When news reporter Clare Creighton took a cross-country rail trip, she had no idea a brief encounter with a stranger, a Zuni tribal leader, would change her life forever.
When he is found murdered, she sets out to uncover the mystery behind his death.
It isn’t long before she’s swept into a whirlwind of investigative reporting, world travel, and new discoveries. Clare learns he’s connected to an inclusive group known as the Sons of Ophiuchus League. Their goal is to discover the truth behind the Mayan prophecy and what will occur on the winter solstice of 2012.
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An invisible voice called out, “All aboard,” announcing the departure of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.
Clare Creighton looked at her watch. She had six minutes to board her train, unaware she was about to have a brief encounter with a stranger that would change her life forever.
All she knew was that she only had a few minutes to browse the crafts offered by the Native American vendors.
“I’ll take this one,” she said, handing a business card case to the teenager who manned the table. She handed her a twenty-dollar bill.
“Are you taking the Chief?” the girl asked.
“Yes, I’m going to L.A.”
“I wish I was going. I love California,” said the girl.
Clare couldn’t help but notice her deep sapphire eyes. As was her nature, she wondered if she was wearing colored contact lenses since it was unusual to find Native Americans with blue eyes, even dark blue.
“Do you like trains?” she asked as she waited for her change.
“I prefer airplanes. I like to get where I’m going fast. It takes way too long to get to L.A. by train.”
Clare smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
“What can I say; I’m a train fanatic. The longer the ride, the better I like it.”
For Clare, who was in the middle of a two-week vacation, the Southwest Chief represented the third leg of her journey that started in Philadelphia.
First, she rode the Pennsylvanian. She changed trains in Pittsburgh, boarding the Capital Limited. Finally, she climbed aboard the Southwest Chief at Chicago’s Union Station.
She made a stopover in Albuquerque where she spent her first week visiting her daughter, Marni, a junior at the University of New Mexico. A hot air balloon enthusiast, she had chosen the school because she heard Albuquerque was the hot air balloon capital of the world.
Her final destination was Los Angeles where she would spend the second week sightseeing. From there, she’d fly back home.
Clare had dreamed about the trip for years. A busy news reporter, she rarely took off more than a few days to visit her parents in Florida.
The invisible voice announced the final boarding.
She took her change and hurried off. Somewhat out of breath, she entered the coach car.
I made it.
She was shown to her seat by an attendant, a friendly young man who introduced himself as Artur.
“It’s like Arthur, but no ‘h’,” he said.
Although the rest of the trip would take more than sixteen hours, she hadn’t purchased a ticket for a sleeping car as she didn’t want to spend so much of the trip alone.
She wanted to visit the onboard gift shop for a souvenir coffee mug with a painted image of the Southwest Chief, and enjoy leisurely meals in the dining car.
As the train pulled out of the station, she filled her new case, admiring how the intricate blue and yellow beadwork highlighted the lettering on her business card.
Clare Creighton, Staff Writer, World News.
It wasn’t long before the train’s gentle rocking motion lulled her into a state of twilight sleep. Every now and then a slight tug awakened her and she peeked through half-closed eyes, glad to be riding the rails once more.
A noise jolted her awake. It came from outside the large window. By the time she looked, whatever had caused the noise was gone.
She sat up straight and gently rubbed the area around her eyes, careful not to smear her mascara.
She took a small compact from her purse and opened it, checking her short black hair to make sure it wasn’t sticking straight up from leaning against the high-back seat. She pulled out a comb and ran it through her thick straight bangs.
She studied her reflection a few seconds longer. At forty-two, she noticed the area around her eyes was just beginning to show telltale signs of what she called her “laugh lines.”
She slid her compact back into her purse and focused her gaze outside the window to her right.
Dusk made its approach; the sun was no more than an orange orb slipping below the horizon. The sky was a mixture of deep purples and rosy pinks.
Now fully awake, she looked around, absorbing the ambience of the rail car. With a height of five-feet, eight inches, Clare had long, lithe legs that she now stretched out, wiggling her toes.
She noticed a man seated across from her in the aisle seat. He was slight with dark skin and a thick crop of gray hair. He was reading a small book with a black cover.
His brown suede hat sat on the empty seat to his left, the window seat. She noticed it had a long brown feather painted with green tips tucked into the headband. She smiled when she noticed his ticket next to the feather; a sense of nostalgia overtook her.
She recalled the first time she rode in a train. It was in Pennsylvania, a short scenic trip from the East Strasburg Rail Road Station.
She had watched as an older gentleman tucked his ticket into the headband on his fedora. As the conductor passed, he removed the ticket, made a small hole in it with a hole-puncher, and returned it to the man’s hat band. The man never looked up; his eyes steady on the folded newspaper in his hands.
