[ 5 minutes to read ]A modern parable [J]im bobbed along in the sea of humanity outside the Smithsonian Castle. Plenty of lights still flashed and plenty of people still milled. He examined the notebook in his hand and aside from travel memorandum, to-do lists, and a tally of his weekly grocery needs, he had to admit he didn’t have much. He stuck the dot grid with heavy boards in his jacket pocket and capped and deposited his pen in the same.
He walked north across The Mall and spotted a cafe. Coffee was what he needed. He ordered a black coffee and moved to the end of the counter. A man stepped up to the counter.
“I’ll have a large cup of milk.”
The woman behind the counter looked up from the register.
“What? Like, just milk?”
“That’s right, though I would like it in a cup.”
This orderer of milk looked to be late fifties, early sixties. He wore a sport coat and white shirt, but no tie. His trousers were neatly pressed and creased and he was wearing comfortable walking shoes.
“COffee, black, and, uh, a milk.”
They both grabbed their cups and headed for the high round tables. Jim sat his cup on an open table, unslung his bag from his shoulder and slung it on the chair. As he settled in his seat, a large cup of milk came to rest in front of him. Connected to the milk was a hand, which was connected to an arm, which was connected to a shoulder … and you know how this goes with the leg bone connected to the knee bone and whatnot. Forthwith, the whole man was deposited in the chair directly across from Jim.
“Pardon,” said Jim.
“You from New York?”
“Well, yes I am.”
“Mind if I sit here?”
“You already are.”
“You’re observant. Reporter?”
Jim wondered if the mostly monosyllabic line of questioning was going anywhere. “Yes, trying to be.”
“What brought you to The Castle today?”
Jim became interested. “I’m not the only observer of facts of here.”
The man laughed like he meant it.
“Yes, I saw you at The Castle. I followed your dejected trek here, even to this very table.”
The embracer of the produce of cows took a large drink. “What brought you to The Castle? Assignment?”
Jim wasn’t quite ready to submit to the inquisition, nor to give up his own line of questions. “How did you know I was a reporter and from New York?”
A grin formed and the right corner of the man’s mouth maintained form admirably. “I’ve spent many years observing and studying people. It’s been my life’s work.”
“Are you a reporter then?”
Jim was still interested but a bit frustrated that he couldn’t manage to properly prime the pump of conversation. He was only getting fits and spurts. “I am not on assignment. I took a short leave and came here on my own to follow a lead.”
“Looking to break your first big story?”
“Something like that,” and Jim resumed his own flow of information. “I came to The Castle for the Arthur Sterling presentation. I wasn’t able to get inside no matter the methods I employed. Security was serious and, to not a few, I must have had an ill-favored look because none seemed willing to even open negotiations. The thing had hardly gotten started when the lights and cars came up and I barely got a glimpse of the top of Sterling’s head as he was whisked away. After that, it was just a lot of the old, ‘Move along,’ and ‘Nothing to see here,’ business. I couldn’t get at the right sort for information, so I’ve given up.”
Jim sat his cup down. “What do you mean, why Sterling?”
“Why are you interested in Sterling?”
Jim laid the notebook and pen on the table. “A guy I know put me onto him about a year ago. I saw him a few months ago when he presented in New York at the museum. Something didn’t add up with him. I know he’s the darling of the academics, but I’m not sure. He’s risen to fame and a lot of money in a short time. He’s been presenting at conferences all over the world. He seemed impeccable. At the event today, it looked like he was being escorted, but I think he was being arrested, or at least going to be. But I don’t know why.”
The man across from Jim took a long drink of his milk. “Interesting.”
Jim was hoping for a little more. He drank some more coffee. His companion sat his cup down and shifted to a more relaxed position in his chair. “You said he seemed impeccable but something didn’t add up.”
Question or comment, Jim couldn’t decide. “It’s just … he has all these wild theories and far-flung ideas no historian has ever conceived before. He has discovered items at sites the best and brightest archeologists have combed and yet never found. His presentations are dramatic and just when disbelief is at its height, lo and behold, he produces the artifact to the praise and admiration of all. It’s hard to argue with the evidence in his hands. I don’t know what happened today. He must have been spirited away to some undisclosed site for another extraordinary discovery.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ah, short for James?”
“No, actually. It’s Jiminy.”
“Interesting. How do you suppose Sterling does it? These miraculous discoveries, I mean.”
“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure. I’ve heard a few theories. Some think he has a supernatural ability.”
The man laughed good and hard again.
Jim continued, “His stories are incredible, just about unbelievable. But it’s hard to argue when he brings out the goods.”
The man tilted his head to the right. “Jim, you’ve done some good work. You have a head on your shoulders all right. Let me ask you something. If a man approaches you on the street in New York having some authentic and valuable piece in his hands and tells you a moving story of his great need and the necessity to sacrifice what he says is a precious family heirloom that’s passed from father to son for ages in his family, do you believe him?”
Jim laughed. “No, the more likely the thing is real means the more likely it is stolen and he’s trying to drive the price with the waterworks story.”
The man laughed again. “Jim, you are a reporter. You’re looking for a story and you have a lot of spade work done. I’m going to give you a clue and you should be able to put the pieces into a mosaic. Sterling, as you call him, is not his real name.”
“What? What is his name?”
“No one knows for sure. We call him Stretch.”
The man stood up, and Jim asked, “What is your name, sir?”
“Why do you ask my name? See you around, Jiminy. I shall be reading the papers with interest.”