Disclaimer: Takes place in the same universe as, and sometime after, "Antiquities." The fast summary would be that this is an AU where Rebecca Horne survived Luther, although her husband didn't. The rest of it you'll probably pick up as we go. Written for my HL Crossovers100 -- prompt #42: triangle.
Rated: PG. Beta courtesy of Devo, Dragon, Gyrfalcon, and tarsh; mistakes are my fault, of course. Let me know and I'll be glad to fix them.
Rebecca woke in the grey light before dawn to find that she'd thrashed the blankets off the bed and the sheet into a tangle around her legs. Neither of those was half as interesting as the question of why the pyramid in her dream came with a moonstone cap or why the last owner had kept a folded pocket handkerchief between the stone and the pyramid.
In her dream, the pyramid hadn't shone like copper or new bronze. The metal had shimmered somewhere between the shades of red gold and antique bronze, but with a subtly different gleam and luster. It was a type of metal that Rebecca had only seen one place before when awake.
She sat up and stretched, then flexed her hands and turned them palms-down to examine the backs of her arms. As always, the damage from the night before had finished healing, even the long gash that had gouged the ulna and severed tendons. She didn't see blood on the sheets, either, but she checked anyway to make sure she was awake.
Rebecca untangled herself from the sheet, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and stood up, heedless of the chill or her own nakedness. The dream had changed her priorities for the day and possibly even the fortnight. Shower, and breakfast first, yes, but then she needed to go find where her challenger had lived and retrieve the pyramid before his estate did.
At least his quickening hadn't felt intelligent enough, or curious enough, to try to analyze the metal. Unlike Ramirez.
^ \/ ^ \/ ^
Years before, Rebecca had learned (she shied away from other memories of Amanda, still flinching from the aches) that the trick to illegal actions was to look as though you were supposed to be there and to prepare ahead. If you had a key, a suitcase, and the name of the apartment's occupant, then obviously you couldn't be breaking and entering. You must have been invited.
As she closed the door behind her, she was already wrinkling her nose at the fading reek of industrial-strength cleaners applied too assiduously. Still, Rebecca had to count herself grateful this wasn't one of the times when she so clearly had permission to be there that a landlady would dun her for the overdue rent.
'Wilhelm Fiarellei' hadn't been the world's sharpest wit nor the deadliest hand with a sword, but he hadn't been completely incompetent either. He'd been quick and skilled and he might have won if he'd been using a lighter weapon. He'd insisted on using a heavy broadsword and Rebecca had come in and around before he'd realized his arms were just that bit too tired to let him block in time.
Looking around the too-neat, very empty apartment, Rebecca found herself wondering if his last victim's quickening had pushed him to use a different blade or if he'd had a tech-lover's glee for new toys and a new blade to try out against someone he considered a pushover. Either way, his name hadn't originally been Wilhelm, she'd caught that much. And she had a sinking suspicion this wasn't his only domicile.
^ \/ ^ \/ ^
The flight from London to the States gave Rebecca time to read through Wilhelm's account books, and more than enough time to shake her head at his idea of ciphers. He'd used a basic substitution cipher and the Cyrillic alphabet; she had more trouble with his spelling than the translation.
The good news was that he'd been almost obsessively organized. His account books contained detailed notes of where his stashes were located, when the rental payments were due, which accounts were paying them, and which laptop file had the data on what items were in storage where.
The bad news was that Wilhelm had been a collector of proportions that would be considered spendthrift if she'd thought he actually paid for what he took.
The worse news lay in her need to probe a mostly-settled quickening for the passwords to his spreadsheets and image files. But it was that or spend months going from site to site, and sifting through them all, one after another.
Rebecca spent three hours of her flight over the Atlantic 'sleeping.' Instead of descending into dreams, she slid down into her own mind as if for meditation and investigated memories she'd hoped to encapsulate and slowly erode into nothing. Protecting herself from his habits while still managing to understand the thoughts she was scrutinizing took slow, patient work. The airplane was oddly useful for that; the steadily throbbing pulse of the engines acted as a drum, grounding her while pacing her descent into and depth within her mind.
