Look to your laurels, Indiana Jones . . . or at least to your leaves


by William A. La Fleur © 2004

"Benji! You're into archaeology aren't you?"

My upstairs neighbor Oxendine Dagel Douglas stood in my doorway in all his splendor. His perfect hair over his perfect skin inside his perfect suit beside his perfect girl friend above his perfect pet dog. Looks could be deceiving.

"Uh, yes."

"What are you up to this fine morning my friend?"

"I was going to do some research for my next book." I pushed my thick glasses back up my nose. Tina, Dagel's friend, looked gorgeous but bored.

"Excellent! We have just the thing. We're going to an auction of Babylonian artifacts. That should be right up your alley, n'est pas?" He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled warmly. "I need somebody in whose expertise I can rely."

I had learned in the three months since moving in below him that Dagel was a velvet covered freight train.

"Just let me get a sweater." I went to close up and get a sweater. They slipped into my condo to wait.

"A coat and tie would be more appropriate." Dagel suggested from the foyer.

The auction was at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, not far from our near west side building, but it was raining and Dagel insisted that Tina drive. We traveled in Dagel's big Mercedes with the tinted windows. Dagel sat beside Tina alternately looking all around outside and down at the catalog in his hands. He wasn't flipping pages. He held the book folded tight on one page.

"Is there something in particular that you are looking at?"

He looked back at me and smiled. "Yes." He glanced down at it and then passed me the book. "It's the one on the top. Does that look authentic to you?"

The page had black and white photos of four items on it. The top item was listed as an "Item 216. Babylonian bas relief from circa 4000 BC."

"My specialty is Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and this picture is awfully small…"

"Is it authentic?"

I flipped to some of the other pages.

"No. Item 216. Is it authentic."

"I don't know that much about Babylonian stuff. I was looking to see if any of the other stuff looked authentic and if this looked like that stuff."

"This isn't like the other items."

I could see that. All the other items looked like typical Babylonian classical items as near as I could remember. This item 216 looked different. It was octagonal and contained a single image in the center with writing all around. The writing wasn't cuneiform or pictograms. It was some type of symbolic alphabet that I had never seen. The item in the middle looked roughly like an armored spermatozoa with teeth. Even with the poor quality of the photo it looked like it could jump up and bite my nose off. I wasn't sure, but it looked like the piece was brightly painted. It all might have been painted on the clay rather than carved, as was usual.

"It doesn't look like any Babylonian artifact that I can remember. It doesn't look like your normal fare either. Do you have a client?"

"Could it be authentic?"

"The date is wrong. Babylon only dates back to about 1900 BC, but that could be excused. It could be Sumerian, but that doesn't look right either. Was this carbon dated? How big is it? What is it made of? What is the grog? What does the other side look like?" I shrugged.

"That's the extent of the description." Dagel said flatly.

"You don't have any other information, from other sources? How did you hear that this was up for auction?"

He reached back and gently, but firmly took the book out of my hand and turned forward. "I have been looking for this for a long time. I look through every catalog."

He heaved a sigh and sat looking forward for a moment. "Will you be able to tell more when you see the actual item?"

"Sure. If they let me examine it."

He turned around with a warm smile again. "They will my friend. They will."

We parked in the underground parking garage in the hotel. We left Gabriel the pitbull in the car and went upstairs. Dagel took us to the room where the auction was to take place and through to the room behind where the items were being staged.


"Mr. Douglas. How good it is to see you."

"Thomas this is Doctor Benjamin Van Nuland. He would like to see one of the pieces."

The bulbous bald man began to frown.

"I would like him to see one of the pieces that I am interested in."

"Oh, why of course, Mr. Douglas. Anything for you. In what piece are you interested?"

He led us through a maze of what looked like perfectly ordinary artifacts from early Babylon and Sumeria. There were plenty of examples of pottery and baked mud bricks along with the flashier pieces. There was even a section of Neo-Babylonian wall with a brightly painted lion in baked enamel.

As we passed the wall section Dagel stopped abruptly and sucked air like a man who had just plunged into an icy lake. In front of him was item 216.

