Resonance by A.J. Scudiere - HTML preview
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A J Scudiere
without whom none of this would have been possible Human life is important only to humans – author unknown
Man’s greatest triumphs stand no chance against the whims of nature – author unknownPrologue
Twelve years ago, airline pilots had to recalibrate their compasses. This was because the exact location of the magnetic poles had drifted, and it was a first in aviation history. Six years ago the poles had drifted even further, causing the need to again reset the compasses. They recalibrated again three years ago, then two, then one, and are currently realigning every three months.
Approximately 200 million years ago map north was magnetic south. But ten million years later, the poles switched places. They’ve traded again approximately every sixty million years, the last of which was sixty-five million years ago.
It is theorized that the dinosaurs achieved such great size due to the slightly larger magnetic field of their time. Today some living things - like homing pigeons and honeybees - are highly dependent on the earth’s field. Even those creatures that don’t seem to notice it are in jeopardy if it changes, since we don’t know how they use their internal magnetics, only that they have them.Like us.
And the earth we are sitting on is five million years overdue . . .
Chapter 1Stupid paleontologists, he thought to himself. Didn’t know how to grid a dig properly. Morons.
What had he been thinking? Sharing a site with the dino boys? And now he had chunks of strata strapped to his waist, each meticulously labeled in the dino boys’ lazy scrawl. Each clearly mislabeled for direction or depth of find. They had acted like they understood the dip and the horizontal. But the markings were clearly honked up. Yet, some of the rocks looked right. Which was the ultimate insult. David couldn’t even count on them to be wrong.
Maybe they were fucking with him, he sighed into the deep night, that was a sincere possibility. There was nothing like envy laced with continual disagreement to drive a wedge of dislike between two people. Those two people being him and anyone else on the dig. Your choice, as it was pretty much unanimous.
The paleo guys were all out for drinks and a discussion of the day’s successes. There was that one big heap of bones, and oh yeah, that other big heap of bones, then there were the bone chips.
Using the winch and harness system they had set up, David lowered himself down the incline, tiptoeing and letting out line as he went. Not because he couldn’t have scrambled his way down - he could have, the slope was a just walkable 45 degrees - but, in order to go on foot, he would have to dig in with his toes to get purchase and the dig would have been forfeit. Couldn’t have that. At least he and the dino boys agreed on this one thing.
The other thing they had agreed to was not to hang out in the dig alone. That, of course, made sense. No one wanted to be the one left at the base of the site with a broken leg while everyone else ate lunch, or worse yet stayed out all night drinking. And no one wanted to be the one who mucked up the site, with no one around to say what went where.
But just because he had agreed to it didn’t mean that he agreed with it. And, well, if David was being honest, they had already ruined the site, what with all the mislabeling and everything. Therefore the only thing he was risking was his own night out under the big black sky with a few broken bones. So he slowly kept letting out the line, getting a little further down the slope each minute. He didn’t go too fast, for God’s sake he wasn’t stupid, and the pitch here was a bit on the sharp side.
His foot hit the first grid line. A thin white string wound round a short post hammered into the ground denoting the edge of the official dig area. David swore a few times under his breath, sure that he had scuffed a few loose pieces of rock into the dig. And that would earn him nothing but verbal and social hell come tomorrow morning. He decided to take it all a little more carefully. Besides now he was far enough down the backside of the slope that he wouldn’t be spotted. The camp was on the other side of the crest where it wouldn’t interfere with the dig, and no partypoopers making their way back early would see his beam as long as it was a small one. And that meant no bright headlamps. So he pulled the flashlight free, slipping it from the carabineer on his belt with a flick of his wrist.
Crap , he had shoved some pieces under the grid edge. Softly he stepped down and began flinging the loose gravel away. After five minutes at it he figured that he had covered his tracks well enough for a man who was probably going to get caught anyway and he decided to get down to brass tacks.
