Prose Header

His Other Face

by Loren W. Cooper

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

part 4

She read about him in the paper the next morning. Richard had made the front page for his last time, but as subject rather than author. He’d apparently been taken apart quite thoroughly, his pieces scattered around the scene of his death like the internal workings of a broken clock. The tone of the article held a certain pious relish that made her hurl the paper across the room before she finished the second paragraph.

She drew her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She had known it would be him. She had felt it, even then, in the mouth of the alley. It would be easy to deny it all, to curl up here and ignore everything, to wait for death meekly.

And the ring? What was all that? A psychotic break? She’d fought the urge to look at the damned thing until late in the night, then pulled it out and stared at it obsessively in the darkest hours of the morning, but it remained stubbornly ordinary, other than the craftsmanship and the subject.

She couldn’t deal with the fire and the smoke. But she could hide in the details. She had another concern. The killer. Her life. She wouldn’t make it easy for the bastard, though. She didn’t have it in her to lie down and die. She could approach the problem logically.

First, no matter how crazy Richard had sounded, what she had seen last night surpassed him easily for sheer insanity. Second, points between their stories matched too closely. Third, he had died for what he had seen, or what he had been carrying. She thought of the ring, of the light and darkness still dancing in her soul, of the weight still pressing her down, and she shuddered. Fourth, if all of these inconceivable things had occurred, could Burns as killer be so inconceivable?

She had a hard time believing it, but she remembered the cold shadows in his eyes during his discussion with Richard, at the party, and she wondered.

She needed more information. More about Burns. More about the ring. Everything revolved around the ring. She had no obligations that day or night that she couldn’t shake. She had other priorities, like survival. And sanity.

She logged into her laptop and searched the Internet for anything like the faces or the lions on the ring but found nothing similar. She leaned back, frustrated, and considered Marcus. He might be her best source for something unusual or rare from an historical or artistic perspective. She took pictures on her cellphone, then pulled herself together, made herself presentable, and set out for Marcus and the Smithsonian, the ring heavy in her pocket.

She didn’t have as easy a time making it through the administrative hoops and down to Marcus’ haunts as she remembered when she had been seeing him, but it had been a couple of years since the relationship had cooled and they had gone their separate ways. Finally, she called, and waited for him, and smiled when she saw him: his hair still mussed, his clothes still a little rumpled and all of him a little dusty, but his eyes were as bright and clean as she remembered. “Sara. Good to see you.”

The caution in his tone brought a smile to her lips. “Marcus. You’re looking well.”

He cocked his head. “What brings you here, Sara?”

Her smile faded. “Curiosity. Something from your area, maybe. If you don’t know, perhaps you can tell me who would.”

Interest lit his face. “Really! You have me hooked. What is it?”

“Not here,” she said. “Let’s walk.”

He shrugged. “I’m not in the middle of anything, and probably due for a break. Why not?”

They walked down the corridors and out of the Freer building and into the pale sunlight. They strolled out into the Haupt Garden, subdued now in winter dress, the Castle standing tall and wide beside them with the reassuring presence of an old and friendly face. They walked cautiously, conscious of the space between them as well as the time passed and the memories present.

“Like old times,” Sara offered.

“Not really.” Marcus looked away, out over the gardens, sighing. “I’m glad you didn’t decide to visit in spring. I’m not sure I could have tolerated it. Winter is better.”

“You’re probably right. For all it’s worth, I’m sorry.” The moment felt pale and strange to her, wrapped as she was in the fire and smoke she had carried since the ring had changed her world.

“What’s on your mind? You came here to ask me something.” Marcus’ voice had become deliberately casual, and a little cold.

She ignored what she heard in his voice. She knew he had never resolved the separation in his own mind. It had eased upon them, the pair of them growing slightly more apart with every day that passed, until they each found themselves in the company of a stranger. Sara had accepted the distance between them without understanding it; he had never understood, and so could never accept the new separation that lay between them.

She could see him struggling with the past again, so she made things easy for him by turning to business. “I saw something the other day. It reminded me of some of the works you used to cover for the museum.”

The gleam of an old and familiar passion lit his eyes, kindling a fire that never quite burned as brightly for anything else. “Oh? Where did you see it? An auction? Private collection? Is it for sale?”

She smiled in spite of herself at the hunger in his voice. She didn’t want to bring Marcus any risk, and she didn’t quite trust anyone else with the sight of the ring, so she took the safe path. “It’s a ring. It’s heavy. It has four human faces, separated by winged lions.”

His eyes narrowed, some of the excitement fading into thoughtfulness. “Sounds Old Testament, or Postmodern. You say that it reminded you of something you saw me working on?”

Sara nodded. “Not the same, but a similar style. Winged animals with bearded human heads.”

Marcus pursed his lips. “Probably Assyrian lammasu, though the animals would have been bulls, not lions. And lammasu are usually pretty damned big. And four is odd.”

That startled a laugh out of her. “More odd than five?”

“More odd than two, at any rate. Can I see it?”

Sara’s hands tightened into fists. She needed his help, but she feared the idea of letting him handle it. She pulled out her smartphone. “I have pictures.”

