I am working on a novel, and I thought it might be nice to give my readers a preview, to arouse intense anticipation (well, at least some interest, anyway). Here is part of Chapter 1.
NOTE: All rights to this thing belong to me, including copying, distributing and any kind of plagiarizing. Just saying. I know that Humor Outcasts authors do not plagiarize, but there are people out there who do, and I’m telling them they may not do it.
The thin, black-clothed figure leaned over until her hands were almost touching the floor and crept through the shadowed aisles. She stopped, listened for any approaching footsteps, and satisfied herself that she was alone. She pulled a tiny flashlight from a black zipper bag that she was carrying, and aimed it at a lock securing a display case. From the same bag she extracted an eclectic set of items, including an Allen wrench, a hairpin, a pocket knife, a large paper clip, a small piece of bubble wrap and an almost eaten piece of cold pizza. She took one quick bite of the pizza and put the rest back into the bag. She next broke through the display case’s rusty lock, reached inside and lifted out an ancient Mycenaean pottery fragment, which she carefully folded into the bubble wrap and placed inside the bag, along with the makeshift tools. She closed the display case door, and flashed the light on it once more to make sure everything was in order. It was then that she saw all the tomato sauce and cheese that she had managed to smear all over the lock. She took a piece of Kleenex out of her pocket and cleaned what she thought was all of it off the lock, vowing to herself that she would never buy anything from Guido’s Pizza Palace again. Moving as fast as she could without making noise, she slithered through the display aisles and over to the window. Again she looked around to make sure she was not seen. She opened the window, wedged her way through it and vanished.
Professor Phidias A. Harvey was going to be late for his 9:00 Religion in Ancient Greece class. The news of the latest theft had upset him and he had been trying to get the whole story from Felix, the building operations manager. He was almost running down the hallway, past the Dean’s office, when he was stopped by the sound of shouting coming from behind the half-closed door.
“The Campus Police came, and the City Police, and for what? Nothing!” Phidias recognized the resonant voice of Graziella Alassio, a professor of Roman history and the curator of the university’s extensive display of ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern artifacts. “Somebody is stealing invaluable items from us. Maybe it is a student. Maybe it is a faculty member or employee. Maybe it is someone who comes in from outside. The thief left no fingerprints or anything. We will not know unless the police do something!”
There was a mumble, which Phidias assumed was Arnold Tso, the Senior Associate Dean, answering the diatribe.
“I don’t care!” This was Professor Alassio again. “They have to do more than their best. This must stop NOW, before we have nothing but empty display cases.”
There was more mumbling.
“Thank you. And I need some 24-hour security guards, please. This is serious,” said the professor as she exited the office, and stopped. “Ah, Phidias! I am glad to see you.”
“I’ll be lucky to make it to my class,” thought Phidias. Out loud he said, “Hello, Graziella. I hear we are now missing a pottery fragment from Mycenae.”
“Yes. Do you have a minute? Please, I need to talk to someone.”
“I’m running late for a class, but I’ll steal a few minutes,” said Phidias. “Here. Come into my office.”
Once inside Phidias’ office, Graziella ran a hand over her hair and began to cry quietly.
“Che cosa terribile!” she said. Graziella often lapsed into her native Italian when she was agitated. “Phidias, I do not know what to do.”
Phidias put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a gentle squeeze. Her tiny, nervous frame was almost lost next to Phidias, who was tall and husky. She began to stop crying, and looked at him
Phidias smiled and said, “I’ll do whatever I can to help. You know that.”
“Grazie,” she said as she took a deep breath and smiled. “Thank you, my good friend.”
Phidias leaned back in his ancient, comfortable office chair (the one with the duct tape over the rip in the back), removed his eyeglasses and squeezed his nose. He pushed his thick, wavy salt and pepper hair away from his face and raised his arms over his head. He had been spending the time since dismissing his class notating and grading his students’ papers, with only a fifteen minute break for lunch. All of the words were beginning to look alike. His mind could no longer process any of it. They were only one-quarter of the way through the fall semester, and he and his students had a lot to cover yet. He didn’t want to think about it just now.
He was grateful to be able to spend this quiet time in his office. His attention and his energy had been derailed lately because of the thefts. The Department of History had an extensive permanent exhibition of ancient Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern antiquities. In the last three weeks, three items had disappeared from the collection at two different times: a tiny Mesopotamian goddess figurine, a Phoenician glass bead necklace, and now a Mycenaean pottery fragment.
Phidias was the Katsaros Professor of Ancient History at Manhattan University in New York City. The Department of History was housed in Garfinkel Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. It was named after Isaac Garfinkel, who had given the university a generous endowment back in 1898 to set up the original History Department. In the mouths of students, the name of the hall took on some colorful revisions, the most popular being Gofuckit Hall. Most of the professors just giggled and shook their heads at this.
