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Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of love, worshiped by the largest cult of followers in ancient Mesopotamia. Loring Holloway turned the tiny carved image over and over in her hands, feeling the rough stone and delicate indentations beneath the pendulous breasts.
As much a goddess of war as of love, to the Phoenicians she was Astarte, to the Semites, Ashtoreth, and to the Sumerians, Inanna. But to the Babylonians she was chiefly an excuse for orgies of wild abandon and ritual prostitution.
To Loring Holloway she was exhibit number G814 in the new Mesopotamian display. She would have a place of honor in a glass case, lit from two sides and fixed upright on a pedestal covered in red satin, if Loring could get red satin somewhere during these wartime shortages, and if there was enough in the budget to purchase it on the black market should that become necessary. Otherwise, little Ishtar would be resting on colored construction paper.
Loring leaned back in her creaking swivel stool. The light was bad down in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum. They were saving on electricity, too. She looked over at the stack of opened crates that were her responsibility. So much work left to do for a display date seven months away—she doubted she would make it without assistance. There wasn't even a secretary to handle the cataloging: she had to do it all herself—unpack the artifacts, check the master inventory and the descriptions, be sure there were no new defects, measure with calipers, draw a rendering as faithfully as possible, and write the museum catalog description that would eventually go to the printer. Then she had to decide where and how everything would be displayed, and write it all down so that the museum custodians would make no mistakes.
She groaned and rolled her shoulders. Her back ached. She had asked for a straight-backed chair three weeks ago. She couldn't believe that chairs were hard to find in wartime.
She thought back on the career she had dropped for the duration. Field archaeology was far more rewarding than museum staff work. But where Loring wanted to be, where she felt she belonged, was too dangerous at this time. The Middle East, though not the focal point of the war, was nevertheless embroiled in it.
Loring heard the elevator creaking and clanking. The doors opened with a series of crashes. She stared down the long dark basement corridor, past stacks of crates that belonged to other displays. Footsteps clacked on ancient linoleum, and a figure was silhouetted coming up the corridor and into the light.
His face appeared under the first conical work light. He took off his hat and kept coming, shrugging out of his coat. It was Warren Clark.
"Hi," she said back. His coat was stained with wet spots. "Is it raining out?"
"Can't you hear it?"
"Oh, yes ..." She listened and heard the distant patter. "I thought you were in Washington. You said you weren't coming down till Saturday."
"It's a little slow up at State. I took an Army B-25. Boy, those things are cold. No heat."
He tossed his coat and hat on the long workbench, careful not to disturb anything. He reached over and ran a finger over Ishtar's left breast.
"Nice," he said. "Babylonian, right?"
"You're improving." She watched him pull a silver cigarette case from his jacket pocket. He lit a Camel, inhaled deeply, blew the smoke out, then leaned over and kissed her on the lips. She let him have only a peck, then sat back and smiled at him.
He dropped into a chair and worked on his cigarette.
Loring cocked her head and studied his features. He wasn't a bad-looking lout, old Warren Clark, just so obviously a product of eastern prep schools, and so painfully obviously stuck on her. He had a big square face with a square jaw and a square smile. His hair was slicked down and combed to one side, then brushed back at the top. He used a fragrant cream on it every day that turned sour by midafternoon. But there were other things that bothered Loring about Warren Clark—like his self-conscious awareness of being a rarity on the home front, a civilian bachelor with connections.
Since his State Department job had kept him out of the Army, he could have had his pick of available women, but he was obsessed with Loring Holloway. On the frequent occasions when she asked why, he would explain, "You're a challenge."
He reminded her of two young Harvard snots she had dated back in her college days. Both had been bent on conquest; both had lost their battles to enter her bed. But Warren was useful, and it was wartime, when every girl needed someone useful.
"What brings you out, Warren? You didn't come all the way up from Washington three days early just to see me."
"No?" He watched her through a haze of his own smoke. She was busying herself with the Ishtar, dusting it with a thin brush. "Actually, I'm down on business, but as soon as I found out, I came right over here."
"Found out what?"
"That ship you asked me to keep track of—the Delaware Trader?"
Loring looked up. "What about it?"
"Six days overdue. Presumed lost."
Loring put down her brush. Her eyes fixed on the Ishtar and for a moment she felt she was staring right through solid stone. Terrifying scenes danced before her eyes—memories of disaster—and the unmistakably giddy feeling of déjà vu—as if somehow she had known this would happen at the very moment she had finalized arrangements with London—
She glanced at Warren. "Are you sure?"
