Life, Jack O’Neill was certain, wasn’t supposed to be like this. He felt as though he’d been sleepwalking for years, tied to a job he was good at but didn’t really like.
It had been a lifeline, of course, back when he’d been so close to the edge of the abyss that he could stare down into it and wonder just what it would be like to use his service weapon, and he couldn’t have said what had stopped him. The recall to active duty, unexpected, had thrown him a rope in many ways—at least it had given him a reason to get up in the morning, even if in the end nothing had come of it.
He remembered Catherine Langford enthusing about some young genius who was going to come and revolutionize their thoughts about that big stone whatever-it-was they’d been landed with, but the genius had never arrived. Jack had been stuck there, in a mountain full of geeks; apparently geeks who also weren’t that good at their jobs. None of them had been able to figure out what the thing was, the thing that had later turned their preconceptions of the universe on their heads, and they’d been left to find out by accident.
Still, at least it had got him out of the house and away from all those memories. Maybe it had been that, as much as anything else, which had almost made him take that fateful step. Being there, surrounded by memories he couldn’t talk about with anyone, not even Sara. Back in the saddle again, away from a house where every corner reminded him of Charlie and all the things that would never be, the urge to kill himself just wasn’t as strong. Jack had seized on work as an excuse not to go home and by the time it was clear that work wasn’t going to give him much to be going on with, home just wasn’t home any more.
The Air Force had been happy for him to carry on being in charge, though, and Jack had stayed there ever since, even when General West was found other things to do—guardian of the secrets of the universe, as they’d later discovered. Not that anyone had known that was the case at time, or at least not until someone calling himself Apophis had come through the device and changed their world forever.
He’d been unlucky though, that particular Goa’uld—the hostages he’d taken were tougher than they looked. One of them had not only been able to figure out how the whole chevron thing worked, she’d also been able to escape and make her way back to the Chappa’ai and then back to Earth. Her sudden arrival, disheveled and half scared out of her wits regardless of the use she’d made of her unarmed combat training, signaled the beginning of a new phase for the Air Force. A beginning Jack O’Neill was well placed to exploit, considering his own background in special ops and the fact he wasn’t actually doing anything else he’d need to be pulled away from.
So, in short order, Jack had found himself reporting to another general, one he’d never met before—who seemed like a guy who had his head screwed on okay—and getting together a team to head out into the unknown. Which seemed like old times, really, particularly once he’d been able to pull a few strings he wasn’t sure were still effective and get a couple of his old unit back.
They’d gone out there, exploring the universe, and kicked some butt while they did it. Sure it wasn’t always pretty, and one of their early missions had cost him a good man and a good friend in Charlie Kawalsky, but Jack was certain they’d done more good than harm. They’d also brought back all kinds of gizmos that were shipped off to Area 51, things that looked like props from Star Trek, and that was all part of the mission parameters as well from early on. The aliens—they called themselves the Goa’uld—had all sorts of nifty things just the thought of which made Captain Carter’s geeks at Area 51 wet themselves. Who was Jack O’Neill to deny them that?
Unfortunately, as time had gone on they had to import some geeks of their own as well, even though Jack didn’t particularly want to give them houseroom. The first time something they’d brought through had blown up in a Marine’s face, taking half his head with it, Jack had realized the error of his ways. This stuff was dangerous, if they didn’t know what it was, since they had a tendency to just grab whatever they could.
And that was where Rothman and his team came in. One of them would be on hand to cover any trip through the Chappa’ai, on the other end of a video link to give a running translation of anything with symbols on it, to avoid what had happened before. They’d noticed, after all, before the explosion there were marks on the thing that had blown and the thought was that they must be some kind of hazard warning.
When stuff was given the all clear, which had been pretty successful up to now, Rothman’s geeks would also check it over, cataloguing stuff until they had a pretty good collection of pictures covering things they’d accumulated along the way. Always useful when the science guys figured out what something did and wanted more of them, if they had a kind of visual shopping list for reference.
There was something about Rothman, though, that set Jack’s teeth on edge every time the two of them were in the same room. It wasn’t that Rothman didn’t know what he was doing—there was no way Jack could fault him for that—but the incessant sniffing just got to him. It was like nails down a chalkboard, after only moments of Rothman being in the room, and so he tried to avoid the scientist as much as he could. Which wasn’t too difficult, considering they were only scheduled to meet four times a year, barring major problems in some shipment back to Earth.
So far, so good. Jack had been able to avoid Rothman for a couple of months and all was well in his world. The teams going off world were doing good work, bringing back lots of fodder for Area 51 with minimal casualties, and everyone from the Pentagon down was happy. And if they were happy, Jack O’Neill was happy; that was how it worked.
That was probably why he wasn’t prepared for what happened that afternoon. Jack certainly never encouraged Rothman to come to his office—whenever they met, Jack always made a beeline for Rothman’s corner of the world. That way he didn’t have to try and get the other man to stop talking and leave; he could just get the hell out of there himself whenever he’d had enough.
To cap it all, Rothman didn’t even bother to knock, just came right on in like it was the most commonplace thing in the world for him to be in Jack’s office in the first place.
“Colonel,” he gasped. Rothman paused, bent over with his hands on his thighs as he tried to catch his breath again. Had he run all the way from his lab? “Colonel, you have to see this.”
This, it turned out, was a crumpled copy of the National Enquirer. At least it was crumpled now, from being grasped in Rothman’s sweaty hand, and Jack took it from Rothman more than a little reluctantly.
“What am I looking at?” Jack asked, peering at what appeared to be an article about the secret conspiracy between aliens and the makers of Pringles chips.
“Not that,” Rothman said. He reached out one hand, but Jack took a step backwards almost instinctively. “The other side. The headline says something about ‘a mysterious robbery’.”