Rebecca cut delicately into a sticky mass of amber encysting Wilhelm's thoughts for eventual dissolution, flaking the layers apart like a favorite pastry being dissected to figure out the cook's proportion of chocolate ganache to filo.
It took a firm grip on one's own center and an unflinching eye to stare at the puffs of memory that shuddered up: here an obsession (never a lover, never touched, his passion for order had included a reflexive flinching from touch and taste), there a mutilation (too slow and studied to be called something as simple as murder), in this cyst a father-figure at the orphanage (far too attentive and tactile to be merely paternal, but slow and easily evaded and the implications never, ever looked at or believed), in this window an artisan whose precision of line and form almost soothed--
The stewardess's hand was still on her shoulder, and the woman was already apologizing as Rebecca surfaced. "I'm so sorry, but you were whimpering--"
Rebecca nodded and swallowed bile back down, holding the revulsion off her face lest it be misunderstood. "Yes, I imagine I was. I'm sorry, did I wake anyone?"
She drank Irish coffee to wake up and soothe flayed nerves and wrote the summoned names and passwords down on her drink napkin before they could fade away and necessitate another trip down into that soot.
^ \/ ^ \/ ^
"Mrs. Horne, we both know I couldn’t do business if I gave out my names. " Val Whidbey used genial courtesy to disguise his desire not to offend and his simultaneous determination to protect his sources. Small surprise when his antiques company was equally famed for the quality of its sales and for its discretion.
Rebecca pointed out dryly, "Val, you're using my surname. When you wanted me to sell the Ashe plaque, it was Rebecca."
She heard an exhalation she suspected contained tobacco smoke before he said, "A spoonful of courtesy and all that."
"Yes. I'm not asking you for a name, Val." Rebecca filed a nail smooth while she waited for the inevitable counter-query. Tiredness, like impatience, she kept out of her voice. This call was expensive enough at international rates; weaknesses would only make it more expensive in costs other than pounds sterling.
"You aren't, hmm? What are you asking for, Mrs. Horne?" Whidbey sounded interested now, and slightly more amenable.
"Assuming you still have a contact number for the last would-be purchasers, Mr. Whidbey, I'm asking you to ring them up for me, give them my email address, and ask them to contact me." Rebecca added very gently, "I'm not asking you for their names, nor their number. And we are at last names now, Mr. Whidbey, because we are potentially at the end of our business relationship."
"I can make a phone call or never have a chance at that armoire, then?" He'd made a few very hard bargains himself, and didn't bother with anger. Yet.
Rebecca put the nail file away, one eye on the clock; she needed to leave in four minutes to be on time for breakfast without jogging to the restaurant. "Make the phone call, Mr. Whidbey, and you have first refusal on it. My word on that."
He let the silence hang between them until he was sure she wouldn't break it. Then he went for what sales he could get. "And of course, you're never going to explain this and I won't get a commission if you sell this item."
"There won't be a sale," Rebecca said quietly. "At most, a loan. That said, I've discovered some engraved glass I don't need, if you'd be interested in handling the transaction for me. A Louis Vaupel tazza engraved with a pheasant hunt."
This time it was a much shorter time until Val laughed softly and said, "I'm never playing bridge against you, Mrs. Horne. You do play, don't you?"
Rebecca smiled despite herself. "I used to. I rather think I do again. Let me know when you need a partner, Mr. Whidbey."
"I'll even tell you why I need to fleece them, when it comes to that," he told her, amused. "And it's Val, please. I'll make the call for you. I can't promise they'll contact you, but I'll let them know you think you've found something of interest to them. Will that do?"
"It will. No harm, I hope, Val?"
"And no foul, Rebecca. Do have a good afternoon."
