Sunday, May 27, 2007

Chapter Twenty: Up from the Ashes

“Yes?” Compass had waited nearly the whole day before calling Ethan back. This gave her the unplanned-for advantage of waking him in the middle of the night and catching him off guard: she could hear the 4 a.m.-beard-growth in his voice. “Yes? Who’s there?”

The feeling of having heard that voice before was even stronger this time. It wasn’t that she recognized the sound of him exactly, more that his voice resonated somewhere in her history, like a bell being struck in the far-off distance.

“Hello?” Compass heard the rustling of bedclothes, a sleepy woman’s voice in the background asking what was the matter. Compass felt instantly guilty, as though she’d somehow managed to drag an innocent bystander into the middle of her maelstrom. Whoever this woman was, she was a passer-by, a looker-on, and Compass wanted to open her hands and let the woman go.

“It’s Compass Jones. Tell her everything’s fine,” she whispered at Ethan.

“It’s fine, dear,” said Ethan, though it suddenly wasn’t. “Go back to sleep. I’m going to change to a different phone,” he said to Compass. “Hold the line a moment.”

There was a thunk of a phone hitting a bedside table, then a muttered conversation with the woman, the clicks of one phone being picked up and another put down. Compass waited, her heart beating too fast. It was 8 p.m. in Seattle which made it, what, 4 a.m. in London? She debated hanging up, but it was too late: she’d already given her name.

“Miss Jones? Hello, are you there?”

Ethan Robson must live in a house, thought Compass, big enough that he doesn’t have to whisper now.

“I’m here.”

“Thank you for calling back. I might have hoped for a somewhat more civilized hour. . .”

There was a gap here, meant to be filled with Compass’ apology, but Compass didn’t feel like filling it. She let it hang there, gaping, until Ethan cleared his throat and began again.

“It’s 4 in the morning here. Perhaps you didn’t know you were calling overseas?”

“I knew. But we had a sunny, nice day here, and this didn’t feel like a sunny-day sort of phone call.”

“You have a point. Do you know who I am?”

“Do you have something to do with bugs? Dragonflies?”

There was an affirmative silence. An absence of denial. Compass rested her head on the back of her couch, felt one of her cats curl up around it. “So you’re a jewel thief too, then?”

“Well. You know rather more of the story than I’d expected you too.”

“You’ve told it to me already.” As soon as she said it, she knew it was true. Hazy memories sharpened in her mind’s eye. Or ear, in this case. “You called, a couple of times. I was a kid, but not that young. Eleven, maybe? Then again when I was fourteen or so. You begged me to bring back the dragonflies.”

“That was you? That wasn’t supposed to be you! That was your mother, surely.”

“We’ve always sounded alike. I stayed home from school many times on the power of that voice.”

“Dear god. I’ve been on borrowed time for how long? Twenty-five years? Did you never tell anyone?”

“It never made sense to me. In fact, I don’t think I ever connected the two calls until now. You were drunk. You rambled and mumbled and talked about bugs and crazy people. It didn’t mean anything to me until now.”

“God. God.” There were sounds of cabinet doors being opened, then something being poured into a glass. Whatever it was, Pepto Bismol or gin, Ethan drank it in one quick swallow.

“Is my father that dangerous?”

“Your father? Dangerous enough. Please. Don’t tell them about any of these calls. Either of them.” There was a pause. “I have a family.”

“I won’t.” Compass reached an arm back to scratch the head of the cat behind her. The cat began purring, the soft rumble a comforting vibration through the bones of Compass’ skull. “I have parents that prompt people to say things like, ‘I have a family’? Is Tom Selleck going to be involved at any point in this?”

“Sorry, who?”

“Never mind.” She sighed. The cat rested its chin on her forehead. “Tell me about my parents.”

“Your father and I worked together at the museum. Do you know about the museum?”

“I do. How did my father meet my mother?”

“She was a tour guide. She was very young. She used to make up most of what she told her tour groups.”

“She did?”

“All the time. I remember we had the Wellcome exhibit back then – a collection of medicinal objects from far-flung aboriginal tribes. It was a lot of what you might expect: crushed-beetle-wing powder, pastes made of bat spit and strawberries, that sort of thing, but your mother talked the nightwatchman into opening the display cases and letting her slip in a blood pressure monitor or a modern syringe. The next day she’d tell her groups that the abos in question had ‘remarkably developed tools’ or some such nonsense. She was so convincing, no matter how implausible the story, they couldn’t help but believe her. Your father adored that about her – how she’d tell outrageous stories and no one ever doubted her, even when they knew better. A born actress. That came in useful, later.”

“When you started stealing the jewels.”

“Well, yes. When a new piece came in, she go round saying things like, ‘That diadem that just came in is absolutely spectacular. Such a shame so many of the stones are missing.’ Of course, not a single jewel was missing, but by the time she’d made her rounds, everyone was convinced the thing was less a crown, more a sort of colander for the head.”

“So when the real stones went missing, no one thought anything of it.”


