The Vesuvius Isotope Sample




Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. "Let us leave the road while we can still see," I said, "or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind." We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

-Letters of Pliny the Younger (ca. 61-112 CE)


Prologue

Thousands perished in the ashes the day the darkness fell as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. So, too, was buried a medical breakthrough that today, nearly two millennia later, could save thousands. Six weeks ago, it emerged.
     The person who rediscovered the ancient isotope did not at first realize the magnitude of the find. Except for the curious property of restoring life, it is inert. It is harmless to humans—indeed, to all living things. It survives for only moments. Yet, despite its transient nature, it appears to bring death as well as life; a trail of cadavers has followed the isotope through the centuries.
     Is it magic, as believed by the ancients? As a scientist in 2023, I have a more logical hypothesis. But when it comes to murder of the strictly mortal variety, I must admit, empirically I know for certain of only one. My husband, Jeff.
     When I find it, or recreate it in a lab as the case may be, I will name the isotope Vesuvium. I think Jeff would appreciate that. Like the erupting volcano, in fact, like Jeff himself, it is as majestic as its lifespan is fleeting.
     He was my world. I loved him more than anything. I hope he would forgive me for all that I have done.

Part I: The Ancient Remedy

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

-Letters of Pliny the Younger (ca. 61112 CE)

Chapter One

There is a crash. I feel wetness, and pain. I see a thousand memories.
     My husband was naked the first time we met. The image of him at that moment has not faded from my mind in our five short years together. Now, as I feel myself slipping beneath the surface, there is another image as well—of the last time I saw my husband. He was lying dead from two gunshot wounds. Again, he was naked.

*****
The first time I saw Jeff, I was sprinting along Black’s Beach in La Jolla, California. The secluded strip of coastline is world-renowned as a runner’s paradise, with its intense four-mile loop of steep mountain switchbacks and deep sand. Black’s has long been my favorite place to jog, despite the fact that it is a clothing optional beach.
     That morning, as I rounded the corner into a nook beside a jutting shoreline cliff, I almost crashed into him before managing to change course. My first impression was beach bum, not nudist as I later liked to teasingly call him. At five o’clock in the morning, the beach appeared totally abandoned. I assume he thought he was alone and, therefore, felt comfortable stripping out of his wetsuit to dress after his morning surf session. Black’s was, after all, a nude beach.
     He was no more than five feet away from me, so nothing escaped my attention. Seawater was running down his lean surfer’s body as he tossed a dripping wetsuit onto a boulder beside him and then reached for a towel lying next to a pile of clothing.
     He glanced up. As he did, a lock of sandy hair fell over his forehead. His eyes met mine, and then he flashed a mischievous grin of straight white teeth.
     “Whoops, that’s embarrassing!” The handsome nude man with the smoky blue eyes chuckled while belatedly bringing the towel up to shield himself.
     “Morning,” I said casually, continuing past him with a smirk.

*****
Less than a month later, it was my turn to be caught off guard. I was at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases delivering a lecture about biological terrorism. The conference was held in Paris that year, and attendance was at an all-time high. I was at the podium in the main lecture hall speaking to an audience of approximately five thousand. In the midst of my speech, I glanced up from the microphone, and one audience member sitting front row center of the auditorium caught my eye.
     My voice faltered when I saw him. The handsome, well-dressed man with the smoky blue eyes looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Then he flashed that mischievous grin, and our brief moment on Black’s Beach returned to me.
     I completely lost my train of thought.
     My presentation trailed off mid-sentence. A few people in the audience cleared their throats. I felt my face flush. I took a few well-rehearsed steps to recover my composure—three deep breaths, a sip of water from my glass on the podium, another deep breath.
     “Whoops, that’s embarrassing!” I said into the microphone. I could feel myself smiling.
     Later, as I sat sipping coffee and reviewing my notes between sessions, he approached me. This time, with the advantage of seeing him coming toward me, I was prepared.
     “Dr. Stone,” he said with a professional nod.
     “Naked surfer,” I said and nodded back.
     A pair of women at an adjacent table glanced toward us. He acknowledged them with a smile before returning his attention to me.
     “I’m surprised you recognized me,” he said.
     “I was looking at your face, for the most part.”
     It was then that I noticed his conference-issued name badge. Jeffrey Wilson had been granted the Nobel Prize in Chemistry a few years prior for the creation of a new chemical element, one of the very few so-called superheavy elements in existence at the time. He had received the Nobel both for creating the new element and for the ground-breaking method by which it was created.
     I remembered the media circus that surrounded his winning the Nobel. The majority of press attention was concentrated at The Scripps Research Institute where Jeff was a principal investigator. That facility is less than a mile from Black’s Beach.

