I had found her in a dream when my world was young, and lost her in the passage of time. Or so I remember--I confess I had replaced the emptiness with a myriad of worldly distractions. But, I had never forgotten…
The detective agency was my latest enterprise. Well-connected, staffed with the brightest and most diligent, ostensibly a success. But, the search for Her--my most precious endeavor--remained a taunting, abysmal failure.
The newest client, Curator of the Art Museum, swept into my office. His eyes promptly fell on my few souvenirs, and his mouth dropped. “Are those real?” he stammered. “Caananite…Phoenician… So perfect…” He regained his professional composure. “The examples are extraordinary.”
With stylish eye-glasses, fashionable suit, he fit the image of a major museum contributor rather than a mere employee.
Rooted in place, he peered toward the shelves. “That is Astarte…this one is Ishtar…there's the Great Goddess…”
I pointed to a particular figurine. “The one called 'Ashtoreth' is special to me. Patroness of all things female--fertility…wisdom…and the art of war.” Unsummoned came the memory of the irrepressible joy She had brought me. Was it She who had left? I vaguely remembered her sacrifice for a Greater Good, the rush of forgotten events, and my inevitable despair.
He stepped nearer my memory pieces. “You wouldn’t consider--?”
I tried a gentle tone and a charming smile. “Neither for loan or sale.”
“I understand.” His response conveyed the sincerity of another who treasures the rare and beautiful.
He adjusted his shirt cuffs, settling into his business persona. “We have an odd situation. The Board directed me to you.”
I motioned him to an original Art Deco chair. He seated himself appreciatively.
“It’s about the newest Exhibition.”
I sensed his expectations, so I opened a portfolio, readied a pen, and pretended to take notes.
“We call it 'Women of Power'--queens of Egypt, prehistoric fertility symbols, goddess images throughout history--similar motifs.”
“I've seen the advertising. Supposed to be very popular.”
He made a small nod. “It has aroused considerable interested, which translates into funding.” He took a deep breath. “However, somebody is tampering with the artifacts--knocking them over--nightly.”
“Don't you have alarms, video cameras and such?”
The curator adjusted his shirt cuffs again. “Other exhibits--the Monets, the Van Goghs--have extensive security.”
“But not the 'Women of Power'?”
The curator lowered his voice. “The objects are all replicas--not an original among them.”
I leaned forward confidentially, my elbows resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright desk. “Fakes?”
“Not fakes, museum quality replicas--we couldn't fund the exhibit otherwise.”
I sat back, gazing at the ceiling, remembering my last visit to the Art Museum. “You still have video cameras covering every gallery?”
My phone buzzed. My staff had been informed that only one interruption was permissible. My heart pounded with anticipation, as if this time… I answered, feigning nonchalance.
“We saw Her in Las Vegas,” reported my operative.
It was a struggle to suppress a victory yell, and even more difficult to maintain the calm façade.
Over the years Her pattern had been established, much like the phases of the moon. It was only fitting I be the pursuer, for it was I who had inconstant. “Good work. You just earned a five percent bonus.”
I hung up. The curator had left his seat, drawn to my ancient images of The Goddess. Noticing I had finished the phone conversation, he dragged himself back to the chair.
I ended our meeting quickly. “I'll call for a time to visit. And get me those video tapes.”
Calling back my operative, I struggled to place the sighting into perspective, balancing this spark of hope against my dark universe of failures.
* * *
“Ashley Roth,” she said, in a voice husky from shouting orders or too many cigarettes. “Security Director.” We shook hands, her grip stronger than mine. All in all, she reminded me of a female wrestler poured into a security uniform. Her grey hair was too short for a woman, and a scar peeked from beneath her hairline.
I mumbled something in response. “I'm also in charge of video surveillance. I pulled all the tapes since ‘Pretty Boy’ set up the exhibit.” She smiled--discomforting because it was warm and soft, and not fitting with the rest of her. “Don’t tell the Curator I called him that.”
“I have a selective memory,” I responded. “Let’s see the gallery.”
