Authors: Kelee Morris
“This still seems bizarre,” Matt said. “So what if your tattoo looks like some ancient symbol? I mean, you just made it up, right? It’s not like you have some kind of special insight about it.”
“I know. I’m just curious. I probably read too much Nancy Drew when I was a kid.” I had never told Matt about the origin of my tattoo. It felt like sharing details about a past lover, even if this one only appeared in my dreams. He had asked me about it once, the first night we slept together. I couldn’t remember him ever mentioning it again.
“This is it,” Matt announced. He pulled the car into a parking spot on a dark, quiet street near the lake.
Matt grabbed the bottle of wine we’d brought and took my hand as we approached Dr. Stewart’s large Victorian. It was a gorgeous house, but it felt solitary and neglected among the painted ladies on the block. Its white facade had faded to the color of dull stone and had begun to peel in places. There were bare spots on the yard and I noticed a large crack in one of the wooden steps as we ascended them.
A young man with a dark, handsome face and black, wavy hair lounged in an Adirondack chair on the front porch, the tip of his cigarette a beacon in the gloom. “Is this Dr. Stewart’s house?” I inquired.
“You should have guessed by the smell of manduguk,” he answered cheerfully in a thick South American accent. He hopped up and flicked his cigarette off the porch before shaking our hands. “I’m Arturo.”
We introduced ourselves, and then he directed us into a small foyer. The smell of Asian spices was intoxicating. Arturo took our jackets and we followed him towards the sound of laughter and boisterous conversation.
The living room felt crowded even though there were only six other people occupying it. They sat on the vintage sofa or perched themselves on fragile, mismatched antique chairs, drinking wine and imported beer while balancing plates full of rice, noodles, and other Asian dishes.
Inanimate objects took up most of the space—traditional and contemporary art that appeared to be from every corner of Asia. Intricately etched vases sat precariously on bookshelves. I paused to admire a beautiful jade statute on the baby grand piano. Clearly, small children did not frequent Dr. Stewart’s house.
Nina immediately rose from a chair, smiling warmly. Dressed in designer slacks and a freshly pressed blouse, she was much more fashionable than the other students, who favored torn jeans and T-shirts. “I’m so glad you could come,” she said. She took my hand. “This is Julia Nelson and her husband,” she informed the gathering.
“Matt,” my husband added.
Nina introduced us to the rest of Dr. Stewart’s students. Arturo’s wife Vitoria was also a grad student in the department. Petite and smiling, she shared her perfect skin with their two-month-old daughter, who slept in a sling around her neck.
With his broad shoulders and slow southern drawl, I immediately typecast Daniel Long as a Confederate flag-waving, gun-toting redneck. Nina later told me he graduated from Yale and had turned down a Rhodes Scholarship to work under Dr. Stewart.
Nilima Gurung was a little older than Dr. Stewart’s other students, probably in her early 30s. Heavy set, with dark skin marked with acne scars, she had been a documentary filmmaker who made a short film about Dr. Stewart. Fascinated by his work, she gave up her career and returned to graduate school to study archeology.
Nina introduced Thomas Cheng last, and he did feel like an afterthought as he sat on a chair pushed against the back wall, as if he was trying to disappear into it. Intense, with dark, heavy glasses, he briefly nodded a hello but didn’t speak.
Matt handed Nina the bottle of wine. “I’ll put this in the refrigerator,” she said. “We’re very casual here. Why don’t you come with me and serve yourself?”
She led us down a narrow corridor to a large kitchen filled with granite and Sub Zero appliances. A mishmash of pots simmered invitingly on the six-burner stove. “Please, help yourself,” Nina said. “Friday night dinner is something of a competition. Dr. Stewart is an accomplished chef, so he always outdoes anything we prepare.”
“Does everybody know why we’re here?” Matt asked.
“I only told Dr. Stewart.” She offered me a reassuring smile. “I didn’t want you to feel like you were on display.”
