Algosh, Iraq, 1989. During an archaeological excavation Hiram Donovan uncovers a piece of meticulously knapped obsidian. Instinct tells him to hide it from others on the dig, so he sends it back to his wife in America with a note: John Dee, British Museum/Scrying stone? Days later Hiram is murdered with it made to look like an accident. But there was a witness.
Decades later, on his death bed, the witness confesses to what he saw. Shortly afterwards, Cal Donovan – Professor of Archaeology at Harvard and Hiram’s son – is told his mother has been killed. Upon finding the parcel still unopened alongside his father’s mysterious note referencing Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer and alchemist, Cal sets out to discover the truth.
What he finds are fanatics determined to obtain the mystical stone, but for what purpose...?
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Algosh, Iraq, 1989
The yellow sand was so fine that the slightest breeze carried it everywhere. The director's ridge tent was made of the finest waxed canvas with double-sewn seams but even with a top-of-the-line model and the director's fastidious requirements that all who entered first had to remove boots and brush down clothing, nothing could keep the sand out entirely. Hiram Donovan disliked sharing his living quarters with silicates. The grains got into his wash kit, his bedding, his eyeglass holders, and his camera gear and to him, sand was his mortal enemy. His only effective weapon was his manservant, Najib Toubi, who, armed with a stiff broom and a plastic dustpan, fought the inanimate plague morning, noon, and night.
At the end of a particularly long day the archeologist sat at his desk and made entries into his journal by the light of a paraffin mantle lamp. The whisk, whisk, whisk of Najib's broom against the plywood floor had become so ubiquitous that after two months in the field Donovan hardly noticed it.
'Barid min almasa',' he said in Arabic, referring to the evening chill. He asked for his pullover. 'Satra, raja'.'
The servant opened a suitcase and found the cabled sweater where he had returned it, neatly folded, after its last use. Najib was at least ten years Donovan's junior but he seemed older. Perhaps it was the years of toil under the baking sun that had turned his skin to leather, or his unattended, yellow teeth. Donovan was fond of the man and had him back every year. He liked that he was a rare bird for these parts, a Catholic who had a reverence for the place. On Sundays, they briefly prayed together. Najib wore a silver crucifix under his shirt that Donovan had given him as a present at the end of their first season together.
'Shukraan,' the archeologist said, pulling it over his balding head and freeing his beard from the turtleneck.
This was Donovan's fourth season digging at the Rabban Hurmizd Monastery, an historical outpost of the ancient Christian Church of the East located some thirty kilometers north of Mosul. Perched on a high plateau with a commanding view of the plain of Mosul, the monastery was founded in the seventh century by the monk Hurmizd, a follower of the Patriarch of the East, who represented a Christian line going back to the apostolic age of the fledgling Church. The monastery peaked in influence in the tenth century then began a slow fade until it was largely abandoned in the 1800s. Donovan, the Henry F. Kendall Professor of Archeology at Harvard University and the chairman of the anthropology department, was at the peak of his own influence within the rarified world of biblical archeology and one of the few Westerners allowed to dig in Iraq in the run-up to the 1990 Gulf War. A vigorous sixty-two, he had been a legendary athlete in the Harvard College class of '53, when he captained both the heavyweight crew and the wrestling team; to this day, whenever he was home, he still rowed the Charles any morning the river was free of ice. Although he was officially the co-director of the excavations at Rabban Hurmizd, this was entirely his show. The participation of his colleagues at the University of Baghdad was in name only, a necessary Kabuki dance to secure excavation permits from Saddam Hussein's Ba'athists.
With his back to his servant, Donovan opened the canvas field bag at his feet and rummaged for the washcloth he had furtively stuffed at the bottom. Few archeologists of his age and status did their own digging but Donovan enjoyed spending an hour or two at first light before the summer heat got too oppressive doing light spading and troweling. Relaxing stuff, beats Valium, he told his grad students. Only hours earlier, he had climbed down a ladder into the deep cutting at the southeast sector of the monastery, where in antiquity a fire had wrecked a scriptorium. There, during his third season on the plateau, Donovan had found organic materials that radiocarbon-dated to the eleventh century. That morning, as the sun crept higher into the pale sky, Donovan, a bear of a man, was alone and on his knees, scraping at the packed earth at the cutting floor when he heard a high- pitched noise the moment the tip of his trowel struck something hard just below the surface.
