BY: S. P. BROWN

Thirty-eight year old Dr. Madeline Alleyn is a successful professor of Celtic History in upstate New York, but she is haunted by her past and the decision she made years ago to abandon her husband after learning of his strange heritage. When she discovers that she’s pregnant with triplets, she makes the decision to run to protect her children and, inexplicably, her husband also. Now, after nearly eighteen years of vigilance, the destiny from which Madeline has tried to escape catches up with her. As her daughters begin to develop psychokinetic powers, an attempt to murder them is made to negate an ancient prophecy. Escaping the murder attempt in the night, the triplets suspect their fate is tied to some ancient stones and their mysterious grandmother. But as they seek answers, they have to run for their lives. People are after them, some to finish the failed murderous act and others to protect them. Along the way, they seek to solve the riddle of the Stones of Sumer, a mystery with startling implications for humanity…

TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Veiled Memory by S. P. Brown, Madeline Alleyn is on the run and has been for eighteen years, ever since her husband revealed that he has special powers, and she realized that he belonged to the same group of people who killed her mother. Discovering that she was pregnant with triplets the day after his revelation, she ran to protect her children from their father’s people, but now her past has caught up with her. As her eighteen-year-old daughters begin to come into their powers, Madeline fears they will be murdered to thwart an ancient prophesy. Somehow, their fate is tied to some ancient stones that Madeline’s mother, an archeologist, discovered. Now Madeline and her children must run again, if they can survive the attempt to kill them by those determined to rule the world.

An intriguing and intense mystery/thriller, this is a dark fantasy that should appeal to YA, new adults, and older folks as well. It was hard to put down.

REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Veiled Memory by S. P. Brown is the story of an ancient prophesy whose time has come. The moon has suddenly started moving much closer to Earth than it should be, and the world is in peril. According to the prophesy, only three triplets can save us, but no one knows where they are. Or so everyone thinks. Madeline Alleyn fled from her husband some eighteen years ago after he revealed that he belonged to a race of people with special powers. Madeline’s mother was murdered by this same race of people, and she and her father had fled from them after her mother’s death, shortly after Madeline was born. Madeline’s triplet daughters, who are now eighteen, begin to show signs of having the same abilities as their father, and Madeline fears for their lives, since the prophesy hints at their deaths. But other forces are at work, and evil men who want to rule the world are seeking the triplets to kill them and thus stop the prophesy from happening. The girls have already escaped one assassination attempt, but how long can they survive a determined assault?

Veiled Memory is fascinating, intriguing, exciting, and will keep you glued to the edge of your seat. With excellent character development, vivid scenes, and fast-paced action, you’ll be kept turning pages from beginning to end.

Prologue

Saturday Night:

The technician made it to the observatory on Mount Fowlkes as the last vestiges of sunlight slipped past the western horizon. In the clear skies of southwest Texas, the usual starlit blackness could be so deep that earthbound objects seemed to fade into silhouettes, unchained, like wraiths.

Those were the times he liked best, but tonight was different. An unnatural haze suffused the region, blurring the usually bright stars. Confused, Ben gazed into the sky, scratching his head as though the answer to some cosmic mystery could be coaxed from his tangled mass of hair. “If that’s not the darnedest thing,” he whispered, still perplexed by a nagging feeling that something was off.

Twin white domes of neighboring Mount Locke sat like mute sentinels propped against a black sky that should have been full of star-speckled brilliance. Otherwise, nothing seemed out of place. A slight wind rustled the boughs of Emory and Western Gray Oak sprouting from the stony soil.

Still focused on the stars, Ben jumped when the giant telescope he stood next to creaked and groaned as it began rotating.

“You say something, son?”

Turning, he found his boss standing behind him. “Just wondering who’s manning the instruments?”

“A visiting professor. He could use some help calibrating.”

“Can’t. There’s a call up from New York. A student needs lunar ranging data. Routine stuff.”

The boss nodded and walked back inside. Ben craned his neck again. Pollution couldn’t have caused this haze, not in this unspoiled environment, but the puzzle would have to wait. He walked across the parking lot of the McDonald Observatory complex to a square metal building standing next to the laser station and called Joe Prather, an astrophysics graduate student at Columbia University.

“We’re good to go,” Ben said. “I’ll call back when I have enough valid returns.”

“Make sure the feed is correct,” Prather said, agitation obvious in his voice. “You screwed it up last time.”

