Dean Monti
17 min readJul 14, 2022

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Admitting he’d handled a rare artifact with his bare hands — let alone that he’d swung it wildly around the room just to indulge a drunken Major League fantasy — might diminish his otherwise stellar career as a respected archaeologist.

Sticky Fingers

© 2022 by Dean Monti

Chapter 1

In 1998, you could still count the people who knew about it on the fingers of one hand. The archeological dig site at Area Eighty-three didn’t officially exist, nor did the artifacts that were dug up. And, if and when Bergman unearthed that thing he was supposed to be looking for — and he wasn’t even sure exactly what “that thing” was — he was sworn to secrecy about it. High-level, high-priority, covert, super top secret stuff — that’s what it was. But Bergman didn’t have the time or luxury to think about all that.

Sand, wind, and heat — the triple threats to any good archeologist — were constant diversions. Wind-driven sand crystals stung at his legs — he had learned to ignore that — but the needle-like jabs at his forearms combined with the force of the winds — tended to jar Bergman’s otherwise delicate touch.

On particularly difficult days, Bergman had to intermittently work his fingers over the front of his wire-rimmed glasses as though they were wiper blades so that he could see what he was doing. But as quickly as he cleaned his glasses and got his bearings, the wind would rear up again, the sand would obscure his vision and he’d have to stop to wipe all over again.

Sweat would accumulate like a sponge in his hair and eyebrows and then trickle down into his eyes. More wiping. And sometimes the sweat, sand and wind would all conspire together and form a thick mustard across his glasses. But he persisted — wiping and working, wiping and working — and then shaking off the tingle in his arms and beginning again.

The dig was in its third month. By now, anyway, his routine, though still fraught with physical and mental frustration and irritation, had become just that — routine. Automatic. He stuck it out as long as he could each day, looking forward to the hour when he could return to his hotel room and examine the artifacts. But now it was only mid-afternoon and no time to think about that. He needed to keep his concentration sharp. Bergman was tops in his field. A prodigy early on, he was now in his mid-forties and would have been the envy of any archeologist anywhere in the world — particularly those who were toiling away unearthing Sumerian drinking vessels — something he himself had been doing a year earlier — but for the fact they didn’t know where Bergman was or what he was working on. Few did.

He couldn’t boast about his work to his colleagues, or friends or even his pretty wife back in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He was in an area of the world not unknown to archeologists and scholars, but the exact geographical location bore no name on any of his documents and did not appear as a return address on any letters he sent home or received. He wasn’t even sure himself exactly where on earth he was.

Each evening, Bergman would type up his findings from Area Eighty-three and his reports were retrieved by a courier. He was not allowed to keep any written records of his progress in his personal possession for more than 24 hours. When he completed his daily report, no matter how late in the evening it was, or early into the next morning, he would pick up a special cell phone that had been issued to him, and call a phone number, which changed often. Soon after, the courier would arrive, knock at the door, give a special code — which changed more often than the phone numbers — and pick up the report that Bergman had stuffed inside a plain manila envelope.

Bergman never saw the courier. Not allowed. But it was all very quick once he made the call. He sometimes imagined that the courier slept outside his door, in the hallway, just waiting with a special cell phone, like his. Indeed, sometimes, before finishing his report, he’d check the hallway to see if anyone was there, but he never saw anyone. When it was necessary for the courier to retrieve anything larger than a document — like a clay pot or an oxen yoke — anything that could not be slipped under the door, Bergman was required to wait in the bathroom and not come out until her heard the courier come in and leave again.

Bergman had accepted all this clandestine, cloak and dagger tomfoolery in exchange for the unique experience of being involved in something “pretty damned important” as his employer had pitched it to him.

Because of his expertise — in archeology, history, and theology — he was the chosen one for the job. Insofar as a job description, however, things were a bit more nebulous. Obviously, it was necessary for him to know something about what he was looking for so that he would not waste time on unearthing and reporting on artifacts that were not the thing. But until he found the thing — that elusive thing that everyone else had missed — he could only report what he hadn’t found yet, and also any information that would suggest that Area Eighty-three was the right place to find the thing.