The musical clink confused him. Steel on stone, pottery, or even bronze made a thudding sound. This sounded like steel on glass and he was certain no glass objects had ever been found at the monastery. He opened the pouch on his field bag that held specimen brushes and chose one with firm bristles. He began whisking at the soil in a miniaturization of Najib's sand duties until something shiny and black showed itself from the matrix of dark-brown dirt. More and more of a black surface saw the light of day until he had exposed a curved edge. Then he used the tip of his trowel to carefully probe under the edge and with a gentle upward rotation of his wrist the artifact was freed to be held in a warm hand for the first time in nearly a millennium. It was obsidian. The pure-black volcanic glass had been a precious commodity in the Near East from Neolithic times well into the historic period, highly valuable, avidly traded. Obsidian cleaved razor-sharp and could be fashioned into excellent arrow heads, scrapers, and knives. But this was not a weapon. It was a perfectly flat, round disk, about ten centimeters in diameter and a centimeter thick with a clean, smooth circumferential edge. Whoever had knapped the disk from a large nodule of obsidian had been a master. Long flakes had been expertly knapped away from both sides to create an object of exquisite symmetry and once the knapper had been satisfied with the size and shape, both surfaces had been ground and polished into perfect mirrored faces. When Donovan was inspecting the disk in his palm, it caught the sun and reflected a beam into his eye. He clamped his lids and yelped but when the sunspot and the pain dissipated, he continued to admire it, albeit more carefully.
What was that?
Had he heard something? A faraway voice?
What are you?
He was fairly certain the question formed itself only as a thought, but when an Iraqi grad student called his name and leaned over the cutting wall, he worried he might have indeed spoken aloud. He hastily put the object into his field bag and closed the flap.
'Professor Donovan, I'm sorry to disturb you,' she said. 'They're serving tea now. Do you want to join us?'
'Ah, Mina, thank you. Just give me a minute. I'll be along.'
Had she seen it?
He'd been quick. He didn't think so. When she was gone he took a washcloth from his bag, wrapped it around the disk, and stuck the artifact back inside as deeply as it would go.
Now, back in his tent, he wondered why he had done it. Why hadn't he shared the remarkable find with Mina and then with all the diggers over tea or at his end-of-day site meeting? Why had he acted so impulsively and recklessly? He had never done anything like this before. Concealing a find and taking the first steps essentially in what would be theft was totally foreign to his ethos as a world-renowned academic. He had even lectured on artifact looting, the dark underbelly of archeology.
Then the rationalizations began.
There was something about this obsidian disk that touched his soul. It was so different from any artifact ever found at the monastery or indeed in the Near Eastern historical period. It was almost as if an alien being had wandered through the monastery in the eleventh century and had dropped it from its pocket. He had the strange notion that the stone was speaking to him. He imagined it calling his name, telling him not to let it be consigned to a lonely drawer in an annex of the Baghdad Museum, where it would once again be deprived of the light it was meant to reflect. No, he needed to possess it, to take it back to Cambridge and study it at his leisure. It had secrets, this piece of stone, and he was going to unlock them. Everything he had done as an academic, he had done for science. This he would do for himself.
He took it from his bag and let himself gaze on it. There was still some soil adherent to the pitch-black stone and he used his spittle to wash it and the cloth to give it a quick polish. It was magnificent. The light from his mantle lamp danced off a mirrored face. He'd seen something like it once before, but where? He bore down hard in thought and it came to him. A display at the British Museum some years ago. However, that object was not quite as fine and lustrous.
Again? Was that the sound of a distant voice again?
Najib's broom-work done, he stood with a dustpan to be emptied. The reflected light from the black mirrored surface briefly caught his attention but this wasn't any business of his. He told his boss he needed to use the latrine.
Donovan dismissed him and re-wrapped the stone in the washcloth. He placed it inside a padded envelope, between two archeology monographs for added protection. Then he wrote a note on a card, referencing his British Museum recollection, placed it inside, then slipped the envelope into his desk drawer. When Najib returned, humming as was his want, Donovan let him know that he would need a car in the morning. He passed along a few coins as baksheesh to make sure he made the arrangements promptly. He would drive to the post office in Mosul and fill out a customs declaration that listed used books and send the package to his Cambridge, Massachusetts home address.
