The midnight hour
Austin Miller loved his comfortable home. Built by his grandfather in 1872, after the ravages of the Great Chicago Fire of October 10, 1871, it had the grace—and even opulence—of the mid-Victorian era. The staircase was carpeted in deep crimson, a shade picked up in the period furniture. Swirling drapes in black and cream adorned the parlor, and the windows were etched glass. He had changed little since his grandfather’s day.
It boasted a true gentleman’s den with bookshelves that lined the walls, filled with wonderful tomes, old and new. It also boasted some of his fabulous collections, the most impressive of which was his collection of Egyptian artifacts. They were legally obtained, since Austin’s grandfather had been on the dig when Tut’s tomb was discovered; he had lived much of his life prowling the sands of the Sahara in pursuit of discoveries. Canopic jars were kept in a temperature-controlled display case, along with funerary statuettes that were gilded and bejeweled. A real sarcophagus—that of a king’s illegitimate son, of little import to Egyptians at the time—stood open in a corner of the room. It had been arranged in a display case of its own, built by his grandfather in the mid-1930s. He’d exhibited his collection of mummified snakes and cats behind glass, as well. On one side of Austin’s beautiful desk was an exquisitely crafted statue of the god Horus, adorned with gold paint and fine jewels. On the other side was a carafe, where he kept his finest brandy and glasses for when the need arose.
Yes, Austin loved his den. He held his most important meetings here, with business associates and with fellow members of the Egyptian Sand Diggers, the Society of Chicago and scholars who loved and appreciated all things Egyptian.
He felt the need for a brandy arise at that moment. Tonight, he was happy. So happy. After more than a century of being at the bottom of Lake Michigan and her shifting sands, the Jerry McGuen might well be on her way to twenty-first-century discovery!
He knew he should go to sleep. His doctor had warned him that he had to rest and that he had to avoid sleeping aids, that he needed to take his heart and blood pressure medications and stick to a healthful regimen. He was, after all, eighty-three years old.
They were on the brink of knowledge. Nothing had hit the papers yet, but come morning, divers and documentarians would, at long last, discover the Jerry McGuen.
And, with the ship, untold treasure.
His cat, Bastet, a beautifully marked Egyptian Mau, also seemed restless that night. Bastet meowed and sidled along his leg.
“Tomorrow, Bastet, tomorrow!” He had changed for bed and wore his pajamas and a smoking robe, although he’d long ago given up the cigars he’d once enjoyed so much.
But a little brandy wasn’t a bad thing.
He poured himself a snifter and rolled the tawny liquor against the sides of the glass, smelled it and finally sipped. He let out a soft sigh. “Tomorrow, Bastet, tomorrow,” he said again.
But the cat leaped atop his desk with a screech that was frightening.
“Bastet!” He frowned. He tried to stroke the cat, but Bastet vaulted from the desk and disappeared behind the standing sarcophagus. What could be bothering the creature? Mrs. Hodgkins, his housekeeper, was long gone for the day.
The massive grandfather clock behind him began to toll the midnight hour.
He swallowed another sip of his brandy.
A cool breeze blew from the patio beyond the den; the curtains wafted.
The clock chimed three times, four, five.
He saw it. Moving in from the patio.
He sat completely still and blinked. He had to be seeing things. But, as if compelled by his vision, he rose, swallowing down the rest of the brandy. He wanted to scream. He couldn’t scream, but somewhere in his mind he knew that even if he could, no one would hear.
The clocked chimed six times, seven, eight.
It was coming…coming…coming for him.
His heart! Instinctively, he clutched his chest and felt the thundering of his heart. He groped in his pocket for his nitroglycerin pills, but just as he reached them, it reached him. The pills were knocked from his hand.
The clock chimed nine times, ten, eleven.
He felt as if he’d been struck by a sledgehammer. The pain was overwhelming. The thing before him was enveloped in the black of his vision.
The clock chimed the hour of midnight.
And he fell down dead.
