Road Whose Course Does Not Turn Back

Chapter 5

Five minutes before sunrise Nancy stood alert, eye out for any sort of movement. The two main tents were about to go down. Usrique, like the rest of the Puuc region, had many hills, the tallest of which was the best vantage point. And because dawn hadn't arrived, no one could see her unless they looked closely. Now she watched shadows tap at the poles and cloth flutter to the ground.

For the past three days she had introduced herself, watched the look in their eyes to see who was the talking type, observed.

The other diggers were tight-lipped almost without exception. For now the quietude didn't seem out of the ordinary, assuming everybody cared only about getting the job done. Maybe it was cultural.

Or maybe everybody was hiding something.

In any case, Nancy stopped talking after the others gave her odd looks. She didn't want to give the impression that she spoke carelessly, not if she wanted them to trust her. Throwing herself into digging seemed to be the best way to earn it—especially from the supervisors.

Beltrán and José stayed with the others at all times. Very occasionally they walked a little ways away and talked privately, but never for very long, and never out of Nancy's sightline.

That was during the day.

There had to be some point when they weren't with the others.

Thus, the early morning reconnaissance.

Still the shadows moved in a loose cluster, none venturing away at any notable distance. Nancy had seen Beltrán and José with them; she was positive.

A pink rim formed on the horizon. She pushed herself to her feet and walked down the hill to join the others. Maybe tomorrow would be more productive.

The shadows grew colors as she approached and the sun came up. Lou stood apart from everybody else, eyes clouded in sleep or thought.

An idea came to Nancy. She strode over to him.

Lou nodded in greeting.

Nancy smiled.

He didn't.

"Not much of a talker, are you?"

Lou shook his head.

"I have a bit of an odd request."

"Not promising anything."

"Can you talk to some of the other diggers today? I figure it might help break the ice."

"Why me?"

"I tried."

He sighed. "What do I talk about?"

"Anything."

"Anything?"

"Anything you want. I just," Nancy looked at her feet and shrugged. "I don't like the silence."

"Fine," he grimaced.

Nancy's eyes followed a digger to one of the smaller tents. He emerged holding tools.

Until now, Nancy had had tools handed to her. This would be a good opportunity to look around. She stepped inside. Grabbing a shovel, mattock, brushes, and a screen, she turned to leave when her eyes closed in on something in the far corner of the room, hidden behind a small table.

Slowly she stepped closer.

A glint of metal caught her eye.

She knelt down and looked.

A power saw.

Out of place at a dig site…

Disturbingly so.

That job was easily and more safely accomplished with an auger.

A rustling sound at the tent flap made her leap up instinctively.

Beltrán appeared with his hands on his hips. She couldn't see his face, but his form was easily distinguishable. "We usually take the tools out to the new diggers," he said, voice empty of any detectable emotion. "But I suppose you've been here long enough."

Nancy immediately jumped into apologies, but he waved her off and laughed.

"You are the right type," he said, and this time Nancy heard a smile. "The others have been here so long that they've lost their excitement." With that, he turned and left.

It was just the character apologizing, Nancy thought to herself. She as herself would have stood her ground. She couldn't afford to be jittery. What happened last case happened last case. The likelihood of her cover being blown was no larger than it always had been.

This case…

Nancy swallowed.

Everything would change after this. She had to grow up, make her own living. No more taking cases for free.

Maybe no more cases ever.

Was this going to be the last one?

No, she thought. Stop thinking about the future. Stop.

That's what she had to tell herself when she was, she grimaced at the word, scared. In St. Louis. In Egypt. In Thornton Hall.

Nancy walked out of the tent and joined the others who were already digging. Shovels glistened in the sliver of light. Looking for grassless pits where people had started, she settled herself into a space next to Lou and got to work.

Instantly Lou started to talk.

Nancy nudged him. "You don't need to right now, not until there's more daylight," she said.

He said nothing as he scooped his shovel downward, but Nancy could read his displeasure from the force of the gesture and the tenseness of his back.

Sonny, on the other hand, had started chatting up everybody in the vicinity, talking as much as he was working… more, actually. Nobody really responded to him, and Nancy wouldn't have been able to see the faces of those who responded, anyway. Would Lou fare any better? she wondered.

Dylan seemed oddly quiet. He kept glancing up at Beltrán and José as they worked. When the sun had risen a little higher they noticed these looks and returned them warily.

Nancy gritted her teeth on a particularly stubborn patch of dirt. Were they suspicious? "Now's good," she whispered to Lou. "Start talking when you feel like it."

This proved to be much later than Nancy had hoped. But finally, just when she was sure he'd forgotten, he started to talk. "Anybody here been out to the Chicxulub crater?" he asked.