*****
Jeff must have known immediately that he would die.
     The shot to his back passed all the way through his body. The bullet had to have come from within our bedroom.
     He was still standing. The waist-high wrought iron railing enclosing our bedroom terrace stopped him from falling forward. As he stood naked, leaning against the railing, with a bullet hole through his middle, a steady red river gushed from the exit wound. The blood gathered along the edge of the railing and then trickled down, tracing the intricate ironwork like lava flowing through a vertical maze. A small crimson pool formed on the edge of the terrace’s natural stone floor, but the majority spilled over.      
     Down it poured, past the second and first floor windows of our house and onto the forward deck of my yacht.
    Jeff’s right hand went first to the exit wound in his bare stomach and then to the terrace railing, where it left a bloody handprint. It must have been at that moment that he turned to look at the shooter behind him.
     The second bullet hit him in the upper chest, sending my husband—the most handsome, brilliant, kind, charming, Nobel laureate chemist in the history of the prize—plunging backward over the terrace railing to his death.

*****
The yacht was a gift from Jeff for our first wedding anniversary, but I always teased him that Teresa was as much his gift as mine. While the small yacht was easily maneuvered by one person, Jeff and I almost always took her out together.
      I was standing on our bedroom terrace enjoying the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean when I first saw her. I was wearing a backless evening gown of shimmering royal blue, a color Jeff loved on me for the way it accentuated my blue eyes and long auburn waves. The dress was floor length and fitted to my slender, petite frame. A single alluring slit in the gown exposed my left leg to the thigh.
Jeff stepped out of our bedroom and joined me on the terrace. His standard attire of jeans, T-shirt, and tennis shoes had been transformed, and Jeff was dashing in a black jacket and tie. The thick sandy brown hair that almost always fell over his forehead was now smoothly slicked back. In each of Jeff’s hands was a glass of champagne. He handed one to me and appreciatively ran his eyes over my dress before pulling me close for a kiss.
     “Happy anniversary,” he said. “You look gorgeous.”
     I set my champagne down on the terrace railing to embrace my husband with both arms. “Where are we going for dinner?” I whispered between kisses.
     Instead of answering, Jeff stepped away from me and leaned casually against the railing. He glanced down at the water below, and his face lit up with the same mischievous grin I had first seen three years earlier on Black’s Beach.
     “You know what has always bugged me?” he said.
     “What’s that, love?”
     “That we had a boat dock but no boat.”
     Instead of thinking to look down, I looked at Jeff. He dipped his eyes downward once more. This time mine followed, and I saw her for the first time.
     The yacht was directly beneath us, moored unassumingly in the formerly empty space as if she had always been there. On Teresa’s forward deck was an elegantly set table for two. Standing next to the table was a man in a chef’s hat who announced, as if on cue, that dinner was served.

*****
It was upon that very same spot on Teresa’s deck that Jeff’s body landed after falling from our bedroom terrace three years later.

*****
The front door was unlocked, so I was certain my husband would be there. “Jeff,” I called as I entered the house, “I’m home.” I was not surprised there was no answer. If he was still in the shower, he would not have heard me. Or maybe he was out on our private terrace lost in his own thoughts. Or perhaps he had simply ignored me.
     I dropped my purse and my laptop on the living room sofa and began climbing the stairs.
   It had been a chilly three days between us. We had barely spoken since the biggest fight of our marriage, and I now wondered if our relationship could ever return to the way it had been. A part of me wanted so badly to just forget the events of three days prior and to surprise him on the terrace in the nude, as I had done so many times before.
     I opened the bedroom door, and I was stopped in my tracks. On the floor near my nightstand was a small metal object. The back of my neck came alive with chills.
      I recognized the gun immediately. It was mine.
    I stepped timidly toward it as a light breeze ruffled the curtains framing the French doors to our terrace. A sudden gust of wind brought the curtains billowing into the bedroom. One of them kissed the pistol lying on the floor before shrinking back again.
    I glanced up. The glass doors were standing wide open, as if beckoning me out between them. Slowly I moved toward the terrace.
    There I saw it. The blood on the metal railing, framed theatrically by the ruffling curtains. It had already begun to congeal. The pools along the top of the railing and upon the stone floor beneath it were a brighter red than the thinner traces down the vertical metal. The handprint smeared along the top rail was a sickening blotchy swirl of multiple hues. It appeared to be the exact size of my husband’s hand.
     My mind was not my own as I stepped forward and crossed the terrace.

