Stone sat on the edge of his bed and stared down at the box. He had not yet opened it, although the flaps had been slit and there was nothing preventing him from pulling it open and examining what was inside.
Nothing, that was, except his own guilty conscience.
One more time he stared down at the box. It was his last chance: either he turned it over to the police now or else he would have to admit that he had tampered with it later. Tampering with evidence was a serious crime, especially when it was evidence involved in a murder. Touching it might cause him to be considered a suspect. He knew that was absurd and that the police would come to that conclusion as well, but it would take time--time he didn't have. He was due back in Seattle in two weeks.
"Oh, bugger," Stone muttered under his breath, and opened the box.
The contents, he could see immediately, were Toby's usual untidy mish-mosh of eclectic items. The dwarf had never been known for his tidiness, and this trait apparently extended to his storage methods. Stone carefully removed the top layer of yellowed newsprint and put it on the bed, followed by a rolled-up sweatshirt bearing the logo of Harvard University, two chipped beer glasses from London pubs, and a stack of old-fashioned paper magazines dating back to 2022.
He felt the object of his search before he actually saw it. Reaching in to remove the stack of magazines, his hand brushed something below them. He stopped, stiffening, and yanked his hand back out of the box.
Something had tingled in there.
Shifting position on the bed, he carefully grabbed the magazines by their corners and lifted them out, just as carefully setting them down next to him. "What have we here?" he murmured to himself as the object below them was revealed.
It was an unassuming-looking thing, though it did appear to be quite old. About two thirds of a meter long and made of some kind of very dark, very hard wood, it looked to be a staff of the type used by ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Stone had seen similar staves at the British Museum in London, in their Egyptian collection (or at least the part of it they still had after returning most of it to the Egyptians in the early part of the century). This particular specimen, however, looked like it had seen far better days. Although it appeared to have some sort of symbols or text etched into its surface, it was nearly impossible to make out the characters due to the great incrustation of dirt and grime that had accumulated around the staff.
"This is certainly an ugly thing," Stone said, still talking to himself. "I wonder why anyone would want it? Let's have a look, shall we?" Using a levitation spell to remove the staff from the box (he wasn't sure yet that he wanted to touch it until he had discerned more about its nature, especially since it was obviously at least somewhat magical), he placed it carefully in the center of the bed and dumped everything else back in the box. That done, he settled back in a chair next to the bed and stretched out his senses to the astral plane.
What he found puzzled him more than he expected. Although he did not spend a great deal of time examining the staff (there would be time for that later) he noted that it did possess a faint magical glow--the sort of glow that might be possessed by a minor magical item of the level of a fetish or spell lock. But more than that--and this was the part that puzzled him--something about its aura seemed to suggest great age. Certainly greater age than would be explained by the relatively few years during which magic had been possible. Had someone enchanted an ancient object with some kind of low-grade enchantment? And if so, why couldn't he determine the nature of that enchantment? To someone with any magical training at all, this sort of thing at such a low level should have been obvious. Is it masking something? he wondered.
Stone shifted back from the astral and sighed, running his hand through his hair in frustration. This was obviously going to take some more study. But more study meant more possibility that he could be implicated in the murder--the longer he held on to the staff, the more chance there was that someone at the police department would discover that he was holding out on them. He sighed again. "Toby, my friend, I wish for both our sakes that you were still alive. You're causing me more trouble dead than you ever did when you were still with us."
Stone's head snapped up. "Maya?" How did she get in here? he wondered, but then smiled a bit. Maya had access to the entire house, in ways he wasn't even sure he wanted to understand. Casting his communication spell, he looked around for her.
She wasn't hard to find. Coming out from under the bed, she jumped into his lap and nuzzled him under the chin. "Where gone?"
"I've been off--visiting a friend," he said, stroking her fur. "He was--killed last night."
"Oh," she said noncommittally. Maya often didn't care about much that didn't directly affect her--just like a cat. She leaped out of his arms and onto the bed, immediately noticing the staff that lay there. "What's that?"
"Don't know yet. I'm still trying to figure it out. I think it's very old, though."
She sniffed delicately around it, then turned back to Stone and wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Smells bad."
"Yes, I can imagine it does," he agreed. "It's quite dirty. I guess Toby never bothered to clean it up before he stored it away."
"Dirt smells like dirt," she said. "Thing smells bad."
Stone stared at her as he suddenly realized what she meant. Maya was a dual being--she saw the astral plane as easily as someone like him saw the material plane. If one could get around her strange way of describing the things she saw (or "smelled," as she often referred to it), one could often get some extremely valuable insights from her. "What do you mean, Maya? How does it smell 'bad'?"
She had already moved away from it. "Don't know. Very bad. Won't touch."
Hmm, Stone thought. Curiouser and curiouser. I would give quite a lot to find out just how Toby managed to acquire this particular artifact, but I guess that isn't going to happen. He looked at Maya, then back at the staff. It was an innocuous-looking thing; quite ugly, really--but ugliness had hidden great power before.
He stood, making a decision. He would have to take it up to the University for further study. He wasn't about to turn it over to the police--especially now that it was potentially dangerous--without a little more research into its nature and its powers, if any. And he would have to do it soon. Someone had already tried to steal it once. He didn't know if they would try it again. Rising, he nodded to Maya. "Have to go for awhile," he said. "Don't tell anyone about the staff, all right?"
"Who would ask?" She sat primly on the edge of the bed and watched him with her big green eyes.
"Good point," he muttered.