She attempted to engage me in meaningful conversation a couple times, and eventually gave up. We passed chaotic colors on canvas she called paintings, and grotesque things labeled as sculpture. I followed to an entrance decorated by a banner announcing “Women of Power” with the sub-title “Female Authority Figures and Their Influence on History.” I laughed aloud—-They couldn’t grasp how right they were.
Roth turned, trying another smile. “It’s a little overboard, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, and went inside.
The exhibits were in the middle of the room, so they could be viewed from both sides. I easily spotted the cameras high on the corner walls, focused on the entrance and exit. Grills for heating and air conditioning ran down the center of the ceiling.
Roth had planted herself in front of the Egyptian figurines, the largest a golden Isis, wings spread protecting her children. “I love these. Each one shows in a different way what makes up a woman.”
Egyptians. Never happy unless everything was too subtle or complicated to understand—-even death.
“You can see the protector, the nurturer in her,” pressed Roth.
“Uh-huh.” I paced around the exhibit, eyes first examining the marble floor, then the mock-granite pedestals of assorted heights, and the plexi-glass cases holding the items. The floor had been worn away by generations of museum goers, both sides sloping millimeters toward the center.
A cat bounded past my legs, skidding to a halt at Roth’s feet. “Ishtar!” The feline circled, rubbing against her legs, mewing softly. Bending down, she scratched behind its ears, eliciting a long throaty purr from the creature.
“A cat in the museum?” I asked.
Roth stood up. “We have a few. It’s a big secret, but we had mice eating the art. The cats solved the problem. I’ve named them after Goddesses. We have Set, Diana, Athena—”
“Are they loose all the time?”
Roth gave Ishtar a final scratch. “Go back,” she commanded, and the cat promptly padded away. “They stay in the administrative offices during the day. We let them out at night.”
“You have a way with cats,” I observed.
She shrugged her broad shoulders. “Us girls understand each other.”
As usual with worldly riddles, the answer came to me as if I had known all along. The sloping floor, the flimsy pedestals, current of warm air coming from above, the cats…
I spent several minutes pretending to study the room, the neighboring galleries, doing my best to impress a thorough investigation on Roth. The Las Vegas sighting of Ashtoreth kept popping in mind, distracting me with fragments of lost moments…
“Finished?” asked Roth. “I’ll get the videos.” She turned, for a flash, it was a ballerina's pirouette. “It’s almost lunch. Want to get together and discuss the case? I’ll buy.”
“No thanks. Just give me the videos.” I couldn’t stay any longer, not when my She was so close. I imagined again luxuriating in Her tresses, drowning in the touch of her lips, the euphoria of being woven like separate threads into the same tapestry…
* * *
I would deliver my conclusions tomorrow—the report was already written: The cat jumps onto the display cases to nap in the warm draft from heating grill. The pedestals rest on an uneven floor. The heat-seeking feline’s landing and departure shakes the replicas and topples those more delicately balanced.
The lead from Las Vegas had gone cold--my operative couldn't help. Ashteroth was subtle beyond men. I paid his bonus anyway.
I chose to wallow in melancholy, drinking iced bourbon and staring into the nothing of my darkened office. Moved by boredom, I inserted one of the museum videos and started the tape. I sped through, the scene unchanging…
My droopy eyelids flew wide-open. Ashtoreth, wearing Roth's security uniform, stepped into the gallery. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't move--terrified to draw the obvious conclusion. The video-player blinked off.
“You learn in such baby-steps,” She scolded. I looked over my shoulder toward the voice. Ashtoreth glistened in the office darkness, the aura of Her power, wisdom, and sexuality enveloping me.
I babbled. “I waited...I thought you had...”
She shook her head sadly.
“You are blinded by what you see. It is so simple, yet you confuse yourself.”
“Another chance,” I stammered. “I’ve tried…all this time…”
She reached out to me. “I have never been loved as you love me. But you fail me again and again...”
I rose, stretching out my hand, my fingertips a hairs-breadth from hers. “Another chance?”
“Always.” Then She was gone.
Like his favorite author, Chris Bauer started writing midlife as an unemployed oil company executive. In the last two years, he has had thirteen pieces published in quality markets like Twilight Times. Chris also discovered he's really a fantasy writer half his age.
Published by permission of the author.