Road Whose Course Does Not Turn Back

Chapter 21

Nobody dug at Usrique the following day.

Once the tents had been deconstructed (except for the artifact tent, which stayed up for the day), everyone was told to wait in the pits.

Dylan still had the sense that something was very wrong, but it was much stronger this time. Beltrán, José, and Claire stationed themselves at the back of the tent, discussing the situation without ever taking their eyes off the diggers. Sometimes the discussion escalated to yelling, especially between Beltrán and Claire. José stayed shifty-eyed on everyone else. He had stopped focusing on Dylan, finally. Now he probably had bigger problems anyway.

Eyes sliding between the two parties, Dylan knew he had to come up with some sort of plan. Fortunately he'd finished up making and copying one of the sets of provenance records yesterday afternoon, and that would probably be enough for evidence. It had to be enough. Right now he had to focus on the situation arising here. The question here was no longer "if" some sort of altercation would take place. It was "when."

"—the authorities!" Claire's voice began to rise again. "What are we going to do? What the hell are we going to do?"

"Leave. That's all we can do," José spoke up.

"They know our names and what we look like! Leaving won't be enough," Claire spat, shooting her foot into the ground. "They took one of the artifacts. Maybe they want money or something."

"And what will that do?" Beltrán seethed at her. "They can take our money and still turn us in! José is right. We have to leave the site."

"We're not leaving, you idiots. Leaving won't do jack shit. We need to stay and sell everything. We need to sell everything now, because I will tell you, by the time they get to the authorities, if they get to the authorities, this operation is done. They'll be on the lookout. If we scratch our noses they find us, and they arrest us."

"Keep your voice down," advised José, lowering his own.

"No. No. I'm going to do what I want, José," she shrilled. "What are the diggers going to do about it? They're scared. If we told them to drive the cars off cliffs they would do it. We're staying. There are still things here. And believe me, we're going to need every single one of them to stay above because our revenue will pretty soon be gone."

Dylan looked around. The diggers didn't look the same as they usually did. And by that knowledge he guessed they weren't scared.

Yes. He had to come up with a plan.

"I am not going to ruin my life because of your asinine judgment," Beltrán retorted brusquely, more and more leaving his good-natured facade with every heated word. "If you want to stay, that's your choice. I am leaving."

"Shhh!" José's eyebrows knitted together low over his brow in urgency.

"If you leave," Claire said slowly, "I'll turn you in myself."

"And what of you? They'll arrest you too."

"Not if I say that was my aim to begin with. Blowing the lid on the black market here. Just look at my track record. I was once a student of archaeology. Maybe the past few years have been an effort to save my beloved artifacts in a way that makes a difference."

Dylan tried wildly to predict the situation and determine the best timing. When should he step in? All appearances indicated that these three were about to destroy themselves. Either the diggers would take advantage of this weakness and rebel, or Beltrán and José would depose Claire and regain control.

If the diggers felt strong enough to step in—and they did, from the looks on their faces—then all Dylan had to do was stand back and wait.

If Beltrán and José were about to get rid of Claire, though, he needed to do something now.

He watched them intently, looking for facial expressions and what they were doing with their hands and feet. Beltrán stood rigid about ten feet away from the others. He'd been physically distancing himself ever since expressing his desire to leave. And now he wasn't moving back to confront Claire, whose heel was still ripping into the ground.

And he made his decision.

"I advise you not to try that," Beltrán said, smiling. "I believe you are talking big."

"And I believe you are too stupid to see the concept." Claire's mouth tightened. "In the court I have more clout than you. If you want to play 'he said, she said,' good. I invite you to try it and see just how well it turns out."

"Claire," José said, sounding not angry but uncharacteristically apprehensive, "I question your good judgment right now."

"Okay. Question it." She didn't look away from Beltrán. "We have more here if we don't shrink away from it. And I'm not going to let you two ruin it just because you don't have the balls." Finally she turned her head toward him. "Question it, but do what I say."

"No."

Both their heads turned to Beltrán.

"Life is short. I don't want to spend any of it locked up."

José and Claire exchanged glances.

Dylan reconsidered his assessment. Maybe José and Claire would depose Beltrán instead of Beltrán and José deposing Claire. If there was going to be any rift among the uppers, José and Claire allying now seemed more likely.

Either way, someone or some people were going to end up dead quite soon if things kept going like this. He'd never seen weapons here, but he knew Beltrán and José had some. From all the threatening they did, they had to. Dylan knew their threats weren't empty ones.

Maybe a little rearranging of the circumstances was necessary. He turned to Manuel, who was next to him.

He ran the risk of showing his hand too soon. There was still the chance that diggers would report him right away if they still were even just a little bit scared and their fear overrode their indignation.

He also ran the risk of losing their trust even further if they still saw him as being in league with Beltrán. If they overpowered those three, they might throw him in with them, too.

There was only one way to lessen the chance of danger to himself, and that was telling the truth. The timing for that was now. He could feel it.