Phidias’ office had books, binders and papers not only falling over the bookshelves lining the walls but also in lopsided piles on the floor and the windowsills. A bust of Pericles next to his computer functioned as a paperweight. There were two windows, but very little sunlight could penetrate the obstacle course, so the room was dim, even when an occasional sunbeam sneaked through. His students often asked if they could help him arrange his office, but Phidias always politely refused. He knew where everything was and he preferred not to disrupt his “system.” The woman who came in to clean every evening would grumble Santeria curses as she squeezed her way through the clutter with a vacuum cleaner and a feather duster.
Some of his colleagues called him “Ferreting Phidias” because he could usually be counted on to find a workable solution to any problem. His students loved him. Even the ones who were failing his classes admitted he was a nice guy.
He had been spending a lot of time combing through the exhibit for clues and trying hard to think who might have done it, how and why. David, his partner of 25 years, had been trying to be supportive, but his own career had taken him out of town, so for the time being he could only be supportive via long distance. Phidias was glad to take a break to do something as normal as grading students’ papers.
The door opened, and a young male voice said, “Professor? Oh, there you are. I just wanted to let you know I’m here.”
“Oh, hi, Tyrone. I have some filing over here on the desk, if you want to come and get it.”
“Okay, Professor,” said Tyrone. He began to swivel his way through the clutter, and stopped to pick up some books that had been knocked over.
“Don’t bother with that,” said Phidias. “I’ll put it back myself. I know just what order I had them piled in.”
Tyrone gave a little shake of his head, put the books back on the floor, walked over to the desk and picked up a pile of papers with a green post-it note that had his name on it. He was a twenty-three year old graduate student in the School of Criminal Justice. He worked for Phidias as a part-time administrative assistant. He was a tall, well built, handsome African American, with a close-shaved haircut, dressed in khaki colored chinos and a light blue hoodie with “Strong reasons make strong actions — Shakespeare” in bold, black letters.
His left eye was swollen and discolored.
“You have anything else, Professor?” he asked.
“Thanks, Tyrone. After you get the filing done, I have some telephoning for you to do.” Phidias looked up and saw Tyrone’s black eye.
“What happened to you this time?” he asked.
“It’s okay. I was helping one of my roommates with a little personal problem.”
“A little problem and you have a shiner like that?”
“Yeah, well … My roommate took some Weed off a guy and owed him money for it. I tried to bargain the guy down, but he wouldn’t go for it. He and another guy kind of beat up on me and told me that my friend would get worse if he didn’t come up with the money in 24 hours. I have a few bruises on my arms, too, but you can’t see them under this shirt.”
Phidias shook his head. “Tyrone, you’re going to get yourself killed before you even graduate,” he said.
“But this was good experience. Anyway, I had my iPod going and I recorded the whole thing, including them beating me up. The police arrested those two thugs and my roommate is going to testify against them in return for not getting charged with possession and not getting expelled. So I helped a friend, and I’m going to submit a report on it for extra credit in my Criminal Behavior in the 21st Century class. Win-win!”
Phidias opened his mouth to reply, but decided it would be useless. Instead, he waved his hand at his brash young assistant and said, “Go do the filing.”
Tyrone smiled. “Okay, Professor. You’re the boss.” He closed the door as he left the office and headed toward the file room next door.
That morning FedEx had delivered a package which turned out to be a gift from Phidias’ friends at the Archeological Museum of Olympia in Greece. It was a well preserved, exquisite bronze armband, inlaid with rubies. An invocation to the goddess Athena had been inscribed on it. Phidias picked up the armband from its box, peered at the inscription, read it in the original Greek, and repeated it in English:
“O Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, warfare and the arts, come to my aid in my need.”
He followed the path back to his desk, placed the armband next to the bust of Pericles, and resumed reading his students’ papers.
About twenty minutes later there was a knock at his door. He shouted, “Come in!” without looking up.
The door opened and a female voice said, “Hello?” The professor looked up and saw a young woman. She was tall and was wearing a blue jogging suit, athletic shoes and a band around her head. There were shadows across her body and her face, but he could see that she was exquisitely beautiful. Her thick black hair was tied into a long pony tail.
“Hello,” said the professor. “What can I do for you?”
“You called me,” said the young woman. “It has been a long time since I have heard that call. I am Athena.” She stepped into the room, enabling the professor to see her face more clearly. She had smooth, olive skin and eyes that appeared to be deep brown, although with an occasional flicker of hazel. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties. Her voice was a melodious, womanly contralto and she spoke with a hint of an accent.
The professor stared at her, and began to laugh. “Okay. Which one of my students put you up to this? Was it Jackson?”