"And you." Rebecca let him hang up and didn't tell him she was six time zones away and just starting another long day of sorting gold from gilt and hardwood from rot. She certainly wasn't going to tell him about the two men helping her with it, but if either of them moved to England again, she might introduce Val to them for the fun of watching him decide whether to flirt or flee the field.
^ \/ ^ \/ ^
Three afternoons later, Rebecca emerged out of the growing organization from chaos of a storage unit in middle Chicago and tried not to wince at the sunlight. Sorting out Fiarelli's trinkets, titbits, and treasures was enough to warrant a headache on its own. Even worse, the constant proximity to them, and attempt to understand why he'd placed them the way he had, made it difficult to keep his recently acquired quickening from resurfacing.
All of which led to Rebecca sitting in a Chicago coffeehouse, drinking a larger mug of strongly caffeinated tea than she cared to admit to, and hoping the circles under her eyes were less apparent to her contact than they'd been to the friends helping her. She'd called in two carefully hoarded favors to clear the locker: one from an immortal with a sharper eye for antiques than even her own, the other from an immortal who'd grown up around power both political and otherwise who knew exactly what wheels to grease to start loads moving swiftly and had a knack for getting an upset item to quit throwing sparks or humming ominously.
The favor Rebecca hadn't admitted she was calling in lay in telling them when and roughly where she was meeting with an unknown government agency which had attempted international theft. And when she should be back.
They'd had a few words about that before she left, their words almost as cutting as the wind off Lake Michigan. She strongly suspected she hadn't actually won the dispute so much as left before it was concluded. Nothing new with either of them, come to think of it.
Rebecca's mouth was still twitching with winces she'd held back during their arguments when the bells on the coffee shop door rang again. The man who came in brought a gust of cold Chicago wind with him; it eddied through the room, making the scones smell even better. Rebecca looked over at him, as she had at every other person who'd walked in over the last half-hour, and decided this might well be her contact. Of course, she'd thought that about one of the baristas, too.
The gentleman was bald, barrel-chested, and he carried himself with the same upright alertness that her visitor, 'Neil,' had possessed. Also like Neil, he let his gaze flick across the entire room, locking in people and furniture, doors, windows, and relative positioning as he walked to the counter to order. He was in slacks and sweater, not uniform, but there was no mistaking the bearing or the air of command.
He came away from the register carrying a large mug of coffee in one hand and a plate in the other and walked directly to her corner table without having to sidle around the other patrons. Too, he moved with a regulated pace that told her he'd done his share of marching. A military officer, then, although she wasn't sure which branch, and a senior one given the controlled authority he carried as lightly as his weight.
Rebecca stood to greet him, smiling despite herself at his courtesy in bringing two different types of pastry and two forks to a meeting he hadn't wanted.
He paused a few feet away and nodded to her, dignified and courteous. "Mrs. Horne, it's a pleasure to meet you. Can I hope you share a sweet tooth?"
"I'm more fond of savories," Rebecca admitted, "but the cakes here would tempt a saint." She smiled at him, kept her hands clearly visible, and said, "I'm sorry to have brought you out on short notice, sir. Hopefully this location is public and neutral enough for you?"
"Yes, ma'am, it is." He set the plate down and held the chair for her as she sat again. "We do appreciate that, although I have to say I was and am a little startled by the relayed message."
Rebecca took a bite of the cheese scone and washed it down with tea almost strong enough to suit her. "I would imagine so, but I didn't care to give Mr. Whidbey too much information. I enjoy dealing with Val, but he and I have drawn several of our lines at different points."
The man across from her took a bite of his own chocolate cake; he paused for a moment to appreciate it before sipping his coffee. "Which lines would those be, Mrs. Horne?"
She studied him, a slow, rueful smile curving her mouth. "Those points of obligation, duty, and ethics past which I will not willingly go. I recognize some of the lines in your face, sir. Authority and responsibility, and worry for carrying both of them properly. Please feel free to call me Rebecca."