"I double-checked with Charlie Hemphill, port captain of New York."
She still didn't believe it, didn't want to believe it. "Presumed lost. That doesn't mean definitely, does it? I mean, it could have gone to another harbor. You just don't know for certain, do you?"
"I'm not suggesting you should assume the worst—just be prepared for it. It left London; it failed to arrive in New York; something happened."
"An accident?" She tried to keep the stricken look off her face, but Warren was frowning at her. He sensed that her concern was intensely personal.
"Forget that optimistic propaganda in the newspapers, okay? There are still German U-boats in the Atlantic."
Loring's eyes blazed. She clutched the Ishtar tightly, letting all her tension flow into that grip. White-knuckled, she set the piece down, then shoved herself away from the table. The stool rolled. She jumped up.
"What am I supposed to do? Sit still and wait for more news?"
"Well, I guess you'll have to. Then again, we may never find out and—and presumed lost would remain on the books."
Loring's backbone quivered "You mean if they don't find the ship or any wreckage, I'll never know what happened?"
Warren folded his arms across his chest. "I think you ought to fill me in."
"I told you before—museum business. I've got a consignment of artifacts aboard that ship, sent from the British Museum."
"Hardly vital war materiel."
"But important to me, Warren!"
He shrugged. "I can't get an air and sea search going for a museum consignment."
"What can you do?"
He stared at her, starting to feel used again. She sensed it and backed down. She came over to him and stood by his chair. He was conscious of the curve of her hip beneath the heavy wool skirt. He wanted to reach out and touch—
"You're right, Warren. I ask too many favors. I'll handle this myself." She moved to the coatrack, slipped on her rain gear, and shoved her feet into galoshes.
"Uh—where are you going?"
She snatched up a note pad from her table and tossed it to him. "This Charlie Hemphill you mentioned. Give me his address."
"The port captain? You want the port captain's address?"
"Phone number will do. Save me a trip in the rain."
She stood in front of him and directed his gaze into her eyes so he could see just how serious. "I have to find out about that ship, Warren. It's no joke, it's no game, and it's more important than you can imagine. Now, one of us is going to contact Charlie Hemphill, and if he doesn't provide answers, I'll go right up the chain until I get what I need. If you can help, I would be more than grateful. It might mean a lot to our friendship."
Warren was motionless, not knowing what to make of that. Friendship, indeed. She touched his shoulder, and he looked at her hand, then her eyes. She was pleading. If Loring Holloway was capable of a plea, it was there on her face now. And as much as he wanted to say "No," he felt a garbled "Yes" rising in his throat.
When he was gone, after getting his obligatory peck on the cheek, Loring stripped off her raincoat and pulled off the galoshes, wondering what it was that had convinced Warren to do as she asked. Probably her hand on his shoulder—he always shuddered at her touch, and he would do anything for more.
Her parents liked Warren Clark, and to Loring that in itself was the kiss of death. Of course, he was careful to promote their approval, always half again as nice to her mother and father as he was to her. For every pair of nylon stockings he brought Loring, there were two for her mother. And then there was the set of tires he had wangled for her father. Even the rich knew shortages in this war.
To Loring's dad, Warren had become one of the family, already affectionately referred to as "sonny boy" and "our Warren." But it would go no farther if Loring had any say in it. She knew that soon Warren would have to be informed that courting her family did not mean he was winning her hand. Whenever she felt guilty over her hesitation about telling him this, she simply reminded herself that he had elected to pursue her, not vice versa.
But for right now, she would have to use him. He was her only link with a situation that she felt was about to get out of hand. She already knew, with that fine, intestinal-churning sense known as female intuition, that the Delaware Trader was a goner, and her shipment of artifacts that had survived twenty-five hundred years buried in the desert was most probably gone with it.
But she also knew that she would not be able to sleep or even rest until she knew for certain.
Commander Bernard Heller considered himself a lucky man. A doctor, he had been called up for active duty in 1942. With the exception of a six-month tour at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, he had done his service at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, less than thirty minutes from his home on Eastern Parkway. Six nights out of seven, he slept in his own bed under his own roof.
He removed his stethoscope from Kirst's chest and made a notation on a medical chart. "You can put your shirt on now," he said in flawless German.
Kirst murmured, "Danke," and reached for the garment.
Heller cocked his head at Kingsly, the intelligence officer. "Artie," he called, stepping around the shore patrolman standing in the doorway, "I'd like a word with you,"
Kingsly joined him. "What's your verdict, Doc?"
