Road Whose Course Does Not Turn Back

Chapter 15

Nancy hopped pits until she stood in the farthest one out. Beltrán, José, Claire, and Dylan had walked out far in the opposite direction from the cars, stopping near the top of the opposite hill that overlooked the site. Smart. That way they could still keep an eye on everyone and talk without being overheard.

Or so they thought.

Waiting until she was sure their backs were turned, Nancy crawled around the bottom of the hill to the other side. That way she'd get closer, and they wouldn't see her. After all, they would have no reason to walk to the top of the hill and then descend on the other side. That would put them too far from the site and diggers.

"How many pieces for the stone slab?" Nancy heard Claire ask.

Good. Perfect.

"Fifteen," answered Beltrán. "Pieces are large enough to retain some of the images or text and more of the value, and there's still enough of them to get plenty of money."

"That's something," Claire said. "But we need a lot more like this to stay ahead."

"But we fear that the site is running out," José said.

A silence followed.

"We fear nothing of the kind," Beltrán replied, sending him a shrewd glance. "He's just momentarily discouraged, Claire."

"Good," said Claire. "Because I would not like to have to deal with this. And I would not like to have to replace you with people who are more competent."

Another rift, Nancy noted. José wasn't honest with Beltrán, and Beltrán wasn't honest with Claire.

Soon this would all be coming together. Nancy would get what she needed. Dylan would get what he needed. Sonny would get what he needed. And then they'd sit back and watch the site crumble.

Yes, this assignment had been daunting. There had been a higher risk factor. But Nancy had busted groups much more consistent than this one. The tension here was just one more assurance that this would soon be over.

"Have you met Dylan?" Beltrán said quickly. "He's pushed up the prices a lot for what we've been finding lately. And those have been scraps. Imagine what we'll get for what we found today."

"Very pleased to meet you," Dylan chimed in. "Been working a lot with men lately. Good to have you here for a change."

A harsh sigh followed. "Save the schmaltz for the sales. Really, I mean it. The more of that you waste on me, the lower the price will be."

"As you say," he replied, sounding unfazed.

"Yes, as she says," said José. "What she says goes."

"Do you have records of the sales?" Claire asked.

"Yes," Dylan replied.

"Good. We'll need those to make some provenance records."

Well. Dylan was on top of things. Now it was just a matter of time. He had records of the sales. Now he just needed to somehow record the process of falsifying provenance records. No, Nancy corrected herself. Now that she was following Dylan's activities, she could do that herself. She could assemble the proof. Perfect. She preferred investigations this way, with all of the investigative work ultimately falling back to herself. Dylan just didn't have that type of experience. Now that José had her sharing the process, she felt more like an investigator and less like an investigative consultant.

"I'll be happy to do that."

After this there was another silence.

"Well, I'm off," Dylan said. Apparently his sense told him his presence was the reason for the silence. "Until later!"

No one returned the goodbye. In the seconds after he left, Nancy thought she heard the sound of feet plodding in the grass. She flattened herself against the earth and hoped she was wrong.

"How long until you get rid of him?" Claire asked.

Dylan had been right.

"Once he's liquidated all of the pieces from today's find," Beltrán answered immediately. "I'll tell him to hurry."

Nancy was shocked. Wasn't Beltrán the one who trusted him?

"Good," said José. "He makes me uneasy."

"Everything makes you uneasy," Beltrán retorted.

"Speaking of that, what about that girl?"

Nancy froze.

"The one with the red hair?"

"Nancy?" Beltrán asked.

Her heart sank. He'd mentioned the name. Now Claire would know her for sure.

"She is a good worker," Beltrán continued. "A hard worker."

"Very helpful," José added.

"Helpful?" Claire said, sneer audible. "Oh yes. She's always been helpful."

She remembered her, all right.

"You know the girl?" Beltrán asked in surprise.

"Oh no, but I know the type."

Nancy's brow wrinkled in confusion and wariness. Whatever the reason was for Claire pretending she didn't know her, it couldn't have been good.

"She is helpful," said Beltrán. "That is important to us."

"I agree." There was a pause. "Do you have an extra space in one of the sleeping tents?"

"Are you planning on staying?" Beltrán asked.

"Yes, I am. I don't like hearing that the site is turning barren. With me here I'm sure that'll turn around."

"You need not have anything but confidence in our leadership ability."

"José!" Beltrán hissed.

"Is that right, José?" Nancy heard muffled footsteps. "When I met you, you were one of the diggers slogging away in the dirt and mud. Unpaid. I made you. And I'll be more than happy to drop you back off there in Yaxcabá where you belong."

Nancy wondered what this meant. Was Claire high up in the black market antiquities trade? Had she handed him the position of overseer? Given him a place in the trade?