The wee hoursKat Sokolov slept deeply, and in that sleep, she dreamed. It was a lovely dream. She was sailing somewhere. She stood on the deck looking out at the darkness of the water and watched the stunning display in the sky overhead. The moon was full, but clouds drifted in and out, and the world seemed beautiful.She listened to the music from the ship’s grand salon, where someone was playing a Viennese waltz. Attracted to the sweet sound of the music, she turned. She wore a gown as elegant as those she saw around her. Silk and velvet, it swept gracefully as she moved. There was a celebration going on, and she could hear delighted laughter along with the enchanting strains from the piano. At the doors to the grand salon, she felt the breeze and pulled her fur stole more closely around her shoulders. It couldn’t be about to snow! The moon had been too bright, too visible. The breeze had seemed so gentle….But now it touched her like a blast of ice. When she opened the door to the salon, she felt the wind snatch it from her. It banged hard against the wall, and she was embarrassed for losing it and creating such an awful sound. But before she could apologize to anyone, the ship suddenly pitched and rolled. Glass shattered; people screamed. She thought she heard the blast of a horn, or a high, loud whistle. Then people were shouting, screaming. A voice of authority boomed out, warning people that a storm had come in, that they needed to go to their cabins immediately.A couple pushed past Kat as if she wasn’t even there. “It’s cursed! The ship is cursed!” the man said to the young woman at his side. “Oh, God! What they should do is cast out the cargo, clear us of the curse!”“You’re scaring me!” the young woman cried.“I’m so sorry, my darling!” the man said.Then the woman seemed to see her. She looked at her with wide, desperate eyes. “It’s the curse,” she said. “It’s the curse!”“No, no, it’s a storm, that’s all,” Kat heard herself say reassuringly. She smiled at the young woman. But then she turned. There appeared to be something out on the water. Something huge coming toward them.She felt another blast of cold. Wet cold. The lovely night had become treacherous. It wasn’t snow rushing at her; it was ice. They had sailed into an ice storm.And still, that thing was out there, mammoth, a dark shadow that couldn’t quite take shape because of the raging elements.The wind picked up again and seemed to strike her in the face.Then she awoke, frozen.Kat blinked. She was still in her room in the lovely California hotel where her Krewe was staying.She almost laughed aloud. She was cold because she’d kicked away her covers. Jumping up quickly, she hurried over to the thermostat. Somehow, sometime, either she or the maid had set the temperature down to the fifties.She reset the thermostat to eighty-five.She was much fonder of heat than cold.That done, she dragged the extra blanket from the closet, grabbed all her covers again and curled back into bed. She’d practically forgotten the dream, she’d been so cold.As she lay down, she thought it had been quite absurd. But then, of course, dreams often were.Next morning9:00 a.m.The water of Lake Michigan was eerie, with different shades of gray shadows and darkness, as Brady Laurie plunged into the chilly depths. Only near the surface could anything that resembled natural light or warmth be found; the lake had always been a place of darkness and secrets. Motes seemed to dance before his eyes as the dive light on his head illuminated his journey, ever deeper into the water. Tiny bits of grasses, sand, orts from the meals of the lake’s denizens swirled like dust particles, shimmering as his light hit them.It was a world of silence down here, making every little noise sharp. The sound of his breathing and the throb of his regulator, the expulsion of his air bubbles, the very pulse of his heart.It was a world he loved, but today he was on a mission.He was so anxious. He shouldn’t have been diving alone; he knew that. It was against every rule of scuba and salvage, but people often did it, anyway. In fact, he’d met enough he-man types so sure of their own prowess that they ignored the rule all the time. He didn’t usually—just today.He knew exactly what he was looking for, and the sonar on his boat seemed to have proven his theories and calculations right.At long last, he’d found the sunken ship—the Jerry McGuen.He believed in his heart that he’d found her, the freighter that had carried sixty men and women to their graves, doomed along with the treasures they’d brought from Egypt. The ship had sailed faultlessly all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and up the Saint Lawrence River, only to be lost on December 15, 1898, a day before the journey’s end, battered and buffeted by a sudden, fierce storm. She had disappeared so close to her destination, just east-northeast of Chicago.People had speculated then, as they still did, that a curse had lain upon the ship. The explorer who’d made the Egyptian discovery, Gregory Hudson, had been aboard. And, of course, there’d been a threat, etched into the stones of the tomb, warning that any man who disturbed the final resting place of Amun Mopat would soon know misery and death. Surely the passengers and crew of the Jerry McGuen had known both—almost able to see Chicago, but storm-tossed in violent, winter-frigid waters, finally succumbing to the brutality of the lake and disappearing.Yes, the ship had disappeared, never to be seen again.Until today. He would see her again. He, Brady Laurie, would see her again!Salvage crews had hunted for her soon after she’d sunk—to no avail. And through the years, time after time, historians and divers had sought her, but like many a ship lost in the murky waters of the massive lake, she was simply not to be found.