Jack turned the paper over. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Rothman continue to gasp for breath, the odd mottled shade of his face giving him more than a little cause for concern.
“Sit down before you fall down,” he said, trying to figure out just what it was that had Rothman so riled up.
There was a photo, blurry enough even before Rothman had got his hands on it, but Jack could see now why Rothman had reacted the way he had. Except that he wasn’t sure it was really good enough justification for charging into his office without knocking. Jack decided he’d deal with that another time, some time when Rothman didn’t look like he was about to have a cardiac arrest in the middle of Jack’s office.
He’d seen something like that before. Not the vase itself—or at least Jack thought it was a vase, he tended to tune out the specifics when the archaeology members of the geek squad were on a roll—but definitely the markings on it. He had no idea what they meant, except that he was certain of one thing. Those symbols were Goa’uld; no matter what it said, that always spelled trouble.
Daniel finished unwrapping the second jar, setting the second one beside the first on the bench. If only they had the complete set, what a find that would be for the museum, but that was never likely to happen now; nobody had ever reported finding other artifacts with script like this. Daniel was certain that kind of news would have traveled fast in the small community that was Egyptology.
A noise, outside in the corridor, made him turn.
No answer. Daniel turned his attention back to the jars, picking up the camera. He finished taking photos of the jars together, then of the Imsety jar on its own, before putting the camera down and starting to wrap that one up again. He took photos of the Duamutef jar then, before he began to wrap that one as well, in preparation to returning both jars to storage for the time being.
There was that sound again, from right outside the door this time. Daniel put the half-wrapped jar down on the bench and crossed to the door, opening it. The dimly lit corridor outside was empty, no sign of anyone between the door to the storage area where he stood and the elevator at its end. There were other doors leading off the corridor, but they were usually locked and Daniel had no intention of searching the place.
By the time he heard the sound for a third time, it was too late—the next thing he knew, Daniel found himself on the floor. His head felt like it had been split apart. He reached a shaky hand to his scalp, surprised to find it wasn’t covered in blood though the way his head hurt, he knew it had been a close thing. Another inch or so and he could have been looking at a fractured skull instead of just a headache.
The room spun as he stood, using the bench to pull himself up, the ceiling seeming to swoop down as he straightened. Daniel’s stomach rebelled too, his breakfast threatening to make its presence known again, but he took a few slow breaths and that particular feeling subsided.
The first thing he noticed was that the jar was gone. Not the Imsety jar, which was apparently still in its box, and not the department’s expensive camera either—a prime target for a thief, he would have thought, and much easier to dispose of than the canopic jar that had actually been taken—but the other jar. Its discarded wrapping material lay on the bench, with no sign of the Duamutef jar itself.
He didn’t known who had hit him. Thinking back to the blow, Daniel couldn’t even have said with any certainty whether his assailant had been male or female. At least the number of people who had access to the storage area, or legitimate access at least, was relatively low and that should help.
Daniel picked up the remaining jar, slung the camera’s strap over his shoulder and headed for the door. He didn’t want to risk his assailant coming back to finish the job, or realizing there was another canopic jar to take and returning for that one. The police could sort this out, that was their job, and now he needed to get back to his office and report the theft.
The canopic jar—Rothman had insisted on telling him the technical term, despite the fact he could probably discern Jack had little or no interest in it at all—had been in the custody of the Oriental Institute. This wasn’t going to be the kind of case where someone had something they shouldn’t but still there were usually ways of bringing pressure to bear about keeping all of this quiet. Apart from the theft already being in the National Enquirer, of course. At the end of the day, the Oriental Institute was a big name place and Jack would have to work carefully, otherwise he’d be out of there sooner than he could say Tutankhamen.
It hadn’t been too difficult to hitch a ride on a military transport plane heading north, though. And Jack was used to traveling at a moment’s notice, so it wasn’t like it had taken him long to pack. His team weren’t scheduled to go off world for another ten days, this particular rest period the fruit of a busy few weeks for his team. They’d found themselves under fire on their last mission, Ferretti picking up a torn ligament in his knee as he’d dived for cover, and Jack was reticent to take a replacement whenever he didn’t need to.
General Hammond, for once, hadn’t seemed particularly interested in pushing him back into the field and had okayed his trip to Chicago with much less problem than Jack had anticipated. In fact, Hammond had seemed pleased Rothman had brought this whole thing up, citing it as evidence that the imposition of the geek squad—though he hadn’t called them that, since the general never did—had been a good idea all round. Jack wasn’t sure he’d go that far, but he had to agree they might have missed this one and, if not for Rothman, who knew what trouble that might cause them all in the longer term?
It was puzzling, though. As far as Rothman knew, there’d been no evidence of anything else being discovered on Earth with those kinds of symbols. Or at least, when Jack had quizzed him about it, joining him reluctantly over a cup of coffee in the commissary, Rothman had been pretty sure nothing had ever been found. He’d heard rumors, or so he said, of something big that might fit the bill being found in Central America, but whatever it was had been on a boat sunk in a tropical storm off the coast of Florida along with its discoverer and nobody had so far managed to locate the right wreck.
This canopic jar, supposedly one of a pair currently in the possession of the Oriental Institute, was unique. And that had Jack’s interest piqued, against his better judgment. In his experience, unique was rarely good. So this time around, his mission was to get in there, have a look at the surviving jar and get the hell out again, preferably with the remaining jar in his possession. If he could persuade the good people at the college in question to hand it over to the Air Force, no questions asked.
And if he couldn’t, if they refused to play ball with him in a reasonable manner, there were always alternatives. It had been a long time since Jack O’Neill had done a little breaking and entering in the name of his country, but he was certain that it was pretty much like riding a bicycle, something you never forgot how to do.