Ben took a deep breath before answering. “I’ll get your data. Just let me get back to it.”

Prather sighed. “The feed to New York has to work. If I don’t get good numbers, I won’t graduate. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ben muttered, disconnecting the call. He finished selecting his target point on the moon filling his video screen like a gray ghost. Laser pulses would soon flood the targeted portion of the lunar landscape.

He glanced at the window, shocked at the intensity of the moonlight streaming in. “Fuzzy stars,” he whispered, then flipped the switch.

A tight emerald laser flashed across the night sky directed at retroreflectors placed near a crater named Luther. Timing the return pulses would provide the data they needed to calculate the earth-moon distance.

It took longer than usual, but when three more valid return signals appeared on his screen as red dots, he turned off the laser and readied his systems to send the data to New York. Ben pressed an icon on his cell phone.

“Transmitting now,” he told Prather and hit a button on the control panel. “Have a good one.”

Locking down for the night, he had just about made it to his truck when his phone started vibrating in his pocket.

“Look, I hate to bother you,” Prather said, “but its perigee was supposed to be near–”

“A little over two-hundred and twenty-one thousand miles.” Ben checked his watch. “Is there a problem?”

Prather’s whisper grew quieter. “I know what you’ll say, but I didn’t screw up. Our system’s working fine.”

“Just tell me what the hell you’re talking about.”

Prather lowered his voice even more, forcing Ben to press the phone harder to his ear.

“The numbers are way off, man. It’s showing two-hundred and seven thousand miles. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the damn thing’s spiraling down.”

Ben suppressed a laugh, but nearly choked when he glanced up at the moon filling the sky like an enormous silver balloon. He cleared his throat. “The model must’ve corrupted in transmission. It’s moving farther out, very gradual, like only an inch a year. It’s not any closer than normal for this time.”

Something on the floor of the valley to the east caught Ben’s eye. He jerked his head and saw a coyote scurrying around sage brush. Even during a normal full moon, it would have been too dark to see anything that far away. Then the enormity of what Prather said hit him.

“What’s happening?” Prather asked in an anxious voice.

“I’ll get back to you?”

Cursing, Ben sprinted back to the control building and ran the same procedure four more times using two other retroreflectors located at different Apollo landing sites. The results were the same. Sweating now, he finally called his boss who alerted two other lunar ranging stations around the world. It took a couple more hours, but they were able to confirm the results.

There were too many questions for Ben to sleep that night, so he stayed up, reclined on the hood of his truck, staring at the night sky, wondering the same thing he knew would be plaguing scientists around the world.

How was the moon’s inconstant orbit decaying?

Then he had it. The prophecy. It could only be that. His people would be ecstatic. Overhead, he imagined Mars appearing in the southwest in a blaze of red fury and Jupiter rising in the east, burning in full conflagration. A falling star dashed across the sky, yet in this strange glow, its flaming trek wasn’t as dramatic as usual.

He smiled, realizing that he had just documented the first factor of the prophecy. Soon, all the clans of the Community would know.

And without further delay, he put a shaky finger to his temple and projected his thoughts to the leader of his clan enjoying a vacation somewhere in Europe.

***

The shrill ring of his office phone stirred Steven Dryer from sleep at ABC News headquarters in Manhattan. He jolted up, fell off the couch, and bumped his head on the coffee table. Staggering in the dark, he made it to his desk. “Dammit, what?”

“Mr. Dryer?”

It could have been a bad connection or his half-awake brain, but the caller’s voice sounded muffled. Dryer managed to groan, “Yeah, what is it?”

“Great, the operator said you sometimes sleep in your office.”

“Why the hell are you calling me at two in the morning?” Dryer growled, making a mental note to chew out the new girl for divulging his habits.

“Our lab has twenty-four/seven call privileges. And I thought–”

“What lab?”

“Astrophysics. Columbia University. I’m Joe Prather, Dr. Duvall’s assistant. You’ll want to hear this.”

Dryer rolled his eyes and almost hung up on another urgent lead that couldn’t wait until morning. “Astrophysics, huh. Tell me.”

“Your office has a window, right?”

“Yeah, of course.” It didn’t, but the caller wouldn’t know that.

“It’ll be west of the city at this hour. Your window faces west?”

Dryer thought of the bank of windows across the way. “Yeah.”