Richard offered a "No," while Alexander shook his head. Holly ignored him, and so did with the rest of the workers. Dylan didn't answer, and Sonny was engrossed in a one-sided conversation of his own.

"'s where it all ended for the dinosaurs," he said. "If you've been there, you've seen me. Part of the crater edge is around here."

So that's what he was doing here, Nancy noted with some interest.

"'Cause you think, well, there have to be some bone specimens around, right?" He wiped sweat out of his eyes. "And even if not, that's firsthand learning experience about some life that predated you by millions of years. And I just got my MFA, and it's like, I'm not gonna need to be going back for a doctorate."

Alexander's feigned interest turned to real interest. Richard kept working.

"How long have you been around?" Nancy asked.

"A few months," he said without looking at her, facing the open land filled with workers. "Might be here for quite some time now; there's a lot to be looking for. Plus," he muttered at the sight, almost to himself, "lots of space, man. Lots of opportunities for my art."

Nancy smiled. Earthitecture.

"I forget how deep the crater is, but I'm going to the bottom of it. Figuratively and literally… did that just blow your mind, or what? And—oh, wait, it actually says in my latest letter from Cousin Mel." Lou's hand went to his pocket. "Nuts. Left it in the tent."

"Cousin who?" Alexander asked.

"Oh, I haven't told you about Cousin Mel?" Lou's face lit up. "Yeah, Cousin Mel is a budding student at Oxford, but she's actually in Florence right now. Studying the art there. Because of her, I even got to meet Poppy Dada. You heard of her?" He looked around. "Poppy Dada?"

Most of the other men averted their eyes.

Lou looked at Nancy, who absently gave him a thumbs up. He reached into his front pant pocket and pulled out a photo, shoving it into the hand of a nearby digger and crossing his arms proudly.

"Oxford," Alexander Norgaard smiled appreciatively. "Very hard to get in, not to mention the cost."

"She got a full ride for graduating valedictorian." He broke out in a grin. "We always knew she was smart."

Nancy reached for the photo before it was handed back to Lou. There were three people. Lou, on the left, was wearing a suit and a bigger grin than even now, and Nancy also recognized the woman on the left as Mel Corbalis, looking almost exactly the same as she had at Waverly.

Wait… Mel Corbalis? Nancy fought to keep the surprise off her face. Couldn't take the chance of anybody knowing she was a detective.

She shrugged and refocused her attention to the one in the center. A woman with straight black hair and thickly-applied cat eyeliner stared back. Her eyes held a flat, sardonic look, and she had an intriguing curl of the lip.

Poppy Dada.

"Mel met her at an artist's gathering in Rome." Lou re-pocketed the photo after Nancy had given it back. "I just had to fly out for a couple of days, and I'm really glad I did."

"I haven't been to Rome since my undergraduate studies," Alexander said. "Is it still as crowded?"

"Yeah, wasn't very chill," Lou agreed. "But at least now I've been off the American continent."

Silence.

"Anyway, there are lots of interesting places around here for that kind of thing—dinos near doomsplace. Maybe the next time I drive you guys into town for supplies, I'll point some of them out."

After that he didn't say much of anything. Nancy offered a small grin of thanks, but she was disheartened at this stroke of luck. Why wasn't anybody else talking? How long would it be before any of them made a breakthrough?


The communal disinterest in Sonny's words dragged on and intensified. Still he talked, talked, talked, talked. He'd thought the smile would be infectious, but it didn't matter that it wasn't. At least he was above suspicion, and everybody on Team Henrik would be above suspicion by affiliation. Then everybody could do their jobs with a little more ease, and all he had to do was watch them and say crazy things once in a while. Which according to everybody else wasn't very hard for him at all.

Yes, Sonny thought. This was all going perfectly. Grandpa Jin would be so happy when he heard about this. He hadn't been able to reach him before leaving, but Jamila promised she'd pass the information along and, Sonny made a face, reiterate the point that he needed to get a cell phone.

Idly he traced patterns in the dirt with his shovel, first into drawings of tents, then pyramids, then a set of hills. Around one of the hills he drew a flat oval and four little rectangles inside it… windows. Then he used the flat of the shovel to wipe away the lines connecting the top of the hill to the sides, setting it free. He looked up at the sky. Creating a world was just as easy as imagining it.

What could the teachers have had in mind when they saw humanity crawling? What did they have in mind when they taught humans to stand only to watch them tear each other apart?

In his peripheral vision, Sonny saw movement on his left shoe. He knelt down and saw it was a beetle, and he let it wriggle onto his hand. It took jagged steps toward his wrist.

