(Published by Midnight Ink, available 2010)
When the well-preserved body of 17th century mapmaker Johannes Cellarius suddenly floats to the surface of a bog in northern Germany, and a 57 carat ruby rolls out of his fist, treasure hunters from around the globe race to find the Lost Tavernier Stones of popular European folklore.
According to legend, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was robbed of a priceless hoard while returning from his final voyage to the Orient in 1689. The hoard reputedly includes some of the world's most notorious missing jewels. Among them the 280 carat Great Mogul Diamond and the 242 carat Great Table Diamond, the largest diamonds ever unearthed whose whereabouts are unknown.
John Graf is an Amish-born cartographer who has never ventured out of Pennsylvania, let alone embarked on an international treasure hunt. David Freeman is a gemologist who has done his share of prospecting, but little of it within the boundaries of the law. Between them they have all the expertise necessary to solve the mystery. They also have enough differences to derail even the best of partnerships. And ahead are more obstacles: fortune seekers equally qualified and every bit as determined.
The race spans two continents. The finish line is in Idar-Oberstein, the gemstone capital of Germany. There, in chambers beneath an old church, where unspeakable events took place in centuries past, winners and losers alike find answers to age-old questions about the Lost Tavernier Stones.
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Chapter One from ADAMANT STONE
"There's a dead guy out there."
Kommissar Gerd Pfeffer first heard it from the dispatcher, who was quoting the boys who found the body. He repeated the phrase in his mind as he drove to the scene: There's a dead guy out there. It would make an appropriate epitaph, he thought. There had been lots of dead guys out there. There would be lots more.
A narrow, overgrown road led Pfeffer into the Holmmoor, a bog north of Hamburg. Thickets on either side of the road strummed his car in irritating chords. Not far ahead, a gallery of rubberneckers, some with binoculars, peered into the woods. The focus of their attention was half a dozen police officers huddled like marooned buccaneers under a tarpaulin they had erected on an island of stable ground.
Pfeffer parked his car on the road because the rains had turned the berm into a Purgatory of mud-choked grass. The rest of the trip would be on foot, and cautiously: he was crossing from the real world into The Bog.
It was one of the oddest calls he had received during his career as a homicide detective. Two boys had spent the weekend camping in the bog, on a patch of ground that had not yet thawed. Their campfire thawed it, and combined with the heavy downpours of late, as well as the strange temperature fluctuations of a typical Hamburg spring, up the body came.
First, the boys said, the peat began to crack. A fissure radiated slowly outward from the center of the fire, rending the mossy soil along a zigzag path as though etched by a lightning bolt.
Fingers emerged from the crack. The boys saw only their black tips, and thought they were knobby roots, or maybe pieces of glacial till.
The tips grew into appendages. The appendages joined in a palm. When a thumb finally appeared, the boys extrapolated what lay beneath.
They laughed; it couldn't be happening. They rolled on the ground laughing. Their sides ached and their eyes filled with tears, it was so funny. Then the realization sank in that here indeed was a human hand, and following it now was an arm. And soon to come, no doubt, was the rest, some of which—the head in particular—might be too gruesome to behold.
They ran, stumbling on rubbery legs, their young minds filled with images of a root-hairy dead man loping after them. By the time the police arrived the arm had finished sprouting. It jutted straight into the air, flecked with peat, its fingers splayed widely like the comic image of a drowning man counting to five. The police immediately concluded the body was one of the so-called Bog People, dozens of whom—some more than two thousand years old—had sprung out of the ground throughout that part of Germany.
Pfeffer stepped from one clump of grass to another, advancing toward the tarpaulin. Walking on the peat gave him the sensation of unsure-footedness, as though he might sink up to his neck on any step. He did sink—four inches here, eight inches there, nothing there—you never knew. The water, stained by the peat, was the color of strongly brewed tea.
The bogs around Hamburg had been disgorging Iron-Age corpses for as long as Pfeffer could remember. Humic acids in the peat acted as embalming fluids that stained hair and beards red and tanned skin black. Bones decalcified, turning the corpses into leathery bags filled loosely with internal organs and a menu of last suppers, typically barley and linseed gruel. Most strikingly, features were so well preserved that except for the tanning a modern-day public could see exactly what the victims looked like. Could stare them in the face.