*****
Naked and vulnerable, Jeff’s body was displayed in the center of Teresa’s forward deck. All four of his limbs were jutting out unnaturally from his torso. Also radiating out from the center of his body were two overlapping ovals of varying shades of red, one from his chest and the other from his abdomen.
The expression on Jeff’s face was one of horror, and there was something else there as well. I think it was sorrow.
     I could make no sound. I could only stare. I have no idea how long I stood there.
A flash of light roused me. Another gust of wind had just blown past, and the boat was now rocking gently. A single ray from the setting sun danced mockingly into my eyes, drawing them to the small object from which the light was ricocheting. Until that moment, I had not noticed the pistol silencer lying beside Jeff’s body. It was nearly concealed within the pool of blood that had flowed from my husband’s heart.
     The message to me was clear: Be quiet.

*****
It was perversely fortunate that Jeff’s body had landed on the yacht. Our dock was built on a private, narrow canal that led directly out into the Pacific Ocean. It would be surprisingly easy, albeit very expensive, to hide his body. And I knew I had to hide his body.
     So I bribed a mortician.

*****
I pulled Larry Shuman’s information from a hasty Internet search on one lone criterion: his business was still open that late in the evening.
     Shuman greeted me with a professional handshake, but his eyes were sympathetic as he offered condolences for my loss. He then ran a pudgy hand through the sparse hair on his head and motioned for me to sit across from him as he sat behind his desk. He looked at me questioningly, as if wondering what I had not said on the phone.
     The easiest way to explain what I wanted from Shuman was to show him. I opened my purse and pulled out my iPhone, where I had stored a collection of photos. Shuman examined them academically for quite some time before speaking. “Why, may I ask,” he said finally, “did you call my funeral home instead of the police?”
      I took a deep breath before answering. “Because I need this to remain unreported for a short period of time. You can still do the necessary post-mortem work-up, but I’m asking, please, do not report this. Not yet.”
     Shuman stood up from his desk so abruptly that his chair tipped over backward behind him. He pulled the receiver of his desk phone off its cradle and began to dial.
“I have heard quite enough, Dr. Stone.”
      I lunged forward.
     Shuman jerked back in an effort to escape my clutching hand, but I was quicker than he was. My hand closed around his, and we began to struggle for the telephone receiver. As we did, the unclasped purse dangling from my arm banged across Shuman’s desk with sufficient force to spill its contents.      
     Several thick wads of rubber banded cash fell out onto the desk.
     My strength was no match for his, but Shuman replaced the receiver of the phone, his eyes dropping once or twice to the cash on the desk and then returning to meet my own. Finally, he reached backward and righted his chair to sit down again.
     “Dr. Stone, I know who you are. I have read about you and your husband several times over the past few years. Your biotechnology company, founded on the very science that earned Dr. Wilson the Nobel Prize, is among the most successful in the history of the industry—”
    “And today,” I interrupted, “I became its sole surviving founder, and one of the wealthiest individuals in California.
     “Mr. Shuman, the murder weapon is my own gun. The only prints on it are certain to be mine. The murderer walked into our home through an unlocked front door. And if the police are called, they will quickly discover the same thing that I myself have recently discovered . . .”
     My voice cracked, and I paused and looked down at my lap for a moment before continuing. “I have reason to believe that Jeff might have been having an affair.
     “I don’t know with whom, but I believe that if I can find that person I might be able to identify Jeff’s killer. I’m not asking you to cover this up indefinitely, only to allow me a brief sliver of time to come to terms with the loss of my husband. And to find some answers.”
     “Absolutely not,” Shuman said, reaching again for the telephone on his desk. “At best, I would be interfering with a criminal investigation. At worst, I would be aiding and abetting a murderer.” He began dialing.
     “One million!” I shouted. Shuman hesitated and looked up. I reiterated, this time calmly, “One million dollars. With proper preservation of the body and no cause for suspicion after your examination, that sliver of time will make no difference to you whatsoever. Except, of course, that you’ll be a million dollars richer.”
     Shuman replaced the receiver once again. He glanced around the dingy office as if regarding it for the first time. He looked back down at the money lying on his desk, and then he met my gaze again.
     “And what if I personally doubt your innocence, especially given that you are now attempting to bribe an undertaker?”
     “You say you know who I am. If you should doubt me for even a moment, then, by all means, turn me in.”
     Shuman shook his head. He looked weary and sad. “Dr. Stone, I don’t believe you are behaving rationally, which is completely understandable under the circumstances. I may know who you are, but you don’t know anything about me. You have no idea what I might do. Why would you deliberately put yourself at this kind of risk? Your reputation? Your career? Your very freedom?” He rubbed his face with his hands and sighed. “Please, just follow the rules. Report your husband’s murder.”
     “Mr. Shuman, if you know my history as you claim to, then you should already understand why that is something I cannot do.”