He leaned slightly to the side so he and Manuel could talk while still allowing him to watch the others. "I'm here on an agenda," he said. "They wronged me. And if I want to take them down, are you with me?"

Manuel looked briefly away.

That had been a prudent amount of truth, and no part of it was lie. They wronged everyone by what they did with the artifacts. If he'd said he was here to expose black market dealings, the diggers would also be implicated—not just Beltrán, José, and Claire. And so if they knew that, they wouldn't help him. They'd only get rid of him more quickly.

He felt guilty, like he was using them only to sentence them later. Like he'd been doing something similar all his life, refusing to think of the circumstances his actions caused for others. If his testimony outside proof of the records he took part in falsifying meant anything in court, if they did all help him take them down, he'd do his best to get them off.

After a few seconds, Manuel returned his gaze. "Yes," he said.

With that, they waited.

"We need to assume that those who escaped are going to the authorities," said Beltrán. "Especially the girl and the boy. They never seemed to fit in here. The girl was too bright, too vibrant. The boy… I never knew what he was doing here, just assumed he was not harmful. I only wish I saw that sooner."

"I told you," Claire shrieked, finger shaking as she pointed her arm at him. "I told you to be careful of the Drew girl back when I first saw her smug little face in Tekax! And I kept telling you. But you were just too stupid. You underestimated her. I warned you. And don't you dare talk about it because I can't listen to it. Things didn't have to happen this way. I warned you about her. You shooed me away. You said you had everything under control."

Beltrán stood in silence though his eyes glimmered dangerously.

"And if I know Nancy Drew, she'll get to the authorities. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but she'll get there soon, and that's why we have to sell everything and get rid of it now."

Everybody in the pits rose from their crouches.

José noticed immediately and stood.

For a few seconds they all stood, paused by the silence.

Claire and Beltrán flung words at each other for at least half a minute before they noticed it, too.

And then even Claire didn't dare move.

The diggers were closer to the cars.

And each of them knew it.

Dylan wished he hadn't forgotten the next few seconds. They seemed vital and brilliant and alive, somehow more alive than he ever could've been. But in times like these he couldn't help wearing his mortal life on his sleeve and failing to pull it away when the sleeve wrapped all the way around his vision. Some of his mates talked about times they were sure they'd die and what they did and didn't remember about those moments. There were always more things that they didn't remember, like they had actually gone somewhere else for a little while. The frailty and uncertainty here took over.

And then, suddenly, those three were subdued pretty much where they stood.

"She will go to the authorities?" one of the diggers was yelling in Beltrán's face. "What about us, then?"

"What about my children?" shrieked another.

In that manner they gathered closer around the three. At some point someone shouted "Kill," which rapidly broke into the words of a few others. "Kill! Kill them! Kill!"

The other diggers didn't take up on the idea—yet, Dylan noted wryly—but they were understandably too busy voicing their objections to silence the others. If the objections died down, they lost some of their impact.

Dylan realized that he hadn't done anything until now. They hadn't needed his help.

But he had to do something fast. They didn't need to kill anybody. Nobody had to be killed. He didn't want anybody killed.

He had people skills. Negotiation skills, just from the past few weeks. Time to use them for this. If all this time at the site he'd been up to no good, at least this would help undo some of the damage.

Besides which there really usually was never a reason to kill anyone.

Dylan bit his lip. There were no pretty young women here. He couldn't use his looks on this crowd. This would be difficult. He wouldn't have anything to fall back on. The only one left was Holly, who looked rabid and very confused, but mostly rabid. He didn't sense fear in her, just like he didn't sense fear in any of the other diggers anymore. Even the ones who didn't want to go to jail, who had families, were angry, not scared.

Claire, oddly, didn't seem scared either. Her face was knotted and twisted and blue-white with patches of dirt just from handling the artifacts, which hadn't been cleaned. Her lips were pulled so far into her mouth that he couldn't see them, and so tightly that he couldn't see any puckered line, giving her the appearance of having no mouth at all. In that second she was the archetype of fury, the god of it, wielding it so much and so fully that there was room for nothing else. She resembled a corpse, and not one of the well-preserved mummies he'd sometimes seen in Egypt. She resembled a corpse far gone, beaten down by the dirt and rain. Her stillness completed the picture.

He looked away. He had to. Beltrán and José looked as scared as she didn't.

Then out of the blue he remembered the little chat they'd all had last night and looked for Alexander and Richard. They both hung back, confused. They looked scared.

"Stop for just a second!" Dylan stepped forward, waving his hands. "Let's not talk about killing anyone." He wasn't a think-things-through type of guy at all, but it seemed like a rational thing to say.

The two or three violent voices did stop, and the overall din ceased for a second. The diggers stared at him for a few seconds, unimpressed.

Great. This would be even harder than he thought.

"You haven't experienced this, I'm sure, Señor," said Manuel, not scornfully but truthfully. "But these men and this woman have taken away our lives. Where are we to go after this?"

"Do you honestly think that killing them will help you?" Dylan asked, turning to the ones with the deepest scowls. For now he'd have to assume that they were the ones crying death. "Someday down the road, somebody's probably going to put the pieces together and find you. And then you'll have to deal with that on top of things."