It was very brightly painted and the paint looked like it had been applied yesterday. The central figure looked like it was actually moving. It was so vivid and life-like that Gina and I gasped as well.

"Quite a piece isn't it?" Thomas said. We nodded in silence.

"Well, I will leave you for a while, but please do remember Mr. Douglas that the auction begins in twenty minutes."

When he had gone Dagel pointed at it. "Authenticate it Ben."

"It's going to be really hard. Everything else looks like it is in the right place and it could be Sumarian, but without…"

"I don't care if it is Sumerian, Babylonian or Gregonian. Just tell me if it's old or if it's a modern replica. We'll be out there." He pointed to the auction floor and then left with Gina. His speech had been halting and labored. I have asthma and it was not unlike someone trying to talk through an attack.

I turned to the piece. It was about a foot wide and sat upright on an easel, though it was clear that it was meant to lay horizontally. It was a piece of clay pottery that was slightly concave. The central figure was a raised relief and that was what made it look like it was coming right off the dish. It did look like a ceremonial dish. Had it been laid flat and filled with a liquid it would have seemed as if the figure were rising out of the depths.

That figure was something else. It sent shivers down my spine. It was roughly teardrop shaped with no eyes, a long menacing whiptail and a huge mouth full of razor sharp teeth. The colors of the thing's scales were holographic. When you looked at them one way they looked like one color and another from another angle so that you really couldn't say what color the thing was. The teeth were brilliant white and dripped with blood.

There was writing all around the rim of the dish but I didn't even recognize the alphabet let alone begin to understand the meaning.

I went around to the back and found, surprisingly enough, that the thing was glazed on all surfaces, including the bottom in crystal clear enamel.

There was no maker's mark, but there was a small patch. I assumed that that was from where they had taken the sample for dating. I took out my penknife and pried the patch off. I had guessed correctly and found bare clay there. I dug with my knife ever so slightly and came up with some binder. I pried it loose and let it fall into my hand.

It was a tiny section of braid. It was shorter than the width of my little fingernail and the thickness of yarn, but it was unmistakably a piece of braided hair. The first thought that I had was that it was human hair. The thought repulsed me and I nearly dropped it before I realized that it would have to be analyzed before any conclusions could be made. I tucked it into my pocket and went out to the auction floor. As I walked I never took my eyes off of it. Somehow I felt that if I had it would have actually left the dish and come after me.

I found Dagel standing with Gina behind the last row of chairs. He had a white-knuckle grip on one.


"It's old all right, and I found…"

"Get, it. Don't care, how, much. Buy, it. Get, it." He gasped. He and Gina were gone before I could get my hand out of my pocket with the piece of braid.

"Call us when it's through. We'll be in the car." Gina called to me as she walked away on Dagel's arm.

I sat down and waited for the auction to come around to my piece. Most of the rest of the collection went as expected to museums and known private collectors. Then they wheeled out item 216.

"Item 216 in your catalog. We will open with…"

"One hundred thousand dollars." A swarthy man with slicked back hair and a bushy mustache barked the interruption in heavily accented English. I hadn't noticed him before.

"I have one hundred thousand, do I hear one ten?" The slightly perturbed caller continued. I feebly raised my hand.

"One ten?" I nodded. "I have one ten. Do I hear one twenty?"

"Two hundred thousand dollars US." The swarthy man called out.

"Two hundred. I have two hundred. Do I hear two ten?"

I raised my hand and watched the dark man. He wore an impeccable suit and fine shoes. He paid no attention to me. When they asked for two twenty he raised it to two fifty.

Not knowing what Dagel was worth I didn't dare make a jump like that. I would keep up but I couldn't jump immediately to a game winner though that was the thing I most desired right them. The item and the man made me very uncomfortable.

"Do I hear two sixty?" I raised my hand. Still no response, except that he jumped to three hundred. I kept pace and continued to until it got to seven fifty. I knew the other man would jump to a million. I had to call Dagel for direction.

I dialed his number on my cell phone. Gina answered, as I knew she would. Dagel never used a phone of any kind to my knowledge.

"There's a man here that I think is going to go to a million. Ask him if there's a cutoff. A million, two million?"