For him to have arrived at Area Eighty-three in the first place, Bergman surmised, there must have been others there before him. He hadn’t started digging from untouched land — there was already a dig underway when they brought him in, specifically, to find the thing. Speculating about all this, however, the why and wherefores and all that — this was fodder for late night, post-courier musings. Not now. Concentration and patience were the order of the day. So Bergman shuffled off these errant thoughts, wiped his brow again, cleaned off his glasses and returned to his dusting with a small, camel-hair brush.

The object currently under his keen-eyed consideration was approximately two-feet long. Twenty-seven and one-third inches, to be more precise. This is what he would state in his report later. He had found it that morning. A particularly intriguing piece, it had been partially encased in amber, the wonderfully preserving cling wrap of nature. When he’d first unearthed it, at its thickest end, it resembled the fat end of a baseball bat, and the more earth and extraneous material he removed from it, the more it resembled just that — a sort of baseball bat. Fat at one end, growing increasingly narrow at its base, but still wide enough to get your fist comfortably around. It was even knobbed at the hilt, like a baseball bat.

Had he not been in Area Eighty-three and just unearthed something he knew had to be more than 2,000 years old, he might have thought — improbably as it was — that he’d uncovered a discarded Louisville Slugger, maybe just a little bigger than the miniature bats they gave away on bat day at ball parks. And had it not been so smooth — so symmetrical in its design, so round at one end and smooth along the edges, he might have written it off as a stick, discarded by anyone at any time in history. But no, this was hand-crafted. No this was no ordinary stick, and Bergman knew it. He allowed himself a smirk, then a smile and nod and finally uttered “I’ll be damned,” and similar sentiments as he carefully unearthed what just might be, in his estimation, the thing they were looking for.

When the thing was finally freed of its 2,000-year union with sand and soil, Bergman held it aloft, gingerly but firmly, in his surgical-glove encased hands. His elation confounded his otherwise impeccable professionalism and rather than speak the language of the laborers, as he usually did, he sputtered out loudly in English, from within the tent, “Packing material … and a crate.”

A laborer, assigned specifically to stand outside the tent and never enter unless specifically instructed to do so, did not understand the words, but understood the urgency in Bergman’s voice. He excitedly murmured his incomprehension and managed in English, “Something sir? Something?”

Bergman regained his sense of where he was and carefully named what he needed in the language of the man outside the tent.

“Yes, yes!” the man answered in English.

“Wait,” Bergman said, and again in the man’s language he instructed the man to tell the others that the working day was over. This must have pleased the man, pleased all of them, since it was only about four in the afternoon and they were used to standing outside in the sand waiting for him, usually until twilight and sometimes later.

“Yes, yes,” the man said again, and his shadow scurried away from Bergman’s tent wall.

Bergman carefully crated up the thing, which weighed about three pounds — though he would weigh it more precisely back at the hotel. He spoke to no one as he exited the tent. Another sandstorm had been predicted for that evening and the laborers were forced to stay outside and withstand it, as much as was humanly possible. So the news that Area Eighty-three was closing up early resulted in some uncharacteristically jubilant faces when Bergman finally emerged with his package.

He watched the familiar cloud of dust down the road and knew his ride back to the hotel was already imminent. The driver, as usual, remained silent, but treated Bergman like a dignitary, opening the door to the dusty white Saab for him at both ends of the 40-minute trip back to his hotel.

* * *

Back inside his room, Bergman didn’t write his report immediately. First he took a long, cool shower, often the high point of his daily ritual. Until now. He came out of the shower with a bath towel wrapped around his waist and looked at the thing, still crated up on the work table that had been set up in his hotel room. Clad only in a towel and surgical gloves, he uncrated and examined the thing, meticulously using a magnifying glass to scan every inch.