Two hours later found him at the campus of London University. Aubrey had not been pleased that he had elected to miss lunch, but had reluctantly told him to be careful. When the old man had returned to the kitchen, Stone had surreptitiously levitated the box marked "Junk"--minus one item--back into the room where he had found it, and replaced the strapping tape over the flaps. It wouldn't fool a close examination, but then, nobody would know that the dwarf hadn't taped it twice, and most likely nobody would suspect Stone.
No one even looked twice at him as he strode across the parking lot carrying what looked like a large gym bag. He didn't often use the health-club facilities at the University, but he did so enough that the sight of him with a gym bag wasn't enough to raise any eyebrows. If anyone noticed that he took a detour toward the Thaumaturgy building, they didn't comment.
His examinations, conducted in a shielded laboratory behind a locked door, took several hours of exhausting work, and when he was done he didn't know much more about the item than he had when he started. The things he was able to figure out, though, both excited and frightened him. Magical analysis wasn't his specialty; he was sure that if he got Garrow or M'bule into the act they would find out far more than he had, but he wasn't willing to take the chance of involving others. Not yet. What he'd found out was enough.
The thing was older than he'd even suspected. When he had begun his analysis, he had thought that he might find some connection with ancient Egypt--they didn't have magic per se back then, but there were isolated incidents in high-mana areas, and this thing might be connected with one--or perhaps something from the time of the ancient Greeks or Romans, both of whom were also known to employ implements such as this. But when the results of his tests came back, his eyes had widened: this thing, whatever it was, very likely dated back to the last age of magic. He couldn't be sure, not without a lot more study that would require a lot more equipment and magical firepower, but he was willing to stake his professional reputation on the fact that this staff was Fourth World in origin.
The only other thing he had been able to learn conclusively was that the object's power was both heavily shielded from prying eyes and connected somehow with control or influence. He wasn't sure if that meant control over the wielder or if the staff conferred powers of control on the wielder, and he wasn't about to pick it up and find out. He was curious, but he was also well schooled in the dangers of not giving magic its proper respect. Especially magic this old and unidentified.
He sighed, settling back on the lab stool. He'd long since taken off his jacket, loosened his tie, and turned on every fan in the room, but it was still oppressively hot in here. What am I going to do with this thing now? he thought. Giving it to the police was now out of the question. They wouldn't know what they had, and would probably toss it in some evidence locker somewhere, never to be seen again. This thing demanded to be studied. He wanted to unlock its secrets before he returned it to its rightful owner-- whoever that was, now that Toby was gone. Someone had been willing to kill the dwarf to get it, so there must be something to it that was worth killing for. He had to find out what that something was.
A small smile quirked the corners of his mouth as the beginnings of a plan began to form in his mind. Magically gathering up the staff from the bench, he returned it to its spot at the bottom of his gym bag and covered it up with shorts, sweatshirt, and socks. Then he set off back toward his car.
Shortly after Stone returned home, Aubrey knocked on the door to the study. "Sir? There's an Inspector Perelli here to see you."
All right, Stone thought. This is it. Act natural. "Send him in, Aubrey."
Perelli looked much the same way he had this morning, only more rumpled. He was sweating, his shirtsleeves rolled up. Stone didn't think it was from the weather, since it was rather cold and overcast outside. "Dr. Stone."
Stone rose. "Inspector. What can I do for you?"
The Inspector didn't waste any time with small talk. "If you don't mind, Doctor, we'd like to take the items that Dr. Ryland left with you. We're hoping to find some clue as to why your house was broken into, and what the thieves might have been looking for."
"Of course, Inspector. I hope you've brought some husky officers to cart it all off--there's quite a lot of it. Follow me, please."
Stone led the Inspector to the two rooms where Toby's things were stored. "All this?" the man asked, eyes widening.
Stone nodded. "Afraid so."
"You haven't disturbed any of it, have you?"
"It's all been right here all along," Stone lied easily. He glanced at the pile containing the "Junk" box--it had once more been retaped, and it, like many of the others in the pile, contained a number of his fingerprints and DNA traces. He knew he wouldn't be able to completely obliterate the fact that he had touched the Junk box, so he had hidden it in plain sight by touching several of the others. He hoped that the "staff"--actually a much more recent one that he had bought with cash in a lore shop deep in one of the seedier neighborhoods in London--would fool anybody who cared to look. He doubted that anyone would find it at all remarkable, since he was the only one who knew that a staff was what the thieves were seeking.
He stood there and watched--even offered to help--as Perelli summoned two burly officers with hand trucks and they carted off the two rooms-ful of crates and boxes. As he watched them, he was overcome once more by twinges of grief and guilt: grief as the finality of the loss of his friend hit him again, and guilt as he wondered if he was doing the right thing. I hope so, Toby, he thought as the last box was rolled out. I don't want to see you die in vain. I'll figure this out for you--I promise.
Perelli lingered as the officers drove off in their big truck. "There's really no need for you to stay 'round, Dr. Stone," he said. "Just make sure we can reach you if we need you, all right?"
Stone nodded. "Of course, Inspector. As I said before, you can always reach me through Aubrey."
"All right, then. I think we're done here. I'll be in touch." The Inspector nodded, turned, and headed off, closing the big front door behind him.
Stone waited a few moments, watching Perelli walk down the crunching gravel driveway toward his car. "Aubrey?"
"Can you arrange me a ticket to Seattle, please? I think I'll be needing to leave as soon as possible."