Thursday, November 5, 2015

Chapter Four

Harold’s suggestion that there might be someone out there that knew the key to decoding Thomas Smith’s codes was an interesting one.  Alex figured a person like that would just be looking for the final pieces of the puzzle he, or she, was trying to solve. 
Unless they were just a collector trying to get the complete set of Thomas Smith memorabilia. 
Really, Alex realized, Harold’s suggestion hadn’t made picking a place to start searching for information any easier at all.  He suspected figuring out where to start might be the toughest part of this assignment.
It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Alex was sitting at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee, the folder Mr. Darcy had given him, and a notepad.  He was wearing a pair of brown wool slacks, a hockey jersey, and mis-matched ankle socks.  It was not the outfit Harold had laid out for him, which is exactly why he was wearing it.
He had been slightly disappointed when Harold had simply given him a cup of coffee and said good morning without giving the slightest hint that he had even noticed Alex wasn’t wearing what he’d put out for him.
It was extra annoying that, since Harold wouldn’t even react to how he was dressed, Alex was going to have to change into something less embarrassing before leaving the house.  It’s no fun to mess with someone who won’t even be good enough to acknowledge that they’re being messed with.  Embarrassing himself in public would only be worth it if it bothered Harold too.
On his notepad, he had a brief summary of the people who might have the disks.  This list read, “Occultists, historians, collectors.”
It wasn’t much of a list.
At this point, Alex figured he might as well just dive in somewhere and see where he ended up.  He figured his best shot would be starting with the historians, simply because they were the most likely to have their own, real, names associated with Thomas Smith as a subject.  From there he could make a list of contact info and just start calling people.  Coming up with a list of the people trying to carry on Thomas’s work was going to be tricky, and figuring out who might collect that kind of thing would be even trickier.
He hoped talking to the historians would get him some quick results. Trying to track these people down seemed like it would involve spending a lot of time on the internet otherwise, which sounded terribly boring.
After a few minutes of searching, Alex was very pleased when he discovered that one of the first academics whose name was affiliated with Thomas Smith also happened to teach at the University of Minnesota.  That was practically just down the street!
A quick phone call was all it took to find Dr. Jacqueline Porter’s office hours.  It looked like she was going to be in her office all afternoon that day, in fact.  Alex decided a field trip was in order.
“Have you made any breakthroughs, Mr. Minor?” Harold said.  He was standing just behind Alex’s shoulder.
Alex jumped, and nearly spilled his coffee.
“Dang it, Harold,” Alex said before he knew it.  He composed himself, then said, “Yes, I think so.  There’s a professor who has mentioned him in some of her papers at the U of M.  I was thinking I’d go talk to her this afternoon and see if she can give me any guidance.”
“That’s fantastic, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.  “I think I’ll come with you.”
“What? No!” Alex said. “Um, I mean, you don’t have to do that, Harold.  I don’t think a professor of history is going to give me too much trouble.”
“It’s no trouble, and I’d like to hear what she has to say for myself.  Call it an interest in family history,” Harold said.
Alex sighed, resigned, and said, “Sure, sure. I was thinking we’d leave here just after lunch, right around one o’clock.  That should give us plenty of time.”
Harold glanced at his watch.  “It’s eleven thirty now.  I’ll get to work on making some lunch for you.”
“You really don’t have to do that,” Alex said, and trailed off.  Harold had already started pulling things out of cabinets, and had turned on the stove.
“It’s no trouble, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
 “I’ll just go change into something more presentable,” Alex said.
The two of them hadn’t had too much trouble finding Dr. Porter’s office.  Alex had felt slightly ridiculous walking past all of the college kids ten years his junior, being closely trailed by a serious looking, and silent, giant in a sober grey suit.  Plus, having Harold there was making it hard to flirt with the coeds.  Butlers didn’t make good wingmen, in Alex’s opinion.
Dr. Porter’s door was closed.  Alex checked his watch, and noted that her scheduled office hours had started forty five minutes ago.  He knocked on the door.
There was no reply.
There were, however, two chairs right next to her door.  Alex shrugged and took a seat.
“Perhaps we should have made an appointment,” Harold said.
“What fun would that be?” Alex asked in reply.
“Indeed,” Harold said.  He sat down next to Alex.
They sat in silence for several minutes, until Alex couldn’t stand the quiet any more.
“So, Harold, how is it that you started working for Mr. Darcy, anyway?” Alex said.
Harold arched an eyebrow at him, and said, “Much like you, I’m sure, Mr. Darcy felt my skills were indispensable to his organization and made me an offer, Mr. Minor.  How did you come to work for him?”
Well there was a non-answer if there ever was one, Alex thought.  Sometimes he wondered if he’d missed the Evasive Answer seminar the rest of his co-workers had all apparently been a part of.
