Artifact Chapter 1

Proto cover3


Scott Skipper

Copyright 2017

All rights reserved

Chapter 1

Probably a real estate agent, she thought as Vicki peeked at the strange car in the driveway and the strange woman exiting the driver’s seat. The woman carried a brown paper package that was considerably tattered. Vicki went to the door and waited for the doorbell. She swung the door inward and studied, through the screen, the black-haired, blue-eyed woman who wasn’t smiling.

“Mrs. Vicki Rice?” she asked with a trace of British accent.

“Yes,” Vicki replied tentatively.

“My name is Martine Durand. I have something for you from your husband.”

“Are you a process server?”

“No, nothing like that. This is some kind of message. It’s not my business, but I think he may be in some sort of trouble.”

“Oh, God. What are you saying?”

“I met him only briefly—in México. He gave me this and asked me to mail it. I sensed that it was too important to trust to the mail.”

Vicki was stunned. “Please come in and explain all this.”

The stranger smiled for the first time. She had a crooked, if engaging smile that Vicki thought would appeal to Robert. “Thank you. I won’t take much of your time.”

“Please sit here. May I offer you something?”

“Just some water would be lovely.”

Vicki quickly returned from the kitchen with a tumbler of ice water and iced tea for herself. “So, you met Robert in México, and he gave you that?” She gestured at the battered package. It was about the size of half a ream of paper and was tied with sisal twine.

“Oh, yes, here.” Martine gave it to her. “It was at the airport at Cancún. I had just arrived on holiday and somehow got into the departure lanes while looking for a taxi. Robert was dropping off his friend. I must have looked hopelessly confused, so he offered me a lift to the hotel.”

“Sounds like him.”

“Yes, well, he was quite gallant about it. When we got to the hotel, an enormous tour bus had just arrived, full of Japanese tourists. There were so many, and they were so rude, that there was literally no room to stand in the reception. To repay Robert for his kindness, I offered to buy him a drink, since I had to wait to check in anyway.”

“He wouldn’t turn that down.”

“No, he didn’t. Well, you know, we just had a casual conversation about what we were doing there. I was meeting a girlfriend for two weeks at the beach, and he said he had just spent a week in the jungle with the friend who he dropped at the airport.”

“That would be Carl.”

“That’s right. So, a week in the jungle sounded pretty adventurous to me. I wanted to know more about it. That’s when he got sort of mysterious—said he had something to do now that his friend had left. I didn’t press it.”

Vicki sipped her tea while trying to read the truth in what this woman was saying. “He said he had to do something that Carl couldn’t see?”

“Like I said, I didn’t press it. Here was someone I just met telling me about something that sounded clandestine. At that point, I thought I might not want to know.”

“So, what happened next?”

“That was it. We had a nice conversation over another drink. He tried to pick up the tab, but I insisted, then I went to check in, and he disappeared into the jungle.”

“He didn’t try to hit on you?”

“No, he was a perfect gentleman.”

“Maybe you’ve got the wrong Robert Rice.”

Martine smiled her one-sided smile.

“When did you get this?” Vicki raised the still sealed package.

“Hmm, that was a couple of days before I was due to go home. My girlfriend had already left, but I had some more time to work on a tan—I burn easily. Anyway, Robert showed up at the hotel and rang my room. He invited me to dinner at a place called the Sunset Bar. I was happy to accept. The place was lovely—”

“I know it.”

“Oh, well, then you know how lovely it is. We had a great time. He talked me into trying conch ceviche—good but a bit rubbery. Then he pulls this already ratty package from a backpack he was carrying and asks if I would mind mailing it when I got back to the states. When I saw the addressee, it was the first time I knew he was married.”

“In your defense, we’re separated.”

“Yes, he told me. Then he told me a very strange story.”

“And what was that?”

“I don’t think that I am the one you should hear it from. I believe it’s all in there.” Martine pointed at the parcel she had brought.

Vicki felt a prick of irritation with this woman who had seemingly dropped out of the sky and stirred memories she was trying to stifle. “I suppose you two were…”

“Intimate? No, not at all. Just one chaste kiss goodbye when he dropped me at the airport.”

“You said you had a couple more days before you had to go to the airport.”

“Yes, I did spend more time with him. Like the complete twit that I am, I thought all there was to do was lay on the sand and take windsurfing lessons. Sure, I’d heard of Chichen Itzá, but I had no idea what it was, and it seemed a bother to spend most of the day on a bus to go see it. Robert offered to give me tours of some places he said were better. He showed me two beautiful spots called—”

“Tulum and Cobá,” Vicki interrupted.

“Why, yes. He took you there as well then.”

“Oh, yes. Our special places.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t have known.”

“No, and it’s all right. I’m moving on.”

“I see. Well, when Robert wasn’t in his tour guide mode, I thought he seemed sad. Later I thought that he was missing you.”

“I doubt that.”

“Still, it concerned me. Little things he said gave me to think he needed looking after.”

“What do you mean?”

“He sounded sort of hopeless. Frankly, I wondered why he wasn’t making, you know, suggestions.”

“Yeah, that’s not like him.”

“Then he said something that convinced me I should deliver his parcel, what I figure is a very long letter, to you in person.”

“What did he say?”

“He said in it was the key to your future wellbeing.”

That struck Vicki mute. She fondled the string binding the sheets and felt tempted to open it, but she couldn’t read it in front of this woman. “Is that all he said?”

“Yes, but his demeanor made me think that after you read it, you will have to make a trip to México.”

“I doubt that, but thank you for going out of your way to bring this to me.”

“It was no bother. I hope things work out for you, and that Robert is all right.”

“Do you mind leaving a number where I can reach you in case I have questions?”

“I’d really rather not.”

Martine showed herself to the door as Vicki slid the twine from the brown paper package.

Dear Vicki,

By the time you read this…

It was dark when she finished the handwritten missive. She was trembling slightly, and she knew that she was going to have to go to México to recover the body of her estranged husband, and perhaps something else.

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