Pulling one zipper bag from its carabineer at his waist he tacked his line and used both hands to pull the rock from its baggie. Tilting his head, with the small Maglight firmly between his teeth, he read off the coordinates, then picked up the line. David let himself down a few more feet and high-stepped to the right about fifteen yards, watching carefully for the meter lines that ran the grid. They had originally been only a few inches off the surface, but as this dig had progressed they had altered the smooth plane to extremely uneven, leaving the ground anywhere from just a few inches to just over a foot below the grid lines. The perfect heights for getting an ankle tangled and then bashing into the slope of the dig. And, oh yeah, breaking said ankle and mucking up said dig while you did it.
He moved slowly and carefully, each footstep set methodically into the loose ground, so as not to grind or scour any of the precious soil or bone chips out of place. And lifted high with the same care. Right foot right, find footing, left foot follow, set down carefully.
It seemed to take an eternity to get to the other side of the fifteen yard grid to the labeled home of his rock. As he landed, finally, in his square, he tacked the guide line again, allowing his weight to sit back against the taut rope. With the light in one hand he held up the baby rock and turned it over.
It was sedimentary, full of fossilized organic matter and exactly what anyone would expect of a layer from this location. His eyes perused all of this, reading it the way you would read a newspaper, for the whole story and never one letter at a time.
This piece had clearly belonged to an ancient streambed. From what the dino boys were finding, the water had nourished a whole bunch of critters up until the very last moment. What caused that last moment was David’s job.
He liked the rocks, and it was natural to assume that he had gotten into this profession because of his father. The layers reminded him of his Dad a lot: cold, hard, and unreadable to all but the most trained of observers. David was an expert reader of both. Although, in his estimate, the rock was always easier to get a bead on at first and easier to get along with. Also, the rock always gave up the whole story eventually.
The streambed and the sediment was ABCs. What David was reading as he rotated his chunk of old earth and his flashlight was the tiny shiny chips in his piece. Now they were talking. And they said that the Paleo boys were retarded.
Shaking his head, he used the letter and number code on the tape to line the rock up with the direction and pitch it was supposed to have come from. Letting a little more slack into the line, he leaned down and placed the rock into the spot it supposedly called home for eons, until yesterday.
David’s head tilted. His Maglight circled, and he studied the lay of the strata in the bed and the rock. It looked a little too damn good. Not to mention the remaining side of the bed from which the piece he held had been chipped. The two sides fit together like a puzzle piece.
Shrugging, David slipped the rock back into its baggie and pulled the permanent marker from his back pocket. He checked the upper right side of the label and clipped it back to his pants just as his stomach let a loud growl. His head perked, just as it had when he was a boy afraid of getting caught. But no one appeared to have heard. Hell, no one appeared to be within fifty miles of the site.
Cursing silently to himself, he wondered why it would have been so hard to slip a piece of jerky into a pocket, or for god’s sakes, make a sandwich. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a belt full of zipper baggies already. But he didn’t have time to go back. He needed to check his pieces and not make more enemies on the dig than he already had.
So he pulled the next rock from its zipper pouch and carefully began making his way to another grid square. Lift foot, set foot, lift other foot, set foot.
Four hours later he hadn’t tripped at all, which was a miracle since he was silently swearing a blue streak. The dino boys hadn’t mislabeled a single rock, which only made him more furious. Hell, you couldn’t count on them for anything.
And if the rocks were all aligned right, then the rest was all aligned wrong. An eddy in the stream could explain one spot, maybe even a few, but not the consistency of the whole dig.
A bright light shone into his eyes, blinding him more easily than the dark of night ever had.
“Hey, pretty boy!” It was Greer. David had always figured that ‘pretty boy’ was the best Greer could come up with since he wasn’t one much inclined to the use of the more apt asshole. “You done checking out our grid markings? You didn’t break any bones did you?!”
“No, Fuckwad, I didn’t.” David held his hand up in front of his face. He was going to catch hell for this. He knew it now.
“That’s too bad.” Greer directed his five-billion megawatt stadium light at the ground and slowly David’s sight came back. He started climbing the slope cautiously and methodically, as Greer taunted him all the way. “Well, seems we disappointed you didn’t we? You thought we had mislabeled all your stones.”
“They’re not stones.” David growled as he climbed.
“Too bad. Now you’re going to have to do some real geology work. Not just come out and wave your hand like you always do and spout off what’s just so obvious that the rest of us must be blind.”