Once he had properly weighed it and measured the thing, he made notes about its weight, length and girth, jotting it all down carefully using a black Pilot fine point pen on a yellow legal pad. Composition — wood, he determined. Origin: undetermined. Well-preserved from the amber coating. Unsure if coating is natural or man-made. Then he went about the business of actually describing it. He did so in such a way that even if one couldn’t see it, they would get a mental image of a small baseball bat. Bergman got all these details out of the way before getting to the crucial aspect.

The artifact bears traces of a whirl pattern at the base of the object, consistent with the size and complexities of a human thumbprint. Under magnification, it does not appear perfect, but is, for its age, very well defined.

It was this partial print that had set this artifact apart from the clay pots, oxen yokes, pottery shards and other items he’d unearthed in Area Eighty-three in the past few weeks, He’d brought these items back to his hotel each evening, made his notes, and then they had been retrieved by the mysterious courier. In his reports for these items, however, he had not noted anything significant about them. They were valuable, to be sure, but not the thing. This latest find was the exception — the culmination of his work at Area Eighty-three.

Bergman was struck again by the irony of it all. He could tell no one about his unique and greatest find, and although there was some satisfaction in having completed the job he was assigned to do, he would never be personally thanked for it. A large sum of money would be transferred into his bank account and show up upon his return to Chagrin Falls, and then it would be all over, as if it had never happened to him. In less than twenty-four hours, Bergman would be gone from this hotel and no trace of his work or the fact that he’d been there would remain. He would return to Sandusky and teach again, as he had before, unable to share anything with his wife about his work, unable to impress any young college girls.

It seemed appropriate, therefore, to celebrate, even if it was a solitary celebration. There was a bottle of liquor — he wasn’t sure from the mysterious foreign label what type it was — a gift from the hotel or his employer, he didn’t know which. Bergman removed his gloves, retrieved a glass from the bathroom, opened the bottle and poured himself a drink.

It was potent stuff; it burned right down to his toes, but he didn’t care. He poured another. The second shot went down easier, as did each successive shot. He sat at his worktable, using the glass less and less and then not at all, drinking straight from the bottle, just sitting there squinting at the thing. Marveling at this amazing thing. A thing he’d probably never see again in his lifetime. What a thing it was.

Before long, Bergman had abandoned his towel and was naked, laughing at everything and nothing. He laughed at the thing, even though the thing was not inherently funny in any particular way. Once he had drained the bottle he continued holding on to it, tenderly holding it in his hand like an award, imaging for himself the accolades that would never come from his extraordinary find. He would lay the bottle down and pick it up again, and as the strange spirits inflamed his brain he became more reckless with the empty liquor bottle, swinging it wildly in all directions. When it slipped from his grasp and sailed into the bathtub it made a terrific crash as it shattered, and he waited frozen for a minute, expecting someone to come knocking on his door. It didn’t happen.

Bergman snickered like a kid who’d gotten away with something, a spoiled kid who was immune to retribution. He was, after all, Bergman, the man who had discovered the thing, perhaps the most important find in the history of time. In his drunken estimation, this made Bergman one of the most important people in the history of all time. Maybe one of the most important people on the planet. Goddamn right.

And so, with all his logical thought drowned in mysterious local hooch, and feeling a pride of ownership he had no real right to, he reached into the crate and pulled out the thing with his naked hands. He gripped it by its hilt and stepped forward, simulating the actions of a man stepping up to the plate. He heard the excited and anticipatory crowd roaring approval in his ear.

“One man on, two outs, bottom of the ninth,” Bergman growled. He wielded the bat-like thing down and away from his body, with a few practice swings.

“There’s the pitch,” he said suddenly, imagining one coming right down the middle. He swung full on then roared with self-approval. “That ball is back, back… that ball is out of here! It’s a home run!” He mimicked the sounds of uproarious cheering and applause, made a circle in his hotel room, trotting victoriously and finally high fiving phantom teammates at the end of it. Then Bergman dropped the thing to the floor and passed out on the sofa.