Still, what chance was there that a bunch of academics couldn’t be persuaded somehow to do the right thing when their country asked them to?
Whoever that was. Whoever it was who’d stolen the Duamutef jar, for whatever reason they’d done such a thing. He couldn’t figure it out, even though Daniel knew nothing quite like it had ever been discovered before. It was an exquisite piece, so in some ways he could see the attraction, all that white alabaster and gold—in remarkable condition too, even though it had been buried for a couple of thousand years, give or take a few centuries.
At least he still had pictures of it, even if he didn’t have the jar itself. Daniel pulled the file from his desk drawer, spreading the pictures out across its surface like a hand of cards. Exquisite indeed, and the loss of it cut like a knife.
As he picked up first one photograph, then the next, Daniel wasn’t all that certain what was worse—to lose the canopic jar, or the manner in which it had been lost. It was quite possible it was on the way to some private collection, a place where it would never see the light of day again and nobody would get to appreciate it, or study it. Even now it might be gracing some millionaire collector’s private cabinet of curios, somewhere in the Middle East or in one of the former Soviet republics.
Wherever it was, Daniel was certain that its true value wouldn’t be appreciated. Not its monetary worth, though that was substantial as a result of both its unusual nature and its fine condition, but its worth to the academic community. How many things had been lost to archaeology because one person decided they had a monopoly on things that would otherwise enrich the academic community beyond their wildest dreams?
Daniel sighed, raised one hand to rub the back of his neck where he could feel a knot of tension forming. It had been a long week, one way and another, and the robbery had pretty much put the cap on it.
First there had been the problems with plagiarism, with one of their apparently most promising students turning out to be substantially less promising than anyone had thought. Then the difficulties over funding for the next financial year, which threatened the scope of courses the department might be able to offer. An argument with Steven, the latest in a long line of bitter wrangling, had Daniel feeling like the week couldn’t get much worse. Then, of course, it had.
“Professor Jackson?” That was Isobel, who else could it be?
“What is it, Isobel?” Daniel asked, shuffling the photographs back into some kind of order and replacing them in the folder. “I didn’t want to be disturbed.”
“Are you feeling all right, Professor?” she asked. Isobel was standing in the doorway, but Daniel knew that even from there she could probably see how tense he was. At least he had only bumps and bruises from his encounter with the burglar; otherwise she’d probably have refused to let him out of his sight. “I could get you some coffee,” she continued. “And don’t forget, you have that appointment at four.”
“Appointment?” Daniel flipped open his diary, scowling at the indecipherable mark he’d left there, the mark that was supposed to tell him who he was due to meet that afternoon. “I can’t read my handwriting,” he admitted, after scowling at the scribble for a moment.
“You remember,” Isobel said. “That Air Force colonel. The one who phoned. O’Neill.”
What was the Air Force doing sending a colonel on a trip to some university’s archaeology department anyway? The message they’d had was vague: something about O’Neill needing to speak with him and that nobody else would do.
“Right. And coffee would be great. Thank you.”
Isobel closed the door quietly. Daniel stared at the closed door for a moment, wondering just how she managed that—whenever he tried, the lock would always refuse to engage, making the door creak. Maybe she’d been a spy in her earlier life—secretly he called her Miss Moneypenny, which he had a sneaking suspicion was something Isobel would probably quite like the idea of, if she’d known.
So, what was the Air Force doing, paying him a visit? While he’d always had a thing for men in uniform, that hadn’t been a taste Daniel had cultivated in a long time, and he was certainly much more discreet than to think his past had come back to visit him that way. All he could do was to wait for four o’clock and see just how he could help Uncle Sam.
He’d read up on the guy on the plane here, or at least as much as he could find that wasn’t written in academic gibberish. Jackson was relatively young to be the effective head of such a prestigious department, but he seemed eminently qualified if the long list of articles and books included in the biography Jack had been given was anything to go by. Not that he knew a great deal about how academia worked—while he’d done his Masters like a good career officer, Jack had never bothered to try and get his head completely around the concepts of status and tenure in the world of the academic.
The door opened and Jack resisted the urge to look around. Instead, he studied the wall behind the desk, eyeing the row of ornate certificates that covered a significant portion of it and watching the palely reflected image of the man who’d just entered. Professor Jackson moved with the grace of an athlete, something Jack hadn’t expected; an economy of motion that marked him out as someone completely comfortable in his own skin, which wasn’t too common in the people he encountered.
Totally and utterly in control, in this environment at least, Jack decided. Jackson rounded the end of the desk, then sat nonchalantly in the big chair that occupied the space on its other side.
“What can I do for you, Colonel?” he asked, with no preamble at all.
Jack studied him for a moment, immediately liking what he saw. The professor looked like someone who’d worked hard at some point in his life, but there were laughter lines at the edge of his eyes and that, along with the warmth Jack saw in his face, made him feel immediately at ease. His eyes were sharp and blue, bright with both intelligence and humor.
“It’s what I can do for you, Professor,” Jack replied, sitting back in his chair and crossing his legs as if he had all the time in the world. It was a definite act—if Rothman was right and the artifact that had been stolen was Goa’uld, they were all in more trouble than he cared to explain to anyone.
“Really.” Professor Jackson smiled at that, and then reached over to pick up the telephone. “Can I get you anything?” he asked, as one long finger pressed a button that had to lead straight to the scarily efficient-looking secretary who had guarded the door. Jack shook his head. “Could I have some coffee, please, Isobel?”
Jack heard the response from the other end, or at least he thought he did. He could pretty much imagine what it was, anyway—the secretary looked like the kind of woman who’d mother their employer half to death. Jack wondered what happened when it was Professor Jackson’s birthday, and then decided that was probably too awful to contemplate, if his experience of seeing his father’s secretaries in action was anything to go by.