“Congratulations, Greer. You are right on so many counts. My rocks were in fact labeled correctly-”
“How many of them?” Greer taunted.
“All of them.”
“And I do in fact have little bit of work to do when I get back to the tent-” He stopped climbing.
Greer spotlighted him again. It would have blinded him, but he wasn’t looking in front of him, just staring into the space ahead. If it meant what he thought it meant. . . well, . . .
“What is it David?”
“I want everyone off the site tomorrow. Just you and me. I need to check all other possibilities.”
“Everyone off the dig tomorrow!? Jesus, David, do you know what you’re asking? Is your Daddy gonna pay our salaries?”
“No, but the royalties off my paper will. Dammit, Greer, clear the site tomorrow.”
If it was what he thought it was . . . well, he might just prove that the David Carter II geology center had been worth its money.
God, what was it that made her feel like such a fool? All that school, all that ‘prestige’, and yet she stood there like a moron. Eyes wide, ‘yes’ ‘yes’ monosyllabic answers to each question. The horrible, lost feeling of being in an unfamiliar institution.
“So you two are the new peons.”
Jillian nodded. “Yes.” There it was again. The idiocy.
The guy beside her - Jared? Jeff? Jacob? - was cool and only raised his eyebrows to the
Dr. Landerly was hunched over his desk and had whitish hair that stuck out in about fifty different directions and looked as though it hadn’t made friends with a brush in a lifetime or so. He had male pattern balding and probably arthritis, judging by the way he held his pen. Whether he didn’t look at them because of pain or out of sheer rudeness was anybody’s guess. “You two turned in all your documentation and fingerprinting crap down in HR?”
Jake ? flicked the new badges hanging from their pristine white jackets, “Yup, hence the ten a.m. arrival.”
“Ready for the tour?”
At the sound of yet another one word answer, he finally looked up at them. For a moment he simply looked them both up and down, taking their measure. Jillian did the first proactive deed of her day and sized him up too. Landerly’s face reminded her of a grandfather, not her own, but that old man look, crossed with a little mad scientist. With his focus turned on them, she felt the same intensity that the papers he was marking on must have felt just minutes before. She was surprised the pages hadn’t burst into flame before she and what’s-his-name walked in and pulled a little of the good doctor’s attention from them.
“Well, you must be Jillian Brookwood, and you must be Jordan Abellard.”
Jordan! That was it.
Landerly tapped his forehead, “Deductive reasoning.” And despite the insanely poor joke, she began to like him.
He simply turned and began walking down the hallway, talking as he went and expecting them to keep pace behind them. He never checked. “This is your office.” He pointed to his left into an open door and what could only be called a large cubby. He was already walking away. Jillian had to nearly run to catch up with him, already midsentence.
“- that whole half of the building is I.D. That part you’ll only go in on an ‘as needed’ basis. Which basically means never. Unless you get promoted, or we decide we don’t need you or don’t like you but can’t think of a better way to get rid of you.”
For the first time Jordan turned to her, his eyebrows raised until she shrugged in return. Dr. Landerly’s voice trailed off as her focus slipped to the signs on the wall. Every etched plate had the tiny inscription on the top Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Landerly was oldschool and still referred to it as the CDC.
Not ten minutes later Jillian realized that they had walked a short circle, and Jordan wasn’t missing that fact either. “That’s it?”
“Sure.” Landerly fixed them with another stare. “If you want to see the Infectious Disease side, you can go get your own tour. I told you, you’re peons.”
“I’m a-” Jordan stopped himself. “We’re physicians.”
“Yes, and you’re underlings. And you’re at the CDC. On my team you’ll be spending a lot of time drawing blood and writing reports.”
Which, Jillian admitted, had been exactly the job description. So she wasn’t sure where Jordan got off being upset. In truth, it had been just that part of the work that had made her apply. She had spent all that time and money on medical school, only to find out that she hated the endless churn of minor complaints that flowed through a doctor’s office. This job had been her proof that she hadn’t chosen the wrong profession.
Landerly had disappeared back into his office, and by craning her neck she could see him scrubbing through the most disorganized desk ever. But he held out two identical key chains and spoke again. “Keys to your office and your lab next door. Go check it out then get cracking, you’ve already got three cases sitting on your desk.”
