The Old Shell Game
Ellen Kuhfeld

Potiphar Pugh and the fossil man bent over the table: the one in the back, where the dirty work was done.

"Pete," the fossil man said, "you're used to plaster. Open up the package, some of it spills on the table. Measure it out, more spills. Stir it up and pour it, and you have a bowl to clean."

"Now here," he continued, "we have a whole 'nother kettle of fish." He held up a small plastic cup, like a pudding cup, and peeled the foil cover back. It was half-full of a tan powder.

"Each cup is sealed, so you don't have to worry about it going bad. Open it, pour water in up to this line, and give it a few stirs with a popsicle stick. I include the stick in the package. You don't need a separate catalyst."

Potiphar watched with interest as the fossil man poured the creamy substance into a small rubber mold. "How fast does it set up?" he asked.

"You can handle it in four minutes," the fossil man replied, nonchalantly dumping the rest of the cupful onto the table. It looked quite at home among the earlier marks of plaster and paint, soldering irons and cutting knives. Potiphar winced, but only a little; this table was for messes, after all.

"You see, it's mostly powdered stone, mixed in with polymers that are activated by water. Solid as a rock after about ten minutes; and I defy you to tell it from the real thing. Comes in limestone and shale, and you can tint it with acrylic paints for a better color match. I'm working on sandstone, but so far it's not cooperating."

He glanced at his watch, and picked up the rubber mold. He worked it briefly, and a small trilobite popped out. "There, Pete, what did I tell you? There's not one rockhound in ten could tell it from a real fossil without turning it over to see the mold opening!

"And here's a bonus: most synthetic rock, you need something Godawful like toluene for cleanup. Mineral spirits wipe my formulation up like a charm." He poured paint thinner on a cloth, and attacked the smear of "rock" on the table. And while the charm obviously involved quite a bit of elbow grease, in two minutes the rock was gone, while the earlier plaster stains remained.

Potiphar was turning the freshly-minted trilobite over and over, examining it closely. "Fred, that is amazing," he said. "The kids that come through the Touch and Feel room could use those little cups with no trouble. And that's one of the best rubber molds I've seen. What all do you have?"

"Oh, another trilobite; a brachiopod, a small ammonite, a crinoid, several different fish skeletons -- the crowd pleasers."

Potiphar stood. "You've sold me," he said. "I'll take two sets of the molds, and a gross each of the limestone and the shale mixing cups. Do you have larger quantities of the rock mix? I'm working on an exhibit."

"Sure do," the fossil man replied as they went to the door. "There's a fifty pound sack of the limestone mix in the back of the jeep. It's been opened and I've used some -- I'll let you have it half-price."

The jeep in front of the museum was battered with hard use. Carefully locked in a tool-rack were pickaxes, shovels, mattocks. Water and gasoline cans were bolted in carriers. A sign painted on the door proclaimed "Fred Wilson Fossil Expedition". Wilson himself wore khaki and engineer boots, topped by a bushranger hat almost as battered as the jeep. A cynical observer might, perhaps, snort at such theatricality.

They were theatrical. Fred Wilson was the fossil man, and don't you forget it. And yet -- Wilson's face was an outdoorsman's face. There was reality behind the facade. Potiphar was a naturalist, well able to recognize another citizen of the wilderness.

Wilson opened a weathertight storage chest, and handed Potiphar two large cases of rock-powder cups; then added a small box of rubber molds. As he hoisted the 50-pound sack onto his shoulder, a yellow bus turned into the drive, resounding of children.

"Fred, could you take that sack back to the workroom, and then have Sally issue you a check for this stuff? I want to try these molds out, and here are just the customers. Digger Dan's out today, so I'm holding down the Touch and Feel Room." And Potiphar hurried back into the museum.

* * * * *

An hour later the room was still surprisingly clean, with only a scatter of mixing cups. The kids were reassembling into travelling order. In the back a fifth-grade shyster was bargaining his way to a complete set of the replica fossils they'd just made; but most of the children had put them away at their teacher's request. Chattering and squealing, they headed out for the bus.