*****
I next saw Larry Shuman at two o’clock in the morning. We met that very night on Fiesta Island, a small stretch of barren coastline within San Diego’s Mission Bay. I pulled Teresa as close to the shore as I could, and Shuman collected my husband’s body.
     I had covered Jeff with a blanket, and I was grateful that I did not have to view him again in that condition. I turned away as the chubby middle-aged man grunted while hoisting Jeff’s body onto a gurney. He then heaved the gurney through knee-high waves and onto the shore.
     “You have two weeks,” he said, and, not waiting for my response, he returned to his hearse.
    Without looking back, I turned Teresa and sailed out beyond the edge of the bay, where I cast the silencer overboard.
     I will not remain quiet.

*****
It was seven days ago that I placed my trust and my husband’s corpse, only weakly insured by a million dollar bribe, in the hands of a total stranger. Now, as I feel myself slipping beneath the surface, my two weeks have been cut short. I am out of time to find Jeff’s killer because the authorities have just found his body. 

Caesar married Calpurnia, the daughter of Piso, and got Piso made consul for the year following.

-Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
Plutarch (ca. 46–120 CE)

He had seen him favoured by the woman whom he imagined he loved, and whose possession he had been promised by the secret science of the Egyptians, whose power to unveil the mysteries of the future he firmly believed.

-Cleopatra
Georg Ebers (1837–1898)

Chapter Two

There are hundreds of them, thousands. Agonized, nameless faces and ransacked bodies writhing in desperation on white mattresses. An IV drips into one arm of each.
     The beds are clean, the facilities immaculate. The glaring lights upon the brilliant white beds only accent the appalling conditions of the patients. They are crammed together, side by side and end to end. Thousands of adjacent hospital beds.
     A phone is ringing. I ignore it and walk like a zombie down the rows of beds; my eyes cast from one face to the next. Beside me, a feeble plea comes forth from a teenaged voice.
     “Please . . .”

*****
I jerked awake. The familiar dream began to fade. I could feel a rocking motion beneath me, and I rolled over onto my back. Directly above me was the underside of our bedroom terrace. I slowly became aware that I was on my own yacht, lying in the center of the pool of dried blood that was now all that remained of Jeff. I could not remember how I got there.
     My left hand hurt, and I realized my fist was tightly clenched. As I opened it, four tiny trickles of blood seeped from indentations in my palm as my husband’s wedding ring fell from my hand. The boat rocked again, and a subtle rattling broke the early morning silence as the small gold circle rolled across the smooth wood of the yacht’s deck.

*****
I sobbed endlessly as I scrubbed Jeff’s blood from our terrace floor and the wrought iron railing. While sopping up the blood on Teresa’s deck, twice I had to pause to vomit into the bucket I was using to clean. When I had finished erasing the evidence of my husband’s death, I began clawing through our home in search of clues to his life.
     I rifled through the pockets of Jeff’s work attire in our walk-in closet. I yanked his weekend clothes from our dresser drawers and shoved the upper mattress from our bed to examine the space beneath it.
I began ransacking the entire house, pulling out every drawer, climbing shelves in every closet to access the highest nooks, shoving items haphazardly to the ground. I bored through dusty boxes in our garage and clambered over old furniture in our attic, using a flashlight to peer into every dark corner.
     I scoured Jeff’s side of the ocean view office we shared. I had never looked anywhere in Jeff’s desk except the front center drawer where he kept a checkbook and some house money. This time, I frantically tore through his desk, his file cabinets, and his bookshelves. Nothing.
     I began looking through the files on his computer desktop, and then I realized that his iPhone had been sitting on the desk the entire time. How stupid! Here was the true record of his most recent, most personal activities. My hands were shaking as I picked up the phone.