“It won’t be at the height of its full phase for a couple more nights.”

“Look, if this is some kind of stupid prank, I’ll–”

“No, listen, you have my name. I told you where I work. You can verify me later. Just look out the window and tell me what you see.”

Dryer gave the caller his cell number and walked through the newsroom to the far wall. He scanned the street below. The usual amount of traffic moved lazily along the wide expanse. He’d made some enemies, but the bullet-proof glass would protect him in case this was really some kind of attempt on his life. His gut told him the guy was sincere, though a little odd.

He looked up as the cell phone vibrated in his hand. The moon loomed huge over the western Manhattan skyline. “Is that all you have…a big moon?”

“Because it’s much closer than it should be.”

That got Dryer’s attention. “How much closer?”

The guy laughed, reminding Dryer of one of those wild-haired, mad scientists, although a student wouldn’t have been fully admitted to the club just yet. Just practicing, I guess. He rubbed the back of his aching neck and smiled at his own stupid joke.

“Try fourteen-thousand miles. We think it’s spiraling down, establishing a new orbital trajectory. The place is wild with speculation as to how it could be happening.”

“Yeah, well, this is interesting, but there are science reporters for this sort of thing.”

“My boss wants to break the story only after he learns more. You know, control the reaction. But it’s my discovery. Well, technically, the guy in west Texas made the measurement, but I ran the first calculation.”

“Then why call me?”

“I need someone to know my role, understand? This thing’s gonna get big, and I’ll be pushed aside. I’m not gonna let that happen.”

“I see what you mean.” Dryer thought a moment. “I’ll have to confirm this before I can convince my chief to break the story. I can’t go with the word of a student.”

“Just don’t leave me out when it breaks. The story’s big, Mr. Dryer. You make sure my name’s mentioned, okay? I made the discovery.”

“Sure,” Dryer said, without hearing his own voice. He lowered the phone and stared out into the night, mesmerized by a moon that seemed close enough to touch, and as round as time.

Chapter 1

Monday:

Madeline Alleyn stood at the tall filing cabinet, staring out the window that gave her a spectacular view of Ithaca, New York’s, business district. A frozen haze lay over the valley at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, nearly obliterating the small town.

She had run up the stairs to her office in record time, anticipating her coming visitor. In minutes, half the contents of the middle drawer lay scattered on the floor, but she hadn’t found what she needed.

The papers in these drawers were essential to her ongoing research, but she hadn’t bothered with the other files since her days at Columbia University nineteen years earlier. Most of the material chronicled her education in linguistics and archaic languages. Life had taken many twists since those carefree days–marriage, full-time work, another graduate degree, a desperate flight to protect the lives of her unborn triplet daughters.

She withdrew two more folders, examined the articles in them, and dropped them to the floor. They slid a little on the slick tile, the contents of the folders spilling out. With both hands buried in the drawer, she turned and checked the wall clock. Eight-thirty. He would be there any minute.

Gordon Toop had called last night. The subject of the call had been on her mind of late, but that it could also be on his mind stunned her. By the end of the conversation, the reason for his call still eluded her.

He had prodded her most sensitive nerve, alluding to things he shouldn’t have known. The question of how much he knew had kept her up all night. The topic worried her like no other.

She removed a folder titled, Runic Symbols. It contained articles on the rune alphabet common to early Britain, circa second century A.D. She’d authored most of them, but found two her coming visitor had written. She set one aside and began leafing through the other, but before she could make any headway, she heard a distinctive thump–thump–thump. It grew louder, making its way up the corridor. She turned toward the closed office door.

Madeline knew him by reputation through a scholarly interest they shared. She owned all his books and had most of his other research papers. She had never met him but knew he was old, nearing eighty, but still working at Northeastern University in Boston.

His call had been unexpected, his offer even more so, an invitation to speak at a conference. She already knew about the venue–Manhattan–and had to respectfully decline. Her reason was personal, as it always was with talk of the city.

Before she knew it, he had talked her into this meeting, said he was in Ithaca anyway on other business. She felt uneasy, almost trapped. Her antennae had gone up and had remained. Why the meeting today? That question dominated her thinking through the long, cold night. She saw her children off to school and made it to her campus office in record time despite the icy streets.

Maybe his English accent and kind voice opened the door of her usual caution. His invitation flattered her. But slipping back into her more natural suspicious nature on the drive over, she could see the subtle manipulation. She had phoned him from the car to cancel. Too late; she couldn’t reach him.