"That won't be necessary, Claire," Beltrán assured. "I'll keep him in line."

Rooted to her seat, Nancy continued to listen even as their voices died while they descended the opposite direction from her. Soon they stopped talking altogether when they reached a closer proximity to the diggers.

Dylan couldn't explain the sinking feeling he got when he walked off with them and, now, away from them. But it somehow seemed wrong, all wrong, that she'd be here right now. It couldn't have been in conjunction with this most recent find that had been dug up fifteen minutes ago, since the drive from Tekax to Usrique was a lot longer than fifteen minutes. She had to be here for some other reason. It didn't feel like an ordinary checkup.

And the fact that she had so quickly come to talk to Beltrán and José and him, Dylan, the new guy, gave him a funny feeling. A bad funny feeling.

As if he was the reason she came. As if they trusted him less every day that passed.

Besides which, it was just so odd for them to cut up the artifact during the daylight with everyone watching. And especially for the people who lived here it was salt on the wounds. It felt cruel. It felt like an expression of power, a mindgame, so relished by the leaders that it was done at the expense of nighttime security. Why else would they have done it at the riskier time?

Everything about this was so completely bizarre.

It didn't help that he was doing the exact same thing he'd been told not to do by the request of those who told him not to do it. That left him quite confused. Now also it left him lonely, and fearing his own mortality.

Which he hadn't really done since those rocks had fallen on him in Nefertari's tomb. Before then he'd always been down on his luck, it wasn't new, but that hadn't started to set in until he went there. But somehow he'd always made it work, and the spontaneity excited him and made him feel at home. An eviction notice on his London flat had brought him to the end of the honeymoon stage. Not that it was a huge deal. It could have been worse. He barely spent any time there, after all. But it had been a turning point. For the first time he realized he could fail. Then there'd been another turning point in that dark, sandy tomb, alone. For the first time he realized that he could lose his life.

When he reached the familiar set of pits, Dylan's feet lingered and stopped almost without his noticing. Nobody looked up at his arrival. But then again, he hadn't worked with them in some time. They saw him throw his lot in with the overseers. Now there was a rift. This wasn't his area anymore.

Turning to look Beltrán, José, and Claire one more time, Dylan noticed they were standing just over the other side of the hill now, visible waist-up from the land that hid their feet.

That wasn't his area, either.

Dylan decided that he'd stressed out enough over the danger of this situation. For now he'd let it lie, think about other things for a while. He didn't consider himself a coward anyway. He really didn't. He lithely dodged the harder spots of life and glided through the path with the fewest obstacles between him and his happiness. Because let's face it, he thought with an ironic twist of the lip, happiness really isn't that easy to get to.

Especially if people were as unskilled as he was. He'd tried University. That hadn't worked out. It hadn't motivated him.

To be completely fair with himself, though, he had never attempted University outside of London. London bored him. London was not a place for a chipper person, at least, not a chipper person who preferred the sun to the rain. He did love his native city, but he found himself tired and cross when he tried spending all his time there.

And when he left the city, pardon the cliche, his eyes had shot open.

Travel suited him, he found. At first he thought he was born in the wrong place and he needed to move to another. But no place felt like home as much as all of them did, melding into some sort of intercity utopia with a skyline taken from 52 different locations. And he left each place before it could become boring, and ruined, for him, establishing a base of a few of his favorite places among which he alternated. And he never took one of them for granted.

Dylan knew he had been lucky. Most people found one of the things they wanted to do and then some time later found the other necessary thing they wanted to do—the money thing. Some never found it, sitting in a job they hated in a location they used to love but grew to hate when the blackness spread to other portions of their lives. Or those who found the job they loved but not the place they loved. That was probably even more unfortunate, he guessed. That made it even harder to leave. Many people spent their lives without ever finding that other thing.

He had found it right away.

A few diggers looked quizzically up at Dylan as he grinned to the air. First it was sort of unofficial. In South Africa a group of French people had run into him, thinking he was a tour guide, and slapped some money in his hand. Dylan wasn't ever chivalrous enough to refuse money. Besides, he thought. He was doing them a favor. This was what they wanted. He was just making them happy. His smile grew. He didn't understand them, and they didn't understand him. Most of the stuff on that tour had been shamelessly fabricated, but he never felt guilty for it. Mostly because at the end of the day, all their smiles were wide and fresh.

Dylan had always known he liked people. Until then he didn't know he had an affinity for working with them. Maybe it was mainly because one of the French people, a woman around thirty years old, spent all that time ogling him. And from the way her eyes fell out of focus, he could tell that she wasn't listening to a word he said. Not that it was any use, anyway, since they didn't speak English or Zulu. But his looks were something that were his, and his to flaunt, so why not use them if they helped?