In Arabic the servant asked, 'You need a driver?'
'No, I'll drive myself. I need my satellite phone. Where is it?'
The old man pointed to the corner of his desk where it was hiding in plain sight. Donovan took it and went outside in the chill air to place a call.
The phone was balky, and he reached his wife on the third attempt.
'Bess, it's me.'
She was restrained in her response. She always was. It was 11 a.m. back in Cambridge. He pictured her, slim, in a demure slip choosing an outfit for a luncheon with friends. 'Hiram. This is unexpected. Are you all right?'
'I'm fine. I just wanted to let you know that I'm sending an envelope addressed to you. I'd appreciate it if you would simply tuck it away somewhere, unopened, for my return.'
There was some distortion on the line.
'I'm sorry, did you say to open it?'
'No, the opposite. Please don't open it.'
'What is it?'
'A curiosity, that's all.'
'It's nothing illegal, is it?'
'Why would you ask me something like that?'
'I don't know. Maybe it's because you sound awfully mysterious.'
'There's no mystery. Please give me a call when it arrives.'
'Yes, yes. I thought you were ringing for another reason.'
Despite the connection he made out a sharp breath. 'I thought that maybe you'd heard about Cal.'
'Cal? Has something happened?'
'Why don't I let you speak to him?'
'He's in Cambridge?'
'Why isn't he at the base?'
He heard his wife calling for their son. Truth be told, Hiram wasn't entirely keen to talk to the young man, who was just shy of his twentieth birthday. Their last conversation had ended in a shouting match, two stiff-necked men butting horns like a couple of rams. He had been apoplectic at Cal's decision to forgo college and enlist in the army at age eighteen. Neither parent had seen it coming. The boy had grown up alongside high-achieving children of Harvard faculty members and he had been a star student-athlete at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols prep school in Cambridge, a reliable feeder to Harvard and other Ivy League universities. Yes, he had been a rebellious teenager who liked the girls and the parties and yes, he had developed an ominously early taste for vodka, especially expensive brands, but his parents had assumed that he would pass through his rebellious phase and get with the program. He didn't. Instead, according to his father's view of things, he pissed on his future by enlisting in the army instead of going to college, walking away from his early-decision admission to Harvard. One day after high school graduation, the obstinate only-child decamped for basic training in the Deep South leaving behind a confused girlfriend, a crying mother, and a furious, inconsolable father. Cal had returned on leave to Cambridge shortly before Hiram left for the current season in Iraq, but he had stayed at a friend's house. He ran into his father the day he showed up at the house to pick up a few things and the two of them had gone at it. Bess broke up the argument before it turned physical and Cal stormed out, banging doors.
A sullen, deep voice came on the line. 'Hello, Dad.'
'Cal, why are you home?'
He sounded halfway drunk and it wasn't even noon. 'You'll be happy to hear that I got kicked out.'
'I'm sorry, did you say kicked out?'
'You heard me.'
'How does one get kicked out of the army?'
'There's lots of ways. Mine was punching my sergeant.'
The moon was a sliver and the only light was from the gauzy glow of lamps inside tents. Hiram was tramping around the camp in the dark, paying more attention to his sat-phone than the terrain. He caught himself at the edge of the cutting where he had found the obsidian.
'Why the hell did you do that?'
'It's a long story. He was a sadistic dick.'
'I can defend myself. He was tormenting a guy in my squad.'
'And punching him was a solution?'
'Not really, but it fucking well felt great.'
'So, what's going to happen to you?'
'Dishonorable discharge probably.'
'You can't have that on your record, Cal.'
'Screw it. It is what it is.'
'You may say that but that's never something I'll say. There's always a way to make things right. I'll call Senator Kennedy and have him take care of this.'
'The great Hiram Donovan to the rescue. No thanks.'
'I'm afraid you can't stop me. I'm calling Kennedy's chief of staff as soon as we hang up. Then I'm calling Dean Fletcher at the admission's office. You're going to do what you should have done all along. You're going to enter the Harvard class of '93 in September.'
'Did I ever tell you that you're an overbearing son-of-a-bitch?'
'On more than one occasion.'
'Good. I'm saying it again. You do whatever you've got to do. I've got a date with someone who gets me.'