There was a brief conference on the other end and then Gina came back. "If he goes to one million let him have it, but arrange to meet him and stall him. Call us when the auction is over."

"One million dollars."

"I have one million. Do I hear one million ten? Going once, twice, sold to the man in seat eighteen."

The swarthy man finally turned to me and smiled. He had gold caps on all of his teeth. He bid on nothing else that day.

When they had closed the bidding he got up and went to the back room, presumably to supervise the packing of the item like so many other buyers. I followed him and called Dagel and Gina. She acknowledged me and hung up.

I was curious myself why he had gone so high and fast. I wanted to know what was so special about this piece.

"Sir?" I called. He slowed and turned.

I stuck out my hand. "I'm Doctor Van Nuland from Northwestern University. I would like to ask you about that piece we were bidding over."

"Doctor." He pursed his lips in thought. "Are you representing the University today?"

"Was I bidding on the piece for the University? No, for a private collector."

He turned to walk away from me.

"What institution are you representing?"

He stopped short and turned slowly. "Why is it that you think that I am representing an institution. I may be representing myself. Do you know who I am?"

"I am sorry I didn't catch your name."

"You did not hear my title as well." He stood up straighter. With a mouth full of caps I was sure he was bluffing and avoided the trap.

"What is your interest in the piece?"

"What is yours?" He began walking again, this time with me walking beside him.

"I am providing professional assistance for a friend who is interested in it."

"Professional assistance." He spat and chuckled under his breath. "You do not even know what it is?"

"I know what it is not. It is not Babylonian or Sumarian."

"There are civilizations older than man knows Doctor."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Ah, here is my piece. I believe that our conversation is over Doctor." He turned to the easel that two packers had just wheeled over. He turned just in time to watch the easel lurch and the dish tumble to the hard concrete floor. We watched the one million dollar artifact shatter into one million pieces. We looked up at the packers and saw that behind the easel stood Dagel and Gina. Dagel was staring at the swarthy man, but I was sure that it was Gina who actually did the pushing.

"Now the conversation is over." Dagel said. His breath had almost returned.

"Fool! Nothing is over. This ends nothing, it has gone on and it will go on."

Dagel stared vacantly at the ground, but not at the pieces. "Yes."

The swarthy man swore in his native tongue, turned on his heel and was gone.

"I think you're going to have to clean this up." I said to the packers.

"Useless, but it had to be done." Dagel was muttering.

"Let's go home." Gina suggested.

"Yes." Dagel lifted his head and brightened marginally. "We are having a dinner party tonight Benji, you're invited of course. Can you make it?"

I could and did. Actually, Dagel had a dinner party each and every night. I rarely attended because they were gala affairs and I wasn't socially adroit enough to keep pace without more effort than I wanted to expend on a regular basis. This affair with the artifact made attendance mandatory.

The first thing I did when I got back though was take a very long shower. I felt dirty somehow and it took over an hour of scrubbing and soaking before I didn't get a chill from looking at my reflection. I felt like I had been part of something wrong and disgusting. When I left my condo I wasn't blaming myself any more, but I did want to know why Dagel acted the way he did, why he did what he did and why it made me feel wrong.

Gina met me at the door with a smile and a platter of cocktail egg rolls. "I'm glad you're here. I would have felt creepy with all these other people here."

I took an egg roll and walked in. The usual crowd was there but a little more subdued than normal. Dagel wasn't playing piano as usual and though there was a vintage swing LP playing on the turntable, no one was dancing. Dagel was standing by the roaring fireplace and talking quietly with a group of people.

"How is he?" I asked Gina.

"Quiet. Very low-key."

"Do you think today went well? Did he accomplish what he had intended?"

"I don't know what he wanted, but I don't think he is too disappointed with what happened."

"I'm going to ask him what it was all about."

"Right now?" She said furtively and put her hand on my shoulder.

"No, I'll wait until later. Where's the booze?"

She hooked me up with a full water-glass of straight vodka. I drank it before dinner.