Marcus scrolled through the images. “Hmm. The style and expression on the faces almost shows a Zoroastrian influence, though lammasu actually predated Persian Zoroastrianism. I do remember a singular bronze statue from the Diyata region that had four faces atop a human body...”

She stopped. “A what influence?”

He looked at her impatiently. “Zoroastrianism. From the prophet Zoroaster’s teachings. You may have heard of him as Zarathustra, like Nietzsche’s book. Zoroastrianism is one of the first great monotheist religions. Some would say it’s the first great dualist cosmology. Many of the influences in Mithraism and Christianity derive from the foundation laid by Zoroastrianism.

“To simplify a bit, a school of Zoroastrianism took care of the problem of evil by building the universe out of the struggle between two poles: Ahriman and Ormazd. Those names rise out of older names, Angra Mainyu and Ahura Mazda: Angry Spirit and Great Lord.

“Ahura Mazda was truth, creation, light, goodness. Angra Mainyu was the lie, destruction, darkness, evil. The division in your statue’s faces isn’t quite dualist, but it is close to the ideas of the guiding principles, or the Immortals of Zoroastriansim.

“The Benificent Immortals and the Immortals allied to Aingra Mainyu are less angel and demon and more guiding principles to be followed, representing choices faced in life. The faces on your statue might be the faces of different Immortals.

“And Zoroastrianism is Persian, which might provide some link to the lammasu, and Ahura Mazda was associated with the eagle, and the lion was often a symbol of destruction, so the elements are there, but I don’t remember any specific connection to four faces with winged lions.

“Symbolically, youth could be associated with ascendance, age with weakness. I’d say your statue is probably some modern work influenced by a mixture of lammasu and perhaps Zoroastrianism. If the artist is any good, we’ll hear more about it, I’m sure. But I can’t think of any ancient work quite like it. Doesn’t rule it out, of course, but I would have been surprised not to hear rumors of a new find. I can look at it for you, if you’d like.”

He made the last comment so casually that she had to laugh. “Don’t worry about it.”

Disappointment clouded his features. “You aren’t going to give me any details, are you?”

She shook her head.

He studied her for a moment in silence. “There’s more to this than you’ve told me.”

Sara drew a heavy breath. “Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.”

He put one hand on her arm. “Sara, what is this all about? Can I help?”

Her lips tightened. “You don’t want any piece of this thing. Trust me.” She pulled away and left him there in the garden to wait helplessly for spring.

* * *

Marcus hadn’t helped at all. She had been a fool to look for a sane motive like avarice behind such insanity. And Marcus’ ramblings about ancient Persian religion meant as little to her as his speculations about modern art. She feared that the meaning of this lay in the inexplicable, with the mystery at the heart of the fire and smoke that had weighed her down since that moment in the street.

She went back to her apartment, thinking of insane motives, of Richard’s loss of the figurine, and of his postulated link between the murders, absorbed and not watching her environment as she knew she should. As she wrestled with the why of it, she felt the weight of the ring in her pocket dragging at her, weighing her down and, in the passing rumble of a truck on the street, she thought she again heard a voice calling to her softly, too low for her to make out the words, but she had an impression of urgency, of pleading.

She dropped one hand to cover the ring and felt it move under the fabric of her slacks. She thrust her hand in her pocket, closing her hand over the ring in a fist, and felt only the cool solidity of the metal. Her pace increased steadily, a sensation of looming weight hanging over her, so that she was running by the time she hit the door to her building.

She fell into her apartment cold and shaking and sweating.

Was this how it had been for Richard? She had a new respect for his strength, if that was so. She set the ring in the sill of the window, and studied it. The faces looked back at her. The peaceful faces seemed sad, the bestial faces touched by amusement. She tore her gaze away and closed her eyes, her chest heaving, her breath coming in deep gasps. It was more than the running, she knew. Her heart hammered in her ears.

She had to get herself under control.

She stripped and showered, varying the water from cold to hot, hot to cold, until the shock of the changes numbed her flesh, and her gasping came more from the stress to her body of the temperature extremes. She backed off the heat, stood under the water a long time after, then wearily climbed out of the shower, dried, and slipped into sweats.

She couldn’t continue like this. She had to do something.

She logged onto her laptop and started with Burns. She found all the usual stuff, the recent headlines, the editorials leading up to the Carver Bill, but she dug further. She searched for opposition articles, historical articles. She found little of either. She paid for a background search on Burns, but didn’t get much for her money: his current address, his office phone, his campaign URL. She found nothing older than the last few years. Nothing before he hit the scene as a dark horse independent candidate pulling an upset in a senate race forecast to be close. He had a lot of influence, not from his committee presence so much as his presence in the press.

No wonder Richard had wanted to take him down. Burns had the kind of treatment from pundits and editors and the public that other politicians would have sold their souls to have. She’d known that Burns had presence; she’d felt that directly, but she hadn’t seen before how well Burns had done in the eyes of the public.


* * *

Proceed to part 5...

Copyright © 2018 by Loren W. Cooper

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