Excerpt

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Sutra of the Pearl

Book 1 Paths Unknown Series

Excerpt from Chapter 1

Although Julie, the writer, had traveled rough to every continent all she’d managed to sell were watered-down snippets for in-flight magazines. Far from high adventure, they catered to the traveler looking for comfort and predictability—visits to Hong Kong’s night markets, day trips down the Danube, and weekends at a dude ranch in the Canadian Rockies.

Even so, her minor scribblings massaged and cemented an aura for her many acquaintances of no consequence in Canada that she was living the adventurer’s dream. Hard-ass skeptics like Dora got nothing but slack-jawed, mute civility out of Julie.

Via the screen door Julie overheard a co-worker ask Dora, “Who was that?”

“One of the Paglia girls. Remember? The mother used to come in here wearing that god-awful hat of peacock feathers and a fanged boa over her shoulder.”

At the time Doni disappeared, Julie’s mother was a sixties blond bombshell in the braless seventies who blasted into a room like an icy nor’easter, leaving everyone scampering for warmth.

“She’s the one who killed her kid,” Dora added.

“Well, she looked capable of it. If they ever find the body, they’ll know the boy’s death was no accident.”

____________________

At the Paglia’s two-storey clapboard house, dry rot eclipsed any sign of paint. Julie leaned her bike inside the rickety picket fence and, out of habit, tickled the underbelly of the giant Weeping Willow. Such an oddity in dry conditions, some speculated it stood above a shallow aquifer which would explain the house’s sinking foundation.

Danger! No entry by order of the Village of Cedarwood. She ducked under this yellow warning tape strung across the crumbling stone stairs to the front door.

As always, the loose brick slid out of the porch edging, revealing the front door key. Her scalp crawled as if arriving home before her older brother, Sam, or Papa. Inside, she stumbled sideways. Without furniture to mask the sloping floor, it seemed to undulate with a nauseous funhouse effect.

She propped the photo upright atop the mantle. “Welcome home, Doni … Papa.”

Julie trailed fingertips down her cheek, imagining her papa’s callused paws during her nightmares. “Patatina,” she mouthed.Wake up, Little Potato.” Dare she go upstairs to her old bedroom? Surely the threat would be gone by now.

Inside the kitchen where the stairs started, she could see the railing had disintegrated, but the steps seemed intact. She toed each one as she climbed until emerging onto the top landing.

STAY OUT! NO TRESPASSING. Scrawled like blood across her parents’ old bedroom door with one of Julie’s red crayons, her mother’s words lashed out. Suddenly she was six years old again, peering through her bedroom keyhole at her mother, hands on hips in the hallway, standing amid strewn piles of her papa’s clothes. Inside the hollow bedroom Sara Paglia’s sexual angst lived on.

Returning downstairs, it was while Julie passed through the plaster archway into the living room that she spotted him tucked into the bay window alcove. Asleep on a saggy, stained couch she pegged him to be a squatter who’d broken in through a window and hauled in a cast-off.

Then, the horror of the scene sunk in. He wore her father’s dirty work coveralls and slippers; it crossed her mind the figure she’d seen in the casket wasn’t her papa. He’d come home to Cedarwood, and here he’d remained. Alive or dead—until today.

The man’s arms rested at his sides, the railway cap covering his face as she crept closer, leaned in, and tugged on his pant leg to wake him. The cap slid sideways, revealing a waxy, white cheek. Julie jumped and groped the wall.

“What the hell are you doing here?” The raspy voice came from far away, like inside a tunnel.

Fuck me. In two leaps she was at the front door. She yanked it open, vaulted down the first two steps, tripped over a piece of loose cement, and crashed through the yellow banner at the bottom. As she whipped her bike around, out of the corner of her eye she saw something move on the stairs. Julie peered over her shoulder. The front door swung inwards as if someone was pulling it closed.

_____________________

“When was the last time you spoke to my mother on the phone?” Julie asked her Aunt Dot when she came on the line.

“I haven’t phoned her yet, today. Hey, aren’t you supposed to be on your way to India for National Geographic?”

“Another week. Just waiting for Paula to get back.”

“Right. I drove to Okanagan Valley yesterday and saw Sara at the house there. Why are you suddenly so interested in her?”

“I crossed the yellow tape and went into the old house yesterday.” She didn’t trust her aunt with info on leaving the photo behind. “Has my mother moved back in?”

“Cripes, no. And you shouldn’t be in there, either. It’s too dangerous.”