Rosa, Dagel's live-in nutritionist outdid herself with a nine-course feast centered around venison. After the meal about half of the guests drifted off. We adjourned to the drawing room for cigars and brandy. I flopped into an overstuffed leather chair with a giant brandy and a Dunhill Churchill. Dagel got the fire really going.

We chatted about inconsequentials until the Churchill and all but the hardest core guests were gone. The guests that were left were the Bandels, Steve Cepa, Gina, Kari Sehl and me. Gisela and Gerry Bandel lived in the condo above Dagel. Steve and Kari worked at Dagel's antique dealership. They were both unattached youths that would probably find couches and stay the night. Rosa had finished in the kitchen and had flopped on the loveseat next to Gina. She lit her own cigar.

"Dagel?" I began. He stood by the hearth and sighed. "Now is the time."

"Get me a drink, a big one."

I jumped up and poured us each a tall glass of vodka. Gina said "me too" and I poured a third for her. I passed around the drinks and sat down. Gabriel the pitbull jumped into Gina's lap.

"What's this all about Dagel?" Gerry asked.

"Yeah, what's been eating you boss?" Steve added.

Dagel downed his vodka and placed the glass on the mantel.

"You are all aware of my propensity for companionship. Well, today I had an incident that Gina and Benji helped me through that cuts to the heart of my psyche."

"All of you know that I come from money, but only some of you know that my family also has a tradition of military service. I attended the Air Force Academy and graduated top of my class in '88. That got me a posting with the stealth fighter wing."

"I was flying my F117 during Desert Shield. I had made dozens of sorties over Iraq long before the ground troops started moving."

"We stealth fighters were so secret that we always went up singly, alone. Well, about a month before Desert Storm officially began I was flying over southern Iraq and was shot down."

Gisela and Kari gasped. "Were you all right?"

"I had broken my left leg badly in two places. I couldn't walk, I could barely crawl. I was out there on my own in enemy territory and I need a doctor."

"What did you do?" Kari asked.

"Well, the only thing I could think of doing was to crawl. I knew roughly where I was and I knew that the SF guys, Special Forces were around somewhere. They were the ones who were on the ground with laser pointers showing all those smart bombs where to go. Anyway, I knew they were out there and I thought I knew where, in general. So I splinted up my leg and started crawling. In hindsight I realize that I had made things worse by moving, but I knew that our stealth fighters didn't have remote rescue sensor beacons. We didn't want the enemy to know where we were. So I thought they would never find me and I had to find them."

"I crawled as much as I could, but I blacked out a lot. I don't know how many days I crawled or how far. I don't think it was more than a few miles. I crawled at night to stay out of the blazing sun."

"One night I came upon a group of people." He shuddered. "They were all dancing around a fire, all except one. He wasn't dancing because he was tied, spread eagle between two poles. He didn't seem like he was in pain, just scared. He was away from the fire, on the side opposite me, and he was high above the others' heads."

"They danced and, and…" He stopped and moved down to the floor between the chairs and the sofas. He didn't continue until he was surrounded by us.

"And they passed around a flat bowl. It was filled with some liquid and they all drank from it. They were dancing and drinking and I laid there and watched. I was thirsty as all hell, but the devil himself could not have gotten me to drink from that bowl. When it was empty they held it up and danced around with it over their heads and I saw. I saw. I saw what you saw today Gina, Ben." His gasping speech from earlier had returned. "There, in firelight, I, saw, I, thought, it, was, alive, that, that, thing."

He stopped dead and gasped for air. Gina went to him and held him.

"What was it?"

"Is he all right?"

Gina nodded to the latter question. I answered the first. I described the artifact at the auction and what had happened there. After I told how it had been smashed Dagel seemed to have regained himself. He stood up, wiped his eyes, took a ragged breath and started speaking very softly.

"You know I used to spearfish for sport. Sometimes you'd be down there and there would be sharks. At first you couldn't see them really, just feel them. Feel them sensing you and your fish. Then you might catch a glimpse, a shadowy figure in the distance. You can't be sure if it's your imagination or not. Sometimes you feel them brush by you. Then suddenly, WOOSH! They come out of nowhere and they have your fish and they're gone."