“Now, down to business,” Jackson said, leaning back in his chair. “How about you tell me why the Air Force is suddenly so interested in what we do around here and cut out all the macho posturing bullshit?”
The air between them now had a definite chill to it. The whole “head of department” thing wasn’t looking like such a mystery any more, not now Jack had seen the shark lurking beneath the otherwise placid-looking waters.
“If you insist, Professor,” Jack said. He considered for a brief moment, before deciding that honesty—or at least as much honesty as Professor Jackson’s security clearance allowed—was probably the best policy. “It’s like this …”
There was a sharp rap on the office door and they both stiffened at the sound. In Jack’s case, he could blame long years of military training and service, but the professor had reacted with startlement and he wondered what that was about. Too many digs in politically sensitive places, maybe, where Jackson had seen and experienced things he wasn’t ever supposed to?
“Come in,” Professor Jackson called. The door opened and the secretary entered, carrying a small tray. On it was an ornate brass coffee pot, a sugar bowl and two small coffee cups. “You may change your mind when you smell the stuff,” Jackson said, turning his attention back to Jack.
“Okay,” Jack agreed, reluctantly, not sure what he was letting himself in for. He wasn’t that much of a coffee drinker, but that was probably due to the god-awful brew the Air Force described that way. When he got around to grinding the beans himself, once in a blue moon, he liked the resulting coffee just fine. “Consider me persuaded,” he continued, when the professor began to pour the dark liquid into one of the cups. “Though that looks a little too much like engine oil for my tastes.”
“Sugar, then,” the professor said, pushing the sugar bowl in his direction. “No milk.” The secretary—Isobel -had left the room, closing the door quietly behind them as Jack watched Professor Jackson pour another cup of the night-black liquid. He reached for the cup, his fingers momentarily brushing Jackson’s as he took the small vessel from him. “Help yourself.”
Jack busied himself adding sugar, aware all the while of Jackson’s gaze on him. The other man was ostensibly blowing on his own coffee, but Jack could feel that he was being studied—for a man who made his living studying things that were long dead, Professor Jackson seemed to have a healthy interest in the living as well.
“Now, you were about to tell me what you’re doing here.” Jackson’s voice brought Jack back to the realization he was about to put a fourth spoonful of sugar into the cup and, considering its size, that was probably a recipe for disaster. “Isn’t that right?”
“I was,” Jack agreed, replacing the spoon in the sugar bowl with exaggerated care. “Thanks for the coffee,” he said.
“You’re welcome. And stop stalling.”
If there was anything this reminded Jack of, it was those long days of counterintelligence training—learning how to interrogate and be interrogated. Jackson was wasted in academia, when he had a potentially healthy career extorting the truth from people in front of him if he only made the switch some time soon. His gaze was direct, honest, and it made Jack feel that he had to be honest as well, which wasn’t all that common a reaction on his part.
“It’s a matter of national security, Doc,” he said. Jack couldn’t have said what drove him to that kind of flippancy, but somehow it seemed to come easily when he was facing the professor. Maybe he figured Jackson would like the challenge of making someone talk, even though he wasn’t in the interrogation business just yet. “I could tell you …”
“But then you’d have to kill me?” Jackson interrupted, finishing his sentence. “Oh, please.”
Jack watched the professor take a mouthful of coffee, wondering just what the oily liquid tasted like without sugar, what the other man’s mouth would taste like as a result. Damn, where had that thought come from? It had been a while since Jack’s libido had swung that way and he certainly hadn’t expected some academic to make it swing. Not that Jackson was just any academic, after all. But that wasn’t what he was here in Chicago for, even though now he thought about it, the idea just couldn’t seem to leave his mind.
“You have something,” Jack said, deciding to be a little more serious before Jackson had him thrown out of here by his secretary. That Isobel looked like she worked out, regardless of the blue rinse, and Jack had no interest in being bounced by her. “Something dangerous.”
“Everything we have here is a couple of thousand years old, at least,” Professor Jackson said. “What could be so dangerous about that, Colonel?”
“Trust me,” Jack said. “I can see how this would be hard to swallow, but it’s true.” He couldn’t see any sign that Jackson had been injured, but if the police reports were to be believed, the professor was the one who had tangled with the thief a few nights back. “Who’d be robbing your department, if it wasn’t the case?”
“We have valuable artifacts here. There’s a healthy black market in antiquities, if you know what you’re doing …”
Jack took a mouthful of the sugar-coffee concoction he’d created, winced at its sweetness and put the cup down on the desk.
“But the thing that was stolen,” he began. “The canopic jar.” He watched Jackson’s response to that, amused despite himself that the geek had clearly thought Jack wouldn’t know the technical term, and glad now that Rothman had told him what it was. “It’s like nothing anyone has ever seen before, right?”
“A lot of things we find are unique,” Jackson said. “That just means we haven’t found one like it before, not that it was the only one ever made.”
“That’s irrelevant.” Jack leaned forward in his chair, still more than conscious of Professor Jackson watching him closely. “Now, I need to see the other one in the pair.”
Now, though, he was all business. And if Daniel kept telling himself that for long enough he might just believe it.
He also didn’t ask how O’Neill apparently knew so much about canopic jars, because he wasn’t interested in what the other man knew or didn’t know. At least that was the attitude Daniel had decided to take, for the sake of his own health and well being, and that was that. There was no reason, unfortunately, not to at least let O’Neill have a look at the other jar—it was a relatively reasonable request, even if the source was an unusual one. He couldn’t see how it would hurt to humor the Air Force.
He hadn’t been down to the storage area since the robbery, and it had lost none of its creepiness in the meantime. Daniel reached over to flick the switch for the electric light as the two of them emerged from the elevator, noting that yet another bulb had blown in the already dingy corridor that led to the storage area.
