Road Whose Course Does Not Turn Back

Chapter 9

For the past ten minutes now Nancy still felt like she was being watched. It was all she could do not to turn around and check, but she knew that wouldn't be wise. The team leaders had been scrutinizing her since she came, especially José. Over and over again Nancy catalogued her actions to see if she had done anything suspicious. It was still early in the investigation, and she hadn't taken any significant risks with her cover yet. The only snag so far was the strange woman in Tekax. And she had the feeling that Dylan already knew who she was and, for whatever reason, wasn't telling Nancy. That didn't sit well with her, but for now she had to let it rest.

"Nancy!" José called.

She sighed soundlessly.

"Youuuuuu're in for it," Lou said, sounding mildly gleeful.

"Yeah. Don't pocket anything you find." Nancy climbed out of the pit.

"Ooo," he hissed as if he'd been burned. Sassy Nancy."

Shaking her head as she walked away, Nancy wondered why Lou was in such good spirits. She noticed that Beltrán was nowhere in sight and that one of the cars was missing. Apparently he had gone to Tekax for supplies.

If José hadn't waited for Beltrán to be there to have a talk with her, he must have seen something he thought was of immediate concern.

Nancy catalogued her actions one more time. Still came up blank. She hadn't done or said anything suspicious…

Unless her conversations with the others on her dig team could be construed as suspicious.

She'd seen how it was here. Nobody talked, not even to pass the time when they were working.

Maybe, just from that, he knew she was hiding something.

For a moment she felt slightly ill. This was her last case all over again. Suspicion closing in on her assumed identity more every day. She'd only just solved the case and gotten out in time. Her father didn't know how close of a call that was. He was still furious over Scotland. And what had scared Nancy about that case was not that she was afraid of staying.

Because honestly, she had been more afraid of leaving.

She knew she needed answers, always. That was the only way she could get to sleep at night. Until Scotland, she'd never had problems with insomnia. She knew in all likelihood that it wasn't healthy, the way she needed them. Cathedral's file on her made that all too clear where it noted her obsession with finding out Shimizu Kasumi's fate at the Ryokan Hiei, pushing into private matters and disregarding boundaries despite the reservedness of the culture. She had been aware of it then, that her approach was probably tactless. But she'd been doing them a service even though they couldn't see it yet; she told herself that. She remembered exactly what she said when she asked Takai for an explanation—"I need to know." It kept thundering through her head as she'd read her file, merging cacophonically with "Not combat ready."

The sick feeling increased as she remembered how much she'd taken that file to heart. "Not combat ready." She had been so sure that she was unfailingly objective because she forced herself to be that way. But the glaring error lay in her methods, exposing her as inherently subjective, proving that she was not objective just by the lengths to which she went to find the truth… long past it being worth it. An objective person would have remembered that she was on vacation, not a hired detective, and that she had no right to barge into the personal lives of the people working the ryokan. An objective person would have immediately recognized Scotland as a trap.

And an objective person would recognize the fact that, right now, there was a significant chance that she was in danger.

But Nancy had to push away the queasiness. She started to rationalize. There had to be a reason for José's calling her here, and it was not necessarily the worst possible one. She was just still jittery over the last case. That was all.

When she reached José, she offered a smile. To her astonishment, he returned it. "Hola, Señorita," he said.

Nancy inclined her head in greeting.

"I have watched you work for a time now. I think you're a hard worker."

As Nancy tried to predict the point of this talk, her mind couldn't get away from one thing. Was he going to ask her to take on something else? Something more furtive? That would speed up the investigation process, surely. But she was still put off by all the teeth he was showing right now. That couldn't mean anything good.

"I think you're motivated and that you are not led easily astray by personal choices. And you seem to have integrity."

It bothered her how very little of an idea she had where this was going. She kept smiling brightly and nodded in agreement to the things he said. That seemed to be the safest thing to do.

"It seems you have taken a shine to one of the other workers." José paused. "The sunspot, yes?"