There was no other dismissal, no wish of good luck or welcome, just the turn of his shoulder and the intensity of his focus directed elsewhere. The two of them no longer existed to him.
Turning, they silently followed Landerly’s instruction walking two doors down to the plaque that read G-1763 Lab 13, Landerly.
“Hi.” Jordan’s voice filled the empty space around a young man with inky hair who stood at the basic black lab island dialing the micropipette to a new measure.
“Oh, Hi. You two must be the new docs. I’m your tech.” For a brief moment he held out a gloved hand before realizing what he was doing and withdrawing the offer. “I’m Mark. I’m prepping slides for Landerly right now, but let me know what you need. My desk is in the back.” He pointed to the corner, to a table piled with skewed stacks of loose papers and file folders of various colors.
“Nice to meet you.” Jordan pulled back out of the doorway and wound up leading her back to their office, where they spent four minutes choosing which side of the large desk they each wanted, then another hour exploring the file cabinet they shared, and finding out what the previous occupants had left for them. Which turned out to be an odd mix of pens, pencils, microtesttubes and pipette tips, and one stick of mint chewing gum.
After a half-hour of hardly speaking she finished up organizing her drawers and labeling her hanging files, only to look up and find Jordan watching her from across the desk. “It’s two-thirty, are you hungry?”
She nodded. But he spoke again before she could get in a word edgewise. “You find the cafeteria and I’ll treat.”
She would have rather paid, but she held her tongue. She could do this, right? On the ‘tour’ Landerly had pointed down one corridor and mentioned food and vending machines. With a deep breath she marched off in the general direction they had started, and faked it to the best of her ability.
Two corridors later she could smell that she had found the right one. Then, after they ordered, she completely disoriented them on the way back. After they got situated and endured a few minutes of silent chewing, Jordan leaned forward. “Since we get to stare at each other until one of us goes insane or gets promoted, why don’t we get started with the usual stupid questions?”
She almost smiled. Almost. “The usual ones?”
“Like ‘Where are you from?’” He leaned back and Jillian barely covered her gasp at realizing the vast majority of his lunch had already been reduced to empty wrappers. “I’m from Lake James, North Dakota. Where it’s colder than a w-. . . well just about anything, and there’s really a lot more bible thumping and militia than you might guess. College and med school at UCLA. Your turn.”
“Emory Med, but I grew up in Chattanooga. Same town through undergrad.” She smiled from behind her limp cheeseburger. “Favorite fast food? Mine is Chick-Fil-A nuggets.”
“What’s Chick Fillay?”
“Ahhh, I’ll take you tomorrow.”
Jordan shrugged. “Favorite burger is Jack in the Box Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger.”
“Jack in the Box?” She supposed that’s what happened when you met someone from the opposite end of the country.
“Ahhh, good, cheap food. College student fare. Too bad I can’t return the Chick Fillay favor. Jack-in-the-Box is only out west.”
Satisfied that she had the basics, Jillian figured it was time to start earning her keep. “We should get to work on these cases.”
“Can I just guess now? Botulism, gas leak, and Salmonella.”
“Really?” She put her hand to her hip. “I would have had you pegged for a ‘secret government weapons being tested on our own people’ type.”
“Nah, I’m a realist.” He picked up the folder and started through it, while she made a thinking noise. He laughed. “Do you realize that you even ‘hmmm’ with a southern accent?”
She nodded. “Can’t be helped.”
Jordan was pissed. The cases in their box this morning had turned out to be botulism, botulism and botulism. One, he was mad that his guess was wrong. Two, he had skipped the invite to UCLA’s PhD program to come here and do research as a physician, even though he would only occasionally be putting the vast majority of his med school skills to work. He had thought that this would be more exciting than telling mothers that their kiddies had ear infections or strep throat. Three, they hadn’t even had to leave their desks to figure the damn thing out. Four, Miss Jillian had turned out to be anal retentive. moment one.