“Nice,” O’Neill said, from beside him.
Daniel wasn’t quite sure why O’Neill had insisted on accompanying him, or indeed why he’d agreed to it, but the two of them were there now. In some ways, he had to admit the other man’s presence was reassuring—there was a calm competence about O’Neill that set him at ease. Unexpectedly so, considering how the man’s cockiness back in Daniel’s office had riled him.
“We aim to please,” Daniel said. When O’Neill said nothing, though he could tell he was being watched, Daniel led the way down the corridor. “Over here.”
He pulled a set of keys from his pocket and flicked through them till he found the right one.
“How many people have access to this area?” O’Neill asked.
“Not many.” Daniel thought about that for a moment. “Faculty members, of course. The archivist. Janitorial staff.” He quickly totted up the total in his head. “Less than a dozen, I’d say.”
O’Neill looked thoughtful, though in the dim light it was hard for Daniel to say just what was going through the colonel’s mind. What business was it of his, anyway? The police had already been down here, fingerprinting and photographing to their heart’s content, and everyone who had a legitimate reason for being here had been interviewed.
“Come on,” Daniel said, letting the door swing open. He gestured for O’Neill to lead the way. “Light switch on the right,” he said, as the colonel headed into the darkened room ahead of him, apparently without any hesitation.
The lights, once they flicked on, were brighter in here. The room itself was just a row of shelves, stretching out into the shadows and up toward the ceiling. Every shelf was crammed with boxes of all shapes and sizes, only the labels telling what they contained—assuming that the person who read them understood the notations that were used.
“All this from grave robbing?” O’Neill asked, from the middle of the room. Daniel ignored his comment, heading straight for the row of shelves that held the box with the other canopic jar. “Last time I saw something like this, it was at the end of Indiana Jones …”
“You won’t find the Ark of the Covenant here, Colonel,” Daniel said dryly. “Here, hold this.” He deposited a box into O’Neill’s arms, suppressing a grin at the cloud of dust that suddenly surrounded the other man. “This is what we came for,” he said, removing the box that had lain below it. “You can put that one back on the shelf now, if you don’t mind.”
O’Neill did as he was bid, then tried not to make a meal of brushing the dust from his suit. He didn’t strike Daniel as a vain man, but he guessed all those years of military spit and polish probably rubbed off in the end.
Removing the lid from the box he’d chosen, Daniel began to unwrap the layers of packing material around the canopic jar. O’Neill came over to where he stood, a calm and quiet presence at Daniel’s shoulder, but one Daniel tried his best to ignore.
“Here it is,” Daniel said, when the last layer of packing had been removed. The jar’s gold decoration gleamed as he turned it carefully in his hands. “Spectacular, isn’t it?”
“Worth killing for?” O’Neill asked, quietly.
Daniel tried not to think of what had happened only a few nights before, the stealthy approach of the person who’d struck him such an unexpected blow, and the sheer terror he’d felt as he lay there on the floor, anticipating another blow. He couldn’t help the way his hands tightened on the jar, despite his usual care when handling something that was so valuable in so many ways. O’Neill had seen it, he was sure of that, and Daniel chided himself for showing that reaction—the colonel didn’t strike him as the kind of man who’d appreciate weakness in anyone.
That was probably why, when it came, the touch of O’Neill’s hand resting on Daniel’s shoulder unexpectedly, meant that he hardly knew what to think any more.
There was no sign the professor had been injured—he’d probably argue he’d been lucky—and he hadn’t mentioned it. But Jackson’s body told a different story, the memories flooding back to unsettle him when he least expected them. And that was an experience Jack had too much familiarity with, since that kind of mental ambush was territory he’d gone over countless times. You didn’t get to be a full bird colonel, with a number of years in covert ops, without having your own closet full of skeletons, and that was just counting the work-related ones.
Jackson hadn’t moved, and something about that made O’Neill feel oddly right about what he’d done. It had been a significant step outside of the roles they’d created for themselves in the brief period of time they’d been acquainted, all things considered, and it held the potential to backfire badly. He needed this man’s cooperation, after all—the whole project needed it if just what his own ungeeky eyes told him was true about the symbols on the canopic jar Professor Jackson was holding—and one hasty reaction, instinctive or not, could have completely blown that out of the water.
“I’m sorry.” The words were instinctive too, and again Jack wondered why he’d said them, though he’d moved his hand by then and maybe that was why. In most circumstances they were little more than platitudes after all, society’s band-aid for things that had happened, but this time he knew he meant them. “I didn’t think.”
Jackson placed the canopic jar carefully back into its box, his hands busy with the packing material for a moment before he half-turned toward where Jack was still standing.
“Maybe we should have talked about what happened down here before we made the trip,” the professor said. There was something of an apology in his voice as well, and it made Jack smile despite himself. This wasn’t a guy who looked for reassurance too often; he could see that in the resoluteness of Jackson’s expression.
“So,” Jack said, hooking a nearby stool with one foot and pulling it over to where he stood. “What happened?” He sat, eyeing Jackson intently.
Jackson leant back against the bench, checking where the box was before he did so, then looked down at his shoes as if he expected the whole story to be written there for his convenience.
“I was down here on my own,” Jackson began, still studying the floor intently. “Checking over the consignment—the one that included the canopic jars—and I heard a noise. It sounded like someone’s shoe …” He moved slightly then, the gesture drawing Jack’s attention down one long khaki-clad leg to the scuffed boot the professor was now dragging across the concrete floor. “When I turned to see who was there, something hit me on the head.”