The only thing they both understood were the bills they placed in his hand. He remembered that more than he remembered anything else that day except the smiles. Since they couldn't agree on some language, there was little to remember, was often his defense. That day he'd learned the power of money.

Also, he'd realized happily, this was his other thing. His money thing.

For a few months he was very content. Then his finances brought him back down from the clouds. He'd wished for simplicity, something to which he could keep returning, if not something tangible, then a feeling. All his life he'd wanted simplicity. It was appropriate. He saw himself as somewhat of a simpleton.

And then he was back in London all over again.

Dylan's shoulders caved forward as he remembered the constant exhaustion of that life. He wasn't a horrible person. For years he tried playing by the rules. Figured that he could make a living if he only wanted it badly enough. But that had been impossible. Either he had been overly optimistic or he hadn't wanted it badly enough.

He couldn't bring himself to try anything else. Not now that he'd finally found this. Something that turned him from a cheery, unaffected fellow to someone actually happy. And he couldn't go back. He convinced himself he'd fail at everything else, literally fail, not be able to do something and be miserable. He didn't have that willpower. He'd lose all motivation at anything else. He could not do anything else.

Happiness was slippery, like a nice-smelling bar of soap. So Dylan learned to be slippery. Very upfront by nature, he knew he could not tell lies without his face also telling the truth. So he mixed the two. And found, to his discomfort, that telling the mix was even easier for him than telling the full truth had been. But he'd pushed that feeling away. He'd been doing what for him was happiness.


The emptiness of his words echoed all around his head, tasting bitter.

Now he was somewhere he didn't know, with people he didn't know who didn't want to know him. He could be dead tomorrow. And that still scared him.

Dylan realized he had been inching forward to the pit that used to be his for the first few days. It felt a bit like he belonged there, since he didn't seem to belong somewhere else.

He didn't know what person he was anymore, doing bad things but on the orders of good people. Once he was back in there, succeeding at something at which he'd failed just last year, he hated that he loved it. He didn't know whether he enjoyed it, even if he loved it. Was it wrong to love doing things that came easily to him, that he was good at? He'd had several girlfriends who did nothing but flatter him. Those had all fallen apart a few months in.

The graduate students fascinated him. He hadn't made it through four years of University, let alone ten or however many they had. He liked it when they talked over his head because they were excited about it, and that was their happiness. It was one of the things, location. Because these girls lived in their minds and didn't give a second glance to the world around them. It barely mattered to them where they ended up. But they were just as dirt poor as he was. Yet listening to them, he absorbed some of their happiness, and the happiness became communal.

Dylan still considered himself lucky. Most other blokes had to learn another skill or trade besides being sociable to make a living. He used it in his friendships, relationships, and working life. Then he used it for a lot of other things. He used it to barter. To make contacts. To get out of trouble with his landlord. He owned his sociability.

Perhaps if he were charming enough he could make everything sufficiently easy, lower the cost of living to something he could actually cover. Never help someone without getting something in return. Rely on favors. Make a scrap of money here and there to make a living. He'd tried that. Again, either he was not charming enough or too naive.

With his feet at the tip of his pit, Dylan froze. Suddenly he realized he had been running in circles all these years. Once the black market opportunity presented itself to him, he didn't think twice except to verify that he wasn't hurting anybody. So he'd taken a car out of Cairo and tried his best with Abdullah. Then, after that happened, he tried his best with Lily. That had worked. Ten lovely minutes when he let her take out her frustration over mummies and curses on him. All thanks, incidentally, to Nancy, who needed that time to look through Lily's things. If nothing else had gone right on that trip, at least that had. Maybe he was still on the rebound from his last girlfriend, the PhD student, and that was all he saw when he looked at Lily, but it had been fun while it lasted. No big expectations. No bitter partings.

Abruptly his thoughts shifted. He almost grimaced before catching himself. Dylan made it a point not to regret his choices. Dwelling on things was wasted time.

But he regretted not talking to her.

If only Jamila hadn't pretended to be crazy. And he almost hated himself for thinking that. It had been his excuse for holding Sonny in a less-than-stellar light. But Sonny's and Nancy's budding relationship had been one of the things to go right on this dig. And then, Sonny was suddenly not as crazy or dangerous or to be avoided as he had been to Dylan before.

Probably a little because it meant that there was nothing between Sonny and Jamila, Dylan admitted sheepishly. That had been his initial conclusion anyway, but there was always that little jealous doubt. Now that doubt was gone, he started hoping again.

He couldn't help but think of her, even though he knew she wouldn't appreciate it. How she'd dealt with threats to her mortality all her life, heard about it all her life, prepared for it all her life, and never batted an eyelash. He had no willpower. She was all willpower.

Maybe Dylan was too attracted to people who weren't interested in him, but there was just something about her. Something that commanded respect. Something that commanded admiration from everyone. Or at least it should have; Jamila was just that strong. A fellow would have to be crazy not to admire her.