Aaaaaaaack. sitting across from him diligently making notes in the two files that she held while he scanned the new one that had turned up in their inbox this morning. Jillian gave him a dirty look that he wasn’t helping her write reports, and it occurred to him that Landerly had done this on purpose. Jordan was to be the forward thinker, the one who would make those reasoning leaps, and Jillian was the workhorse.
Her nose wrinkled and she brushed her hair back again. Not that it accomplished anything other than her getting to move her arm. The hank of hair fell right back over her shoulder. The phone buzzed, startling him about three feet into the air, and he was already trying to cover that fact before he was even back down. “Landerly wants us.”
Jillian stared a brief moment through not entirely open eyes. “That was so not smooth.” But she followed him next door and graciously didn’t mention it again.
Landerly stood as they entered the office, his attention a physical sensation as it turned from the phone to the two of them. “This is why I created you guys.”
“Like God?” Jillian’s voice was dry and Jordan wasn’t sure if she was kidding or what. But Landerly was, and he laughed a good guffaw and responded with “Maybe a demigod,” before continuing.
So Jillian was already his favorite. How could two people on this earth have that same sense of humor?
The older man held up a file before speaking. “I’ve got a little girl in Deltona, Florida with a spider bite reaction that the local docs say doesn’t look like your basic anaphylactic shock. They think the spider has some new venom or maybe is a vector carrying something else. She’s all yours.” He handed the file to Jillian just as Jordan decided that there wasn’t anything he could do Although ‘turned out’ was being generous. She had looked the part from
Where was the next AIDS when your life needed a spark? Miss Jillian was about it. And maybe he hadn’t been hired to be the brilliant theorist. Which of course meant he would have to get his butt in gear and do some work.
“Anne in reception will have your schedule. You need to leave this evening to see the reaction and do anything before it gets worse.” And like turning off the light, his focus was off them and they were expected to find their own way out.
By now Jordan knew his way around and he certainly knew Anne. She was the adorable blonde in reception, and he had made those thoughts clear to her this morning. Anne handed each of them an itinerary, but it was Jordan her eyes remained on. Not that he was going to dip his pen in the company ink, but there was a certain warmth in knowing the ink was receptive to being dipped. Jillian was walking away before he realized it and he smiled good-bye to Anne before turning to follow his cubby-mate down the hall.
At their desk, Jillian turned and stared at him, leaving him ready for some scathing remark about his behavior, but instead, with no preamble, she asked about Landerly. “Do you think he’s just too old to go off gallivanting around the country? Why do you think he set up his team of two here? Why us?”
Jordan had no good answers and he told her so. But he did offer to make up for getting lost on the way to lunch yesterday and asked where he could find this Chick Fillay. “We have time to do fast food, right?”
“And the fast part is the part you seem to be having trouble with.” She didn’t look up and he couldn’t decipher the dryness in her tone. He had heard it several times now and he truly wasn’t sure what to make of it. That scared the crap out of him. And given that they were on their way out the door for a company road trip, and since she was a co-worker, he figured he’d better find his footing right away.
“Are you mad at me because I got us lost yesterday? Or for something else?” Her face was unreadable. Well, he thought it was. She just looked a little confused and maybe perturbed.
“No, I’m not angry.” After tilting her head to the side for a moment, she nodded. “You’re worried that I’m one of those ‘my feelings are hurt’ girls. Well, I’m not.”
“Then why no fast food?” She was still looking at him and Jordan figured that was the best way to read the book, when it was open. But Miss Jillian seemed to be written in a foreign language, one he only understood random phrases of.
Her words were slow and methodical. “Because I want to have time to pack. And because you got lost the last time the directions were ‘three miles then turn right.’ I just don’t have time.”
Before she even finished the sentence, her purse was over her shoulder and she was heading out the door, “See you at the airport.”
He was still looking confused when he heard her footsteps change directions and saw her head reappear in the open doorway. “Should I pick you up?”
Again she read his expression before he got his words together. “We’ll both get there, and only one parking charge.”
“I can drive.”
She nodded. “So can I. And I know my way around. If you want to contribute you can pay the parking fees.”
“They’re reimbursed.” So that wasn’t much of a contribution at all.
“I know. I just hate expense reports.” She disappeared beyond the opening and this time didn’t come back even as he muttered to himself.