That was the edited version, Jack was certain of it—a view reinforced when Professor Jackson looked up for the first time since he’d been recounting the tale. He could tell what Jackson had left out, the shooting pain from the blow, the fear of further violence, the shaking terror of the aftermath. Jackson had a wry expression on his face, and Jack could tell the professor understood the extent of their shared knowledge.
“And when you woke up, you were alone and the canopic jar was gone?” Professor Jackson nodded. “Just the one?”
“That puzzled me too,” the professor said. “Anyone who knows anything about canopic jars knows they never come singly, always as part of a set, so why not take the other one as well?”
That definitely was a puzzle, though it might limit the people who could be responsible, eliminating those with legitimate access to the storage area because they were part of the faculty. Or it could be as simple as that the thief panicked, not expecting anyone to be there, and after hitting Jackson over the head they didn’t want to stick around long enough to grab both jars. That might be even more the case if it was an inside job—it took someone with a particular constitution to bash someone they knew and be a cool enough customer to make sure they took everything they came for.
“And I guess the Chicago police came down here, dusted for fingerprints and told you how poor your security systems were?”
Jackson frowned and Jack suppressed another smile. He’d thought as much, even as he’d followed the professor in here—anyone with an ounce of experience in breaking and entering would have thought it was Christmas come early if they’d chanced on this place.
“Pretty much. And that the only fingerprints they found were from people who had a reason to be here.”
There was silence between them for a long moment, the two men eyeing one another in an oddly comfortable atmosphere, and Jack would have put money on the idea that Jackson was checking him out. It was an odd concept, considering they knew nothing about one another, but clearly they’d clicked in a way that had surprised both of them. That much was irrefutable, even if he wasn’t as smart as Professor Jackson apparently was.
“We should get out of here,” Jack said, after a moment’s further thought. “I can’t explain, but I need that jar, Professor.”
“You can’t explain and you expect me to just hand it over, no questions asked?” Jackson said. He looked amused and annoyed, in pretty much equal measure, and Jack decided he liked that combination. “You’ll have to do better than that, Colonel O’Neill.”
“I think,” Jack said, “you should probably be calling me ‘Jack’ about now.” He smiled, watching for the professor’s reaction. If he hadn’t missed his guess, that invitation to greater intimacy ought to work, at least a little, in breaking down Jackson’s defenses.
“Thank you, Colonel,” Jackson said, coldly, as he straightened up from where he’d been leaning against the bench. “I think we’re pretty much done here.”
There was nothing he could say, Daniel decided, that would be an adequate explanation for why the Air Force might want the remaining canopic jar. And for O’Neill—Jack, his treacherous brain supplied—to try and charm it out of him when all other tactics had failed demonstrated just how much contempt the Air Force, or at least one particular colonel in it, had for the intelligence of the academic world.
He’d need to secure the canopic jar somewhere else though, as soon as he’d got rid of the colonel. Daniel had seen the way that O’Neill had looked around, casing the place and assessing its security once more, even as Daniel had replaced the box containing the remaining jar back in its position on the shelves. It wasn’t safe there, not if the Air Force really wanted it; Daniel had no doubt that the man who currently stood beside him would do whatever was necessary to get hold of it.
“The Oriental Institute appreciates the Air Force’s interest, Colonel,” Daniel said, as they alighted at ground level again. “But the jar is not available.”
“Thanks for your time, Professor Jackson,” he said, extending a hand. Daniel took it, making the handshake as brief as was polite, then watched as O’Neill walked away.
Once the door to the outside world had closed behind O’Neill, Daniel walked over and checked the catch. It had closed, locked as it was supposed to lock, and he rattled the handle experimentally, just in case.
When he reached the storage level again, the dimly lit corridor was no less creepy than before and this time Daniel was alone. He walked briskly to the door, then lost no time in locating the box he’d only recently replaced and headed back toward the surface. The box containing the canopic jar was a comforting weight against his hip, his own scrawled notation on it surface a reminder of how recently things had all fallen unexpectedly apart.
He’d take the jar to his office; it would be safer there. At least until he went home, when the box could accompany him. Even if someone was determined to steal it, whether that someone was Jack O’Neill or a stranger, Daniel hoped they’d think twice before accosting him in his own home for that purpose.
So, the box stood on the corner of his desk for the rest of the day, and then Daniel juggled it and his briefcase as he tried to lock his office door before heading home.
“Let me help you with that.” Daniel hadn’t seen Steven Rayner approach and certainly hadn’t realized he was close enough to grab both box and briefcase before Daniel had the chance to object. “Taking work home, Daniel?”
“What are you doing here, Steven?” Daniel asked, as he took back first the box and then his briefcase. “Don’t you have a late tutorial on Thursdays?”
“Should I be flattered that you know my timetable so well?” Steven asked. Daniel knew the other man well enough to know that no amount of questioning would get him to answer anything he didn’t want to, so he didn’t bother to press the subject of where Steven ought to be. “And you know what they say: all work and no play…”
Daniel knew exactly what Steven meant, and for a number of months he’d known it more intimately than he was now comfortable thinking about. Back when he’d first become head of department, Steven Rayner had wasted no time in renewing their former acquaintance—the abortive on and off relationship the two of them had enjoyed when they were both grad students—and it had taken Daniel a little while to realize he was effectively being used, in more ways than one.
“I fail to see, Dr. Rayner,” Daniel said, “why I should give a damn about your opinion, whether it’s regarding my private life or anything else that isn’t strictly to do with the workings of this department.” His tone was deliberately chilly and he saw Steven react to it, as Daniel had hoped he would. “And, like I said before, don’t you have a tutorial?”
Steven just nodded, curtly, then turned on his heel and headed back down the corridor away from where Daniel was standing. He presumed far too much, at times, and during those times Daniel couldn’t help wondering just what it was that he had ever seen in Steven Rayner.
