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.


A Soul BurnedA Soul Burned by RJ Curtis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James was a bomber pilot with twenty-plus missions over Germany. He was good at his job and was picked to lead the raid on Dresden in February, 1945. As he circled the target, pinpointing the places undamaged so other bombers could drop their loads wherever there were no flames. At the end of the mission, James makes it home safely, but not undamaged. Although due some leave, he is tasked with one more mission—a milk run over Denmark in the daylight—one more mission and then free time to spend with Colleen. But the unthinkable happens.

The firebombing of Dresden was one of the most controversial raids perpetrated by the Allies during World War II. The wanton barbarism of annihilating an ancient city with no strategic value has been bemoaned ever since that day in 1945 when it was reduced to ashes. RJ Curtis has done a magnificent job of telling the story through the eyes of a participant. The emotional impact on the character, James, is told with great skill, and the subsequent tragedy that befell him is also related masterfully. There is additionally the viewpoint of young boy who survived the firestorm, and in a strange twist of fate, has an impact on James life years later. A Soul Burned is a fine piece of historical fiction.
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Great Start Troubled Ending

The AsteriskThe Asterisk by Mark Desmond

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two MIT nerds, while being handled—that is coerced—by the CIA develop software that scans images of Earth, made by the Kepler Deep Space Telescope, for deposits of precious metals. They are unable to debug the software and are frustrated for a couple of years. Then Jack Drago finds a debugging algorithm that was developed at Harvard. It solves the problem and he is able to print a plot of an area in the Bolivian Alto Plano showing deposits of gold, silver, uranium, and something else. The CIA immediately pulls the plug on their operation. Jack is warned of his eminent arrest by girlfriend Hanna, who is head of campus security. Jack and his cohort, Frannie, AKA Francis, are determined to go to Bolivia to discover what this anomaly might be, and to prevent the CIA from seizing it.

That’s where this story unravels. The artifact is of extraterrestrial origin, and in fact the US military already has one that was discovered in Egypt during the First World War. They don’t know what it is or what to do with it. The reader never discovers why it’s a threat to mankind. However, the indigenous Bolivians know of it and revere it as something to be protected. The thing is just a little too bizarre and inexplicable be taken seriously. When the action starts, the story devolves into poor dialogue and improbable events by characters who aren’t very believable. I realize there is a reason we call this fiction, but one needs a shred of plausibility. It is as if this book were written by two people. The first half is concise and logical with good prose solid technology. Then something happens. This reader was severely let down by the second half of the book. And the ending? Well, I don’t know what the ending was, but it wasn’t very satisfying.

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The Cuban Affair

The Cuban AffairThe Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An Afghanistan veteran and charter boat captain based in Key West is approached by a group of Cuban Americans with a proposition. The Cuban Thaw allows American tourists to visit the Communist island in groups as long as they adhere to State Department guidelines and are under the scrutiny of Cuban minders. The Cuban Americans want Mac to join a tour group from Yale and go to Cuba with a stunningly beautiful Cubana, Sara. The plan is for Mac and Sara to slip away from the group and recover sixty-three million dollars that was hidden in a cave at the time of Castro’s revolution. Entering Mac’s boat in a fishing tournament in the waters made famous by Hemingway provides the means for them to escape with the loot. If he succeeds, Mac’s share will be three million. Unfortunately just about everything they told him is a lie.

Nelson DeMille’s main characters are unfailingly witty, tough, profane, and irreverent. That’s Mac. One suspects they are an extension of DeMille. At least I hope so. This first person narrative is classic DeMille with plenty of sarcasm and biting social commentary. It is, however, a little slower than this writer’s other works. The escape scene is a real nail-biter, but in getting there, DeMille seems a little off his game. Now, I maintain that there is no such thing as bad Nelson DeMille, but I would not call this the apex his bibliography. The Cuban Affair is a good read. Parts of it are a great read.

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Something Different Very Different

The Geyser Girl of Yellowstone ParkThe Geyser Girl of Yellowstone Park by Myrtle Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yellowstone Park is a magical place, more magical than we thought. When a young girl appears among the geysers, alone and helpless, she is immediately adopted by a bison cow and Old Faithful, and they name Flower of the Steam Basin. Trust me. This is where you must suspend incredulity. In the microcosm of the park, all things are personified. All things possess great wisdom and speak in parables teaching the girl morality and spirituality. She communes with all the spirits of the wilderness, delights in running with the herds of bison, and cavorting in the eruptions of the geysers. She lives in the chasm of Old Faithful where the spirit of the geyser teaches her about all things, including the people who visit daily. When the rumor of a girl dancing aloft in the hot mineral spray begins to circulate, there comes trouble to paradise.

