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Collecting the Constellations
I retraced the same paths and listings in the museum’s digitized archives until regular office hours commenced, and I could hear the footsteps and voices of my colleagues drift through the marble hallways. The sister knife, the emerald knife missing its hilt, lay plainly in a poorly lit photo on my screen. Even to me, the blade looked like a boring triangle of stone, completely common. No wonder it was lost in the alcoves. It would probably never resurface in my lifetime.
I put my elbows on my desk and covered my eyes. “Think,” I said out loud to myself. “Maybe it’s in a different part of the archives. Someone didn’t recognize it as a knife? It was misfiled?”
“What on earth could be misfiled here, Ms. Daly?” A smooth voice chimed out and echoed through the lofty room.
My head shot back with lightning speed, my arms involuntarily folded against my chest.
A short, muscular man stood in the doorway with a shining grin on his face. Greying at the temples, he wore a fitted polo shirt and tailored black slacks. His silver watch glinted in the sunlight.
“Glad to see you back, Christopher,” I said. “Did you have a good vacation?” I tried to keep my voice flat, but I worried the question came out as a sneer.
“Oh, you know me. Even traveling for fun turns into work.” He forced a laugh and his eyes scanned the room, a bit dismayed to see he was performing for an audience of only one.
I didn’t make the slightest peep of acknowledgement, but braced myself for the voice to continue.
“I was on this tiny little island off the coast of Mexico for a week just trying to enjoy the beach, but my friend decided he wanted to take a hike through the jungle to look at some Aztec ruins.” Christopher Reed was always delighted when he could goad someone into hearing a story. He was the type of man who could, and did, brag about a trip to the grocery store, as if he had discovered a magical, far-off land that grew packaged spaghetti and frozen green beans, ripe for his taking.
I stared at the space between his eyes. He was technically third in command of my department, but everyone in the museum tried desperately to avoid getting caught in the monologues Christopher considered friendly conversation.
His blue eyes were deep set, but bright against his skin. A hint of greying stubble graced his cheeks and chin, and his face was made classically handsome and distinguished by light age lines and a handful of scars– one near his left eye, and another just below his lower lip. He’d gotten them both, he said, after slipping on wet rocks at some tucked-away ruins in the Philippines when he was fresh out of grad school.
“Harvard,” he always added with a wink.
“…And then I spent the rest of the weekend poring over the temple paintings while my friends were windsurfing. Isn’t that always the way?”
I heard the up-shift in Christopher’s voice at the end of his sentence, and knew it was finally my turn to respond.
“Always, always!” I said brightly.
“I heard you went on a little trip as well?” Christopher was digging but I had to tell the truth.
“Oh, you know. No place as exotic as you. There was some construction I had to oversee at the ranch.” I glossed over as many small details as I could. Any chatter beyond the bare minimum wasn’t worth Christopher’s resulting interrogation.
When I first started at the museum, I was an excited, enthusiastic researcher, fresh out of school. I’d spoken candidly of my family and trips I’d taken as a child, and never thought to hide my knowledge of the world around me. I always assumed enthusiasm and intelligence were the main characteristics that would get me ahead at the museum, but now I regretted the fact Christopher knew so much about my background, my family, and my life, and he threw those details into everyday conversation as a way to prove how close he was to me.
Christopher walked toward me, and propped himself up on one of the empty desks in the room. Putting his feet up on the chair, he leaned back with his hands on the desk, casually swinging his knees wide. He was nearly lying down in front of me, showing off his flat stomach and letting his biceps flex. I’d never noticed it before, but he had ink on his upper arm– a tattoo peeked out from his shirtsleeve, the handle of a saber and the stinger of a scorpion barely visible.
