Here is the Prelude, the first chapter of my novel PHASE SHIFT.
I am laying in the dark listening to my husband’s raspy almost-snore, unable to sleep. To keep myself occupied, I try to remember when I first knew I wanted to be an archaeologist.
After seeing the first Indiana Jones movie as a teenager, perhaps? No, Indy merely served to bolster my interest in the field. The real turning point came while watching a documentary called “In Search of Noah’s Ark” when I was no more than twelve, back in the time before the super cinemas. It was then, I knew. Wood decomposed to nothing but dark shadows in the soil, aerial photographs of well-fed vegetation, and measurements approximating those in The Bible—I still shudder in awe at the thought of it.
My first real taste of archaeology was in the middle of a conservation area almost an hour’s drive north of the city: dark soil dampening trouser knees and buttocks, dirt rammed under fingernails, blowing out a peppering of dust mixed with snot on the Kleenex—man! I was hooked.
A few years later I was near graduation and looking toward grad school. Dr. Richardson, the head of the Archaeology department, offered to be my faculty advisor and I accepted without hesitation. He assigned me a site, the remains of a carriage house behind a restored clapboard house, built nearly two centuries ago. The planning, supervision, excavation and analysis of the site over two years’ time would earn me my Master’s degree.
My assistants and I arrived at the house, to find Dr. Richardson sitting on the stoop reading Scientific American, anissue featuring an article about a cache of Peruvian mummies. Dr. Richardson is a forensic anthropologist. That means he gets off on dead people and figuring out how they died. He works extensively with the police, to give them clues as to what decomposed bodies and skeletons might have looked like while they were still living and breathing.
We approached the stoop and he stood to greet us. I had to crane my neck and shield my eyes from the sun in order to meet his gaze. He smiled at me, said hello and squeezed my shoulder. My stomach lurched. Dr. Richardson is what we used to call “a hunk”. The first time my mother met him she called him “a dreamboat” and said she wouldn’t throw him out of her bed for eating crackers. The way things turned out, that comment was so many different levels of wrong.
The house was converted to a living museum sometime in the late eighties. The side entrance, added on around the same time, smelled of new carpet and fresh paint. Pictures of the house in various stages of disrepair and renovation hung on the walls like windows into the past. Dr. Richardson gave us the grand tour: men’s parlor, women’s sitting room, dining room, upstairs ballroom, and nurseries. A narrow staircase took us up to the third floor servants’ quarters.
Back downstairs, Dr. Richardson showed us the kitchen. The walls were of unfinished wood made dark by soot. At the centre of one wall was the original hearth, complete with bake ovens. A single wooden table stood in the middle of the room, deeply scarred through use and over time, and in the far corner, the kitchen pantry, converted to a small storage-cum-utility closet after the restorations. Near the ceiling Dr. Richardson pointed to a series of wallpaper layers. He recited each occupation and era by rote and I was in awe of him.
He finished his lecture and ushered us out of our cramped quarters. I chanced a glance up at him and he smiled at me. A perfect three-toed crow’s foot appeared to frame the outer edge of each of his eyes. The solitary, unshaded light bulb that dimly lit the room shone in his dark eyes—a girl could get lost in those eyes. I blushed, embarrassed at the lust I felt for him at that moment, chastising myself for falling for my faculty advisor. But then I reminded myself that Dr. Richardson was a good sixteen years’ my senior, and everyone knew he was seeing Suzanne Pascoe, the Egyptologist. Dr. Richardson was safe, like a movie star. Like a movie star, he was unattainable, and consequently, not entirely real. I told myself the crush would pass, and it eventually did.
Palmer’s snoring again. I nudge him, tell him to roll over, then roll over myself, wedging one hand between his rib cage and the mattress and one foot arch-deep between his thighs. He doesn’t protest.
Sleep has eluded me this evening. Pretty soon my bedside alarm will begin to shriek at me, signifying the start of yet another day. I need a drink. Tea would go down good right about now. Hot tea with honey and lemon.
In the kitchen I fill the kettle and plug it in. While I wait for the water to boil, I stroll into the living room and take a peek out the front window. Two black sedans are parked on the road, each facing opposite directions, waiting for me in case I decide to take it on the lam. Inside each car sits a pair of officers—which officers are out there tonight is anybody’s guess. The possibilities read like a who’s who for law enforcement: CIA, CSIS, OPP… It’s funny how quickly things spiral out of your control: yesterday I was an archaeology professor considering earning my doctoral degree. Today I am the prime suspect in a murder investigation.
The kettle begins to boil. I unplug it. Sometime between eying the sedans and thinking about the death I may have expedited, I’ve lost my appetite for tea.
I return to bed, drawing my body close to Palmer’s, more for security than warmth. I find solace in the fact I was right about one thing when I was struggling with that crush on my faculty advisor all those years ago: Palmer Richardson is safe.