“I work for him because I was terrible at pretty much everything else, and eventually he found me,” Alex said.
“How interesting, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
“You know, I really wish you’d call me Alex,” Alex said.  “It’s OK with me if you do.”
“Old habits die hard, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
Alex was trying to come up with a suitably smart reply, when the Dr. Porter’s office door opened.  A woman who looked like she was in her twenties came out of the office.  She was wearing sandals, tan shorts, and a grey t-shirt.  She seemed surprised to see Alex and Harold.
“Dr. Porter?” Alex asked.  She sure didn’t look like a professor to him, but he figured it was better to assume she was, rather than the other way around.
“Uh, no, I’m her assistant,” she said. “Do you have an appointment to see her?”
“No,” Alex said. “Do we need one?  I thought it’d be OK if we just stopped by.”
“Well, you don’t need one, but,” she began saying, and trailed off.  “Hang on.”
She stepped back in to the office, and Alex heard her say, “Dr. Porter, there’s some guy and his vampire friend out here to see you.”
Alex snickered.
She came back out of Dr. Porter’s office. 
“She’s free, you can go in,” she said.  She then walked across the narrow hallway, opened the door to another office and went inside, leaving the door open behind her.
Alex and Harold stood up, and walked in to Dr. Porter’s office.
Dr. Porter was seated at her desk, which faced out a large window.  She spun around in her chair to face the two of them.  She looked puzzled.
“Are you students here?  How can I help you?” Dr. Porter said.  She had light brown hair that didn’t quite reach her shoulders, and glasses with chunky frames.
“No, we’re not students,” Alex said.  “My name is Alex Minor and this is, uh…”
Harold bowed slightly, and said “Harold Derby. I’m pleased to meet  you, Dr. Porter.”
Dr. Porter still looked confused.  “Yes, well, it’s nice to meet you both, but what can I do for you?”
“We were hoping you might be able to give us some guidance,” Harold said.
“Well, I can try. Fire away,” Dr. Porter said.  She leaned back in her chair and looked expectantly at both of them.
“We’re trying to track down some historical artifacts that were stolen from a museum in London,” Alex began.  Dr. Porter interrupted him.
“Why would I know anything about a theft in London?” She said.  “What was stolen?”
“Well, we were hoping you might just be able to get us pointed in the direction.  The reason we came to you was that you have some expertise in the subject.  What was stolen were three wax disks, two smaller ones, and a large one, as well as one gold disk.  They were recently uncovered, and are believed to be from the estate of Thomas Smith,” Alex said.
Dr. Porter looked at him, without replying.
Alex continued, “I saw that you’ve done some research on Thomas Smith, and I thought you might have some ideas about who else might be interested enough in Thomas Smith, or in his work, that they’d resort to stealing these disks.”
“So, what, because I wrote a paper with a  bit about Thomas Smith in it,  you think I’d know about every kook out there who might want to get their hands on his stuff?  Do you think I stole this stuff?  Is that why you’re here?” she said.
“What? No. Well, we were hoping you might have some ideas,” Alex said.
   “Well, I don’t.  Because Thomas Smith is not all that interesting to me.  I think he was an eccentric Englishman who was pretty good at math and thought he was talking to angels.  But somehow now everyone thinks I’m a huge fan of his because I included him in a paper about how alchemy and chemistry became separate disciplines.  I’ve got some nut bothering me almost every month about the alchemists and whether or not I think any of them actually figured out a way to turn lead into gold.  If I could go back in time and not write about Thomas Smith, I would.  So, do I have any idea which of these nuts might have wanted to steal his crap? No!  Now get out of here and quit wasting my time.”
Alex had not been expecting Dr. Porter to react like that.  It took him a second to gather his thoughts and figure out how to respond.  Once he was composed again, he stood up and said, “OK, I’m sorry to bother you.  No offense was intended.  I hope you have a good day.”
With that, he and Harold quickly left Dr. Porter’s office.
“Wow, she kind of went from zero to one hundred in no time flat, didn’t she?” Alex said to Harold as they walked down the hallway.  The current class session had apparently just ended so the halls were full of student hurrying to their next class.
“It certainly was a strong reaction,” Harold said.
“I guess we’ll have to try finding someone else to help us out.  Hopefully we’ll have better luck next time,” Alex said.
He wondered if maybe it would have been better to just call rather than dropping in unannounced.
Just behind them, Alex heard someone say, “Psst.  Hey, you two.”
He turned and was surprised to see Dr. Porter’s assistant hurrying to keep up with them.  Alex stopped and let her catch up.
“I overheard a bit of your conversation with Dr. Porter.  You guys want to know about Thomas Smith?” she said.
“Yes, we do,” Alex said.  “Do you know anything about him?”
She didn’t answer, instead opening her notebook and writing something down.  She tore out the sheet of paper she’d been writing on and handed it to Alex. 
“I can’t talk about him now, it’ll drive Dr. Porter nuts.   Here’s how you can get ahold of me.  Call in the evening and we can chat,” she said.

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