Dylan's fingers curled against his sides. He wanted to see her again. At the very least he wanted to get to know her. See if this was just a vagary of his feelings, swinging wild as his life underwent drastic changes. Whether it was just the feeling that he needed her when he really needed to get a grip. Improve all on his own.

But for now he was sure she was the one thing that could make his life less miserable, in any capacity. Even if it was just chatting in a restaurant every so often.

Suddenly Dylan felt the entire escalation all at once, everyone's mistrust of him, the dig site falling apart day by day. He turned on his heel and walked until nobody could see him. He still didn't know what he was doing at the site. Sure, even one and a half years later, he still hated nothing more than an empty stomach. That could've justified it.

But he was lonely here. And Nancy and Sonny, he smiled at the thought of them getting together. He was happy for them, truly, but he feared his own mortality.

After Claire, José and Beltrán left, Nancy emerged from her hiding place. It had been a little hairy when they did decide to start going down the other side of the hill, her side, after all. But she had just crawled around to the place they'd walked away from.

Seeing Dylan, she stopped short. Deep in thought, he didn't appear to notice her.

Then she remembered that Beltrán would be looking for her at the site and walked back to her digging spot. When his head was turned, though, she leapt out again and doubled back. Dylan still stood where he'd been standing when she passed him a few minutes ago. His back faced her. His arms were crossed, and his fingers dug into the skin near his elbows.

"Dylan," she said.

He moved his head to the side to acknowledge her presence although he didn't say anything.

"When are you going to make another trip to Tekax? I need to know so I can go with you."

"I don't know," he replied, breath rushing into his voice.

Just then Nancy realized that she had not checked in with José about Dylan yet. The thought set her rigid. Maybe he suspected her now.

Or maybe he just assumed that she'd keep tailing Dylan and just talk to him if anything seemed off.

It'd be better not to approach him, she decided. She could always use the excuse that she'd forgotten, that Dylan didn't seem to be doing anything suspicious anyway. She had been following him a lot.

She approached him. "Sun's close to setting already," she said. After the time spent here she'd learned to pay attention to such things. "I'd say about forty-five minutes left of working."

He looked at her. "And why aren't you there?"

"I needed a break."

"I saw your break," he commented. "Congratulations."

Nancy tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Thanks."

It was still better for him to be lonely, Dylan thought. Better for everyone else, since apparently he'd almost blown Nancy's cover when Claire saw her in Tekax. It didn't come naturally to him, though. So he found himself talking. Or at the very least responding when others were talking to him.

"So I suppose you didn't come here to chat," said Dylan, although it sounded like he very much hoped she did.

"No," said Nancy, "but things have gone so fast today. Taking a little time won't hurt."

"It will if you get caught slacking off," said Dylan. "Then you'll leave without saying what you wanted to say."

"And you? What about you slacking off?"

"They don't expect me to do that kind of work. Now that I'm doing everything else."

"Yeah. About that. I need pictures of the stone slab pieces," Nancy said. "Now that Claire's at the site I'm not sure I can do it myself without arousing her suspicion."

"Do you know her?"

Nancy shrugged slightly. "Maybe."

"Or what could happen is I could take her aside and talk sales with her."

"Dylan, I need you to take pictures and get them to me."

"I really don't want to do that."

Nancy paused. "You said you'd help us."

"I said I'd help you by infiltrating the black market. Being their agent. I thought finding the proof fell to you."

"Right now I'm not in the position—"

"And I suppose you need me to make copies of the sales records and the provenance records."

"Yes." Nancy looked at him almost apologetically. "And I need a recording of how those records are falsified. A video, or photos, or something."

"You've got to be kidding me!" Dylan snapped. He took off his hat, ran a hand through his hair, and began to pace.

"Look, I'd do it myself if I could. Believe me, I'd prefer that."

"You don't trust me?" he glowered at her. "I'm really getting sick of that, you know."

"You don't have the same experience. And I have to wonder why you're being so reluctant right—"

"When do we get out of here?" Dylan cut across her. "Really? I'd very much like to know when."

Then she understood. The reluctance was fear. Hypervigilance. Near-complete isolation from the others on his investigating team. Every precaution taken not to be caught. The byproduct of weeks doing something he only barely knew about and doing something else totally unfamiliar to him. Black market activities and snooping.

"Soon, Dylan," she said, placing a hand on his arm.

He looked up sharply. Eyes glinting hard.

"We'll be finished up right about when you get finished up. It'll all happen soon." She looked around to make sure all of the diggers were out of earshot. "I trust you. We both do."

He threw his head back. "Ugh, thank god." He looked back at her with a weak smile.

Nancy was relieved to see it.

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