*****
I had never previously suspected that Jeff was cheating. His behavior had never been that of a cheater. In recent weeks, he seemed distracted, but that was not unusual for a man so dedicated to his work that he retained his academic position even while leading a successful biotechnology company.
     But even in those recent weeks, Jeff did not exhibit the sudden, complete detachment of someone who is straying, the obvious physical revulsion in the presence of a woman he used to love. I never would have considered my husband capable of infidelity. Until three days before his murder.

*****
Three days before his murder, I was clearing our dinner dishes from the table when the phone rang. Jeff had just retired to the living room with a stack of paperwork, and I could hear the sounds of a football game coming from our large-screen TV. I put the plates I was holding into the sink and reached across the kitchen island for the telephone receiver.
     “Well, hello, my lady,” said a familiar voice. “And how are you doing this evening?”
     “Hi, John. I’m great!” I said to my husband’s best friend. “You?”
   “I’m fine . . . except . . . well . . . I have a lot of patients these days asking about the latest advancements in superheavy-isotope-based therapeutics. Especially the people that—you know—have, uh, failed other therapies and don’t have many options left. So I was really looking forward to Jeff’s presentation at the conference in Seattle last week.
     “When Jeff didn’t speak, and then when I couldn’t find him anywhere, I went to the conference organizers to ask if his time slot had changed. They said he had not checked in . . .”

*****
The cheers coming from the living room TV grew to a roar as a touchdown was scored. Two commentators began shouting over each other.
     I, too, wanted to scream. The familiar background noises of our home, normally so comforting, had just become unrelenting cacophony.
     I slid off the barstool at the kitchen island where I had sat down in a daze while listening to John. I felt sick to my stomach. I took a few deep breaths, but they did little to quiet my nerves.
     I stepped out of the kitchen.
Jeff was in sweatpants, a T-shirt, and socks, reclining beneath a blanket on the living room sofa. In his lap was a stack of papers. His eyes moved up and down between his work and the football game on the TV mounted on the wall.
     I took another deep breath. “That was John,” I said.
     Jeff’s face paled, and he looked up from his papers. “What did he need?”
     “He was calling about the conference in Seattle. He was wondering why you missed your lecture.”
     Jeff’s eyes dropped back down to the pages in his lap, and he continued to shuffle through them. His complexion was now changing quickly from white to red. “I’ll be sure to call him back.”
     I stood motionless.
    “GO!” Jeff shouted suddenly at the TV, and the audience in the football stands began to cheer wildly. The redness on Jeff’s face deepened.
     “So why did you miss your lecture?” I pressed, and he paused before answering.
     “I decided my presentation wasn’t ready for prime time yet.”
     “Since when are you unprepared to deliver a lecture, especially one scheduled months in advance to be given to several thousand people?”
Jeff tossed the papers onto the coffee table and sat up. “What is this, Katrina, the third degree?”
     “Of course not. But why didn’t you tell me? I thought you were really looking forward to presenting. You love presenting! And it’s not like you to flake out without even extending the courtesy of canceling.”
     “I’ve had a lot on my mind,” Jeff said with a shrug. “I guess I just forgot.”
     “You just forgot?”
     “Yes.”
     “You just forgot that you skipped the entire conference?”
      Jeff’s eyes flashed. “What the . . . this is unbelievable! You checked up on me?”
    “I didn’t check up on you,” I found myself explaining. “John blurted it out. He said he started looking around for you when you didn’t speak and ultimately found out that you had never checked in at the registration desk. He obviously didn’t think you would have lied to me about your whereabouts. He was just worried about you. And now, so am I. Frankly, I’m also worried about the future of our relationship! What were you doing in Seattle all that time? Did you even go to Seattle? Did you even intend to go to Seattle?”
     Jeff stood up from the sofa and switched off the TV. “Of course I intended to go to Seattle!”
     It was the first time I had ever heard my husband shout in anger.
     “I registered for the conference, Katrina. Do you want to see my receipt? Is that how it’s going to be now? I had every intention of going . . . it’s just that I . . . I . . .”
     “Are you cheating on me?”
     “No!” he shouted. “Absolutely not! Of course not!” His voice softened. “Honey, listen. Don’t you remember those nights? Don’t you remember talking to me every night like we always do when one of us is away? Sometimes we talked late, late into the night. Long conversations. Remember?”
     I did. I also remembered that he had looked tired.
     Jeff and I used video calls to keep in touch when one of us was away on business. At that moment, I distinctly remembered that when Jeff was allegedly in Seattle he looked exceptionally tired.
     I remembered lying in bed one night, my bare breasts covered with our comforter, and watching him through my phone’s video screen. I remembered Jeff leaning his own iPhone against something so that he could speak to me while also rubbing his eyes, his shoulders, his temples. And behind him, I remembered that I could see the nightstand of his hotel room with a Marriott welcome package upon it.
     I remembered him smiling, shaking his upper body as if shaking off a rough day, and asking me what was beneath the blanket . . .