He lifted his hand to the top of the pit and gently flicked it off, watching it scurry away.

What did they have in mind when they saw thousands of careless feet and car tires? Of deer and bear heads above the mantle? Of the holes in the ozone? The sinkholes in Siberia? Destroyed habitats, endangered species?

Were they angry? Or just disappointed?

The window of change wasn't in five years, not by Jin's clock or the world's.

"Hey!" somebody shouted.

His head snapped up.

José glared down at him from the rim of the pit. "Qué miras? Volver al trabajo!"

Sonny fought the urge to roll his eyes. This was the not-fun part of working—actual work. "I'm on it," he called up. What rhymed with José? Rosey sort of did, but that didn't match his personality at all.

Unless he was speaking ironically.

Sonny's mouth curved upward in anticipation.

"Hey! I told you once; if you don't get back to work, we'll all take our lunches without you!"

"Heard ya," Sonny replied, grabbing his shovel and hitting the earth with a crack.

A few other diggers looked over.

"What was that?" Beltrán asked, appearing next to José.

Sonny froze. It was a sign. Something was here.

For three minutes he and three other men dug furiously around the object. Finally it was lifted out of the pit. Beltrán swiped his brush around it and blew off the rest of the dirt. His face fell.

It was just a rock. Almost perfectly the shape and size of a stone tablet.

But blank.

Modification, Sonny noted: something was here soon.

Never mind that he got that feeling every time something didn't turn up as well as did; this feeling was stronger. All the facts came together, all the mysterious artifacts, the weird dates, the eye-goggle glyphs, the rumors of a dead location revisited, and they pointed to here. Here.

He was half-glad Jamila wasn't here to tell him to slow down. "Wow. Gotta make that the centerpiece of my rock collection," he heard himself say, while his thoughts tumbled leagues ahead. How much closer was this to the etude? Not the funny little piano pieces that bored him but the bigger tunes, the rumbling of tectonic plates as they bumped into and over one another, the hum of spaceships when they finally, finally, popped out of the clouds. Would he ever be able to meet his progenitors?

None of that he said, or could have said, because his mind would have already been too far ahead of that point for him to remember it. But it was such a shame he couldn't. Everybody here would just continue not listening anyway. At first he had been mildly offended when Jamila had told him she'd pretended to be an alien believer so that others would think she was stupid, but he had to admit that the tactic worked.

What would Jamila say? Would she smile but stop him, tell him that this doesn't mean everything just yet?

Well good god, woman, when will it mean everything just yet?

Sonny closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. "Hypothetical," he said firmly.

Several people threw him an odd stare. That didn't matter. What mattered was that he couldn't call anybody from the site except for state of emergency. Too much, or in fact, any, contact would look suspicious.

His fingers itched on the shovel handle. He squeezed his eyes tighter shut. Don't think about dialing the phone.

He'd just have to freeze the moment in carbonite and tell her the minute he could.


Dylan reviewed his notes on everything he had learned from Abdullah's rejection. He needed to come across as smart. Smart, but weak. He had to put himself back in the mindset of an empty stomach, back to the choices he made in Egypt when he was trying to do this in earnest. The diluted truth. He had been too casual with Abdullah. He had to beg. Make them think he could be molded by them, ordered by them, without fighting back. Dylan adjusted his fedora over his head and walked into the tool tent, over to José.

José looked him up and down. "You're a guide, aren't you?"

"Yes!" Dylan brightened. "You've heard of me?"

He eyed him askance. "No. I can just tell."

"Look, I'm willing to help out here, but," Dylan leaned forward, "I was hoping that you could get me a connection, too."

José's thick eyebrows rose. "A connection?"

Dylan sighed long. "It's gotten impossible. But I love it and I just, I can't… I can't quit. Leading tours is the only thing I can do well; it's the only thing that makes me happy or gives my life any meaning. I've tried, I've tried so hard, but I'm miserable and hungry. I'm scraping by. But I'd rather die than change careers; I can't change careers. I'm absolutely rubbish at anything else. But I can't be a guide unless I have some…" his eyes rolled up to José, "revenue on the side."

For two minutes, José said nothing. Then his scowl gave way to a pensive frown.

Dylan's eyes remained wide and desperate.

Finally, José spoke. "I sense, Señor Carter, that you are telling the truth."

Now Dylan looked down. "It shames me to admit it, Señor Mercedez."

José looked pleased at the title and the fact that his surname had been pronounced correctly. "You are not as imperceptive as I thought," he said. "You are a shrewd man."

Dylan stayed silent.

"Perhaps you can be of some help to us—"

"I know I could—"

José held up an index finger, "—if you prove to be someone we can trust."