Nancy valiantly fought the temptation to blush and sputter denials. She blocked from her mind the sudden image of him smiling and walking toward her in that slightly crooked path he always took. Instead she cleared her throat and allowed her eyes to harden in an offended manner. Still some trace of her dismay must have shown on her face, since José laughed.

"It is all right. You don't have to deny it."

In her mind she weighed this. That excuse was a perfectly acceptable explanation for their working relationship and ulterior motives at the site, no matter how much she personally objected to it. It covered all the time she spent with him comparing notes. So, warily, she nodded. She allowed Sonny's likeness in her mind. She allowed herself to grin in reaction to it.

"It is not surprising in a woman as attractive as yourself."

She didn't respond.

"We're aware of these relationships coming up from time to time. Claire, our leader, does not like these relationships. Neither does Beltrán very much."

"Really?" Nancy asked, feeling it was safe to push the point a little. "Beltrán seems easygoing."

"He is, once everyone follows the rules." José laughed. "He is in the most contact with Claire. He wants things done."

Claire, thought Nancy. The name sounded familiar. Of course it was only a first name, but it was also old-fashioned. She hadn't come across many Claires in the course of her travels.

She wouldn't push that point, she decided. For now things were safe enough. Asking questions about the leader might arouse suspicion. Dylan probably knew, and again, she'd have to live with that until she found a safe time and place to communicate with him.

"Beltrán is less open-minded than he comes across. He would not be pleased to hear about this. He would tell you to cut it off immediately."

Well, then. So much for that excuse.

Unless…

Suddenly it appeared to her. The rift. The weakness in Beltrán and José's bond that could be exploited.

"I myself see no problem with it," José continued. "They think that it makes people less motivated. But you seem like a driven woman. I encourage you to pursue whatever relationship you like."

"Well," said Nancy. "Uh, thank you." Still, she thought as she analyzed his choice of words, 'encourage' seemed like a strong one for an action that broke the rules. There had to be strings attached.

"If," he continued—sure enough—"you help me with a few things."

This would be a great opportunity for more snooping, she realized. "Yes," she agreed quickly.

"You really like this young man, I see."

She looked down to her feet, embarrassed that he had read it as such.

"We need to find sellers while preparing the artifacts for liquidation."

Briefly Nancy considered whether she should look shocked. She decided she would not.

José met this with approval. "You are perceptive for your age. I knew this would not be a surprise to you. Not with how quickly your guide friend was swallowed up. Speaking of that," he stepped closer and spoke next to her ear. "Keep an eye on that Dylan Carter. Beltrán will not have me look into him, but I am sure he is untrustworthy."

Nancy's brow furrowed in confusion. Actual confusion that happened to be appropriate for the front she put on. Until a minute ago she had thought she was the one José suspected.

"I know he is a member of your team. Perhaps it is surprising to someone as young and innocent as you. But Dylan is too righteous. There is something about his nature that does not agree with what we're doing here."

Righteous? This impression surprised Nancy. She'd exposed his dishonesty in Egypt, after all. Quickly she ducked her head to obscure her facial expression.

"Beltrán doesn't know I'm bringing someone else in. I think he is relying too heavily on Dylan." José's eyes again turned piercing. "Please, Señorita, keep this to yourself."

Nancy nodded. "Of course."

"Very well. I'll call for you when I need you."

"Goodbye," she said, and left. By the time she had returned to her pit, she found that nothing had happened. Lou was still digging away contentedly. Knowing him, he was probably pretending that there were dinosaur bones just below the surface.

This stroke of luck was almost unbelievable. All the times José had been watching her, it wasn't suspicion after all: it was calculation. And maybe he trusted her so easily because he saw her as less smart, less likely to blow the lid on everything, because she was young and maybe also because she was female. Now, though, things would pick up. She'd be taking part in the more secret activities that had evaded her so far in her investigation, the ones Dylan had barred her from.

Her thoughts paused there.

Dylan.

Dylan was in trouble. Shortly he'd be in more trouble. Now she had to figure out how to "investigate" him and protect him at the same time.

Nancy took a look around. José had disappeared momentarily.