Several hard raps on the door startled her. She fussed over the flower vase, and in two quick steps reached the door.

Gordon Toop was the picture perfect academic in his tweed jacket, a smoking pipe stuck between his teeth. He entered the room, taking the first step with his artificial left leg, tobacco smoke billowing in with him.

Madeline took his arm and led him in. Before sitting, he removed his heavy overcoat and flung it over the back of the chair. He then folded into the seat with a groan, his false leg extending out in front at an odd angle.

“Thank you so much, madam, for helping an old warrior like me,” Toop said in a rasping voice. He held up his pipe. “Do you mind?”

“Go right ahead.”

His eyes strayed to the clutter on the floor. “I must say, I like to see well-worked offices.”

“Sorry about the mess. It’s not usually like this.”

“A sign of a productive mind.”

Madeline couldn’t help staring at his prosthesis protruding from the end of his trouser.

“I should have explained Cynthia here,” he said, grinning, patting it. “It does make a rather distinctive sound. Korean War. Named it after my second wife who died five years ago. I got a new leg to commemorate her. The first one I named Harriet after my first wife. She died in a plane crash transporting some of the wounded boys after the hostilities ended. She was a physiotherapist working with the injured.” With difficulty, he held his leg a few inches off the floor. “Met her getting the first one of these. Suspect I won’t need another.”

Madeline chuckled, some of her tension draining away.

“Anyway, we haven’t properly met. Gordon Toop at your service, but Gordon will do for a colleague as esteemed as yourself.”

“Thank you,” she said, extending her right hand while rolling her chair toward him. “I’m Madeline.” His massive hand swallowed hers. “Your call last night was unexpected. Sorry I had to–”

“Say no more, Dr. Alleyn. It’s quite all right. Been turned down before.”

“I wanted you to know that my decision wasn’t an easy one.” She grimaced with the lie. “I have triplet daughters, and their birthday is this week. So I’m afraid I–”

“All is forgiven, madam.”

“Then why–”

“Am I here,” he said, interrupting again. “To give it another try, of course.”

Madeline started at this and opened her mouth to say something.

“Please hear me out. I have some information I think just might turn that lovely head of yours enough to change your mind.”

Leery now, Madeline said, “I’m listening.”

“I’ve been made privy to some information. An old discovery. Rune stones, my dear, Middle Eastern rune stones.”

Madeline blinked at this as if she hadn’t heard properly. “Excuse me? What did you say?”

He leaned forward and removed his pipe from between his teeth. “I’m here to speak with you about an old discovery the natural history museum in Manhattan was once thought to house.”

She sat back into her seat, heart pounding.

Toop’s bushy eyebrows elevated. “My dear, are you all right?”

She regained enough composure to say, “Why should that be important to me? I mean, besides the obvious anomaly of rune stones found in that part of the world. Do you have a date?”

“We don’t have the stones,” he said, leaning forward in the chair again, examining her even more closely. “No one knows how many there were, what they looked like, or anything about them. And we don’t know where they now are. But good people believe in their existence, and rumor has it they are five-thousand years old. Oh yes, I almost forgot another rumor. It seems the glyph ‘Thurisaz’ is mentioned prominently on them.”

Madeline closed her eyes reflexively. She knew the stones existed. Of course, they did. And she knew their age. These were some of her most closely guarded secrets now being talked about openly. It was like this man had taken a lamp and illumined the dark crevices of her mind. No one could possibly know these things, not even the great Gordon Toop.

She opened her eyes and tried to remain calm, tried not to give herself away, but his smile indicated his little fishing expedition had caught her.

“Do you know the glyph?” he asked. “Not many people in our field understand it properly.”

“Yes…yes, I’m vaguely familiar with it.”

The rune he had mentioned was featured prominently in an item Madeline had in her possession, a small sheet of stationery her father had given her when she was a young teenager. But no one knew about the note, or did they?

“The stones…are they lost? I mean, how did you come by your information?”

“Contacts–old friends–long ago memories.” He blew smoke into the air. “I left the museum about a year before the stones’ supposed discoverer started her work there a little less than forty years ago. I remained in close contact with the curator of the anthropology division. Then some interesting stories started around, stories about an Irish national named Martha McCormick, an employee there. A very striking woman, I’m told–statuesque, bright red hair. The stories are very odd, just rumors really. By now they could almost be classified as urban legends. A few months after this woman started at the museum, she vanished. People became suspicious. Some thought she might have been studying something covertly, outside her official appointment–the rune stones, you see. But no one actually ever saw them. An oddity, wouldn’t you say?”