'And who is that?'
'A Russian named Stolichnaya.'
Over the following week, Hiram Donovan ran up an astronomical satellite-phone bill in aid of rehabilitating his disgraced son. Fortunately, he was a wealthy man and to him, it was merely a trifle. The Donovans were main-line Boston Catholics who had made a fortune trading textiles at the turn of the previous century, later acquiring substantial real-estate holdings and becoming tenement landlords to waves of immigrants arriving in Boston from Europe. Hiram's father had known Senator Kennedy's father, Joe, and had done some deals with him. He had been a guest at the presidential inauguration of John Kennedy. A call from Hiram Donovan carried weight and Ted Kennedy personally placed a call over to the Pentagon, and the Secretary of the Army set an honorable discharge in motion. It went without saying that despite the lateness of the calendar, Harvard College readily agreed to accept Cal into the freshman class. So, Donovan was reveling in the smugness of a successful fixer the evening that two men came to visit him at his field tent.
He was working at his desk and Najib was whisking when a voice called out in a heavily accented English.
'Excuse me, is this the tent of Professor Donovan?'
Donovan unzipped the flap and saw a squat Iraqi gentleman, perhaps forty, dressed formally in a black Western suit. He was with a much larger and much younger companion who wore a traditional flowing dishdasha.
'Yes, I'm Donovan.'
The older man said, 'Apologies for arriving unannounced, at nightfall no less. My name is Hamid. Mustafa Hamid, although my Western friends call me George. This man is my assistant. I wonder if I might have a word with you regarding a matter of great interest.'
Donovan didn't like being disturbed while he was working, and this had the look of some kind of a shakedown by a local official.
'I'm sorry, who are you with?'
'With? I am with no one, Professor. It is simply me, George Hamid.'
'You're not with the government?'
'No, no, no, nothing like that. I try to stay away from politics, if I am being completely honest. May we enter?'
Donovan mumbled something about the infernal sand and had them remove their shoes.
'My man can make you some tea.'
'No, we are fine,' Hamid said. 'Please do not trouble yourself.'
Hamid accepted a chair but the younger man declined one and stood by the entrance, clasping his hands at his waist, his face something of a cipher.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Showstone"
Copyright © 2019 Lascaux Media LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the 4th book in the Cal Donovan series and gives us more information about Cal's background and his relationship with his father. Hiram Donovan died while working an archeology dig in 1989 in Iraq. An eyewitness saw Hiram when he found a black obsidian stone. Hiram decides to send it to his wife in the United States. 30 years later in 2019, Cal receives a phone call that his mother has been murdered. Cal and his friend, Jessica, find the envelope that Hiram sent home with the black stone and a note mentioning John Dee, British Museum/Scrying stone. Cal investigates the note and finds out that John Dee was Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer and alchemist. He also finds out that whoever possesses the black obsidian stone will have the power to scry which is an art of magic that allows communication with the angels. Glenn Cooper mixes real historical facts with fiction in order to give us a very interesting and unique novel filled with mysticism, angels and evil spirits. He gives us information from 1095 and 1609 in regards to who owned the stone in the past and how it was used for religious and political purposes. The characters, good and evil, are very believable. One character, George Hamid wants the black obsidian stone very badly and chases Cal in order to obtain it. The book ends on a cliffhanger making me look forward to the next book. I would highly recommend this series to those who like history and mystery with a bit of supernatural. Thanks to NetGalley and Severn House for an advanced copy for an honest review.
What would you ask an fallen angel for? Cal is stunned when his mother is murdered and his girlfriend Jessica has found an unopened envelope that his father sent before he died. He has no idea what he has and little does he realise that someone will stop at nothing to get the stone from him. He has learnt some more about the black stone but he doesn't really believe that you can use it to talk to angels. After meeting Eve and spending time with her showing him how the showstone works does he realise that his father's death wasn't an accident and that the killer will be back for him. Can they find the answers before it is too late? Will they have time to stop the 49th call? A good interesting read. I was lucky enough to receive a copy from netgalley and the publishing house in exchange for my honest review.
Mr Cooper can surely write a book that mixes historical facts and fiction, a book that keeps you on the edge till the end and it's unputdownable. This one was no exception and it was an excellent read. Highly recommended. Many thanks to the Severn House and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.