* * *

As dawn poked slender fingers of sunlight through the shutters, Bergman awoke, head in concrete, to the digitized melody of the overture to Cloches de Corneville, the familiar ringtone of his cell phone. He lifted his head wearily and blinked twice. The room was spotless. As he rose from the couch and looked further, he saw that any evidence of his debauchery the night before had been cleaned up. Even the broken liquor bottle had been cleared from the bathtub. And the thing was gone, as well as all the packing materials. His suitcases were packed and sitting by the door. Only the ringing cell phone remained on the worktable, along with his notebook and pen.

He might have panicked, but there was such a calculated efficiency to the tableau that he could only be stupefied by its thoroughness. Bergman picked up the phone and spoke into it.

“Hello?”

It was a voice different from any he’d heard before. It was a woman’s voice and it sounded distinctly secretarial, administrative assistant-ish, rather than officious.

“Professor Bergman? I’m calling because your report is overdue,” the woman said, with a flatness of tone that suggested a librarian calling about an overdue book.

“Ah, yes,” Bergman said. “The thing of it is…I seem to be missing…”

“Everything has been taken care of, professor. Please submit your final report to the courier by 10 a.m. And have a nice flight home.”

“But I don’t have…”

“Everything has been taken care of, professor.”

“My report may lack some crucial details. I’ll…I’ll just need to…”
“Professor Bergman?” she interrupted, “Everything has been taken care of.” And upon this particular repetition of her mantra she emphasized the word “everything.”

“Ah. ‘Everything is taken care of,’” he echoed.

“That’s right, professor. Please submit your final report by 10 a.m. and have a nice flight home.”

“Thank you,” Bergman said.

He went over to check his notebook, but the pages were empty. He immediately checked his briefcase. The pages from his notebook were there, but they had already been placed inside an unsealed manila envelope. He also noticed a plane ticket in the side pocket of his bag. Everything has been taken care of, he thought.

But why had they put his report in an envelope and left it behind? Was there some sort of protocol involved, demanding that he must officially submit the report rather than have it taken? The only thing he could imagine was that perhaps they were giving him an opportunity to amend his final report.

Every night prior to the last, Bergman had submitted a report, whether he had anything to report or not, because even finding nothing was information of a kind. When he didn’t call for the courier last night, something must have happened, he thought. They must have come in and found the uncharacteristically celebratory scene and his notes. And found the thing lying somewhere, perhaps on the floor, if he remembered correctly.

Whomever had been in his room had cleaned up, removed the thing, packed his bags, put his report in an envelope and left him airline tickets, all while he’d been sleeping off his indulgent imbibing. And whoever that person was, maybe they reported that things didn’t appear quite as tidy as they should have. He didn’t remember much about his short baseball fantasy, or even much about what he’d done with the thing the night before. But he recalled some of it. Did they want him to expound on this, before submitting his final report?

He thought about it carefully. Admitting he’d handled a rare artifact with his bare hands — let alone that he’d swung it wildly around the room just to indulge a drunken Major League fantasy — might diminish his otherwise stellar career as a respected archaeologist. He saw, therefore, no reason to confirm or deny anything that had happened the night before. Again the words echoed in his head. Everything has been taken care of. Submit your report by 10 a.m. If that was true, Bergman reasoned, why worry?

So Bergman put his coded signature, a hieroglyph, on the bottom of the report and dated it, also in code. He looked at his plane ticket. His imminent scheduled departure did not leave time for elaborate details anyway, he rationalized. He called the courier for the pickup.

The courier arrived promptly, as usual, and after hearing the correct coded knock, Bergman slipped the report under the door and waited in the bathroom, even though it wasn’t necessary. In fact, he stayed in the bathroom a full ten minutes, to make absolutely sure the courier was gone. Part of it had to do with the fact that he’d come this far dealing successfully with anonymity, he didn’t want to blow it on his last day. But another part of it was fear. He suspected the courier and the cleaner could be the same person and he didn’t want to risk running into either of them.