Heller scanned the medical chart. "Same as the others. He's healthier than you and me put together. Medically speaking, his story doesn't make sense."
Kingsly sighed. "You too, huh? Look. His uniform, his ID disk, and his papers all check out. He's Rolf Kirst. What's the big puzzle?"
"Two days in an open crate out in the Atlantic, Artie. There's not a goddamned thing wrong with him. No dehydration, no exposure. It doesn't add up. I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but if I were you I'd recheck his story."
"Already have. I know it's nutty, but I believe him. Now sign him off, so I can get him the hell out of here."
"Forms'll be ready in an hour. Where's he being sent?"
"To the wide open spaces. He's going to see more of America than I have."
Kirst gave up trying to understand the conversation in the hallway. English was a mystery to him. He finished tying his shoes, then straightened up and returned the stolid gaze of the big American guarding him. He opened his mouth to speak and once again, with a familiar, frightening rush, his vocal cords were paralyzed and he choked on his words. His jaw clamped shut involuntarily and the panic in his eyes was instantly clouded over. The guard stared at him briefly, frowning, then relaxed.
On a drunken binge with fellow officers, Kirst had once boasted that he didn't know the meaning of fear. In the last several days he had grown to understand it better, never more so than when words formed in his throat only to be torn away by an invisible hand. Fear kept him pressed to the table as he thought of bounding to the door, bowling the guard over, and running away. He tried to move his hand hut it wouldn't budge. He wanted to stick fingers down his throat and vomit up the oppressive power inside him. Knowledge floated in and out, knowledge and awareness of something beyond himself, stronger than his own will, yet deeply, firmly embedded in his vitals, waiting and drawing on his energy—
Right now it was closing its invisible grip on his heart, squeezing, sending fear and panic welling up inside him and—
To the guard, Kirst was just a listless, helpless German perched on the examining table. So far he had offered no resistance. He had sat almost perfectly still as the doctor examined him, had responded almost automatically to the requests to raise a knee, breathe deeply, expose his throat.... A pussy, this one, thought the guard. What weed patch did he spring from? German officer stock—shit
Kirst silently promised the whatever-it-was inside him that he wouldn't bolt, wouldn't run or try to escape or do anything it didn't want done, if it would just leave him the hell alone for a few minutes. Almost magically, it responded to his thoughts and, with great relief, he felt the warmth stir in his stomach and the grip on his heart relax. He felt his eyes directed to the guard and, without understanding why, he gave the man a stare that bore right through him and into his brain and caused him to step forward—
Kirst's eyes closed. He could still see the guard floating on his inner lids. There was an aura about him, a pulsing unnameable color that felt to him like the visual embodiment of strength. He wanted to—no, the warmth inside him wanted to—The image on his inner lids shimmered and shook, then exploded into shards—
Blackness floated in its place, and Kirst knew it was seeing through eyes not his own, that while his lids were clamped shut, it was viewing the world with malevolent delight—
Panic rose up inside him again. Just as quickly, the blackness engulfed him and drove his feelings down into his stomach until they were no more than a tiny rock-hard knot of tension waiting to spring free once more.
Kirst's eyes opened again. The blackness was gone. The warmth shrank inside him and he was permitted to get up. He stood shakily under the guard's curious gaze. He tried to remember when all this had started. Certainly not when he was aboard U-221. It must have been later, when he was in the water or—
He saw himself heaving his body out of the sea and flopping down atop that crate. He saw his hands struggling with the knife and the boards, opening it, getting inside ---
The rest faded into nothingness.
He forced himself to think, but that only brought the warmth rolling up through his torso and into his head, filling it with a blackness that blotted out his growing anxiety. Finally, the only thing he could recall with any clarity was the gray hull of the rescue ship.
His mind drifted. The blackness subsided.CHAPTER 2
Captain Roger Wayne Hopkins left the noon mess in a foul mood. He checked his watch and tested the air. The temperature had dropped since this morning. Above the camp, the sky was bleak and overcast. The slopes of Blackbone Mountain glistened with winter dampness. Patches of snow still clung to the rocks. There hadn't been a storm in ten days but, according to Armed Forces Weather, one was due any minute. And Hopkins' moods had a habit of fluctuating with the barometer.
Excerpted from Blackbone by George E. Simpson, Neal R. Burger. Copyright © 1985 George E. Simpson and Neal R. Burger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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