Monday, June 16, 2014
I Hate to Do This, But ...
This hit me and demanded to be written. I’ll return to the serial story next week. Unless, of course, something different hits.
# # #
After over an hour painstakingly exposing the Triceratops bone, Zach Veller got up to stretch his legs. He removed his hat and wiped sweat and dust from his face. The heat didn’t bother him as much as the dirt. The dig kicked up more grit than a brisk wind in the Sahara, and it seemed to want to stick to everything, especially skin. Stand still too long and you might end up buried. Maybe he’d wake to some university grad studiously brushing sand from his skull a couple thousand years down the line.
He set his hat back on his head and oh so casually just happened to glance toward the team leader, the unfortunately-named Dr. Colette St. Croix. Unfortunate because of the impression it left on the brain, and the loins. Her name conjured images of sunset on a Caribbean beach with a drink in hand and meaningful smiles exchanged while warm wavelets lapped at your toes. The reality of Dr. Hey-call-me-Col in her scuffed hiking boots and take-no-prisoners personality tended to jar with that. Her single-minded focus on freeing fossils from strata left no time or interest for socializing.
Or, as he’d overheard a colleague put it: “Don’t waste your time. She’s not jumping any bones unless they’re a million years old.”
Dust coated her tanned skin and blonde hair just as heavily as it did the student fossil hunters on the dig. Veller doubted if she even noticed. She wore the patina the way lesser women wore makeup, and glowed through the grit like a goddess. Her mind was on the important find she sensed awaited them inside the next layer of sediment.
Or perhaps even closer than that. Her head kept turning toward that one ledge shaded by canvas where her two best students were digging. Two days ago they’d unearthed a Deinonychus tail that looked highly promising. If she hadn’t needed to keep herself available to the crew, Veller knew she’d be crouched greedily beside the bones, bringing them from grave to light inch by careful inch.
Dr. Call-Me-Col St. Croix hoped the skeleton might be all or nearly complete. Veller prayed the fossil wouldn’t be as complete as he feared it would.
He wondered if he ought to risk a peek at Dr. St. Croix’s pet project, see how far along the students had gotten. Whether or not they were taking pictures. He snorted. Of course they were taking pictures. This micromanaged outfit documented everything. That could become a problem.
Veller’s real boss, the mystery man partially financing this dig, had reasons as valid as Veller’s own to keep any “unusual” fossil finds under wraps. Some things science and the world in general were just better off not knowing.
Like the fact their benefactor also owned this land. He was pretty sure Dr. Col didn’t know that, or that Veller had been secretly charged with keeping a close eye on the dig. All he had to do was stay a step ahead of her. Easy peasy, he’d told himself, thinking of Bahamian beaches. That was before he got to know her. And like her, he had to admit. What had started out as a straightforward spy job was rapidly turning complicated. Moreso than Veller was comfortable with.
Yeah, that peek was worth the risk. He needed another look at the layout anyway. Just in case he had to steal the find. Or, worse yet, destroy it. That was last-resort time, though. Neither he nor his boss wanted to see these bones destroyed. Wrecking phones and cameras, though, that he was good with. Enjoyed it, as a matter of fact.
Veller walked over to the cooler and helped himself to a bottle of water. He was drifting over toward the prime find when Dr. Hey-call-me-Col hailed him. Veller stopped and turned to face her and did his damnedest to look innocent. “Yes, Doctor?”
“Just saying hi.” She smiled up at him. It wasn’t the total, all-over smile she saved for her students or a newly-freed bone. Veller had been forced on her as part of the deal she’d wrangled to get permission to dig here. He’d worked hard and kept his nose clean this whole time, but he wasn’t one of her chicks and he knew she didn’t trust him. That was borne out when she said, “You look tense. Is the heat getting to you? Or the work? It’s not for everybody, you know.”
Translation: Feel free to pack up and go. No harm, no foul.
Veller smiled right back at her. She’d been pelting him with variations of this same line from Day One. Another thing she didn’t know: nothing and no one would chase him off this dig. There was too much at stake. “Just need to rehydrate. It’s been years since I’ve been to the Badlands. I’m still readjusting.”
“You’re from Montana?”
“My family is,” he said carefully. “Generations back. I live out of state now.”
She nodded. He wondered if she’d run a background check on him, and which version she’d connected with, the real one or the careful fiction his boss had constructed for him. If he knew which one she’d seen he could better tailor his performance.
“I’m been meaning to ask you,” she said, “why an accountant suddenly chucks the books and decides to go digging for fossils, of all things.”
Bingo. She’d seen the fake profile. Veller rubbed the back of his neck and put on his best aw-shucks. “Every kid in creation is fascinated with dinosaurs,” he said. “I wasn’t any different. I had to make a living, though, and I was good at math. Then I caught Jurassic Park on TV and, well … ”
“This isn’t a movie set, Mr. Veller. This is the real deal. Real sun, real dirt, real long hours of boring, backbreaking work. Nobody would blame you if you want to pack it in.”
“Believe it or not, Doctor, I enjoy the outdoors. Dirt and all.” What the hell, what was one more lie on top of all the whoppers he’d been spinning up till now? “And who knows? We might uncover a whole new species, or some other huge find. I want to be there when—”
“Doctor! Doctor Col!”
Both of them whirled. That screamy voice had come from the sheltered Deinonychus dig. Veller’s gut was still in the midst of its free fall when Dr. Col bolted for the site.
She wasn’t the only one. The whole team must have heard Ashley’s yelp, because they were all converging on Dr. Col’s pet fossil. Dammit, Veller thought, and joined the melee. This was liable to get messy.
Ashley was chattering to her fellow students when Col and Veller pounded up. They shoved their way through the press of paleontology grads. Steve was already snapping pictures. Would he need to snatch the camera? Veller wondered. Better check first.
Son of a bitch. It was even worse than he’d imagined.
“We found that first,” Ashley quavered, gesturing vaguely toward the dig. “Then Steve thought he saw something in the ribs, and … ”
Veller got a good look before Dr. Col thrust him aside. They’d found an intact Deinonychus, all right. About four feet of body and another three of tail. The nasty hooked claw on the foot slammed the last nail in the coffin.
Col stared at it. “Oh my … ”
Whatever she meant to add to that trailed off. Veller wasn’t sure of the precise cause: the obviously human-chipped flint arrowheads buried in the fossil’s rib cage, or the petrified remains of the stone axe the dinosaur clutched in its skeletal claws.