I was relieved to hear that, though they weren’t the ones I had imagined staring at me like I was a freak show specimen. “Where is our host?” I asked.
“He’s been on a call with one of our Chinese colleagues for most of the evening,” Nina said. She handed us plates.
Matt, never shy around food, laded soup into a bowl. “How long were you in North Korea?” he asked.
“Six months, but there’s years’ worth of work to do.”
“Why did you leave then?”
“The North Koreans disagreed with some of Dr. Stewart’s theories about the site, so they kicked us out of the country.”
“’Disagree’ is an understatement,” said a young woman who had just stepped into the kitchen. “You’re lucky you weren’t both thrown in the gulag.” Tall, lithe, and blonde, with a sensual Russian accent, the woman reminded me of a younger Maria Sharapova.
“Elena,” Nina said. “We need to be judicious about what we say.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t invite your friends to Ash’s parties.” She offered a hand to Matt, then to me. “I’m Elena Novakovich, and I’m guessing you’re not archeologists.”
“Software sales,” Matt replied. “We really don’t know anything about this so I think your archeological secrets are safe.”
“Ash isn’t going to be able to keep the lid on this forever,” Elena said. “Magoa is going to upend everything we believe about Asian society. Patriarchal privilege may never be the same.”
Nina flashed Elena a reproving look. She turned to us. “Dr. Stewart wants to keep the details of the discovery under wraps until he’s finished his research. He’s concerned that the wrong publicity will hurt our chances of returning to the site.”
“Trying to keep secrets only hurts our credibility,” Elena said. “That’s the first lesson I learned from studying Soviet history.”
We filled our plates and followed Nina and Elena back to the living room. Matt and I squeezed onto the sofa next to Arturo and Vitoria, where I could admire their daughter’s olive skin and peaceful smile. While we ate, the conversation shifted from Chinese movies and a Korean pop star I’d never heard of to various esoteric archeological theories. Despite being a first year Ph.D. student, Elena held her own in discussions of a Neolithic boat found in South Korea and speculation on the footwear worn by Tianyuan 1, the oldest modern human discovered in East Asia. I found the subjects fascinating, but could add little other than a few questions. Matt said nothing, but I could tell by the way he slumped into the sofa that he was bored and ready to leave.
Why had I come here?
Did I really believe that the great Dr. Stewart was going to swoop in like a wise sage and offer me enlightenment about my tattoo and my dream man? I looked at Nina, but she only offered me an apologetic smile.
Matt leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Do you think I could fake a seizure and get us out of here?”
“A half hour,” I said. “Then we can take off.”
I wanted to blame Van for talking me into coming, but the reality was, the handsome, enigmatic man I saw on Wikipedia intrigued me. Tonight had felt like a way to satisfy, if only for an evening, the confounding itch I’d been experiencing lately. I wanted my chance meeting with Nina to be a door to something new, perhaps even unconventional, in my life. But the only thing I’d discovered is that Dr. Stewart was a rude and probably arrogant professor.
I squeezed Matt’s hand. “I’ll be back in a minute. Then we can go.”
“Where’s the bathroom?” I asked Nina.
“Just down the hall.” She pointed me in the direction.
Matt frowned at me. “I won’t desert you,” I said.
What the hell was I thinking?
I reprimanded myself as I walked back in the direction of the kitchen. This wasn’t an adventure; it was a waste of time. I would make an excuse, just in case Nina urged us to stay. The baby sitter had called. One of our kids wasn’t feeling well. It was time to forget about my tattoo and Magoa and return to my real life.
I found a door near the kitchen. It was closed. Inside, I could hear Thomas Cheng’s out-of-tune voice warble what I guessed was one of the K-pop songs the group had been discussing. He was so quiet I hadn’t noticed him leave the room. I considered waiting until we got home but decided instead to go in search of another facility.