“Why are you contacting me now? This is all ancient history, nothing to do with me.” Compass heard the faux-British lilt creeping into her voice and snuffed it, embarrassed. “I’ve never even met my father.”

“You sure about that?”


“Look, er, Compass, I’m not saying anything here, because I don’t know anything. But your mother’s on the hunt for him, and if she flushes him out, the damage could be extensive to all of us. She seems to think you started all this by finding out her secret, and now she’s got to do some sort of damage control. I have this picture in my mind of people setting the forest on fire in order to prevent an even bigger fire. But those small fires have a way of getting out of hand and setting innocent, near-by villages alight.”

“She has something he wants, doesn’t she?”

“She does. Or he suspects she does.”

But he never came after her. Compass let that thought trickle through for a moment, set it aside for later. “What is it? Is it one of the bugs in plastic?”

“Do you have them?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to tell you. But I guess you’ve answered my question. Good bye.”

“Wait! Don’t hang up. Look, there’s one bug in particular. If you’ve got it, get rid of it. Give it to Mina, or wrap it up in a cement package and lob it into the nearest ocean. Just don’t hold on to it if you’ve got it.”

“Tell me.” Compass closed her eyes, the rumbling tummy of the cat cushioning her head.

“It was almost too neat. It was irresistibly perfect.” Ethan slipped into his professional story-telling voice – a way of making it seem, to him, that the story had happened to three entirely other people. He’d been telling this story to himself for nearly four decades, just waiting for the chance to tell it to someone who didn’t already know it.

“The gem came from around the neck of a noblewoman named Amelia Hines. She wore a beautiful necklace of woven gold filament, quite intricate and set with many stones. But at the heart of the necklace was an emerald. It was a very rare and valuable emerald: a trapiche or star-shaped stone, likely from Columbia, though how it came to be in the hands of a seventeenth-century British woman remains a mystery. Amelia Hines was beautiful, she was rich, she was intelligent and highly educated, and in 1638, she was burned for a witch.

“At the age of 67, Amelia had outlived half a dozen husbands and at least as many lovers, yet she never got sick, nor even grew older, and it was her thick, dark hair, her perfect teeth, her straight back and unlined skin that condemned her. Unique among all the others that followed her to the flames, Amelia Hines really was a witch, and by all accounts a very powerful one. No one knew where her emerald had come from; every one of her husbands and lovers had been rich, but all their fortunes combined wouldn’t have purchased that stone.

“She wore the necklace every day of her trial, toying with the emerald, stroking it so often that her obsession with it made the public record and even led some to conclude that the stone was actually her pet toad – her familiar – charmed to look like an emerald. Legend has it that one of her guards offered to let her purchase her freedom with the stone, but she refused. She laughed in his face, telling him that because he was so simple and stupid, she’d spare him the torture and nasty death the emerald would surely bring him. No man, she told him, would ever claim ownership of that emerald and live to enjoy it. And so she went to the pyre, the stone still around her neck.”

Ethan stopped for a moment, and Compass, her mind back in the 17th century, didn’t say anything.

“Hello? Compass, are you still there?”

“I am. Please go on.”

“Very well. In those days, it was common practice in England to hang a witch first, then burn the corpse. But the judge in Amelia Hines' trial found the woman so distasteful, so unrepentantly evil, that he condemned her to die in the flames, without mercy. But even here, the witch foiled him. Instead of choking and screaming and taking hours to die, Amelia Hines went up as though she were made of paper, in a whoosh so quick the executioner nearly went with her.

“The next day, when the embers had cooled, the executioner dug through the ashes for the emerald that – by law – was now his. As his fingers closed around the stone, warm as though he’d pulled it away from her living skin, a still-burning coal popped up and flew into his grinning mouth, lodging in his throat. Afterwards, though he was still able to breathe, just, he could no longer eat, drink or speak, and he died, silently and excruciatingly, eight days later.

“From that day, the emerald passed from person to person, slowly through female hands, more quickly through the hands of men, who had a habit of dying unpleasantly shortly after taking possession.”

“He gave it to my mother to protect himself.”

“There may be little honor amongst thieves, but there is great superstition. Yes, he passed it on to your mother to avoid the curse.”

“You held it, didn’t you? And you’re still alive.”

“Like its original owner, the stone didn’t mind being touched by men, just so long as no man ever claimed to own her. It.”

“My mother must have loved that story.”

“She did. I think that’s why Oliver believes she still has the stone. No matter what its value, the legend of the stone would be more valuable still for Mina.”

“Where is the stone? Which bug is it . . . housed with?”

“This is where the cosmic forces seemed to Oliver to be insisting that he steal the emerald. Even though it meant we’d all have to leave the museum and the easy money we’d been enjoying by then for nearly a year. The gods meant for him to have it, he was sure.”

“Why? What happened?”

“On the same day that the emerald came to the museum, we also got a particularly rare dragonfly. A Hine’s emerald.”


NuclearToast said...

Mysteries within mysteries. Awesome. Are you sure you're not a writer for "Lost"?

Ash said...

I love the witch/cursed emerald angle! It makes me think of the Hope Diamond and how everyone thought it was cursed.