“See that, Clare?” her mother had said. “That’s how they used to do it in the old days.”
The man, hearing her mother’s comment, lifted his gaze, smiled at Clare’s mother and winked.
“Your mama’s right, sweetheart. I used to ride the train into New York City every day.”
The conductor glanced from the man to Clare and tipped the brim of his black cap ever so slightly as their eyes met.
“Mommy, give me my ticket.”
Clare anxiously slid it into the ribbon on her straw bonnet and waited for the conductor to approach.
When he reached out to remove the ticket, her heart leaped with joy. He punched a hole in it and returned it.
“Thank you, miss,” he said politely and moved on.
“Mommy,” she said, a sparkle in her emerald eyes, “I love trains the best.”
Clare smiled to herself. That was one of her favorite memories. Somehow, it made her feel connected to the stranger sitting across from her. She watched him a few minutes longer.
Every now and then he mumbled something to himself, as though praying. At one point, he lifted his black eyes above the top edge of his book and looked at her.
She smiled. He made a polite nod and dropped his gaze back to the book.
She noticed there was no title on the cover. That intrigued her, too.
What could that book be?
For the second time that day, she found herself wondering about a perfect stranger.
For Clare, her curiosity about people and events was why she studied journalism at Penn State University in the first place. She had an insatiable appetite for facts. When she heard a story, she had to know if it was true. If it didn’t seem plausible, she would delve into an onslaught of inquisitions. More than once, she angered a friend or relative who embellished a tale or two with slight exaggerations.
Clare’s own mother often reminded her that being too curious could be dangerous.
“Remember, dear, curiosity killed the cat,” she would say, insisting that expression had to come from somewhere.
Clare shifted in her seat as the train rounded a horseshoe curve in the tracks. The small interior lights overhead came on automatically. They were dim.
Still focused on the dark man, she noticed his mouth moved in a steady rhythm that seemed to match the cadence of the locomotive. She wanted to know if he was praying or if he was simply a feeble old man who mumbled to himself.
Not wanting to stare, she looked outside again. As the sky grew dark, the orange-tinted countryside turned into a wall of black. Now and then, small lights sparkled like distant stars across the landscape that was rapidly turning into a void.
From the corner of her eye, she saw the old man tuck his small book inside his jacket. He squinted past his own reflection in the window and into the blackness beyond the glass.
With the book no longer hiding his face, Clare noticed the man had strong American Indian features, although in his case, it appeared as though the skin around his mouth was pulled inside, causing his lips to disappear completely from his wizened face.
She glanced at her watch and mentally calculated the trip would take several more hours. She decided to start up a conversation. One of her favorite pastimes was to see if she could uncover the man behind the face.
“Boy, it’s really dark out there, isn’t it?”
He turned to her and nodded.
“Yes, very dark.”
“Do you like the dark?”
“I like the light,” he said.
I like the light. What the hell does that mean? Most people say they like the daylight or morning.
She decided to pursue her line of questioning further. After all, it was a long way to Los Angeles and they hadn’t even reached Flagstaff.
“Me, too. I’m a morning person. I pop out of bed early and like to get my day going. How about you?”
He studied her for a few seconds with no expression. When he finally answered, it was as though he had some authority on the matter of light and dark.
“When you’re in the light, it’s always morning. Even in the blackest of night, your own inner light will guide the way.”
Okay, that was a cool answer. Maybe he’s some sort of shaman. I just have to keep this going.
“That’s an interesting way of looking at it. Are you a teacher?”
He nodded, a faint smile curving the space around his absent mouth.
If this were an interview for a story, she thought, she would be a little nervous, wondering if she was going to get enough out of him for a second decent quote.
He turned his gaze back to the window. Then, as if equally intrigued by her curiosity, he turned his body diagonally toward her and leaned forward.
She instinctively leaned toward him. Their heads were only inches apart. He pointed out the window, toward the sky.
“Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, is the thirteenth constellation in the zodiac belt. Did you know that?”
She sounded out the name in her mind.
Off ee you cuss.
“No, I didn’t. I thought there were only twelve. I’m a Sagittarian.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said.
He sat back and rested his head against the back of his seat, all the time looking into her eyes.
“Look, mister,” she said with a smile, “I know when I was born. I know what sign I am. Of course, if there’s another, I guess I could be something else. Why haven’t I heard about this thirteenth sign?”
“Nobody initiated the serpent’s sign as a member of the zodiac because then there wouldn’t be one constellation for each month of the solar calendar year.”
Even though he spoke with authority, she disagreed.