I spotted a narrow staircase past the kitchen door. It was probably once a servants’ stairway. Even that night, long before I was aware of my repressed desires, I couldn’t lie to myself about why I checked behind me to make sure no one was watching and then slipped up the steep wooden steps. Something about this man I had never met and his improbable connection to a tattoo and a dream man I had almost forgotten made me want to meet him.
I reached the second floor and found myself at the end of a dimly lit hallway. The walls on both sides were lined with framed, ancient maps. I could hear an old fashioned clock ticking in a room somewhere. I knew Dr. Stewart must be up here.
But I had promised Matt I wouldn’t be long and there was a part of my subconscious that was already setting out warning buoys. I turned back to the stairway and stepped on a loose floorboard under the hallway rug. Its creak was amplified by the stillness.
A male voice, calm, controlled, but commanding, spoke from somewhere down the hall. “Now that you’re upstairs, I suggest you come in.”
I was tempted to run down the stairs and out the door, never to return. But I was a grown woman, not a frightened little girl. I moved towards the room where I thought the voice had emanated and pushed the door open decisively.
The large office felt heavy and masculine. Hunting trophies would have been more appropriate than the delicate Asian art hanging on the walls. The furniture was made of darkly stained teak. The moon shone brightly outside a tall window topped with stained glass.
He was sitting in a leather chair behind a wide desk, a phone receiver in his hand. If anything, his face was even more striking than the Wikipedia photo. It spoke of a life spent outside the classroom in isolated corners of the world. But what I hadn’t been able to discern clearly in the photograph turned out to be his most arresting feature. His blue eyes were as deep and mysterious as a bottomless lake.
Dr. Stewart said something curtly into the phone and hung up.
He regarded me silently for a moment. I wasn’t sure if he was curious or trying to intimidate me. Finally, he spoke. “I thought you were Elena. She’s the only one who would come up here when I was in a private conversation.”
Normally I would have apologized, but something about this man wouldn’t let me. “Are you sure you didn’t think I was a North Korean spy?”
He leaned back slightly in his chair, but his eyes never strayed from me. “Perhaps, but I suspect you’re actually Nina’s new friend.”
“I could be both.”
He considered me for a moment longer. “The Soviets used to plant spies who appeared to be ordinary Americans, but I don’t think the North Koreans have reached that level of sophistication.”
“Isn’t that what our government used to think about the Russians?”
He smiled then, either because he realized he wasn’t going to intimidate me or because he was tired of our repartee. He rose from his chair. He was tall, perhaps four inches taller than Matt. His gray silk shirt clung to his well-toned body. “I’ll reserve judgment on your motivations then and apologize to you for my rudeness.”
He stepped forward and held out his hand. “I’m Ashland Stewart.” His strong, firm hand enveloped my smaller one.
He leaned against his desk, arms folded. “I have to admit, I was skeptical about Nina inviting you. She’s an excellent scientist, but occasionally she turns to spiritual explanations for the universe’s mysteries.”
“Like my tattoo?”
His eyes turned bemused. “Personally, I don’t see a mystery there, only a coincidence.”
“I’m glad we’re on the same page.”
“I’m curious then, why did you accept Nina’s invitation?”
The last thing I was going to admit was the truth, so instead I said, “I’ve always had an interest in science and history. I was intrigued by the work you were doing.”
“I’m sorry I can’t share the details with you. I don’t want to say anything that will put future access to the site in jeopardy.”
“My handlers will be very angry if I don’t get any information out of you.”
Again, he offered a hint of a smile that suggested warmth beneath his cool exterior. “I certainly wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”
Dr. Stewart stepped behind his desk and unlocked a drawer. He removed his laptop, opened it, and typed in what I assumed was a passcode. He found what he was looking for and then, without a word, turned the computer to face me. I stepped closer so I could see the photograph on the screen.
It appeared to be a crown made of bronze. Much of it had turned green from oxidation. It looked solid, but at the same time, delicate. But what really drew my attention was the finely crafted design at its center.