When Bergman walked outside the hotel, the familiar white Saab was already there waiting for him. The driver put his luggage in the trunk and Bergman got in the back seat. He wondered if he needed to tell the driver that they were going to the airport, rather than Area Eighty-three, but instructions were not necessary. Before Bergman could say anything, the car was already speeding in the direction of the airport, opposite of the direction of the site. Bergman wondered if a dig site at Area Eighty-three even existed anymore. He suspected not, and furthermore doubted he could ever find the place again on his own, even if he wanted to.

During the long flight home, Bergman slept off more of his drunkenness, but also had plenty of time awake to ponder things. He recalled a very gruff voice on the phone, before this whole business with the thing had begun. Hacking and laughing and actually kidding about it.

“If you do find the goddamn thing, for God’s sake don’t touch it!” And by the time the plane landed at Cleveland Hopkins Airport in Ohio, but before his limousine ride to the little town of Chagrin Falls, he had amassed enough pangs of guilt about his drunken behavior to prompt him to do something about it. No matter what the personal cost to his own future, it was imperative that the people in charge knew what had happened the night before.

Once inside the airport, with the ability to use cell phones freely, Bergman turned tried to call someone. He was already breaking protocol — it was made plain to him from the start that once the job was over, no further communications were required or encouraged. He hadn’t planned on doing anything rash, like telling some unknown middle person who answered the phone about his misdeeds with the thing. Rather, he would simply say that he needed to amend his report. That would be all he would say and then he’d let the right person contact him again. But all Bergman’s speculation and planning was for naught. When he dialed the last number he’d used, it no longer existed. The same happened with any other number he could remember using. And, realistically, he shouldn’t have expected anything different with an operation of this sort. To punctuate the point, the phone went completely dead shortly thereafter, and Bergman could no longer get it to turn back on. He tossed the phone in a garbage can near gate G-5 and headed for the baggage claim area.

* * * *

A month later, Bergman was sitting on a rocker on his back porch in Chagrin Falls, getting slightly toasty with a tumbler of Chivas. His wife was in the kitchen fixing dinner and he could already smell something that he was sure was oil heating in a pan. Helen is probably making fried chicken, he thought. Sitting on the back porch, waiting for fried chicken, Bergman idly mused to himself.

It was during these lulls, and there were many, when Bergman wondered if he’d merely imagined the whole business at Area Eighty-three. Upon his return, he’d only been able to tell his wife that his trip had been “successful,” insofar as it had been profitable. One of the first things Bergman did when he got back was go to the bank and make sure the profit was actually in place. It was. The sizeable increase in his savings account was all he had to convince himself of the reality of the events that had occurred a month earlier.

Prior to his trip, Bergman and his wife had admired the look of a new Navigator in the parking lot of a local Chagrin Falls Lincoln dealership. It would look, he thought, a hell of a lot nicer than his 15-year-old VW sitting in the driveway. And maybe the pricey car would help him feel better about things. Give him some closure. It didn’t.

Bergman also bought an expensive compact disc player with a 5-disc changer with the intention of collecting his old albums on discs. But he found that he nostalgically missed the sound of scratchy vinyl. Another failed attempt to buy off his bad feelings.

Bergman got up, stretched, and looked at his watch. It was only four in the afternoon, still at least an hour before dinner. He walked inside the house and into the kitchen. He found Helen slicing potatoes into thin wedges for frying and breaded chicken in a bowl on the counter. Fried chicken, just as he’d thought.

“Fried chicken, just as I thought,” he uttered rhetorically, just for something to say. Helen murmured an assent but didn’t say anything else. Even with their back account allowing them a comfortable existence in Chagrin Falls, their relationship was becoming strained. A life of too much silence and secrets had made him a poor communicator, and it had taken its toll on their marriage.

“What time is dinner?” Bergman asked.

“About five,” Helen replied, without looking up.

“I’ll be back before then,” he said. Bergman didn’t say where he was going and Helen didn’t ask. She knew. He was going to the bank. He got behind the wheel of the Lincoln Navigator, popped a Rolling Stones compilation disc in the CD player in the dash and drove off to check his balance.

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Dean Monti

Author of the critically-acclaimed comic novel THE SWEEP OF THE SECOND HAND, published by Penguin.