He waited for an answer but didn’t get one, so he cleared his throat and went on.

“It was merely hearsay, a rumor. Strange how she could get away with something like that. Very strange indeed. It’s unclear why it never got checked at the time, and when she suddenly vanished the stones vanished also, or so the story goes.”

Just hearing the name sent a shock wave through Madeline. Her senses numbed, her spine tingled in fear’s spidery walk. Other than hearing it from her father that was the first time she had ever heard anyone say her mother’s name. How had Toop found her? It wasn’t possible for anyone to know of Madeline’s connection to Martha McCormick.

But after a moment, Madeline knew. Her own physical description exactly matched that of her mother. Her father had often talked about her mother, and the details fit Madeline perfectly–tall, bright red hair, a dash of freckles across a patrician nose. At thirty-eight, Madeline was older than her mother who had died at twenty-nine, but that would hardly matter. Someone had made the connection and engaged Toop in the search for the stones. And now her response had betrayed her.

She managed to walk over to the file cabinet and close the open drawer. In a near panic, she closed it too hard. A picture of her children toppled over, clattering to the floor and spreading glass shards everywhere.

“Here, let me help you with that,” Toop said, hobbling over. “You seem upset.”

“No, no. I’m fine–really.”

He handed her the damaged frame. “Lovely daughters.”

The innocuous mention of her daughters triggered the old reflexive anxiety. They were speaking of her mother’s discovery, and now he had mentioned her daughters. It wasn’t clear by his obvious close examination of her if he really knew just how important these things being discussed were to her.

She took his hand, and he helped her to the seat.

“I–I still don’t see how any of this pertains to me. Is someone looking for the stones? Their origin in the Middle East sounds important if they could be found.”

“It’s an interesting story,” Toop said, smiling again. “Something to entice you to come to our conference, give a talk on whatever research you’re currently doing. I’m sure you’ll have something timely for us. Then we could have a nice dinner, and talk about our mutual interests and that old discovery.”

Madeline let a long, slow breath escape. This seemed benign after all. He had a kind face, gentle even. A swirl of aromatic pipe smoke floated around the office, making her lightheaded.

But she remained guarded; too many of her old fears had been touched.

“Dr. Toop, all this is quite interesting, but as I said earlier, I really have to pass. My family responsibilities–”

“I understand, of course. I’m disappointed, but I understand,” Toop said, shaking his old head, his fat cheeks quivering.

“There are always other meetings.”

“Yes, we’ll see.” He looked at his watch. “Well, look at the time. So good of you to see me on such short notice, but I really must be going now. Good day to you.”

She nodded, smiled, and escorted him to the door.

He squeezed her hand, kissed it gently. Genuinely touched, she opened the door for him, but then he abruptly stopped and turned to her.

“My dear, I’m a man of vast experience. I’ve known many people–the small-minded, the heroic, some brilliant, others of animal intelligence, and some I wouldn’t give a farthing for their company. I know what makes many kinds of people tick. If there’s one thing my experience has shown me, it’s when someone is hiding something, like you are now. You know far more than you let on, but hiding your secrets won’t get you anywhere, in fact, it could get you hurt.”

Madeline gaped at him, at his effrontery, but managed to say, “Is that a threat, Dr. Toop?”

“Threat? Oh, no, no, don’t take it that way, my dear. It’s merely an observation.” He gave her a crooked smile and a little bow. “Good day.”

***

Madeline closed the door and planted her back to it, taking several long breaths to clear her head, his thumping gait receding down the corridor.

The last twenty minutes played a circuitous route around her mind–the rune stones, her mother, Manhattan, the museum, her children. How could this man have pinpointed everything so important to her, the things she loved and feared so much? She couldn’t make sense of any of it. What had he wanted? It wasn’t merely an invitation to give a talk in Manhattan.

Her mother must have been careless, must have made a mistake somehow in her secret study of the stones. Totally unlike her, according to her father’s old stories.

Her cell phone began playing a new ring tone she’d switched to, an old pop tune from a previous decade. It sang of love lost. She walked over to her desk to retrieve it.