“And here I thought you loved paperwork.”
In a few minutes he had cleared his thoughts and headed home. It took him a while to locate things from the boxes. Jordan had lived here all of one-half a day longer than he had been working at the CDCP, and it showed. He found his only two suits - one still in the dry-cleaning bag. Scrounged up socks, without holes. Underwear, also without holes. Then went in search of his hanging bag. This, of course, was pristine. It had been used once, for his interview here.
He pushed that thought aside and turned back to his packing. There was no way of knowing how long they would be there. He had to plan for the possibility of a full week, so he stuffed all the spare pockets and pouches with extra clothes and, in a glimpse of reason, all seven of the ties he owned. After staring at the bag and waiting for it to tell him what else to pack, he finally realized that it would say no such thing, and so he threw in a few pairs of khakis for good measure.
The last step was to change himself. Jeans, tee, a sweatshirt, and an old pair of sneakers seemed the best bet for flying. They’d go see the little girl after they got settled in a bit, right? He decided to believe what he wanted and pulled the sweatshirt over his head, just as his stomach grumbled and the doorbell made the horrid high-pitched noise that the manager had called a chime.
“Coming!” Jordan crossed the short distance from the very back to the very front of the apartment and pulled the door open. “Hi.”
“Hey!” Jillian walked through the open doorway and past his open mouth. “I think you actually have a bigger place than me. You ready?”
“Yes.” Getting his bags took less than half a minute; his thoughts would take a little longer to gather. What was up with Jillian? She looked all of nineteen in her jeans and small white t-shirt, what with her dark hair pulled back in that ponytail. If she was in the airplane seat next to him, people would think he was a dirty older man.
But none of it even registered in her expression as he grabbed his luggage and trailed her down the stairs and out to the eerily quiet street. She simply popped the trunk of her little white car open and let him throw his bag on top of the two she had stacked back there.
“What is this?”
“Rav-Four.” She slid in behind the wheel, no longer Miss Jillian of the CDCP, but a complete stranger. “It has its quirks, but it’s reliable and, one day, when I get a dog, she’ll go in the back.”
She laughed most of the way to airport, navigating into long-term parking with ease. Her matching carryon was slung over her shoulder and she wheeled her hanger bag behind her, never fussing at the long wait at security. And when the plane took off from the runway at Atlanta International she was already asleep in the seat beside him.
Becky sat knee deep in shallow, muddy stream water, her long bangs falling into her eyes. Melanie wasn’t listening to her, Brandon had wandered off somewhere, and her mother was going to be mad. She was wet, a little on the cold side, and she was the only one who hadn’t caught anything yet. She raised a hand to push her hair out of her face, not remembering until she felt the cold that her hand had just been in stream water that was not clear. Oh well, the muck would help plaster her hair out of her eyes.
For a moment she gathered her breath, then she yelled, “Brandon! Mom’s gonna be angry if you don’t stay with me. Get back here!” But Becky didn’t wait for him to show up. He would, and so she turned back to searching the running water for the small frogs she wanted. One jumped in front of her container and with a quick movement she completely missed it.
With a deep sigh she lifted her head up, and let out another long yell. “Brandon!” “I’m right here, Becky.” He shook his head as he looked down on her, holding the bottom of his shirt in front of him making a scoop in which he piled all the containers he had filled with one frog each. Just like she had asked.
And to think biology had seemed like such a great field to go into. She had her doctorate, and yet her little brother and sister put her to shame at ‘obtaining specimens’. The only consolation she had was that Brandon and Melanie had also seriously shown up every other biologist and assistant she had brought out for the job.
“Yeah, you did great.”
“No,” He scooted closer. She knew that he would have grabbed her arm. He had tried, but his lightning reflexes had him straightening the tumbling containers before they got too far. “Pick up that top one, he’s the biggest.”
With a smile of pride on her face, she held the clear Tupper up over her head and let the light shine through on a good size rana. One of the larger ones caught here, but certainly not the largest. “He is pretty big. You holding out for more money?”
“Becky! I thought you were smart. Look at him! He’s got four legs, you retard!”