I told you that you had to suspend incredulity. You also have to be a little patient. The beginning of this book is dedicated to animism, something akin to native spirituality. It consists mainly of the above-mentioned parables, and is written in a flowery prose that is almost Biblical in its near poetic construction. The characters speak in multi-paragraph monologues. Some readers will revel in the joy of language, others less so, but by and by, human beings sneak into the story. That’s when the trouble starts. This book was departure for me. I generally go for something earthier, but I enjoyed The Geyser Girl of Yellowstone Park, and I recommend it for those who aren’t discouraged by what I said in the first paragraph of this review. One could see Geyser Girl being produced by Walt Disney, although as it is written, it is not a children’s story.

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In the Presence of Photographers

I went on an outing to Mammoth Mountain with the Rancho Photo Club to shoot autumn colors. I’m neither a member nor a photographer—I tagged along as ‘spouse of member.’ It was an educational experience. Photo shoots require a great deal of running back and forth on the same stretch of highway and a whole lot of waiting for the light. The daybreak shoots didn’t fit my schedule, but I went along for the ride of a few others.

 To say there were colors is misleading. There was yellow. The Sierra, lacking maples, is pretty exclusively decorated with the gold of aspens and cottonwoods. That’s not to say they weren’t spectacular.

Aspen close

Don’t get the idea that an accomplished photographer took these shots. It was me with my hand-me-down point-and-shoot camera.

The highlight of the trip was a sunset shoot at Mono Lake. That was a rather weird trip, but I learned a lot about the place. Did you know that Mono Lake is more than twice as salty as the ocean, and from the fifties to the nineties, it was a major source of drinking water for Los Angeles. The water level was drained by forty feet vertically. Then, of course, there was a big move to “Save Mono Lake” and the tap was closed. This raises two interesting points. The big attraction at Mono is the tufas. Otherworldly outcroppings of calcified stuff.

Tufa 1

The photo shoot took place at South Tufa where I don’t believe there were any tufas more than forty feet tall, therefore, if Los Angeles hadn’t raided the lake, the main attractions would be underwater. The other thing is that salinity business. If it was economically feasible to desalinate the water drawn from Mono Lake, why isn’t it feasible to desalinate seawater?

There were a surprising number of photography groups at South Tufa. In addition to my own great photographer, there was some joker making an Arabic music video, a native drummer having what looked like an out of body experience, a bunch of Japanese kids taking selfies, and I was later told there was a naked girl making promotional shots for a movie or something. I complained bitterly about only being informed of that last fact after we left the lake.

Clockwise from left: Great Photographer, bonehead Arab singer, spiritual drummer. Sorry, no naked girl.

This one tufa drew particular attention. The group waited breathlessly for that moment when the sun, having sunk below the horizon, reflects rosy light from the underside of clouds, and illuminates the subject in some preternatural glow. The first shot is in direct sunlight, the second is reflected light. Remember, I said there was a great deal of standing around waiting for the light? Full sun is on the left, reflected light is on the right.

Before leaving the Mammoth area, we visited the Devil’s Post Pile. I’m not sure what a post pile is, but surely the Devil must have one, and this is it. A very weird pile of rocks.

Devil pile

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The whole world knows that Malala is the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban because she campaigned for girls’ education. I Am Malala is much more than recounting that gruesome event. It is a frank and accurate history of Pakistan, especially the Swat region and the Pashtun tribe. She is brutally honest about the barbarism of her people, particularly concerning the subjugation of women who are denied an education and forced to confine themselves to home and travel only with a husband or male relative. They often practice arranged marriages and sell daughters as brides to settle family blood feuds. Malala also reveals in vivid terms the dysfunction and duplicity of Pakistan’s government and army who, while claiming allegiance to the US and accepting billions of dollars, aided and abetted Osama bin Laden.

All this is very interesting and on the mark. Because Pakistan is supposedly an ally, we seldom hear the truth about this ruthless, backstabbing, hypocritical nation of tribal barbarians who possess nuclear weapons. We can see video of Taliban in Afghanistan herding women into soccer stadiums and shooting them in the head, or stoning women on the street. What we don’t see are videos of the same atrocities in Pakistan. Malala describes these outrages in an almost offhand tone and never once considers that the root cause of the problem is Islam. Despite her ordeal and having become a world-renowned proponent for educational reform, she faithfully accepts the repression of women, keeps the scarf on her head, and claims to want nothing more than to return to the Swat valley where her attempted assassin has become leader of the local Taliban. She tells about, when visiting Mecca, her mother bought a new burqa for the occasion. It can’t be both ways. One is either subjugated or not. She even sugar coats parts of the Quran, once stating that Mohamed “migrated” from Mecca to Medina. History tells us that the Meccans had had enough of him and ran his ass out of town.

