A painted rock.
A rock about the size of a small child’s open palm. Painted an odd, curiously light reflective smoky gray hue. One side of it was curved slightly. The curve gentle, suggesting that it would fit perfectly in the palm of a small hand. Like some kind of Neolithic hand tool; maybe a tool used to scrape the flesh off an animal hide. Or maybe some kind of stone hammer.
Opposite the gently sloping curved side, the rock was flat. Flat and smooth. Unnaturally smooth. As if some squatting, hulking Neanderthal had spent hours upon hours of grinding this side of the rock’s surface down until it felt as if it had been polished by a jeweler’s power tool. Amazingly smooth to the touch. Like touching the surface of some fine oriental porcelain. And cold . . . almost ice cold to one’s tactile senses.
Odd. Very odd.
But the truly strange part was the crude image chiseled into the flat surface. Two circles, one atop the other, with the bottom circle being slightly larger than the upper. Attached to the lower end of the bottom circle were to short, straight parallel lines. Nothing more. Just two little lines jutting downward from the large circle like two stubby little legs.
A stick person. A figure that made one think of a child’s crude attempt at drawing a person. Simplicity in itself. Yet somehow . . . someway . . . generating an indefinable menace to it.
One descriptor burst into his mind as he gazed at the rock. Creepy. Just damn creepy.
He stared at it a second longer, idly packing the bowl of his pipe with tobacco out of the plastic pouch sitting on his lap, then frowned, shook his head no, and looked up at the younger man sitting across from him in the living room.
“Get rid of it. Tonight. Within the hour. Step out of the house and throw it as far as you can. Throw it away and walk away. That’s my advice. Given freely.”
“But professor . . . why? It’s obviously old. Very old. It has got to be at least as far back as twenty . . . maybe thirty thousand years! If so, this would be the oldest evidence yet proving Man was living on the North American continent. This discover is history in the making here! Why in the world would I want to throw it away?”
The professor clamped down on the stem of his pipe, sealed the pouch of tobacco closed and tossed it onto the lamp stand beside his chair. He was a much older man than his younger guest was. He had a darkly tanned, weather beaten face with heavily etched laughter lines around the corners of his eyes, a thick, walrus mustache of a startling glacier whiteness blossoming out from underneath a rather sharp, razor thin nose, wearing large round wire rim glasses that looked to be about a hundred or more years old.
He had on old, frayed looking blue jeans, an old looking cotton long sleeved shirt, wearing boots that must have walked across the rough rocky terrain of every high mountain desert in at least a dozen countries. The small living room of his house was a testament to his years of being a dedicated paleontologist. It was filled with a hundred different assorted artifacts of museum quality from cultures all over the world.
Across from him sat a man twenty or more years younger. Bright blue eyes of a still vigorous youth; neatly coiffed blond air, wearing this year’s most expensive fashionable casual wear. He had driven all night long down from the hills in Northern Arizona just to see the old man.
“Let me tell you a story,” the old man said, removing the pipe stem from his lips and pointing toward the rock with it.
“Back in 1946 an old prospector came down to Tucson with this artifact in his backpack. Said he’d stumbled onto an old Indian burial site up near an abandoned gold mine. Just like you, he tried to find a buyer for it. Maybe make some spending cash leading some city boys up into the mountains to the site.”
“Apparently he found no takers.”
The old man frowned, shaking the thick mass of unruly white hair.
“Just the opposite. Sold the rock . . . that rock . . . to some wealthy banker. Made quite the profit, I’m told. The banker wanted to go look at the burial grounds and told the old man he’d be back the following morning with some friends who wanted to go with them. He showed up to the old man’s hotel room at the crack of dawn. The old man wasn’t there.”
The blond haired, blue eyed youth sitting across from the white haired old scientist grinned greedily and snickered.
“Smart. The old prospector took off with the banker’s money and the rock, eh?”
The scientist slipped the stem of his pipe between his lips again and shrugged, clear gray blue eyes of steel looking into the young man’s face.
“Don’t know, really. If the old man left, he forget to take his boots with him. Or the heavy backpack he laid on the floor beside his bed. Or the banker’s money. He was never seen again.”
“Huh,” grunted the young man derisively, “Chickened out, eh?
“In 1975 that same rock shows up in the collection of a colleague of mine. We worked in the Anthropology Department at the University of New Mexico back then. He was ecstatic at finding the artifact in some then undiscovered Aztec site just outside Mexico City a few weeks earlier. After he showed the rock to me and a dozen other colleagues of ours that morning, we made arrangement to have a late supper that very night. He never showed up. Both he and the rock just disappeared. Left his wife of ten years and their two children behind. Left his car still parked in the assigned parking slot at the university. He just . . . disappeared.”
A wiry, cautious, grin cracked half of the young man’s lips back into a derisive little sneer. But in his clear blue eyes was a suggestion of doubt as he glanced at the rock sitting on the coffee table situated between the two of them.
“You . . . you’re not pulling my leg are you? Trying to con me out of my recent discovery? Want the glory and the fame for yourself?”
He white haired, bespectacled old scientist sat in his big comfortable chair, one leg thrown over the other, and smoked his pipe. Didn’t say a word. Just sat in his chair and puffed on the old battered pipe of dark briarwood and watched the young man with his slate gray eyes.
“It’s just a rock! A rock with some squiggly lines caved into it! How the hell could this thing do something to someone?”
A bead or two of sweat appeared on the young man’s forehead. His eyes were glued onto the gray object on the coffee table in some half crazed, half delusional mask of fear mixed in with disbelief.
“Ah, to hell with it. I thought you could help me sell this thing off to some collector or museum. We’d make a tidy little profit. But instead, I think I’ll just get outta here and go down to Phoenix. I know some collectors down there. They’ll jump at a chance to help me!”
With that the young man reached out with a hand, swiped the gray rock off the coffee table angrily, and stormed out of the old scientist’s small home in an angry huff.
Two hours later the phone beside the old man’s bed started ringing unrepentantly just a little after two in the morning. It was the county sheriff’s department. A truck driver almost smashed into a bright red BMW 320i convertible sitting in the middle of the highway. Just sitting there not moving. The motor was still running. The car’s headlights staring brightly off into the distance with its high beams, the driver’s side door slung wide open and waiting.
Did he know anything about this? Maybe seen this car drive past his place possibly around midnight?
No. He knew no one who drove such a fancy car living around here. Sorry. Wished he could help. Yes . . . yes. He would come in tomorrow morning and look at the car. Yes . . . yes. Glad to help. Good night, deputy.
He rolled over in bed, switched on the light sitting on the nightstand, then picked up the hard object lying motionlessly beside the lamp. A painted rock. With stick figures etched into it’s hard surface.
Fondling it gently, like a father would to a recalcitrant baby unwilling to sleep in the dead of night, he smiled and petted it tenderly on its flat surface.
“There, there, my sweet. No one is going to take you away from Daddy. But you’ve been a bad boy again, haven’t you. Playing mind tricks with the peasants again. We’ve talked about that, you know. Dangerous. Very dangerous. But you’ve had your fun. So let’s get some sleep.”
Good night, my precious. Good night.
B.R. Stateham is a sixty-five year old curmudgeon who never grew up. He’s been writing stories, covering a number of genres, for most of his lifespan. And who knows? Maybe someday he’ll be discovered as the mystery genre’s ‘Next Amazing New Talent!’ Yeah, right.