“This is Madeline,” she said, thankful for the distraction.

“Still hibernating in that bungalow of yours?”

“Not this morning, Jackie. You actually caught me at the office.”

“Oh, good, it’s been weeks since you’ve been around here. I have some great news, but only if you’re ready for a little excitement to brighten that dull life. Dr. Harper wants to see you right away.”

“Can you tell me why?”

“Yeah, but I’d rather do it in person.”

Madeline grew silent, thinking, staring out the window. “Someone is there with him.”

Jackie hesitated. “How did you know?”

“An older man with a false leg.”

“I don’t know. There’s another entrance to his office. But I can hear them talking. He sounds British, and his pipe smoke smells nice.”

Madeline closed her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Jackie asked. “You sound–”

“I’ll be right there.”

Madeline let out an exasperated breath, thinking of Harper. Toop was there with him, conspiring against her. Without thinking, she found herself in the corridor, determined to stop this avalanche of fear from taking over her life once again. At the ornate glass window, the outdoor scenery distracted her. The gray bitterness of the morning presaged things she could not let back into her life. She had run from them at great cost to her and her children, and in doing so had gained so much in nearly eighteen years. Yet, life and security were fragile. Even now, she could still lose everything, even her children. She would fight to the death to prevent that from happening.

She gritted her teeth and began a slow walk down the deserted hall. It lay naked before her, stark white walls lengthening, turning into a gauntlet. She imagined mean, leering faces along the stretch, calling out her name, demanding things of her she couldn’t produce, gloved hands clutching her, dread voices cursing.

The job, everything she now was, she would readily give them up for an average life. What were all her accomplishments for when she was lonely most of the time? Ironically, she had forged a life that would help make a connection with her long dead mother, someone she had never known, and worse, knew so little about.

Her drive to become a respected linguist and historian was really all about making something of herself to please her scholar mother. She was grateful to her father for passing on to her this ambition. It helped make her mother real. But now that life threatened to put her in contact with the very people who had murdered her mother.

Madeline entered the main office complex and acknowledged Jackie with a nod, not intending to go to her, but Jackie wouldn’t have any of this. She hurried from around her desk and burst through the glass door to the outer alcove where Madeline stood, steps from Harper’s office.

“Wait,” Jackie said, in a furious whisper. “I was hoping to catch you. I wanted to tell you the news first.”

“I already know it.”

“Really, then why are you so glum?”

“He can’t force me to give that talk, and I won’t be coerced.”

Jackie looked confused. “But a free trip to the city–you’ll have some fun for a change.” She reached out and touched Madeline’s arm. “Oh, honey, don’t do anything stupid.”

“Don’t try to stop me.”

“He’s in a weird mood. I’ve never seen him so–” Jackie got a good look at Madeline, and gasped, “Are you okay?”

“Didn’t sleep much last night.”

Jackie grabbed Madeline’s arm, hurried her to the lounge area, and poured a glass of water. “You need to take better care of yourself. You look awful.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.” Jackie managed to get Madeline in a chair. “Don’t let this business get to you. It’s just a simple trip. All the papers are done. The meeting is Wednesday, and Dr. Harper said to set you up through the weekend. Now that’s something. Think about what you’re doing.”

Madeline tried to smile. “He’ll listen. This is such a minor, stupid thing.”

“Then why don’t you–”

“But not to me, Jackie. It’s too important to me.”

“Damn. I hate this.”

“Harper will understand.”

“I hope so.”

***

Madeline turned away from her friend, taking a deep breath before grabbing the cold doorknob. Her hand shook. They wanted her at that meeting for some reason, but how could she explain to Harper her duty, her solemn vow to her father, her gift of safety to her children?

Stale pipe smoke floated in the office against the dim sunlight filtering through the blinds. Harper looked over his reading glasses and didn’t immediately rise from his desk to greet her. Instead, he pushed back the writing pad he had been scribbling on–letter combinations, Madeline saw. Many ‘MAs’ and ‘MMs’ among them.

His eyes revealed his intention right off, but he shied away from her stare, motioning for her to take a seat in one of the chairs before his desk.

“I expected to find Dr. Toop here,” Madeline said.

“We’re alone.” But he inadvertently glanced at a door leading out the back of his office. He rose and walked around the portentous desk, stopping opposite her. Had she been standing, the effect wouldn’t have been the same since he was at least two inches shorter. Madeline let him have this position of power. She had no idea how it would play out, but the game was on.