Of course, part of it was the fact that they’d had a cozy arrangement which had worked to both their advantages—neither of them needed to draw undue attention to themselves while they were supposed to be working on their doctorates, not when the head of the department back then had been such an out-and-out bigot. The sheer fact that two of his male graduate students had been engaged in such behavior together would probably have been sufficient to give Dr. Kennedy conniptions. Neither Daniel nor Steven had doubted that discovery would have been the end of both of their academic careers, or at least a considerable problem to be overcome if they wanted to make their way in this particular world.
This wasn’t Cambridge, after all, where a little homosexual activity between colleagues might be frowned on but essentially ignored in favor of the fact those colleagues were clever enough to get there in the first place. Daniel had spent a year over there, and while he’d been surprised at the tolerant overlooking of sexual activities that side of the Atlantic; he had no misapprehensions that Chicago would be equally forgiving.
So, he and Steven had restricted their activities to one another, though that hadn’t always been particularly fulfilling for either of them. Definitely a case of the ends justifying the means, though, Daniel reminded himself as he tried to forget about his encounter with Steven and headed towards the parking lot.
Back in his hotel room, Jack pondered his next move. Knowing Jackson as he did, even from their relatively brief time together, Jack was certain the other man was no fool—he was intelligent, that much was easily clear, but he also had a good head on his shoulders in other ways as well. This wasn’t a man who was just going to leave the remaining jar in storage, in the hope that nobody would get the idea of breaking in there and stealing that one too.
Of course, Jack couldn’t tell whether the thief responsible for the robbery of the other jar was an unlucky professional or just an amateur. A professional would have made sure the storage area was empty, even if he’d had to squat in the helpfully-dark corridor leading to it for hours. So that seemed to rule out robbery for hire, unless someone dumb had set themselves up as a pro without the requisite brainpower to make it work. Possible, but not that likely—dumb criminals tended to spend more time in jail than out of it, after all.
That left the amateurs. Jack considered the likely suspects for a moment, running through the list of people Daniel had mentioned, as he waited for room service to arrive—the rest of the faculty, the archivist and the janitorial staff. Any of whom could be having cash problems and look to the storage area as a good source of relatively untraceable items that could be sold on the black market for ready cash. But again, why take the risk of assaulting Professor Jackson and stealing such a distinctive thing as the canopic jar?
That whole area must be crammed with items just as saleable but much less noteworthy. Things that had been sitting in storage since Jackson himself was a child and which therefore wouldn’t be missed anytime soon. But instead, our thief decides to commit a crime while someone’s there, assaulting that someone and then absconding with an item that’s apparently unique and so much more difficult to dispose of without a trace.
Maybe Jackson had been lucky, though. Someone stupid enough to try and steal from the storage area when he was there was probably stupid enough to panic and lash out, killing anyone unlucky enough to get in their way. Jack suppressed the coldness that swept through him at that thought—it was just as likely he could have been coming here in the wake of Jackson’s death, that he might never have met the man and would instead be dealing with his successor, whoever that might be.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. Jack pulled his weapon, more from experience and habit than any real thought someone would try to attack him here, and crossed quietly over to the door.
“Room service,” a voice said, from outside. Jack cracked the door a little, then holstered his weapon as he saw a uniformed waiter outside, complete with tray.
Once the waiter had deposited his tray and left, now holding a hefty tip, Jack tried to retrace his mental steps. Jackson could have been killed, that was where he’d got to. Of course, Jack decided, as he stabbed his fork viciously into a pile of green beans, that assumed robbery was the motive and not the opportunity to attack Professor Jackson himself.
He didn’t have much confidence that the police would have investigated that angle, even if they’d thought of it in the first place. Who would have the most to gain from Jackson being out of the picture? While he didn’t know much about how the academic world worked, Jack knew a little about the problem of tenure and the fact that ambition was ambition, whether the thing that was being produced at the end of the day was cars, drugs or degree-clutching students.
Jackson was relatively young for such a powerful position, so there was probably someone out there who was holding a grudge against him; that person might just be holding a canopic jar as well.
“You’re up early, Colonel,” Daniel said, unlocking his office. This morning, he’d transferred his files into a backpack, so there was no unseemly juggling of stuff outside the office door that would necessitate O’Neill intervening. “I thought I made myself clear yesterday.”
Daniel headed into the office, letting the door swing closed. As he’d thought would be the case, O’Neill followed him in, and then unexpectedly turned to close the door quietly after him. Isobel wouldn’t be in for a while, Daniel recalled as he glanced at the clock—she’d told him yesterday that she had a dentist appointment—so that just left the two of them for at least the next hour.
“You did,” O’Neill said, settling comfortably into the chair he’d occupied the previous day. “But I don’t give up easy.”
Daniel deposited the box on the corner of his desk, aware that the colonel’s eyes rested on it rather than him. Somehow, he felt cheated by this, as if it was proof that, as he’d suspected yesterday, O’Neill was far more interested in the canopic jar than he was in its owner. That rankled, even though there was no reason it should—he didn’t know O’Neill from a hole in the ground, after all, so why should he get upset that the other man wasn’t interested in him?
“If you could give me a straight answer,” Daniel said, “things might be different.”
O’Neill’s attention was on him now and, against his will, Daniel felt his face warm a little. Damn it, was he getting turned on by this guy after all? There was no call to be blushing like a teenager just because O’Neill was looking at him, even if the expression on O’Neill’s face reminded him more than anything of a dog looking at a bone.
“I can go one better than that,” O’Neill said. “I can show you why that jar is so important.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the box. “But I have to be sure that it goes no further than the two of us.” He fixed Daniel with an appropriately stern look, the effect of which was a little defeated by what Daniel thought he saw in O’Neill’s eyes. “And I also have a theory,” O’Neill continued. “But for that, I expect you need coffee and I see there’s no sign of your secretary.”