Melanie also looked up at the underside of the container, although what she could see from about three feet away was anyone’s guess. “Frogs all have four legs, retard.”
Becky shifted to give both of them dirty looks about the name calling, but left it at that, knowing full well she couldn’t win.
Brandon rolled his eyes with all the meaning a ten year old could muster. “Four back legs.”
“Huh?” Becky held the Tupper aloft again, this time higher to catch rays from a break in the tree cover. Frowning, she looked him over, and she didn’t see it until he jumped: four hind legs, two per side, coming out of the hip flexor joint. Holy crap! She shook the plastic container a bit. Yup, all functional. “Okay, I’ll give you two bucks for him.”
Brandon still clutched the edge of his shirt holding the ten containers stacked precariously in there, but his expression said that he wasn’t moved by the two dollar offer. “They’re all that way.”
“What?” She reached down and pulled another container from his clutch. Holding it high she gave it a slight wiggle and watched the small frog try to rebalance itself. Four hind legs. All functional.
She quickly set it down and grabbed for two more. Both had a second pair of jumper legs. In under a minute her breathing had sped up and she had ascertained that Brandon was correct.
But that would be wrong. Very wrong. With her brows pulled together, she went over to check the row of tuppers that the kids had caught here. It had been hard to see those spare legs at first. Maybe they just hadn’t noticed. But her little sister was a sharp one, and she’d already checked the locals out. “They’re all normal.”
“So, Brandon, there were . . .” she counted, “eight six-legged frogs where you were? And you caught them all?” He was a good catcher. Once he spotted it the frog didn’t stand a chance.
“No, they were all like that. At least I think they all were. Almost. There are more. I just ran out of lexans.”
Brandon took off with Becky right behind him, Melanie would catch up, she knew. The trail was well-worn and well-known from her own childhood days, and they bounded down it, anticipating every fallen tree and protruding rock. She just kept running after Brandon, never having heard of anyone finding a full clutch of six-legged frogs before. A tree branch, that Brandon had held out for himself, came slapping back at her, but even without her conscious thought, her hand was there to catch it.
Six legs occurred in nature, and didn’t kill the frog most of the time. Usually they were slow and so predators got them. But it was a growth mutation, not a genetic one. It also usually resulted in just one spare leg, a five-legged frog. These all had six. So how would you get a whole clutch of them? Unless something was wrong with the site . . .
There was a nuclear reactor program a little west of here: Oak Ridge, where they had built the A-bomb. There were always stories of Melton Lake Dam being shut down for mercury levels being too high. But this?
They had run a long way before Brandon finally stopped. He pointed to a section of the stream. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary to the human eye. Even the trained human eye. “I caught them all here.”
Becky slowly walked to the stream edge then kept going right in, her shoes were already caked in mud and silt and of absolutely no concern to her. “So would you say about a third of them were that way? Maybe a tenth?”
Brandon shook his head, “No, I’m telling you they all are.”
Slowly she squatted down, getting a good focus through the running water. There were frogs here, lots of them, but with the movement and the refraction, those back legs were hard to distinguish. no tuppers!
Becky swore at herself a little more, then went back to peering through the water. But it wasn’t helping. She needed to see these guys up close. Looking back at Brandon she asked the sixty-four-thousand-dollar-question, “Do you think you could catch one bare handed?”
Small deep breaths came from just behind her, Melanie had caught up to them. “You . . . . don’t . . . . . . have . . . . . to.”
Becky turned to find her baby sister, leaned over, huffing for oxygen, but in Melanie’s outstretched hand was a tall stack of tuppers, with all the lids shoved down in the top one.
Becky shrieked. “You are a genius!”
“I . . . . know.” Job done, Melanie sat back to watch Brandon get frogs and Becky try.
Becky held each new catch aloft, the fifth came up with normal legs, prompting a question. “Brandon, how many normal frogs did you throw back?”
The sun was setting by the time Melanie arrived from her return trip to get the wheel barrow. As Becky had ordered, each of the frogs from the other site bore a scrap of masking tape across the lid. And all the lids bore a single digit - the number of legs on the contained frog. There were so many 6’s that Becky had to look again. Each time she thought the numbers must be off. But they weren’t. She stacked the five four-legged frogs from this site in one spot, thinking they would be as useful as all the sixes. Why hadn’t they changed, too? And how did their numbers get to be only one out of ten?