Again he was silent, hoping he looked lost.

José said nothing.

Dylan looked up, conviction in his eyes. "I'll do anything to keep doing what I do."

As José considered this, the expression on his face shifted. "I will need to discuss this with Señor Gerro. We may soon have use of you."

At this, Dylan swept his hat off and held it over his chest, shutting his eyes tight. "Thank you," he murmured.

"Later," José said. "You are dismissed."

If Dylan felt the sudden power lift him half out of his shoes, he could hardly help it. He'd never gotten this far with Abdullah. And maybe the people who knew would stop looking at him like he was a foregone conclusion of greed. When outside, he placed his hat back on his head. Hunger didn't have to drive him toward a world of danger and wrong. Hunger could remind him of all the other empty stomachs, and maybe it wouldn't be worse for them if their culture weren't stolen hot from under their feet.


At sunset Nancy wiped sweat from the back of her neck. The tents were up, blocking the brightness of the sun even as it dimmed. She trod off to the left tent and saw Sonny standing there. He checked in with her every day for new developments. She liked that. Sharing notes was the only good way to do an investigation like this.

"Anything so far?" he asked in an undertone.

"I've got a little. Mostly about who's talking with whom, who might have an agenda, who might be involved by affiliation. At least, that's what I'm trying to figure out. Kind of hard when nobody at all is talking."

Sonny stared blankly at her as she regaled him with her progress.

Finally Nancy grew frustrated with it. "Have you been listening to anything I've been—"

"Are you okay?"

Sharply she looked up at him.

"You look..." he searched for a word.

"Everything's fine," she responded with her own perplexment as she squinted. Something seemed off about his face. Nancy looked closer and saw, to her astonishment, that it was tinted orange. Was it a trick of the light?

Sonny scratched his ear. "What is it?"

The finger came back orange.

"Your dye's running," Nancy said.

My hair doesn't do well in the heat." He looked at a point above Nancy's eyes. "Oh, wait a minute."

"What?" she asked warily.

"Here." He reached and plucked a blade of grass out of her hair.

Nancy's skin tingled where his fingers had brushed her cheek in doing so.

"Red and green," he said with a little smile. "Can't have you looking like Christmas out of season."

She nodded.

He turned and opened his hand, letting the wind steal the grass. "You settling in okay?"

"Yeah. You?"

"Mmm-hmmm."

Silence.

Sonny examined her face. "Are you happy?"

"Yes, I'm happy. Just anticipating difficulties."

"Is that what you've been doing for the past few weeks?"

She froze. "What do you mean?"

"You seem a little different than you were at Pacific—"

Nancy looked around to make sure they weren't overheard.

Sonny took the cue. "Than you used to be," he said instead.

Considering this, Nancy stayed silent.

"I mean, you were always so serious when you were talking to me anyway, but on top of that—"

She looked up at him through a few layers of sweat. "This is one of my first major digs," she said. "I'm afraid I might screw up."

Genuine surprise filled his face. "You?"

"Did I tell you what happened on my last cas—dig, I mean?"

Sonny blinked. "Your cover almost being blown? Yeah, you did."

Nancy paused, taken-aback. "When did I tell you?"

"On the plane, I think. Wait," his brow furrowed in confusion as he shook his head, "that's still bothering you?"

"It just reminds me that I've got a ticking clock on this type of work." Sudden exhaustion overcame her, and she stifled a yawn. "This might well be my last case."

"It doesn't have to be, if you don't want it to. In fact, I have my doubts."

"Yeah, I know."

Sitting down on the grass, Sonny spoke thoughtfully. "Sometimes being an adult sucks."

"Tell me about it."

"Did I ever tell you about all the times I never thought about my future when I was your age?"

Nancy snorted. "That was what, two years ago?"

"Three."

She sat.

He looked over at her. "You're doing good."

"Which means at one point I'm going to screw up."

Frowning, he asked, "Where is this all coming from, anyway?"

"Just let me do what I came here to do, okay?" Nancy shifted and looked at the hills, and there she was filled with the locale and through that the entire set of circumstances, the last set of circumstances if she stopped taking cases. Taking this one had made everything that much harder.

"Nancy—" he began.

She stood and walked past him to the tent.

This was a different Sonny than the kicked-puppy Sonny in the New Zealand Caves who had doubted his grandfather's word. She knew that that was an infrequent side of him she saw, but it was that one that reminded her that weakness wasn't ever an option for her, the same way that her father's pain at her mother's passing had reminded her.

Two people who were upset couldn't accomplish much. One always had to be okay.

The future wasn't now, she reminded herself. Now was now. No more dwelling.


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