank told that this is a one of a kind. He warned me that some might have heard that it existed and come looking for it.”
“I have known Frank since our Uni days. Undergraduate at that. We are in the same field, but have, shall we say, gone our different ways. But we still talk. Often. As professional colleagues and friends.”
He nodded. “I will let you see it, but there are conditions. You cannot touch it or photograph it. And don’t ask if it is for sale. It is not at any price.”
“As you wish.”
He gave me a sharp look and said, “Follow me.”
He had an impressive collection. Most fossils were from the later Mesozoic, with a mix of Jurassic and Cretaceous. This was a bit outside of my area of expertise and very far outside of my current interests, but I had studied enough to know that many of the specimens were better preserved than any known to science.
“I understand that you don’t want to lend any part of your collection to a museum,” I said. “Have you ever entertained letting scientists study them here?”
I knew the answer, of course, but had to ask.
Mr. Klieber didn’t turn, but made a noise that was someplace between a growl and a laugh. “I paid good money for this collection for my enjoyment. What have those idiot scientists ever done for me? What has anybody in this world ever done for me?”
I knew his philosophy. He didn’t make his billions by being a Boy Scout. I was sure he understood that any specialist looking at these fossils would know that not only had they been collected illegally, but people had died in the process.
Mr. Klieber, still not turning towards me, continued. “That is why I like Dr. Hancock. Frank. We understand one another. You, however, seem to be like all of the rest.”
I knew exactly what he meant.
Dr. Hancock had very early gained a reputation of stealing other people’s discoveries and selling to the highest bidder. Later he went more underground, and grew more ruthless. He proved to be a sociopath and killed anybody who stood in his way. It didn’t matter who – a child who had discovered a dig site or a world leader trying to stop the rape of their country, they have all died by Frank’s hand. He was clever and there was never any evidence or proof that he was involved.
I could feel the presence of the artifact as we entered Mr. Klieber’s study, even before I saw it on full display. The idiot.
An amateur would recognize the middle Pleistocene era skull and be able to classify it as a Metailurus, a saber-tooth cat that roamed North America a couple of hundred thousands years ago.
An expert would quickly know that the classification was completely wrong, that the animal was not a Metailurus, nor was it even any type of Felidae, or cat.
One of these non-specialists may be forgiven for at first believing that the skull was a product of converging evolution, where totally different species evolve to resemble each other. More likely, though, they would quickly recognize that the creature resembled a saber-tooth cat from a very complex mimicry, in much the same way that a harmless milk snake resembles a deadly coral snake, and both resemble the mildly toxic so-called “false-coral” snake. Looking at the “normal” teeth of this creature would quickly show it to be an omnivore, not a carnivore, let alone a top-end predator.
Only I knew what the skull really was.
“Frank tells me that this is unique,” Mr. Klieber said. He was squinting at me again.
“Oh yes, there is nothing else like it in any collection,” I answered.
The other man nodded. “Good. If Dr. Hancock were to ever lie to me…”
“And you are certain that you will not let anybody study this?”
He laughed again, that strange sound that was more menacing than humorous.
“No one will ever know about this. Understand?” This was obviously a threat.
I smiled. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m more like Dr. Hancock than you would guess.”
He nodded one, but I could tell that he was still trying to decide if he should have me killed sooner than later, a kind of preemptive strike before I told anyone.
“Thank you for showing me this, Mr. Klieber,” I said casually. “Frank told me about it, knowing it was my specialty, so I had to see it for myself.”
I could see a little of the tension leave the man’s face. If Frank had sent me and didn’t just kill me himself, I might be alright.
“OK, you’ve seen enough of it. Let’s go.”
“I need to get to the airport as soon as possible.”
“Don’t you have luggage?” the Uber driver asked.
“If it matters, my wife is meeting me and she’ll bring it from the hotel.”
“The hotel?” He seemed a little confused.
I laughed. “Do I look like someone who would live in a place like that?”
I waved towards the mansion that was receding behind us.
He laughed. “I’m sorry, sir. You never know…”
I typed a few things into my phone and sat back to enjoy the ride. I talked to the driver a little as we went along, but it was pretty much automatic responses and I barely knew what he was saying.
My guess was that “Frank”, that is, Dr. Hancock, would meet an accident within a day or two. Mr. Klieber wouldn’t hear about it for weeks.
And then he would have its own accident, perhaps a couple of months out.
The skull would never be seen and there would be no way to tie my visit with the deaths.
The skull. So much in that skull.
The skull that was not of any known species. Of any known genus. Of any known family or order.
I had been in contact with a group that I can only call “Them” or the “Other”. They had a colony here, on Earth for several thousand years. There were cities and cultivated countryside. Not quite like ours, since they knew how to blend with their environment instead of destroying it, but they were here.
OK, this was over 200,000 years ago. Raising and lowering sea levels, glaciation and just time had wiped out most of the evidence of their existence. I mean, I have read people say that if we disappeared tomorrow that our existence wouldn’t be visible within a thousand years and would be very hard to detect within 10,000. By 100,000 years, it would take a major discovery to prove that we were an intelligent species with an advanced civilization. By 200,000?
“Their” civilization had a deep Dark Ages and the colonies all collapsed, but “They” are on the move again. They were only a little surprised to find us on their former colony-planet.
As I said earlier, time had wiped out most evidence of their existence here. “Most” is the key word here.
My mission is to make sure nobody discovers any of that evidence that wasn’t destroyed or connect the dots between the clues that we have already found and come up with the logical conclusion.
My phone “dinged” as I entered the airport. I knew that Frank had been involved in an unfortunate accident. Poor Frank. Not. The evil bastard.
I sometimes wonder if my usefulness will ever come to an end and I will meet an accident of my own. There were still millions of artifacts out there, so someone was needed. Would they keep me or train someone else?
I shrugged. Did it matter? We all have to go sometime.
My phone buzzed. I took a quick look. I was needed in China. A ticket would be waiting for me at the counter.
I guess my number wasn’t quite up. Yet.
After security I slipped into a bar. I had a lot of research to do before I met the next “client”.
The drink was needed as an erasure.
I used it whenever the question of when “They” might be coming back to reclaim their lost colony came up in my mind.
Would our entire race meet an “accident”?
For a brief moment the idea of my skull sitting on the desk of some future collector came up, but the first sip wiped it out.
I sat back, letting my mind go blank. I ignored the reports of tension in the middle east that were blaring from the TV as I sipped my bourbon.
Did it matter?
This was written for Week 2 of Shari Marshall’s 2020 Photo Prompt. The photo at the top is the prompt for this week.