There's a dead branch on the ground. Sean uses the sharper end of it to pry up the rock and move it aside. He takes a folding knife from his pocket, crouches down, and uses the blade to begin to loosen the earth.
He pauses, looks around to be sure there's no one watching.
"Paranoid," Cole says.
Sean digs with the knife and the branch. Soon he's sweating, but he doesn't need to go very deep. Less than a foot.
It's there, as he knew it would be: a small bundle wrapped in a white plastic trash bag. He opens it, and inside there's a cigar box with an image of a stag on the lid.
The weight of it feels right. Sean lifts the lid and sees the ziplock freezer bag, just the way he left it. Within the bag are fourteen white cotton handkerchiefs rolled up like napkins.
He draws one out and unwraps it. At the center is a cylindrical stone about the size of his thumb.
The stone is amethyst and there's an intricate image carved into its surface: a hunting scene. If you rolled it over a clay tablet, the image would be pressed into the clay. You'd see men with spears tracking wild goats.
It's more than four thousand years old, and there are thirteen others in the bag. Each one carved with a different scene. There are fourteen more buried near the shore of a lake in Kentucky and sixteen in upstate New York.
They're called cylinder seals, and if Sean had a clear legal title to them they might sell at auction for six million dollars. They might go as high as twelve.
Even without legal title, he might be able to get a million for them, if he could find the right buyer.
"You could pay for a kid with that," Cole says.
It's true. A million dollars would make things easier. Sean wouldn't need to worry as much about finding rich people who want to buy custom-made furniture.
Standing in the woods with the cigar box at his feet, he considers it. It's tempting: to gather them up and try to sell them. But he knows it's only a fantasy. It's too dangerous.
Sean used to be reckless, but he lives differently now. Because something happened that divided his life in two. It divided both their lives, his and Molly's. They follow new rules now.
They joke about the rules sometimes, but the rules are necessary.
One: They've left the people they used to know behind. They don't see them or talk to them, ever.
Two: They stay clear of where they used to live. The state of Michigan is off-limits. Living in Texas puts them at a nice safe distance. But they're allowed to travel—which is why it's all right for Molly to take her trip to Montana.
Those are the two main rules, and they've kept Sean and Molly safe for years. The third rule is one they rarely talk about, but it's still important: They leave the cylinder seals hidden. They don't try to sell them.
Sean takes a final look at the seal he's holding, then wraps it in the handkerchief and returns it to the bag. The bag goes into the cigar box, and the box gets swaddled in plastic again and goes into the ground. Covering it over with dirt takes only a few seconds. Sean puts the flat rock back in place and sweeps the leaves over it with his feet, and everything looks the way it did before.
The walk back to his car takes less than an hour, and in that time he doesn't hear Cole's voice or any footsteps but his own. As he catches sight of the trailhead he feels a prick of pain in his right foot, as if a pebble has gotten into his boot. On a bench near the trailhead, he sits and takes the boot off. Turns it over and shakes it. Nothing comes out.
When Sean looks closer at the sole, he finds a split running between two of the treads. There's a small stone wedged in there, something he must have picked up on the trail. He pries it out with his pocketknife and drops it on the ground. Then slips his foot back into the boot.
Later on, he'll think about chance and fate, about what might have happened if not for that stone. But right now, he ties his laces and makes up his mind. If his boots were in better shape, he might have them resoled. But they're old and worn out. He needs to replace them.
There are plenty of places to shop for boots in Houston. He considers his options as he walks to his car, then starts it up and drives to the Galleria.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday, August 24th, we begin the book Too Close to Home by Andrew Grant.