Trying not to laugh or raise my eyebrows at such pretension, preening, and tacky body art, I nearly lost my composure as Rory came into the room, mouth agape. My closest friend at the museum, Rory had immediately drawn the ire of Christopher, just by being a tall and broad-shouldered guy with a nice head of auburn hair, with lean muscle, a chiseled jaw, and good looks that fell right in line with his somewhat moneyed upbringing. I was pretty used to, by now, the way other women at the museum touched his arm when they caught up on weekend activities with him on Monday mornings, or how they twirled their hair when he told stories. If he noticed, he didn’t let on, and Rory always mirrored my own work-self and never toed the line of casualness Christopher broke daily with his muscle-conscious shirts and fitted pants. Today, Rory was unassuming in a neatly pressed, black gingham check shirt tucked into light grey chinos, and loafers. He quietly placed his own worn, leather satchel on his office chair behind Christopher, and held my eye contact.
Christopher, none the wiser to Rory’s entrance, continued to dig into my trip.
“I so regret never having met your aunt when she was alive,” Christopher said.
“She was my great-aunt,” I corrected, “And really, she was remarkable. The stories don’t do her justice.”
Christopher sat up from his reclining position, and put his elbows on his still-spread knees. He leaned forward, as close as he could to my face, and sighed. He smelled like coffee and expensive cologne.
“I know her passing was a while ago, but you two were so close,” Christopher murmured. He reached a hand toward my shoulder, but I casually swung my desk chair so his palm only touched open air.
Hidden directly behind Christopher’s back, Rory’s face furrowed into a mask of mock sympathy. He balled his fists and brought them to his chest, like a middle school actress feigning distress. The back of his hand went to his forehead, clenched, and soon he was pantomiming a weep so dramatic I had to bite my tongue to keep from smiling and giving us both away.
My eyes widened as I registered Christopher’s disappointment in not being able to touch me. His weight shifted, and he began to climb off the desk. I cleared my throat to break Rory’s theatrics.
“We were close, it’s true, but I know she had a great, long life,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Well, if you need anything at all!” Christopher cheerily jumped off the desk, and turned around. “Oh. Mr. Hobbs. Good to see you.”
Christopher offered a curt wave, and Rory responded in kind.
“‘Morning, Christopher. I hope you had a great vacation.” Rory turned his back on his boss, and sat down at his desk, leaving the older man to stride out of the room without opportunity to explain his accidental finds.
As soon as the office door clicked shut, Rory and I spun quickly around in our chairs to face each other.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” I said. “One day, I’m just going to lose it and we’ll both be fired.”
“You’ll never be let go,” Rory said. “Did you see how he was laying across the desk? It’s like he wanted you to scratch his belly. Like a cat.”
“I would rather…” I murmured, and paused. My eyes locked with Rory’s, and his jaw clenched. Though it only lasted a second, the silence in the room was noticeable and my heart jumped a little bit as I registered– hope?– in Rory’s eyes. “Oh. Ugh. I would rather die.”
A gloss of disappointment registered in Rory’s face as he released the tension in his jaw and turned away from me. “You better be careful with whatever you leave on your screen when he’s in here,” he said.
I turned back to my computer to see the emerald blade, in all of its plainness. I sneered again at the terrible picture that made the stone look dull and did nothing to illuminate how or when or why the handle had been snapped from the blade itself. The dossier of information next to the image was incomplete, just stating the obvious the blade was made of emerald and someone from the museum’s past had found it in India more than four decades prior. It looked like absolutely nothing at all.
Spinning back around hoping to get into a lively quarrel about Rory’s accusations, I surveyed my desk to confirm my new sapphire knife was nowhere to be seen. There was no way Christopher or Rory could know what had been occupying my thoughts for the better half of a week, and I didn’t want them to find out quite yet.
Instead of seeing a friendly face, I was staring at the back of Rory’s head, his shoulders square to me. He was not, especially right now, going to participate in a fight, even a playful one.
“I know he’s a slime-ball,” I snapped, “But seriously. We’re hiding work from each other now?”
Rory ignored me, and clacked away at his keyboard.