At the door, Mrs. Anderson spotted the shyster's bulging pockets, saw a trilobite peeking out. (She'd been a junior-high library monitor for fifteen years when Potiphar hired her away from the school system. Nothing got by her.)

She swelled to twice life-size, and swept out to intercept the malefactor. "It's okay, Mrs. Anderson," Potiphar called out. "He made them himself. One of them, anyhow... Could you show them to Mrs. Anderson, Samuel?"

Samuel dug in his pockets, and laid his treasures in a neat line on Mrs. Anderson's desk. She clucked and exclaimed over them; "My word, you had me fooled! I thought for sure you were walking off with some of the real fossils we keep in the back!" Samuel grinned and blushed at the praise, and in relief at the close escape; then was snagged and hustled off by the teacher. The bus doors accordioned shut, and it rolled onto the highway with children waving out of the windows at Potiphar and Mrs. Anderson as they stood in the drive.

"Went real well," Potiphar said. "The Fossil Man sold me some new molds, and I was trying them out. I think it'll be a good activity to have, kids making their own fossils. We'll see how Digger Dan likes the idea -- he's the one that'll have to live with it."

Potiphar turned, and the Fossil Man was behind him. "Borrowed the office phone while I was in there," Wilson said. "I checked with the freight company, and I've got some nice Green River Formation fossils arriving late Friday. I have to be in Chicago Monday, but if we could get together Saturday I could let you have a look.

"Also, I've got a chunk of mammoth tusk knocking around; not worth exhibiting, but the kids would love it. Buy something, save me from having to haul it to Chicago, and I could throw in the tusk."

"I'll be by at ten, Saturday," he said as he got into his jeep and roared off, not giving Potiphar a chance to say no.

"That's Fred Wilson all over," said Mrs. Anderson sympathetically. "I hope you haven't got much planned for Saturday."

* * * * *

The museum was quiet and empty. Late-afternoon sun slanted in as Potiphar made his accustomed rounds: checking windows, turning off lights, making sure doors were locked. He loved this routine, silently moving among his treasures. A patch of white against the far wall: a snow goose mounted on a hummock, painted prairie marsh fading into the distance behind it. And ahead was the flickering blue underwater light of the largemouth bass diorama. (How long had it taken to get that light just right?)

He went through the archway into the next room, and his heart skipped a beat at the hulking shadow poised to lunge at him. "That damn wild boar!" he thought. No matter how many times he saw it, it startled him. The taxidermist had done a wonderful and fearsome job.

Something was wrong. In the room beyond, the door to the "Fossil Treasures" display case was slightly ajar. Potiphar covered the distance in three strides.

The golden pyrite sand dollars were still there; the polished slab of turitella-stone and the huge agate disk of petrified wood remained. But the centerpiece of the display -- the ammonite shell, almost a foot across and petrified into shining opal, polished into iridescent beauty, was gone! His favorite exhibit!

What had happened to the alarm? He bent for a closer look. A tiny bar magnet lay upon the magnetic switch, keeping it from noting the door's opening. He ran to the front door, locked the deadbolt -- now anyone in the museum would stay there. There was no way out of the building without a key.

He went to the alarm console, reset the motion detectors, and waited anxiously. If anybody was in the museum, he wasn't moving. Potiphar set out to check the museum for -- visitors.

And found none.

He checked every room. He checked the secret places all museums have, and the public places, and he locked the doors behind him as he went. There was nobody in the men's room, and there was nobody in the women's. (He didn't even hesitate.)

The alarm system had recorded his progress faithfully; it still worked. There was one last place to check.

Whenever something disappears in a museum frequented by children, the staff searches the bushes by the exit. Sometimes children will get carried away playing cops-and-robbers, but the game plan doesn't go beyond that. Once they've stolen something, been the badman, they dispose of the evidence at the first possible opportunity. That's usually the bushes just outside.

Potiphar searched, and found the stuffed robin from the "City Soil" exhibit. It had been missing for weeks, and was in dreadful shape. There were cigarette butts and gum wrappers. There was no fossil.

He searched the bushes around the side of the house, and the back, and the far side. Then he began to search the perimeter of the grounds. Pheasant's nest back in the bushes; rabbit trail; a family of skunks had been by, leaving a pattering of tiny footprints in a patch of mud from last night's rain. No traces on the only passable trail down the bluff at the rear; and suddenly he fetched up at the side of the highway.