And Dylan was still here, walking around. He wasn't talking to any of the diggers, though… he had learned that lesson.

Most of the time he disappeared along with José and Beltrán. It was rare when he was around when one of them—especially Beltrán—wasn't.

Maybe now it would be safe to go talk to him.

Changing her mind, Nancy stopped before leaving the pit again. Even if José wasn't around, it was still too soon to talk to Dylan after their conversation. All of the diggers were witnesses, and if Beltrán or José thought they saw or knew something helpful, something told Nancy that they'd be able to drag it easily out of the otherwise-quiet diggers. After all, they were the reason they stayed so quiet. They were clearly afraid. And if word got back to José that Nancy had gone straight to Dylan, he might think that she was trying to warn him.

She'd have to find Dylan after everybody stopped working at sunset. Everybody was tired and less observant then. They'd think little of it.

She took her phone out of her pocket to check the time. 2:37. For now she could throw herself into the work, as always. Maybe Lou would be less of a mime and actually talk now that his morale seemed to be high.

Her hopes were dashed when Lou didn't talk much except to talk to himself. He projected elaborate plans inward of how he would find something groundbreaking at Chicxulub because he knew what he was looking for more than anybody else did and how after that his art career would take off because people would have to listen to him now that he was super smart because he discovered something at Chicxulub that nobody found for millions of years and he and Poppy would collaborate on a drawing or painting or sculpture a mile wide and long in the bottom of the Grand Canyon and Mel would play cello at the grand opening of the exhibit with a piece she composed. It would be somber, thoughtful, something with gravitas to mark the creation of another world with hills and craters. He even hummed the tune to himself and slapped a rhythm against his hip.

Listening to him made time run longer and lonelier to Nancy. Lou had something to work toward.

Everybody had things figured out except for her, it seemed. She hadn't been to college since before the case at Paseo Del Mar High. And it was hardly worth going back, anyway, since she had only been gone for a semester. A semester during which nobody's laptops or phones got stolen. A very boring semester for Nancy. She'd been relieved when Aunt Eloise invited her to Florida. Especially when she remembered that Eloise was a school librarian. After the semester she'd had, Nancy was elated at the prospect of chasing down missing library books.

She smiled at the memory. She'd assumed then that she'd have time for everything, that time would move slowly enough that she would never have to worry about it being too late to return to school by the time she got around to it.

But two years had passed. Two wonderful, fluid years that had her all over the country and world, living only under a single-digit set of Carson's rules as far as he chose to push the fact that she was living on his money, solving cases for free. She supposed she'd always known she'd have to give it up at some point, but she chose to ignore it amidst the swarm of headlines reading "Wunderkind," "Girl Detective," "Super Sleuth," figuring that those good deeds would perpetually justify more good deeds.

Nancy knew how lucky she was. She knew she was happier now than a lot of people would ever be.

But it would still be a loss when she had to stop. Moving on from anything that rich would be difficult.

Time passed quickly with Nancy wrapped in her thoughts. Dusk arrived sooner than she had anticipated. As soon as Beltrán called time and he and José walked off to talk, Nancy hopped out of the pit and moved toward Dylan before he joined them. She couldn't warn him, not yet, but she could hint at the rift between Beltrán and José and suggest approaches.

The diggers dwindled off to help with the tents. All except Sonny, who was on the phone.

"Dylan—" she began.

Dylan raised a hand and walked in the opposite direction.

"It's me," Nancy said in surprise, thinking at first he had misidentified her.

He continued away, leaving her rooted to her spot with her mouth slightly agape.

Red flags rose in her mind. This was very odd—possibly suspicious—behavior. Dylan was distancing himself, talking to everyone except everybody on his team.

Was he giving in to temptation? Throwing his lot in with Beltrán and José for money?

But why would José be suspicious?

Questions filled her mind again, taking over her head and creating a haze. Now she was locked in. She needed to find out. The bowl, with its strange symbols, the illegal sales. She'd gambled by coming out here. Now she had to stay for the outcome.


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