“Well, if it wasn’t Jackson, it must have been Sorrentino or Takahashi.”
“Ah, you don’t believe I am Athena. I’ll prove it.”
She stared intently at the bust of Pericles, which crumbled into pieces all over the desk. The professor sprang back in astonishment and fear, unable to speak.
“Sorry about that,” said the woman. “I have to do something dramatic or nobody believes me. Oh shit! I broke a nail!” She glared at the offending finger, and the nail reattached itself. “Stay!” she said.
Phidias’ eyes flickered back and forth between the broken statue and the woman. When he was finally able to talk, he asked, “Am I hallucinating or am I asleep at this desk, dreaming?”
“Well, I know I’m real, and you don’t look asleep to me,” the woman answered.
“Okay then, I guess you’re not a practical joke. Welcome to my little kingdom.”
“Thanks. Oh, would you like me to fix that?” She pointed to the broken pieces on the desk.
“Uh …Yes, please. I’m rather fond of it.”
Athena stared at the desk, and, one by one, the broken pieces rose and came together again. The
professor picked the statue up and examined it, but could not find even one crack in it. He stared again at the young woman.
“Are … are you really Athena?” he asked. “The goddess Athena?”
The woman did not respond. Instead, she suddenly darted toward the desk, her eyes fixed on something near the computer.
“Holy shit!” she said. “Where did you find this?” She picked up the bronze armband.
“I … I didn’t find it. It’s a gift from my friends at the Archeological Museum of Olympia. Some archeologists found it while digging up an ancient town near Mount Olympus.”
“Is this where you got that invocation?” she asked. Phidias indicated yes.
“I gave this to a man three thousand years ago,” said Athena. “I never thought I would see it again.” She held the armband up to a sliver of sunlight. “He was a really hot guy. I told him, if you ever need anything or get in trouble, say the words written on there and I will fly down from Olympus or wherever I am and help you.”
“What happened to him?”
“He got caught in another man’s house having a foursome with the man’s wife, a local whore and the guy who ran the tavern up the street. He didn’t say the words on here, so I didn’t know he was in trouble. I found out later he couldn’t read.” Athena sighed and shook her head. “The husband shot all four of them full of arrows. Only the whore survived.”
“That just goes to show you the value of an education.”
“Oh yes. I agree. Poor Demetrious! Such a moron, and he couldn’t keep it in his loincloth!” Athena paused and shook her head. “The whore married the murderer a year later. She inherited all of his treasure and became a rich widow.” Athena carefully put the armband back on the desk. “Now, what do you want from me? Why did you call me?”
Phidias sat upright in his chair and rubbed the back of his neck. Finally, he looked up at Athena.
“Well … um … I really didn’t mean to call you. I was just reading the inscription on the armband. I … ah … apologize if I have inconvenienced you.” He gave her a tentative grin and attempted to lower his head into his shoulders. “This is really embarrassing. How does a man talk to a goddess?”
“It’s okay. No problem.” Athena smiled back at him. “I had nothing else to do right now. And I’m not a goddess anymore, just a woman with magical powers and a really long lifespan. I had to give up being a goddess two thousand years ago. It was a thankless job with too much responsibility, anyway. I couldn’t be myself. But go ahead and talk to me like you would to anyone. I like it when people talk to me.”
The professor’s mind was filling up with question after very personal question, but he knew that it was not yet time to ask them. Instead, he straightened up and gave Athena a genuine smile.
“Where are my manners?” he said. “Please do sit down.” He pointed to a small armchair by the corner of his desk. It had coffee and beer stains on it, and there was a tear in the upholstery, but it was comfortable.
“Thank you,” said Athena. “I just came from a long run over by the river. My feet are tired.” She sat in the old chair, bounced a little up and down, and gave Phidias an approving look. “Oh, by the way,” she said. “What is your name? It seems we have only been half introduced.”
“I really have been thrown for a loop, haven’t I?” Phidias laughed, and Athena giggled along with him. “Professor Phidias A. Harvey, at your service. The A stands for Archimedes. My mother was Greek and my father was an engineer who dabbled in sculpture. That’s why the two names. I am an expert on ancient Greek history and culture, which is what I do here – teach it, I mean. I also write a lot of books and give a lot of lectures, and I’m considered famous, although I don’t know why.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Professor Phidias Archimedes Harvey. You have two great names. And you seem like a nice man.”
Phidias offered her a cup of Earl Grey tea, which she accepted. He rose and wove his way over to a far corner of the room, stepping over a pile of books on the floor. A small water cooler was set on top of an equally small refrigerator. A Keurig coffeemaker sat on the floor. Books and papers had been shoved aside to make room for a supply of tea, little round containers of coffee, sugar packets, powdered coffee creamer, plastic stirrers and Styrofoam cups on a nearby bookshelf.