"People do not get caught here," said one of those angriest. His set face spoke fifty years, but his wholly white hair spoke sixty-five or seventy. "They never do. Sometimes we don't get paid. And who listens to us then? No one."

Dylan knew what he meant by "here." The black market. This was the dirt. They were all so under that they couldn't breathe and no one paid attention to them.

"Will killing them help you? Your families?" he repeated.

"No, but it will help me get to sleep tonight," he continued with a one-sided grin.

Brilliant, Dylan internally sighed. He wished Beltrán and José hadn't insisted on a conversation last night. He needed more sleep to deal with this.

He considered suggesting turning them over to the authorities, convincing them of the justice of that.

Then remembered that they themselves probably feared the authorities, having been complicit in illegal activities. Not to mention he himself didn't care for them. Yeah, leaving the authorities out of this was probably the better way to go.

"They're better off alive," he said finally. "That way they can't bring as much harm to you."

"They're better off dead," retorted the old man. "That way they cannot talk."

"If they're alive, they actually have to think about what they've done to you. They're left to think about it."

"They think about nothing. They don't care."

"Can we hold off on making any rash decisions? Just for now?"

The old man chuckled. "This is not rash. This is the last few months, for some of us years, in the making."

Dylan considered different tactics. Would framing this in trade talk be helpful? They hadn't actually helped with selling the items. Still… "They've taken your work. Maybe even your dignity. Is taking their lives a fair trade?"

"They have taken ours," he continued. "Do you know my name? It is Felipe. I don't know the names of those I've worked next to. I know yours, Dylan, only because you have been reprimanded so many times." Felipe's voice rose. "A name is not an insult. A name shows a person. And a person is not an insult. They have taken our lives by making us less than people. They have made us into dirt. Dirt and the bones we stand on."

"You still have a choice," said Dylan. "Will killing them turn you into people again?"

Felipe didn't respond to this. His eyes turned on Dylan, engaged for the first time in the conversation.

"Only you can say if you're dirt," Dylan continued. "Don't let them tell you what you are."

Felipe's eyes narrowed.

For a few seconds that was the only movement anyone made.

Then he took a few long, graceful steps forward and clasped Dylan's hand with one of his own, placing the other on top of their joined fingers. "I cannot say you are right," he said, "but you have given me something to think about."

"I could have told you as much, Felipe, you tired old fool," said another of the diggers, dispelling the tension in the air. Juan, Dylan thought his name was. But then again, he thought sadly, he'd only heard it once. Nobody talked or used names here, after all.

A few laughed slightly. Then all of the diggers set their eyes back on Claire, Beltrán, and José with a nearly-audible snap.

They were trapped within the circle of diggers. They weren't going anywhere.

Not trusting himself to speak without ruining it somehow, Dylan returned the gesture with a firm handshake and an appreciative smile.

Everyone stood less stiffly after that. Two men went off to get rope and chairs to ensure that Claire, Beltrán, and José stayed put. After only about thirty seconds a buzz rose over them all.

It took Dylan some time to realize that it was words, conversation. It had been so long since he'd heard talking in public.

After a few more seconds he thought it was safe to turn around, take a few seconds to himself. He raised his eyebrows and blew out air through his lips. That had been a close one.

Another tier of relief sank through the muscles of Dylan's shoulders as he thought again of what had transpired last night. If things had kept going the way they'd been going, he might have had to make a daring escape himself. Briefly he wondered where Nancy and Sonny were right now. They'd absconded with one of the artifacts. Claire had been spitting mad when she returned without them. He didn't know why they'd chosen to leave just then, but it had been perfect timing. Beltrán and José had immediately laid off him. With Lou stealing one of the cars like that, they hardly had any choice. Time was of the essence. And though they got outside as quickly as they could, it just hadn't been soon enough.

For Dylan it had been just soon enough. Beltrán had just said "Come with me," with a pretty unmistakable subtext. The words were barely out of his mouth before the sound of a car engine had sent them all outside the tent.

And at first he didn't know what Beltrán had meant. There hadn't been enough time even for that, to finish processing the request or to think of a plan or some daring escape where his smooth words, for once, had failed him.

That was the main reason he'd been thinking up a plan for this situation for some time now, maybe even earlier than he needed to. Once he'd realized his danger, though, that extra effort just made sense to him. This was one of the occasions when he thought, better safe than sorry. Now that he wasn't under intense scrutiny his skin didn't crawl every time someone looked at him, and he felt he could breathe again. Maybe that gave him the confidence to take a stand here, or maybe the necessity of some intervention pushed him out of his recent shell. They'd subdued the team leaders and Claire, but they were no longer the main source of danger.

Now it was a few of the diggers, and from the way they'd been treated, Dylan couldn't blame them. He just wanted to avert a crisis where none was really necessary.

At the moment everything seemed stable. Still tense, but relatively peaceable.

Keeping things this way would be another matter entirely.


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