He grabbed himself by the cerebral scruff of his neck, and shook. "Stop stewing around, and call the cops," he told himself. And he did.

Soon two police cars pulled up and uniformed men got out, one from each car. Potiphar explained the problem, and the museum's security arrangements. One began a close inspection of the yard, while the other went indoors with Potiphar to examine the alarms and the display case. They quickly decided the job needed a detective, equipped with fingerprint kit, camera, and specialized training.

Captain Neill wore plainclothes and carried a toolkit of medium size. He huddled briefly with the patrolmen, then spoke with Potiphar for some while, concentrating on the security precautions normally used by the museum. Finally he asked the obvious question: "Just why would anybody want to steal a fossil, Mr. Pugh?"

"Most fossils, only a collector would want. But this one was different." Potiphar pointed to the case next to "Fossil Treasures", and a spiralling shell perhaps the size of a grapefruit.

"The pearly nautilus," he said. "Many people consider it to be the most beautiful shell on Earth. The ammonites looked a lot like it. But this ammonite lived about 200 million years ago.

"A lot can happen to a fossil in that time. Sometimes the original material is replaced by minerals: that's how you get petrified wood. The original shell of the ammonite dissolved away, and was replaced by opal. That isn't uncommon -- but in this case, it was gem-quality opal."

"We had it polished, and we built a room's worth of exhibits around it. We have it insured for fifty thousand dollars; God only knows how much it could be sold for. And I can easily think of several people who would buy it, no questions asked."

"Oh," said Neill. He held up his hands, fingertips touching, to make a ball in the air. "An opal jewel, this big?"


"Now that I know why they stole it, I got just one question. How did they sneak it out the door?"

"That's driving me up the wall," agreed Potiphar. "Nobody gets anything past Mrs. Anderson. The alarm system shows the emergency doors haven't been opened all day -- and unlike this display, the doors are steel-covered. That would block any outside magnets from affecting the magnetic switches. Last year we painted all the ground-floor windows shut when we finally got the air conditioning."

Neill chuckled. "More secure than locking them."

He frowned. "You said Mrs. Anderson was at her desk by the door all day; but nobody is at their desk all day. Our thief may simply have waited until she was away for a minute, and gotten it out then.

"In any case, I can't do much with a floor that has been walked on all day by hundreds of people. Let's test the alarm system sensors, and then I'll go over the inside of the display case for fingerprints."

The sensors all worked, and the only prints inside the case belonged to Potiphar. Neill shrugged, and repacked his case. "We'll put out a bulletin -- it'll be hard to sell something that spectacular, and if the thief's not a professional we could get him that way. Would you have a picture of the missing fossil?"

Potiphar got several postcards from the souvenir rack. "Faith, that's pretty!" said Neill; and Potiphar murmured agreement.

Neill left, promising to keep the Museum informed of developments. Potiphar was alone in the darkened halls.

He set the alarms and let himself out, then crossed the courtyard to the carriage house where he lived. The entire property had once been his ancestral home; but he was the last of his line. And while he had an independent income, the mere well-to-do can no longer afford Stately Homes.

As a naturalist, he had known the Wilderness Foundation was looking for a home for the museum they hoped to build. He had sold the house to them, with a five-year contract for himself as curator thrown in, and had proceeded to build a fine small museum. The mansion was -- if anything -- more completely his now than it had been when he was living there. And it had been violated.

Potiphar ate a tasteless meal from an aluminum tray, not noticing it. His mind scurried about, retracing his steps as he searched the

museum and grounds; and he found no more in memory than he had in person.

He turned on the television for distraction. That proved to be a terrible idea: the evening movie was a museum-heist story. Potiphar turned it off and went to bed, slipping into an uneasy slumber filled with dreams of cat-burglars suspended like spiders from ropes to the skylights his museum had somehow acquired.

* * * * *

The next day, Potiphar prowled the halls of the museum, startling the occasional visitor as he popped out of strange and unsuspected doors. The evening before, he'd been looking for a thief; today, he was looking for clues.