They died with quiet dignity. Or cringing in horror, some of them. And the resignation or anguish or shock their expressions communicated at the moment of death, when a relative or friend weighted them down in watery graves, was preserved for the millennia.
As Pfeffer reached the tarpaulin the rain started up again. A young Polizist emerged from under the tarp covering his head with a clipboard. He greeted Pfeffer with a firm handshake, then led him safely around shaking pools of stained water. The other officers remained under cover. They stared in fascination at a lump of soggy human remains.
The victim—for so they were calling the thing—lay on his right side with his right arm stretched out straight above his head. He resembled other Bog People in that his skin had darkened to the value of burnt umber and his woolly hair and prickly beard were the color of rust. And it was clear he had been murdered or sacrificed: deep, angular stab wounds perforated his chest and abdomen.
But his garb was more modern than that of other Bog People, who typically wore only sleeveless capes, probably because the linen used for the rest of their outfits couldn't survive the peat acids. Pfeffer estimated the victim's clothing was from the Middle Ages, or some other time long ago, but clearly not the twenty-first century: he wore breeches that stopped just below the knee, stockings over his calves, and broad metal buckles on his shoes.
So it wasn't an ancient pagan sacrifice after all. Nor was it a recent murder.
An oval signet ring encircled the victim's right middle finger, on the hand that had sprung up on the boys. Bezel-set in the oval mount was a dark stone slab. Pfeffer used his thumbnail to scrape the ring clean of peat. Carved in the slab were the initials "JC" and an image of one woman helping another to place a basket of grapes on her head.
The young Polizist had been watching him closely while he examined the body, and as Pfeffer inspected the ring the young man suggested, "Jesus Christ?"
Pfeffer shook his head. "He would put his own initials on a signet ring, don't you think?"
Squatting in the spongy grass, he surveyed the scene for a moment, then asked, "Have you turned him over?"
"We dug him up and laid him there, otherwise he hasn't been touched. I was waiting for you to arrive before I moved him. You know how bent out of shape the anthropologists get when they find anything disturbed."
Pfeffer thought the way the dead man clenched his left fist was odd, as though he had been holding something dear to him when he died. Furthermore—and this had been fermenting in the detective's subconscious the entire time—there was just the hint of an amused smile on the man's face. But surely that was only Pfeffer's imagination. Or one of those ironic effects of the retarded rate of decay in the peat. People did not, in fact, smile as they were being stabbed. They didn't. Really.
He looked into the man's eye sockets. They had obviously sunken since his death, but it was nevertheless obvious they had been deep-set to begin with and had done their share of glaring at lesser intellects. Pfeffer shivered as he experienced the sensation the cavities were looking back.
"Open it," he ordered.
"The fist. Pry it open."
The Polizist motioned for another officer to step over and help him. As they gently lifted the arm the young man said, "Sir, if I may, are we doing this out of curiosity?"
"Call it professional intuition. I want to see what he held onto for dear life."
"But the anthropologists . . ."
Getting the fingers to uncurl required the use of pocketknives. The glinting red object that rolled onto the ground, before the fist clamped tightly closed again, caused the remaining officers to collide with one another as they evacuated their tarp shelter and pressed in for a closer look. It also sent a buzz into the road-kill gallery, whose frustration over a dearth of news had only festered under the drizzling rain.
If Pfeffer hadn't known better, he'd have guessed the thing was genuine.
The drizzle increased to a steady downpour, and the young Polizist, studying the corpse, blurted out something spontaneously: "As if he had been poured in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf and seems to weep the black river of himself."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Nothing. Just an English poem I read once. Come to think of it, it was Irish."
Pfeffer took another look at the Bog Man's leathery face. His skull had long since decalcified, leaving the outer skin pinched and distorted. His features were already caving in from rough handling and sudden exposure to ruthless compounds in the air.
It was a smile, Pfeffer was sure of it. The man had known something profoundly amusing the moment he died, so amusing he was still grinning even after being stabbed in the chest. Even after centuries of submersion under the quaking peat.
Answer the following question for a chance to win a piece of the Berlin Wall (yes, you heard that right!!):
How would Steve describe the family jewels?