A week later, Julie returned with Paula for the photo. It lay on the mantle, face down in the dust. Whoever she saw that day, was gone, along with the dirty couch. Did she imagine it, or what?

Either Vancouver’s homeless hordes had finally arrived—or the place was officially cursed. Her papa may have called Mrs. Sara Paglia a Bella Donna during Julie’s childhood, but the kids at school called her a witch and said she sacrificed stray cats inside the town’s abandoned gold mines.

No point saying anything to logical Paula who stood framed within the kitchen doorway, staring at the floor. “Is this where the attack happened?”

Julie came alongside her and nodded. “Aunt Dot walked in and found me face down in the broken glass.”

“She didn’t suspect your mother, her own sister?”

“We’ve never talked about it, but I bet she did. I grabbed Sam’s bat and locked myself in the bathroom. I heard her tell my mother, ‘I’m not leaving the baby behind in this craziness.’”

Paula raked her fingers through her hair. “You should tell your aunt that she saved your life.”

No free pass for Aunt Dot.  Julie wanted her aunt’s confession nearly as much as her mother’s. “I don’t owe that woman anything. She keeps the lies going about Doni.”

Safe and wistful in Paula’s embrace, Julie inched the photo in her fist to eye level. “Papa baked Doni’s birthday cake. The two little candles look so sad, don’t they?”

“Your father was a gem. That’s for sure.”

She lowered the image and, at their feet, the indentations left in the yellowed tile from the old table sent an ache whistling through her. Whatever paper-thin confidence Julie acquired, fermented here, sitting across from her papa at the butcher-block table. They sometimes chose silence, certainly never talking about her mother’s illness and how it affected them.

Julie was not quite thirteen the night Papa nudged her quarter-cup of homemade red across the expansive table before taking a thoughtful sip out of his own tumbler of wine. With Sam at juvie again and her mother holed up inside the hospital, the house seemed hollower than ever.

“It’s all up to you now, Juliette.”

Already upset with something her mother said on the way to the hospital, Julie gnawed on another ice cube. Through lips as wrinkled as soaked heels her papa smoked with a disquieted interest in her habit, until she spat the half-chewed cube into the sink. “What do you mean?”

He stubbed out his cigarette. “Keep writing, Patatina. Finish your school and get away from here.” This was as contemplative as Antonio Paglia ever got. She counted on little except getting the hell out.

Today, inside the abandoned kitchen, Julie twisted out of Paula’s arms. “But I never told him about Doni. I should have, shouldn’t I?” Wisely, perhaps, Paula never answered this.

“I knew he’d take her side. I don’t think I could’ve handled that.”

Paula rubbed Julie’s upper arm. “We’re not supposed to be in here.” She cracked open the back door and edged out.

Before leaving the condemned house, Julie traced a figure eight around her and Doni’s face. “I’m so sorry.”

_____________________


The battered daypack Julie always traveled with lay between her and Paula on a vinyl airport bench at Vancouver International—a four-hour drive from Cedarwood. The grimier the pack became, the more it reminded her of all the half-baked adventure stories punctuating her past.

“Wish me luck, why don’t you?” Julie said.

The melancholy in Paula’s eyes didn’t seem to hold any new hope. She shifted to face Julie. “I would if I knew what you were going after. Do you have a plan this time?”

“Yeah,” Julie drawled. “The scroll described in Notovitch’s book, The Secret Life of Jesus Christ.

Paula sniffed and nodded. “By that Russian explorer guy? The journal that disintegrated in your hands when you pulled the thing off a shelf in a Kits bookstore? Not much of a foundation for an expedition to a remote monastery, is it?”

“The Jesus scroll has got to be there. That’s where it was the last time anyone saw it.”

Paula lifted the backpack out of the way and slid in close. “You don’t have to convince me. I’m already on your side.” She rested her hand on Julie’s thigh. “If you’re going to get National Geographic’s attention, stick with the stories. No more saving the seals.”

“There aren’t any seals in India.” Julie frowned at Paula. “I’m going to show them all I’m not the piece of crap they say I am.”

“What? Nobody says you’re a piece of crap.”

There was something ominous in the way Julie folded one arm into another.

“Okay … but who cares about her?” Paula said.

At the thought of her mother, Julie hugged herself. “I’ve been thinking …” She squinted at Paula. “You know … about calling the police … when I get back.”

At first, Paula’s temperate expression didn’t budge.

“So-o …?”

“Oh, heavens. Are you ready to take a woman like your mother to court? She’ll say you’re lying. Trying to put her away to get at her money. Think about it. The investigation has been closed for over twenty years.”