“I don’t think that’s why. I mean, after all, the months don’t match up with the signs. I was born on the 28th of November and, like I said, I’m a Sagittarian. My daughter was born on the seventh and she’s a Scorpion.”
“And you believe the stars never change? You believe the universe remains stagnant?”
“I never really thought about that. I figure once a Sag, always a Sag.”
“Well, the serpent would have fitted the feminine thirteen-month lunar year. Unfortunately the men won over the women, as it usually happened long ago.”
Unfortunately? Okay, this is a man after my own heart, lips or not.
The man continued.
“Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, is the only constellation named after an actual human being. Have you ever heard of the ancient Egyptian mortal who was made a god named Imhotep? He lived somewhere around the 27th century B.C.”
She immediately responded with wide eyes, indicating she recognized the name Imhotep. Before she could say anything, though, he raised his index finger and smiled.
“I’m not talking about the Imhotep in the movie Return of the Mummy,” he said, his smile revealing the void in his mouth. “He could have been named after this man-god, but in the movie they reference the time of Seti the first, which would be around 1295 B.C.
“The real Imhotep was honored by Egyptians and Greeks some twenty-five hundred years after his death. They saw him as a great man and as a god who had knowledge of medicine and who brought the art of healing to mankind.”
“That’s pretty interesting. Are you an astrologer?”
Again, the man stared at her, as if wondering if she was worthy of discovering the extensive knowledge stored within his mind.
“Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, is in Greek mythology. You should look it up some time. It’s interesting.”
Clare flipped open the leather cover on her smartphone. Four taps with her finger and she was reading items related to the thirteenth sign. Several sites were listed, and it seemed everyone but she knew about this extra sign.
“Aesclepius, the Greek God of Medicine,” she read, “while in the process of bringing Orion, the Hunter, back to life following an accident, was struck and killed by a thunderbolt hurled at him by Zeus, God of the Sky and Earth.”
She lifted her gaze to the man as she spoke.
He merely nodded and closed his eyes. She read more.
“Zeus had a brother named Hades, who was the God of the Dead.”
Excited, she discovered yet another site.
“It says here that Hades was afraid the great skill of Aesclepius in bringing dead people back to life might put him out of work. So he played the blood-is-thicker-than-water card on Zeus, and Zeus complied and dealt the death blow.
“To honor Aesclepius, it says, Zeus set him in the sky and gave him the Greek name Ophiuchus, which means the serpent bearer.”
He set him up in the sky? How could he do that?
There were pages and pages of stories about the gods.
“It seems as though a lot of these so-called gods cross cultures,” she said. “Imhotep and Aesclepius; one and the same?”
When she looked up this time, she saw that the old man was staring at her, as though his black eyes could see into her soul. He didn’t speak.
She signed off the Internet and closed the cover, stood, and slipped her phone into her purse.
“I’m going for a drink. Can I bring something back for you?”
“Water, if you don’t mind. I’m thirsty.”
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill. She refused his money.
“I got it; my treat. I’ll be right back. Can we talk more about this?”
He nodded in agreement.
She was thirsty, too, but not only for something to drink. She was thirsty for the myriad coincidences mentioned on the web sites.
In the back of her mind, all she could think about was her interpretation of religion. When she was younger, she had often wondered if it was possible that man created gods as folklore or as an explanation of the unexplainable, and later their stories were absorbed into different religious sects.
At fifteen, she had delved into a heated discussion with her pastor, a young man just out of seminary. She demanded the truth behind the origins of religion.
Faced with an onslaught of questions, the inexperienced pastor tried to comfort the rebellious youngster.
“God is spirit. Clare, you must have faith.”
By eighteen, she made up her mind that while there most likely was a God, a source who created the universe, it wasn’t a male with a list of rules and regulations.
In a heated discussion with her parents, she had insisted, “God doesn’t have to come down in a fiery chariot like it says in Ezekiel. If God came to Earth, I think it would be in the form of a spiritual apparition.”
The part about the fiery chariot was something she had read. The author had suggested the Bible passage contained a description of a spacecraft.
It was obvious to her the author was also in search of the truth, so she was sure he wouldn’t mind if she borrowed the line from his book.
By the time she was done pontificating the meaning of religion and the true concept of a God, it had appeared to her that the realization she could be correct stifled her parents as they gave up their half of the argument.
She recalled the room had grown quiet as if all agreed silence was the answer. Better to say nothing than offend God.
“We’ll agree to disagree,” was all her father said, and the subject was never discussed again.
She felt a sense of excitement as she hurried off to get the drinks. She had a thousand questions to which she believed the stranger could have the answers.