*****
“Come on, Katrina!” Jeff began shouting at me again in our living room. “Use logic. Ask yourself if I am behaving like a cheater.”
     “You mean like disappearing for four days solid?”
Jeff swallowed and looked down. Then he approached me and put both hands on my shoulders. He looked into my eyes, and in his I thought I saw desperation for the first time since meeting him.
     “I meant that a cheating man is not interested in the conversations we had while I was away,” he said quietly. “A cheating man is eager to get off the phone with his wife.”
     “Sure,” I scoffed, “unless his lover knows he’s married! Maybe she’s also married and has something to lose. Maybe she would sit there and wait for you to talk to me. Maybe she was off somewhere talking to her own husband at the same time. You’re not stupid, Jeff! You would know exactly how not to get caught. God, I can’t believe we are actually having this conversation!”
     But in my heart, I also could not believe Jeff would want that, any of that. It was not Jeff. Either I was wrong now, or I had been wrong about my husband all along.
     “Where were you for four days, Jeff?”
      He let out a sigh and sank back down onto the living room sofa. There were tears in his eyes.
    “Sweetheart, listen,” he said quietly. “I can’t tell you. I am sorry for that, I really am. I have never lied to you before. I have never kept anything from you. I am sorry for lying to you about the conference. I hate myself for that. But I can’t tell you now, either. Please, you just have to trust me . . .”

*****
Four days later, the silence of the empty house was maddening. Apart from my own ragged breathing and the steady, persistent ticking of our grandfather clock—a nagging reminder of the transience of time—there was only a void where a couple in love had lived.
     I sat down heavily on the carpeted floor next to Jeff’s desk in our office. My eyes were burning from a morning of almost constant crying. My fingers were swollen and sore from scrubbing Jeff’s blood from our terrace and the yacht, and they trembled as I scrolled through the screens on Jeff’s cell phone.
     In Jeff’s recent call history was an international phone number. I did not recognize the country code, and I might not have noticed the number at all—except for the fact that it appeared fifty-six times over five weeks.
     The record began with an incoming call to Jeff. After that, both incoming and outgoing calls between Jeff’s cell phone and the international number occurred daily, sometimes several times daily, with the exception of a single four-day time span.
     I recognized the dates immediately. They were the same four days as the conference in Seattle. This was the number of the person Jeff was with over those four days.
     For a few long moments, I only stared at Jeff’s phone as if the number itself would suddenly speak, explaining to me the inexplicable. Finally, I dialed the number.
     “Dr. Wilson!” a woman answered with an excessive enthusiasm that made me prickle. Her voice held a barely perceptible accent.
     “Actually, this is Dr. Stone,” I said coolly. “Jeff Wilson’s wife. With whom am I speaking?”
     There was a long pause, and when the woman spoke again the enthusiasm was gone. “I’m sorry, Dr. Stone,” she said. “This is Alyssa Iacovani. I am an old classmate of your husband’s from UCLA.”
Jeff had done his undergraduate work at UCLA, and we kept in touch with several of his college buddies. None of them had ever mentioned an Alyssa Iacovani.
     “I am the director of the Piso Project,” the woman went on. “This is an antiquities research project with Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the National Archeological Museum in Naples, Italy. I apologize for my sense of urgency, Dr. Stone, but I was expecting a call from your husband several hours ago, and he has not called. I was just about to phone him instead. I must see Jeff immediately.”
    For a moment, I struggled to comprehend her audacity as well as her statements. Antiquities research? Italy? What could she possibly need to speak to Jeff about?
     “I’m sorry,” I said finally. “My husband has been called away on family business and will be unavailable for at least the next couple of weeks.” Another lengthy pause ensued, and I began to wonder if she was still on the line.
     “In that case,” the woman said at last, “Dr. Stone, I apologize again, but I must see you immediately.”