Maxine returned to her office, stopping at the automated secretary. “Any mail come in for me?”
The brass-skinned automaton buzzed and clicked before replying, “All mail has been sorted into the pneumatic system. There is one message for you.” The monitor on the automaton’s chest activated to reveal the face of a man. He had a thin mustache and even more of a thinning hairline.
“Good morning, Doctor Hadison, I’m Alfred Nielsen of the Rocky Mountain Historical Society, and I’m calling in regards to a lecture series I’m organizing. Since at thirty-two you’re one of the youngest in the field of archaeology, I wanted to invite you to give a talk to our young audience on the subject of archaeoastronomy. Contact me at your earliest convenience.”
The face faded in static as the automaton buzzed, “No more messages, Dr. Hadison.”
“Thank you,” Maxine replied as she walked down the hall to her office.
Unlocking the door, she grabbed a stack of letters and a magazine out of the brass pneumatic tube. She shuffled through the correspondence, only to stop when she reached a slim narrow box wrapped in brown paper. The writing on the box was her father’s, stating that the box had come from Alice Springs, Australia. With the box was a letter that read:
I need your help in Australia. Please bring Ivy and Lorelei as I have need of them as well. This mystery is far larger than I suspected, objects have begun to vanish from the site after being cataloged. I have suspicions that there is a thief among my crew. I have sent you this necklace as an example of some of the treasures we have found. All of which are not only more advanced than expected, but also out of place culturally for the area.
I am asking as your father, please come as quickly as you can.
Maxine crumpled the note and tossed it in the garbage. “That’ll be the day.”
She closed the door to her office and started to peel away the brown paper wrapping, then opened the box to find a thick gold chain. Hanging from the chain was a glowing orange stone wrapped in swirls of gold wire of a finer quality than any she had seen in a long time. The stone was as large as her thumb. Looking into the box again, she also found three tickets for the airship Desert Winds scheduled for the next month. She sat down at her desk and reached for her magnifier.
She swung the highest-level lens down over the necklace. Bending over the magnifier, she asked in hushed tones, “What are you, little bauble? You certainly don’t look like the natives made you.” The stone was a fire opal of the finest quality. As she shifted the light to the side, the stone caught it. The natural facets in the stone made it look like a sunset over clouds.
She nearly knocked the viewer over when her sister barged in. “Maxine! You have a message from Dean Jamison, it came to my office by mistake. He’s coming here to see you. You also have a sister who wishes to remind you that I am a researcher and not your personal secretary.”
“And one of the best, too,” Maxine replied with a smile. “In fact, Ivy, I need you to look into ancient styles of jewelry for me. Pops sent me a piece to investigate and there’s something not quite right about it. I need all the reference material you can spare on Mesopotamian and global jewelry, and on metallurgy.”
“That’s an odd combination of subjects. Why?”
“Pops sent a piece to me that has a fire opal in it. It appears to be of Mesopotamian style, but he sent it from a dig in Australia – at least, according to Pops.”
Ivy sat down and examined the necklace as she said, “Really, Maxine after the stunt he pulled on you a year ago, stealing your article and jeopardizing your place here at the University by claiming you couldn’t recognize a hoax, you’re going to believe a single thing he says? At most this is a junk store artifact, bought at a roadside tourist stand and sent from the Outback.”
“Just in case, Sis, humor me.”
Ivy nodded. “All right, I’ll get you the materials, but it’s going to be a wild goose chase.” As she started to leave, she turned and said, “Just promise me one thing, if it’s real, don’t help him. Start your own dig in the area.”
Maxine nodded. “I promise.”
Ivy stepped out the door, throwing over her shoulder, “By the way, Jamison’s on his way here.”
Maxine hurried to hide the necklace before the head of her department walked in. He was a tall, lean man, whose hollow cheeks looked better suited to life working in a mortuary than as head of an educational department. He smoothed the back of his black pants as he sat down.
“Hello, Dr. Hadison.”
“Dr. Jamison,” Maxine said formally, “this is an honor. Can I offer you some coffee?”
“No, thank you. This…” he paused uncomfortably. “I’m afraid I have some rather bad news.”
“What is it?” Maxine asked, her voice rising slightly.
Jamison took a deep breath and rushed on, “I was just contacted by the authorities in Alice Springs, Australia. They were looking for you and your sisters.”
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but, your father was found murdered in his hotel room.”
“What?” Maxine stuttered, “H-how? I mean, I just got a letter from him and…” Her voice trailed off.
“I was given very few details,” Jamison answered.
“I understand,” Maxine replied blankly as thousands of questions flashed through her mind.
“Professor Hadison, are you all right?”
Maxine shook herself back to the present. “I’m fine,” she lied. “I just was trying to figure out how to tell my sisters.”
“I must commend you on your professionalism in this matter,” Jamison said at last, “and please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you or your sisters.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Jamison rose from his seat and walked out of the office. Maxine pulled the jewelry box out of her drawer. In the box were the three airship tickets. Taking them out, she hurried down the hall to Ivy’s office and barged in.
“We’re going to solve that mystery. I have to know what Pops found and if that’s what got him killed.”