“Isobel will be in later.”
“So, I suggest we take a little trip,” O’Neill continued, as smoothly as if Daniel hadn’t even spoken. “In search of caffeine. You can bring the box.” O’Neill stood. “In fact, you probably should bring it, since I guess you’re right not to let it out of your sight.”
Daniel felt his face warm even more at the tacit approval of the previous night’s paranoia, even as he chided himself for reacting at all. For all he knew, O’Neill intended to use whatever underhanded tactic was necessary to get hold of the canopic jar and just wanted to get him somewhere less public to do so. However, the siren call of caffeine was a little too much to resist, in the absence of Isobel and her patented brew-of-death; Daniel had come to rely on that, in the mornings, a little more than he would like to admit to anyone.
“I could do with some coffee,” he agreed, after a moment’s thought. Daniel snagged the box, and then started to fish in the backpack for his wallet and keys.
“My treat, Professor,” O’Neill said. “And your keys are on the desk.”
O’Neill held the box while Daniel locked his office door once more, then handed it back solemnly without a word. Daniel followed him then, out of the building that housed his office and across the quadrangle—instead of heading for the nearest café, he found himself following Colonel O’Neill on a more circuitous route.
“Worried someone’s following you?” Daniel asked, when O’Neill paused at a place where two paths crossed.
To anyone else, O’Neill would have looked like he was lost, but Daniel wasn’t fooled. He had no doubt that the colonel knew exactly where he was going, had probably checked out the route in advance, and was just using this opportunity to scope the surroundings. And if it also had the benefit of putting one Professor Jackson off-guard, O’Neill would doubtless consider that a bonus.
“Us,” O’Neill said. “Following us.” He turned to look at Jackson as he spoke. “You’re the one with the box.”
Daniel felt himself tense at the quietly spoken words. There was no artifice apparent in them, though he still harbored some suspicion about O’Neill’s motives, but they chilled him to the bone.
“No sense standing here, then,” Daniel said, leading the way into the nearest building that he knew for certain had a café inside. The university was littered with them, multiple sources for students and faculty alike to get their caffeine fix, and O’Neill wasn’t the only one who knew his way around.
“You said you had a theory,” Jackson began, as he stirred his coffee.
He didn’t look up, focused intently on the motion of the spoon, and Jack wondered for a moment what it would be like to be on the receiving end of such focus. That was one thing about Jackson, he decided—whatever he did, he gave it all his attention, and that made the other man even more enticing than Jack had found him before.
“I do.” Jack continued to watch him, without speaking, until the professor looked up. “Is there anyone in the faculty who’d have a reason to carry a grudge against you?” Jackson’s eyes widened at the question and Jack could tell he’d not given that possibility any consideration.
“You think someone I know is behind all this?” Professor Jackson asked. “That the robbery was just a diversion for someone wanting to crack me over the head?”
“It’s a possibility.” Jack hated to point it out, but since Jackson clearly hadn’t given the idea any thought before now, it was clear the police were unlikely to have followed that possibility either. Or if they had, then they hadn’t mentioned it to Jackson. “Cui bono, and all that jazz. Hey, what can I say?” Jack continued, when Jackson’s expression turned quizzical at his apparently unexpected use of Latin. “I watch Law and Order.”
“I admit, I hadn’t considered that angle,” Jackson said. He looked thoughtful as he drank some coffee. “Academia is hardly cutthroat most of the time, but passions can run high if someone thinks they’ve been overlooked or slighted.” He looked down at the box. “That doesn’t make this jar any less valuable, though.”
“Where did they come from?” Jack asked. It seemed like a good idea to change the subject, now that he’d given Jackson food for thought on possible motive, and where better than the other hot topic between them? “The jars.”
“Originally? No idea.” Jackson looked up, his expression less troubled now as he slipped back into professorial mode, and Jack felt himself relax as well. “They were part of a bequest to the university and there’s no information about their provenance.”
“Provenance?” So, okay he was playing dumb, but what harm could it do? “What’s that?”
“Where they came from, the chain of possession if you’re looking for more Law and Order-related metaphors. Who dug them up and where, whose hands they passed into after that—basically, how they got from there to here.”
So, this was probably what Professor Jackson looked like when he was lecturing on a subject he knew well—eyes bright with interest, determined that the audience capture some of that interest as well. Jack would bet a year’s pay that his classes were always packed, if the students had any functioning brain cells. Jack knew he would have been there, whether it was his subject or not, if there had been any lecturers with this animation when he’d been in college.
“Is that common?” Jack asked, though he figured he probably already knew the answer to that.
“Not as much as you’d think. Or at least, not where commonplace objects are concerned, but something like these jars? They’re unique enough that they could have come from a tomb we have no information on, dug up with the sole intention of reselling them.” He looked down at the box again. “No way of telling where they came from, or if there are others like them out there. After all, canopic jars usually come in sets of four.”
That was something Rothman hadn’t mentioned. Could there possibly be two more jars out there like this, in the hands of people who had no idea of their real value?
“I need whatever information you have, Professor,” Jack said. He leaned forward, resting his crossed arms on the table in front of him. “And I promise to explain fully if you’ll cooperate.”
Professor Jackson seemed to ponder that for a moment, his desire to control the situation at war with his curiosity. As Jack had expected, curiosity seemed to be by far the stronger of the two and it didn’t take long before it was clear that his need to know more had triumphed.
“All right,” he said, finally. “I have the jar, of course. Whatever notes have been taken in respect of this one and the other. And the photographs.”
“Photographs?” Jack wondered how high his eyebrows had risen at that last comment, even as he echoed it. “You never said anything about photographs.”
“You never asked,” Jackson replied, with an unexpectedly sly grin.