He returned to his desk with two Styrofoam cups of steaming hot water and dangling tea bags. Per her request, Athena’s tea was plain, while he had sweetened his with two packets of sugar. He handed Athena her tea, sat down and blew a few cooling breaths over his cup.
“Thank you,” said Athena. “I love coffee and tea. In the old days we drank mostly nectar. We get that in capsule form now. It gives a better kick that way, but it’s not the same.”
“You say ‘we.’ Does that mean there are others besides you?” Phidias was aching to know.
“Oh yes. We’re all still around, scattered over the world, but we keep in touch. Papa’s secretary Hebe sends out an email newsletter to each of us every month. We have a Facebook page, too. Hey, you know what? You look a lot like Papa.”
“Zeus? Are you telling me I look like Zeus?” Phidias was surprised and pleased.
“Yes. It’s your eyes and the shape of your nose. If you had a beard, you would look just like him. You won’t see him, though. He is very busy. He lives in London and owns three airlines, a company that makes rocket ships and missiles and another that makes raincoats and other outdoor clothing. Maybe you have heard of his big umbrella company: DHH Consolidated Ltd.”
Phidias jerked upright in his chair, spilling a few drops of tea on the desk. “Zeus Nemeios? The CEO and chief stockholder of DHH is the Zeus? His American branch is one of our school’s big corporate donors! I thought he was just some Greek guy named Zeus living in England who got lucky!”
“Well, he is a Greek guy living in England who has magical powers and a very long lifespan. He’s been living in England so long he has become more British than the British. I am very happy that he has a huge diversified company to keep him occupied, because it keeps him from interfering in MY life, which he loves to do. All that money keeps my stepmother Hera happy, too, and out of my hair. Believe me, I am thrilled to have that bitch out of sight!”
The conversation was heading into areas that Phidias was not comfortable prying into at that moment. He was trying to think of a tactful way to steer it in another direction, when he was rescued by another knock at the door.
“Excuse me,” he said to his guest. ‘Come in,” he shouted at the door.
Tyrone opened the door a crack and poked his head inside.
“I finished the filing, Professor. You have something else for me?”
“Yes, Tyrone. I want you to make some travel arrangements for me.” Phidias searched among the papers on his desk until he found the one he wanted. “Here. Here are the details.” He held out the paper in Tyrone’s direction.
Tyrone wove his way over to the desk, where he saw Athena for the first time. He stopped and looked at her for a few seconds. His face broke into a wide smile and he said, “Well, hello. My name is Tyrone. If I can do anything for you, just say it.”
Phidias grinned and said, “This is Tyrone James, my work-study assistant. I believe he has something to do right now. Tyrone, this is …”
“Athena Poliukhos,” said Athena, smiling. “I am happy to meet you, Tyrone.”
“Athena is helping me with my new book,” said Phidias. “She’s an expert on ancient Greek mythology.”
“It’s nice to meet a woman so accomplished,” said Tyrone.
“Tyrone, take these instructions and get out of here.” Phidias was giggling by now.
“Right, Professor,” said Tyrone, as he took the piece of paper and began to leave the office. “I’m going.” Athena’s eyes followed him as he zigzagged his way toward the door.
Tyrone was halfway out of the room when he suddenly remembered something.
“By the way, Professor Alassio wants to see you. She said she wants to know if you have thought of anything yet. You were in here with the door closed, so I just took the message and told her I’d tell you.”
“Okay. Thanks, Tyrone. I’ll go over there in a moment.”
“What is it?” asked Athena when Tyrone had gone out and closed the door.
“Somebody has been stealing artifacts from our collection of antiquities. So far three items have gone missing, and the whole department is in an uproar.”
“I guess if you wait long enough all of your old junk will become collectible.” Athena leaned back in the chair and laughed. “I should have kept some of those old things. I could get a lot of money for them now!”
Phidias couldn’t help smiling. “Well, you see, they teach us things about how people lived back then. It gives us a feeling of connection.”
“It’s nice to be connected,” said Athena. “That’s why I read all those damned email newsletters that Hebe writes.”
“Your father’s secretary?” said Phidias.
“Yes. She used to be our cupbearer. Now she fetches coffee and tea for Papa, sends out his Christmas cards every year, runs interference between him and the public and runs all his personal errands. Whenever he feels like interfering in my life, Papa has her call me.”
Phidias put the papers he had been grading into a folder and said, “Well, I’d better get over to Professor Alassio and see what she wants. Please excuse me. If you’d like to stay, I’ll be back shortly.”
“May I come, too?” said Athena. “Maybe I can help.”
“Certainly,” said Phidias. “I might as well warn you, though. Graziella tends to speak her mind and she can be pretty formidable.”
“So am I. Let’s go.”
… more to come