“How have you been?”

“I’m fine, Mark. Getting a lot of work done from home. Thanks again for the light load.”

“You shouldn’t refer to your load as light, especially around the other faculty. You’re amazingly productive in research.” He chuckled a little. “The noise in the department was incredible when they found out you wouldn’t be teaching this semester.”

“I heard the names,” Madeline said. “Jackie filled me in.”

“I apologize for all that sexist crap about the boss’s girl.”

“I’ll gladly take a little abuse for the chance to do what I really love. I love teaching, too. It’s just that this project is taking more time than I thought.”

“Do you have more plans to visit Britain?”

“Not after last month.”

Harper hesitated before saying, “I’ve just talked to Gordon Toop. You know him, I think, from Northeastern.”

Madeline stood and walked to the window. She knew what he would say next. “We have some of the same research interests.”

“He’s desperate to fill that spot at the conference in a couple of days. Said he talked to you about it.”

Madeline listened closely for any inflection, any indication Harper knew more than he let on. She detected nothing, but her stomach tightened anyway. “And he just thought he’d get you to twist my arm.”

“Why don’t you help him out?”

Madeline fought for control of her temper. It was a close call. “I give enough talks already. But this isn’t about Dr. Toop, is it?”

She stopped and thought carefully about her next words. “I’ll begin to take more speaking assignments if that’s what you want, but you’ll just have to let me choose the venue. Why is this particular conference so important to you that you have to–”

“Not to me, Madeline, to the department. Your appointment to the Rupert Howard Chair requires a certain degree of exposure on your part, and this meeting is perfect for you. You’ll get substantial coverage and so will the department. The conference in Manhattan is in line with your current project.”

“It’s not for me, Mark, sorry,” Madeline said flatly.

“We’ve made the arrangements already. Four days in the city, all expenses paid. There’s no point arguing. Just accept it.”

Madeline looked up and met his eyes again. “Why are you forcing the issue?”

Frowning, he walked back around his desk, settling into his leather chair. He fingered the brim of his Chatham hat sitting on the desk. The joke around the office was that he had purchased it to cover his balding pate in the cold weather.

Madeline never engaged in petty office banter. She owed him too much. He’d supported her, and she appreciated it, but he could be a self-serving little prick, using other people’s talents for his own agenda.

“He understood my explanation, or I thought he did. But the old bas–”

The word was on her lips, but she held it back. She walked over to his bookcase, running her hand over some classic volumes in European history.

“I’ve decided not to go,” Madeline said softly.

Harper stood, spitting the words out in rapid fire. “The hell you aren’t. I’ve just confirmed it with Toop. He’s delighted. I’ve made his day.”

“You’ve made!” The heat rose up in her face. “My contract says nothing about being a lackey of the administration. I’m productive. I do my job.”

“That’s too simplistic. I have some say in this, you know, and I want our department represented at that particular meeting.”

“Then get someone else.”

“Hell no!”

“The city is not safe for me,” she said in a whisper.

“What?”

“That’s why I never go there.”

“Hell, is it really ever safe for anyone?”

“You don’t understand.”

“Explain it then. I’m listening.”

Madeline shook her head.

“Don’t you think there’s a certain amount of paranoia going on here?”

She closed her eyes, turning away from him. “Paranoid,” she said in barely a whisper. He had a point, but only on the surface. He simply didn’t understand, and she would never tell him why.

He made an effort to calm his voice. “Madeline.” He walked back to the front of his desk.

She turned to him. “I won’t be manipulated. You hear? I won’t. You have no right to force this on me, dammit–no right at all. I–I have allies here, people who’ll understand what you’re trying to do. I won’t let you, and neither will they. I’ll go to them, make them see how you run things around here. I’ll–”

Madeline stopped and stormed over to a more distant chair where she sat down. The silence was a thickening thing, a miasma floating between them, making it hard to think. Harper cast about, speechless. She had never before raised her voice, never engaged in outbursts of anger.

If he wasn’t going to say more, neither would she. She got to her feet and walked to the door.

“Your threats won’t work,” he said to her back. “I expect you to be there. You won’t like the consequences if you aren’t.”

Madeline stopped. He did have the power to hurt her, but she didn’t care. Instead of responding, she opened the door and walked out, closing it gently behind her.

© 2018 by S. P. Brown