Mrs. Anderson sat at her desk by the door, watching even more carefully than usual. Sally, in the office, went through draft after draft of a report to the Foundation board.

The only person having a normal day was Digger Dan in the Touch and Feel Room. It was Friday, and that meant kids. Normally they felt the beaver pelt, held box turtles from the aquarium, wore the pheasant-skin as a hat, and pawed through a small collection of fossils and shells. Today, Dan had them making fossils in his little workshop. They loved it.

During a break in the action, Dan caught Potiphar as he emerged from a walkway hidden between the beaver diorama and the birds' eggs. "Pete, the kids love the stuff you got for the Room yesterday, especially those fossil molds. We've gone through half a case of that fake rock already!"

"Good," said Potiphar, pleased. "but we can't afford to let them make fossils for free after today. Talk with the teachers, Dan, and see if you can't work this into a course the schools would be willing to pay for."

A chatter of high voices rose up as the front door opened, and Dan made a dash for his sanctum. Potiphar shook his head, grateful somebody could behave normally. Today he could only think of his missing shell. Tomorrow, maybe.... Yeah, that would be Fred Wilson with some fresh fossils. The Show Must Go On.

Potiphar crossed the room and unlocked a hinged section of wall. He stepped through the opening, flashlight in hand, and pulled the wall closed behind him.

He was standing in a narrow passage with rough-framed irregular walls on either side: the backs of exhibits. From the right, he heard young voices exclaiming over the wild boar that had startled him so, just before this began. His flashlight showed footprints in the dust before him, leading into the dark; a clue! He followed them, to where they formed a scuffed spot behind a recessed light fixture. He cursed softly; he'd made those prints himself, a month ago, when he changed the bulbs. Another dead end.

* * * * *

Potiphar sat, feet on his desk, lost in a brown study. He'd gone over the museum, searched every hidden nook and cranny, and there were no clues to be found. The opal ammonite had vanished without a trace.

How could anybody have gotten it past Mrs. Anderson? He tried to imagine a seventh-grader, staggering under the burden of a 35-pound fossil, evading her x-ray stare. For a minute he pictured birdlike Mrs. Anderson carrying it out; and that was even more improbable. Formidable though she was, she was seventy; and she operated on force of personality, not physical strength.

Kids were out, Mrs. Anderson was out. Who else was there? Dan? The Fossil Man? A teacher? He frowned. And how? It might be possible to just walk out the door with it -- but that would take more luck, timing, and gall than most people could muster.

Sally knocked, and came in with a sheaf of papers. "I've tried writing a letter to the Board," she said. "How's this?

"On Thursday, May 24, the Wildlife Museum was faced with the most serious crisis in its existence to date, when its magnificent and priceless opal shell was deftly stolen under the very nose of...."

Potiphar raised his open hand with a wry laugh. "Sally, I've been acting like this is our most serious crisis, so I can't blame you for saying so, but it's not. What about the time the pipes burst in the collections storage room? Or that lawsuit over the Harris accession?"

Sally blushed. She wanted to be a writer -- Potiphar had read a number of her efforts -- and she had a weakness for hyperbole.

"Try to mellow it out a bit, hey? We don't want to stampede the board, and above all we want to watch what ideas we put in their head. Just be very careful not to say anything beyond what's there to be said...."

Potiphar's feet crashed to the floor, and he sat bolt upright. "Beyond what's there!" he cried, and was out of his office like a shot.

"Dan!" he shouted, bursting into the Touch and Feel Room, setting off shrieks among startled fourth graders. "You said the kids liked the things I'd gotten your room, especially the fossil molds. But the molds are the only thing I got!"

"Then where did that fat limestone ammonite come from, over on the fossil table?" Dan said, pointing. "I knew you saw Fred Wilson yesterday, so I figured you got it from him."

Potiphar whirled, stared, then with a glad "Aha!" snatched up the ammonite, and headed for his workshop at a run. Fifteen minutes and a pint of mineral spirits later, the thin layer of imitation limestone was gone and the opal ammonite lay revealed to view.

Potiphar stamped into his office, temporarily more a force of nature than its curator. "Hold the letter, Sally; things have changed!" he called out as he dialled Capt. Neill's number.