“They’ll let Sam out to testify.”

“Sweetie. He’s what lawyers would call an unreliable witness.”

Okay, then Aunt—”

“Do you really think so?” The air drained from Paula’s puffed cheeks. “If she wanted to turn your mother in, she would have done it by now. And you know Hank will say whatever she tells him to.”

Julie refused to look Paula in the eye. To take a woman as spiteful as Mrs. Sara Paglia to task, while the right thing, might very well do herself more harm than good.

Life with her mother felt like an interminable shifting mirage. She could charm the pants off anyone when it suited her. Although the officer investigating Doni’s disappearance might not have dropped his drawers, he fell for her lies.

Julie flicked at a tear rolling down one cheek, giving way to her friend’s embrace.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. You’re going to make yourself sick again. See how you feel in eight months’ time. I’m here for you, whatever you decide.”

Paula pulled four fifty-dollar bills from a leather satchel around her waist. “Here. Take this.” She fanned out the cash with the flourish of a card shark. “You’ll need it.”

Julie stared a touch longer than she intended. Paula made a healthy living as an aid for the deaf while Julie’s writing assignments were spotty. Why not take it? She wagged her chin.

“Oh. Come on.” Paula’s eyes twinkled as she brandished the red bills at eye level. They played this choreographed game each time Julie flew out for work.

Julie reached up and pinched out one bill from the rest, then glanced at her cell phone. Her slow grin dissolved. “I should go. It could take forever to get through security.”

They hugged, then Paula pulled a sad face. “Stay out of trouble. Don’t go off on any tangents.”

The artifact Notovitch found in 1887 had promise. If only Paula believed in it too.

_____________________

It took a full hour into the flight to Kolkata, India before the suit reading the Wall Street Journal piqued Julie’s interest. When he lifted an archeological trade journal she recognized from his briefcase, Julie all but toppled into his lap. “I read that, too,” she said, with a perky rebound into her seat.

His bushy eyebrows arched with such mime-like precision, Julie took it to be a brush-off. This might become the most tedious cross-Pacific flight of her life.

“I look at it in the library,” she said. “I’m not really an archeologist.”

I am.”

That’s all it took. Questions poured out of Julie. They didn’t cease until the seatbelt announcement for their India touchdown, eighteen hours later.

In Kolkata, a familiar stench of curry mixed with urine had taken the arrivals hall hostage. As she waited for her backpack to appear on the baggage carousel, Cedarwood felt far away, indeed. What her new archeologist friend had told her about a placid fishing village on the Bay of Bengal set her adventurer’s imagination churning.

This is precisely the kind of lucky break great explorers depend on. Hiram Bingham and his crew slashed through miles of brush to uncover Machu Picchu. Not me. I can wrap up this one in a day. I already have a camera.

Her soil-stained Maple Leaf flagged backpack registered—and circled past.

All I’ll need is a boat and diving equipment. Then, boom—fame, money, a desk of my own at National Geographic’s newsroom. Maybe my own prime-time television show. Juliette Paglia’s Secrets of the Ancients, every Wednesday on the Discovery Channel.

Something soft bumped into her behind. “Ready?”

Julie turned to see the archeologist with her backpack slung over his shoulder.

“Is this all you’ve got?” he said.

“Yeah, but how …?”

“It was the only thing left on the carousel.”

The glass doors of Kolkata’s international airport parted onto a wall of humidity. Another wall of humanity shouted and shook signs with passenger names on them or grabbed at prospective taxi customers.  Julie stopped at the row of idling yellow taxis just as a bone-rack of a luggage tout, going for a tip, tried to yank a rigid Samsonite case out of the hands of a middle-aged tourist. The tout sprawled one way; the case bounced off in the other.

Her new friend nudged her elbow. “No, no. These are tatty and smell of tobacco. The air conditioning is too feeble. They’re not acceptable for women riding alone.”

“I’ve never had any problems in all my trips here. They’re safe.”

“Here’s my driver and limo now.” He must have seen Julie’s horrified expression because he added. “It’s already paid for. This is yours; I’ll wait for the next one.”

This particular trip was already shaping up into an experience unlike anything before. Julie climbed into a limo bound, not north to the Himalayas and site of Notovitch’s manuscript, but south to a village on the Bay of Bengal called Vakkali.

While Paula’s warning about tangents played in her ears, the quick, easy money from Vakkali’s hidden treasure drowned it out.

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