I have to say that I am glad I read I Am Malala, but I can’t say that I ever warmed to the person. I also think that this book isn’t particularly well edited. How much the co-author contributed, I can’t say. The voice sounds genuinely Malala’s, but there are some places where a native English speaker might have suggested changes. It also bothered me that in her gushing admiration for Obama, she claimed that he rose from a struggling family. Struggling how? Is being raised by affluent white grandparents struggling? It’s a remarkable story that shines a light on a global crisis, but I’m not sure Malala Yousafzai actually sees the crisis.

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poggibonsipoggibonsi by Dan Alatorre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mike was a venture capitalist with a plan to destroy Tuscany, so he started in the hole on the likeability index. He took his wife and young daughter to Italy for a vacation before settling into the business of plundering the fabled countryside. He fell on the wrong side of his wife, Mattie, and she went home in a huff. To make things worse, his local contact and business partner was hospitalized with heart trouble. Alberto tells him not to worry, that he will appoint an associate to help cement the deals. That associate happens to be the most beautiful young woman in Italy. This can only end badly.

Reading Poggibonsi, which is the name of the town on which Mike intends to do a hostile takeover, takes faith and patience. Until we meet the succulent Julietta, there’s not much happening. The first person narrative is burdened with excessive detail. There are some diversions to third person, which may have been a better choice of voices. Mike’s assistant, Samantha, is an endearing character who, in addition to being infatuated with Mike, is Mattie’s best friend. This is a complicated dynamic within the plot. Mike redeems himself from time to time with some insightful observations about the nature of life. The ending is fairly predictable and lingers longer than this reader thought it should. The meat of this story is Julietta, and that part is done extremely well. She has beauty, brains, and she knows how to go about getting what she wants. What’s not to like about that?

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Everyone Loves a Good Plague


Bubonic plague may not be the only star of the Black Death. Anthrax may have had a supporting role. Whether one, the other, or both, the Black Death killed twenty million people, a percentage of world population even greater than the fifty million killed by the Spanish Flu pandemic of the early twentieth century. A culling of that magnitude had a profound effect on the future world. It gave us Ring Around the Rosie and prevented the Plantagenet kings from seizing the rule of France, the Low Countries, Spain, and possibly even Germany.


Mr. Cantor delves deeply into the impact the plague had on historic individuals as well as facets of society. He explores the intricacies of land inheritance as it was impacted by the loss of heirs and convoluted English law. These aspects are the focus of this book more that the rampage of the epidemic across Europe and Britain. In the Wake of the Plague also tells of the contemporary attempts to rationalize the disaster. In various places Jews were tortured until they confessed to poisoning wells. The alignment of Jupiter and Saturn were blamed, and at later times, pathogens from outer space were the cause. This fascinating book is quite scholarly. It is definitely not light reading, but it is well worth the effort.

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Golden State Blues

NO capitol

Our shiny-headed governor says he will sign a bill into law ordering courts, police, cities, and all the way down to landlords, to violate Federal Law. If I recall, South Carolina did something similar to this in 1860, just before Lincoln sent federal troops to resupply Fort Sumter.

The California Constitution says this:

SEC. 3.5.  An administrative agency, including an administrative

agency created by the Constitution or an initiative statute, has no


   (a) To declare a statute unenforceable, or refuse to enforce a

statute, on the basis of it being unconstitutional unless an

appellate court has made a determination that such statute is


   (b) To declare a statute unconstitutional;

   (c) To declare a statute unenforceable, or to refuse to enforce a

statute on the basis that federal law or federal regulations prohibit

the enforcement of such statute unless an appellate court has made a

determination that the enforcement of such statute is prohibited by

federal law or federal regulations.

Part (c) seems to say to me, “Federal trumps State.” Furthermore, parts (a) and (b) make no distinction between state and federal statutes when denying administrative agencies the power to declare them unconstitutional.

By signing this bill, our governor will be committing an act of treason. It’s time for President Trump to declare Jerry Brown to be in a state of rebellion and send federal troops to throw his ass in jail along with the legislature and all the mayors—numerous police chiefs as well.