That got a sudden smile from him and Rebecca realized she wasn't the only one surprised by an instinctive feeling of camaraderie. "I don't know that I've been complimented on wrinkles before. You sound like you've handled some interesting problems of your own once or twice, Mrs. Horne. I'm afraid we do have to go through the mutual suspicion phase of things, however."
Rebecca nodded and took another small sip of her tea. "Yes, I rather thought we should. Is there anything I can do to speed the process up? You've been kind enough to meet with me. I hate to take more of your day than necessary."
He still hadn't given her a name, but she was sure that was deliberate. "For starters, ma'am, I need an explanation of why you contacted us."
Rebecca settled her mug on the table, folded her arms in front of her, fingers intertwined and her chin resting on them, and considered how best to describe the problem. What she finally said, however, was, "Did Neil -- or whatever his name may be," and she let her voice approve of his subterfuge as her words might not have, "-- tell you how he acquired my permission to borrow the Ashe plaque?"
"He did, but he likes to leave plenty of space between the lines. It gives me room to contemplate, and both of us maneuvering room. He said the two of you had a few sharp exchanges, and you liked his behavior during it, so you granted us a long-term loan."
Rebecca could well imagine Neil writing that up. She laughed despite herself, fingers coming up to cover her lips. "Oh, dear. Yes, I can imagine he put it that way...." She looked up and the officer -- general, she suspected -- was smiling again almost despite himself.
"Yes, well." Rebecca contained her laughter and found herself admitting, "I apologize, I'm rather short on sleep these last several days. Please understand that I've never in my life seen anything like the metal which made up that plaque. And Neil controlled most of the flinch when I mentioned that Juan had tried to analyze the alloy once, but only most of it. I've since found another item made of that metal and the way it's been stored tells me that someone, somewhere -- not the bloody, much-damned fool from whom I retrieved it -- thought it was profoundly dangerous."
She looked up, tired and realizing that her odd comfort with this stranger had allowed her to ramble. He was still sitting straight, one hand loosely wrapped around his coffee cup, but he was watching her intently: not just listening, but hearing, and Rebecca sighed in relief.
"I am sorry; I'm usually much more coherent. I knew this idiot had an item made of that same metal, and it is so very clearly a purposed object that I thought I'd best call and pass word to the people who apparently knew what the plaque was for, in hopes you'll know what to do with it, or how to store it, or even simply how long I should plan on arranging guardianship of the thing. Every time I look at it, it speaks to me more clearly of being--" Rebecca spread her hands, hoping for clarity, and finally said, "It speaks of power, and danger, and age. Even more important, its design is that of something made for use, not decoration. And I have no idea what that use might be, which worries me even more."
Rebecca rubbed at her temple with a thumb, trying to ignore her headache, and took another sip of her tea. It was cold, but it was still caffeine. "I've flown over from England to track it down, and called in favors to find it more quickly, and it was in the middle of a jumble and mess such that the original tablets of Inanna's descent into the underworld might have been under a Tibetan votary dagger, and the lot of them hidden away in a drawer of John Dee's desk. With, of course, Dee's astrological observations stacked somewhere else entirely."
Rebecca didn't expect him to follow that, so she settled for, "If you can imagine a heap where real treasure lies tarnishing under false diamonds the size of your fist and the both are barely visible under threadbare velvet and barrels of rotting nutmegs, it might explain what I've been digging through."
"A royal mess, none of it sorted, and nothing quite clearly valuable? And you've been searching through it for one item?" He said it thoughtfully and Rebecca realized he grasped her analogy more thoroughly than she'd thought. "No wonder you look so tired, ma'am. How did you know to go looking?"
Rebecca sighed. "I won't be offended when you don't believe me, sir. I dreamed it."
The officer raised an eyebrow, mouth still immobile but thoughts wheeling behind his eyes. "You dreamed it." He studied her, then said, "And 'when,' not 'if.' I imagine you would have thought up a better story if you'd wanted to lie about that, Mrs. Horne. Did I understand correctly that whatever you've found used to belong to a complete idiot?"