"That's what it was like that night. That poor guy on the poles was the fish on the spear and those, things, on, the, dish, were, like, sharks. I felt them; saw them, circling in the distance, but not far away. Circling, getting closer, whooshing past. They guy was screaming and thrashing on the lines between those poles and the people below were dancing. I thought 'No, don't struggle. That will just attract them more. Be still! Be still!' That was the last memory I had of that night."

"I'm not sure exactly when I woke up, maybe days later. Some SF guys were standing over me saying, 'There you are. We've been looking for you.' I guess they had found my plane two days earlier and then set out to find me."

"When they picked me up to put me and put me in the chopper I saw the ground where all that had happened that night. The ground was perfectly clear. The only sign that anyone was there was the ground was made a little flatter where the dancing feet beat it down and the poles stuck twelve feet out of the ground. They still had the ropes that held that guy. The knots were still in them."

"I don't know really what happened that night, but I never felt safe alone again. I had to get out of the Air Force. I have always had this feeling that they are looking for me. That they would come out of that place that is near and far at the same time and get me if they could just find me. Maybe if I hid in a crowd they couldn't single me out. Maybe that was why that guy was up on those poles, to single him out."

He petered out and lapsed into a "thousand yard stare."

"I'd better get him to bed." Gina said. "Night all."

I went home and thought about it a lot. I never came to a conclusion and I never mentioned it again.

About a week later I was on a train headed for New Orleans for a book-signing gig. I have this thing against flying that was compounded on 911. I got a call from Dagel. He was frantic.

"Ben, Ben, where are you?"

"I'm on a train to …"

"Well get off and come over here. Rosa's in Seattle for a conference and Gina's mother is in the hospital. She just left."

"Dagel. I'm just south of Memphis. I'm headed for New Orleans. Isn't there anybody else? The Bandels?"

"They're in Cancun for the month. It's freezing rain and I can't get anyone to take me seriously. Ben you saw that thing, that bowl. You know what this is all about. Ben I can't be alone!"

"Dagel I can't get back."

"Ben. Listen to me. Get off that train and get on the next plane back here. Get a charter if you have to. Don't worry about money; I'll pay for it, just get back here. Ben, I'm alone! Alone!"

I didn't' really think that the thing on the bowl would come out of the fifth dimension to eat him like a rogue shark, but that swarthy man at the auction gave me pause. I thought about that for a few minutes. If Dagel had seen some outlawed ritual they might get revenge on him, but even that was unlikely. Dagel wouldn't leave his condo and it had bars, bulletproof glass and a door like Cheyenne Mountain. No, the only thing Dagel had to fear was his own fears, but that was enough. Well. I couldn't let him hurt himself so I got off the train at the next available stop.

I followed my own little idiosyncrasies by not flying back, but hiring a limo. I couldn't afford that, but Dagel was paying.

I got back in about a dozen hours. I had tried calling Dagel about one hour out and had gotten no response, so I called the police. I expect to meet the police by Dagel's front door. Instead I found Gina, Rosa and the police all pounding on the massive door.

"We've got to get in there. He must be hurt." Gina said.

"We'll break it down." The police brought up two battering rams, the kind they use to get into crack houses. It took five tries, but they got it open.

The place was spotless. Gabriel was whimpering in a corner inconsolably, but the only other thing out of place was the dead phone in the middle of the drawing room and the pile of clothes.

They were Dagel's clothes, everything he had been wearing, from his shirt to his underwear to his socks and shoes. They were all in a pile as if he had been transported away without them.

"What is this, some sort of a joke?" The police sergeant demanded. He bent down and picked up Dagel's shirt. Several small objects tinkled to the floor.

They were fillings, caps and a bridge.

In the weeks that passed it was positively determined that the dental work was Dagel's. He was never seen or heard from again. Poor Gabriel, who must have seen the whole thing wouldn't eat or sleep after that. Eventually he had to be put down.

I never had that braid of hair analyzed, and now, I never sleep alone.

x x x

No heroic archeologists here. Seems that Indy and his dad were too busy with lost arks and diamond eyes and grails. Lucky for us, huh? This story might not have been as interesting if those guys were here. Comments to the BBS, please. -GM

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