* * * * *

"The way I see it, Fred Wilson knew how much that fossil was worth," he told the detective an hour later, as a puzzled Neill looked at the glowing shell. "There he was, alone in the museum with the ammonite and an open sack of imitation limestone. He knew I would be busy with the kids for at least twenty minutes, so he popped the case open, took the shell back to my shop, and gave it a quick coat of stone to make it look like an ordinary fossil.

"Then when I was out seeing the kids off, he nipped into the Touch and Feel Room and put it on the fossil table. He figured nobody would notice it there."

"If he had magnets with him, he might have been planning this for some time," Captain Neill noted.

"Yes," said Potiphar, "and was just waiting for his chance. So let's go pick him up."

"Well, we've got a problem with that. You see, he didn't steal your ammonite. There it is, on your desk. And I don't think we could prove attempted theft."

Potiphar fumed. "But he's a crook! He's coming back tomorrow -- Saturday, when Mrs. Anderson isn't at the door -- to steal it. What do you want me to do, let him take it? What if he gets away?" He ran a loving finger over his prize. "No. This is too precious to risk."

Neill sighed. "Yeah, I understand. Maybe we'll catch him next time."

A crafty smile slowly spread across Potiphar's face. "Still, it would be a shame to disappoint him," he said.

* * * * *

Potiphar watched from his office window as Fred Wilson loaded crates into the jeep. The museum now owned several new Cretaceous fishes (if the word "new" can be applied to something from the Age of Dinosaurs) and there was an interesting if battered piece of mammoth tusk in the Touch and Feel Room.

And after Fred Wilson had taken away the crate he'd brought the tusk in, a large limestone ammonite fossil was gone.

The jeep pulled out onto highway 13, headed west. "He's off the museum property," Potiphar thought, and spoke into the transceiver Captain Neill had given him.

Two police cars shot from side streets, neatly boxing the jeep between them. Potiphar ran out the door, and reached Wilson just in time to hear Neill finish reading him his rights.

Wilson was cool, no denying it. When they opened up the crate, he shrugged. "Of course I've got fossils in the jeep! I'm the Fossil Man. Open up the other crates, and you'll find more."

"You stole my ammonite!" Potiphar growled between clenched teeth. He snatched it from the case, and thrust it in Wilson's face.

"Nonsense!" Wilson replied reasonably. "Your ammonite is opalized. Mine is perfectly ordinary limestone."

Potiphar snarled as if enraged, and moved to grab Wilson. Neill blocked him; Potiphar lost his footing. His arms waved, seeking balance, and the fossil flew into the air.

"Jesus Christ!" Wilson screamed, diving to catch it. "Don't you know how delicate opal is?" The fossil hit the road, and a small chunk broke off.

Potiphar and Captain Neill shook hands. Wilson looked unbelievingly at the loose, drab piece of stone.

"I believe that counts as a confession. And he said it spontaneously, so it should be admissible," Neill said.

"You were expecting opal all over the road, weren't you?" Potiphar said icily. "Let's try it again, shall we?"

He hurled the ammonite to the pavement with all his strength. It burst into a thousand pieces. A plastic Zip-loc bag was partially embedded in one of the larger chunks.

Potiphar picked up the chunk with the bag, and flipped the plastic with his finger directly in front of Wilson's nose. It contained a postcard of the opal ammonite, Potiphar's business card, and several large bills.

"See that?" he asked. "Two hundred fifty dollars makes it a felony. You may not have stolen the opal, but by God, you're not getting out of this one on a technicality!"

Potiphar looked the Fossil Man in the eye. "You aren't the only one who knows how to make rubber molds," he said. "You're looking at the rest of your sack of limestone powder, down there around your feet.

"Do business with me for years, then stab me in the back? I wish they still had the old rockpile, so the other jailbirds could see a real professional rock-hound at work!"

Potiphar watched as the police car bore Fred Wilson into the distance. "Damn," he said softly to himself. "The kids really loved making those fossils.

"I hope I can find another supplier for that special rock, now that the Fossil Man is out of business."

2004 Ellen R. Kuhfeld