"Only if you're being charitable to him," Rebecca said and drank the last of her tea. "He was obsessive, compulsive, prone to 'liberating' items, and held no concern for his targets surviving his theft. And he's piled it all together, damn the man, with his own notions of 'organization.' He sorted everything by colors, not time period nor culture, material nor use. I'm embarrassed by how long it took us to admit that the maniac really was painting rainbow patterns across three-dimensions, although some of it was still bagged or boxed in containers of different colors than the contents."
"Where do you put that shade of silver in a rainbow?" he asked curiously, and Rebecca stared at him.
"If you think it's silver, sir, then I'm talking to the wrong person," she said quietly.
His voice held the apology he didn't speak. "I had to be sure, Mrs. Horne. What color is it? And what is it? The message we received only mentioned 'an item'."
"It's a bronzed-gold, not red-gold, and the highlights aren't right for the gold alloys I know. Nor for bronze, come to that, and it feels too old not to have patinated. The capstone is something like moonstone in its diffraction, although it's nowhere near so fragile in terms of breaking or scratching."
Now he was frowning. "We are talking the same metal, yes, ma'am. A capstone? What do you mean?"
Rebecca frowned. "I'm sorry. It's a pyramid. Not entirely solid -- the weight isn't right for that -- but... regularly hollowed, if you follow me, and mostly solid. It's not unbalanced, anyway. It's quite heavy and it has more of the hieroglyphs. It also has sigils that look like a mix of astrology and alchemy. And the pyramid's capstone, or keystone -- the topmost pyramid-shaped piece? -- is removable and made of a white, opaque crystal."
Presence shivered across her nerves and it took an effort for Rebecca to held her body still. Connor wandered in off the sidewalk, a paperback in hand, and Rebecca made herself glance at him and then away as if he were in fact a stranger. She looked at the military man opposite her -- Neil's commanding officer, she suspected, and probably a general. She could see the smile lines around his mouth and eyes despite the startled, worried expression currently on his face.
He took his time thinking about the problem, then nodded. "A pyramid, ma'am? How many sides? And how large?"
Rebecca lifted her cup as if to sip nonexistent tea, then set the cup back down and said quietly, "Five sides counting the base it sits upon, sir, and the distance between my hands is the length of one of those sides. It rises at an angle of forty or forty-five degrees or so. It should be just shy of half a meter high with the capstone properly in place."
That comment surprised him for some reason. "The crystal isn't in place?"
Rebecca shook her head immediately. "No. Which is part of what worries me so. One of the previous owners made a wood case to hold the two pieces separated. The thickness of wood and fabric between the crystal and metal is four times that of the wood between pyramid and outside force, thicker even than the width of wood between the crystal and outside force. And the crystal is encased top and bottom, locked into place by a wooden hasp -- not one of metal. Someone was most careful not to let the crystal be broken, and even more careful to keep it from metal, and that metal in particular."
Rebecca added, bemused, "And yet in my dreams, it was separated from the pyramid by a man's silk pocket handkerchief. I really don't know why it was different. That worries me too."
On the edges of her vision, she could see Connor lazily watching one of the people behind the counter. She didn't look away from the man who was focused so sharply on her words.
"I have no authority to ask, ma'am, but if I could have some of my people examine that item?"
Rebecca laughed softly despite herself. "Sir, I'm here to offer you its keeping for fear that someone will set it off -- whatever it does, which I daresay you can't tell me once you know. I don't even have to ask if it is something you recognize, which saves you having to say you can't tell me that either." She smiled at him to take any sting out of it, and saw his answering smile agree with her.
"I appreciate that, Mrs. Horne, and we greatly appreciate you going to this much trouble to find it and bring it to us. Not many would have. I don't believe we've been properly introduced, either." He extended a hand to her, still warm from the coffee mug. "I'm George Hammond."
Rebecca felt her smile broaden and took his hand across the table with its empty plates and mugs. "I'm very pleased to meet you, General -- or is it Admiral?"
He shook her hand firmly, without undue pressure but with enough strength to say he took her seriously, female or not. She approved of that, even before Hammond said, "General, Mrs. Horne." He chuckled. "And if you like, try George. If I could accompany you and retrieve that item?"
"Of course." Her hand came up to cover a yawn, and she shook her head. "I'm sorry. Some very long days. Please, make it Rebecca. Yes. Let's retrieve that from the hotel and if I may bother you for a more direct email address?" Rebecca added ruefully, "Murphy's Law being what it is, I'd rather ask you and not need it."
Hammond nodded immediately. "Just in case you dream any more pieces of that metal? Certainly." He stood when she did. "But let's get this one handled and let you get some sleep before you go back to sorting out Ali Baba's cave."
Rebecca laughed despite herself. "Do you know, that's exactly what it's like?" She walked out with him and noticed how casually he didn't look at the baristas on the way. Her mouth quirked in amusement and she wondered again which of them was military and how long it had taken Connor to decide whom to watch. She was betting on either the lovely blond woman with the sharp eyes or the striking black gentleman who spoke English as a very good second language.
The wind bit through her coat as they stepped out, full of damp cold courtesy of Canada and the Great Lakes. Across the street, Matthew was leaning against a light pole, reading a book and apparently waiting on a bus. Rebecca left her scarf hanging down the front of her coat to tell him all was well and her head in no danger, then settled her hands in her pockets and turned towards the hotel.
With any luck, her friends would even let her sleep before they finished yelling at her for getting involved in an incomprehensible, covert military project -- if only to make sure she listened to them.
It was a small price to pay whether they let her sleep first or not.
~ ~ ~ finis ~ ~ ~
Comments, Commentary, & Miscellanea:
The title is from two sources. Signal can mean both a way of communicating, or something of considerable importance. The pyramid is both. The other source is some Emma Bull lyrics. "Tell me, please, what's signal and what's noise?"
Yes, sorry, this is still the AU where Rebecca had the last piece of the Methuselah's Stone.
Val Whidbey contacted Rebecca about whether she was willing to sell the Ashe Plaque (inherited from Graham Ashe, hence the name) about a month before "Antiquities" began. I quite like the man, even if he isn't entirely scrupulous. He may show up again somewhere.
Some of Louis Vaupel's glass work may be seen here: http://www.cutglass.org/articles/art142.htm . Amazingly gorgeous stuff.
Hell yes, Connor and Matthew demanded the full story on the plaque/attempted theft. They also had a description of Jack O'Neill and were watching for him. As for Matthew soothing down irate magical items... the man's first name is Matthew of Salisbury. He grew up around Stonehenge. Further deponent sayeth not.
Jack O'Neill called himself Neil when Rebecca caught him breaking into her house in England.
Inanna was the Sumerian goddess of sexuality, love, and warfare. (She's also known as Ishtar.) The story of her descent into the underworld was originally written on tablets.
John Dee was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I; among other things, he was mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and occultist.
About the storage pattern of 3-D rainbows: what? You got the impression somewhere that Fiarelli was sane?
The pyramid is a remote control, although I'm not entirely sure to what. (A long-buried ha'tak in Eastern Europe, I'm half-afraid!) The crystal is the power supply, among other things.
The pocket handkerchief in her dream was red, for danger.
Ali Baba's cave is from the Arabian Nights' story Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. The cave was full of various riches (including gold) and sealed with a password.
Yup. Teal'c and Sam got in as baristas (in memory of the episode where Teal'c was masquerading as a short-order cook). Rebecca missed Daniel keeping an eye on Matthew.
Last but not least: no, I have no idea how worried the SGC is going to be about a UK national being able to find naquadah in her dreams. If I do figure it out, you'll probably hear about it.