Hell, they’d been hard to spot at first in the lexans. Shit! She had run to the site with
Becky was frantically writing on the scratch pad she had brought along in case any question popped into her mind. She was beginning to think that today the fifty sheets the pad claimed to have weren’t going to be enough.
She just couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. It was your standard East Tennessee summer day by all measurable counts. So what was up with the frogs?
Eventually she had to give up. She had no barometer, no litmus paper, and no Geiger counter, so there wasn’t much more she could measure, even if she wanted to. The Geiger counter gave her pause. What if there was some sort of radiation leak? If the government had buried some sort of waste here? Wasn’t it possible? There were always news stories about plutonium being flown in and out of the labs. Could it have gotten here? And had she exposed her brother and sister to it, for . . . she checked her watch . . . four hours? God, her lack of protocol had been horrible.
Chapter 2Jillian closed the door behind her. No longer ‘Miss Jillian’ in his mind. My God, she was a little
chameleon. In the airport she had looked like a kid, ponytail and all. And less than fifteen minutes after they had arrived she knocked on his hotel door, business professional from head to toe. In a deep teal suit that looked like it had been cut just for her and brought out her eyes. He hadn’t realized there was so much green in them.
She had, of course, immediately told him to quit staring, that yes, she did in fact own several suits and he needed to get it together. Jordan had never had a woman beat him at getting ready before. And certainly not look so good doing it.
She had thrown her lab coat over her arm then peeled off her jacket just like he had in the stifling Florida humidity. He had sweated buckets just on the drive over. She had looked cool, “I’m from the south, remember?” All he could do was swear to slap anyone from LA who ever bitched about the ‘humidity’ again. And ask God’s forgiveness for all the times he had done it himself.
He pulled his jacket back on to cover his sweat stains as they entered the hospital flashing their CDCP credentials. Jillian clearly actually owned some of the adult faculties he was pretending to. Everyone spoke to Jillian, wanted her opinion first. She was smart, confident, and on top of it. A million miles from the woman who would pour over paperwork, pulled her hair back in a barrette, and had that weird flat sense of humor. It almost pissed him off.
It also lent a lot of credence to his new hypothesis that he wasn’t the brilliant theorist. And if that were the case, why was he here? He’d made his own diagnosis. But Jillian had given the same one, and they had all asked her first.
She followed him out of the little girl’s room to confer in the hallway. “What did you think?”
He shrugged out of his lab coat. “Same as you.”
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? West Nile with anaphylactic shock caused by the spider bite.”
“So we’re here for another two days at least.”
“Why?” She looked perplexed and he had the feeling he was about to be shown up again. It didn’t sit well.
“Because you can’t tell West Nile from Yellow Fever or Dengue Fever without a viral analysis or waiting out the symptoms.” By his count, two days was the least amount of time they might need to see the distinction. He waited for her to tell him all about the new reasons he was wrong.
But she didn’t. “What’s the difference?”
“You don’t know?” He was shocked.
She shook her head, her expression suddenly clearly belonging to the girl who had inhabited the other side of the desk from him. It just pissed him off. “I hate you, you know. You walk in there, all confidence and knowing all the answers then only confess out here that you don’t.”
Her head tilted, and she smiled, “No one wants to believe that it isn’t an exact science. And that family has had doctors telling them that they have no idea what it was and that they called in the experts. That’s us, Starsky.”
He sunk into one of the doctor’s lounge chairs. It was unfamiliar, but so much like every other hospital’s lounges. “The way I’m feeling I think we should go by Bonnie and Clyde.”
She laughed, lightening the load on his shoulders. “Nah, Bonnie and Clyde actually knew what they were doing.”
“ Yes, Mom I’m home.” Jillian had the phone wedged between her shoulder and ear while she folded her clothes.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like crap, Mom. I just walked in the door twenty minutes ago.” And, well trained girl that she was, she was already putting her clothing away. And calling her Mother.
“So now you’ve been with this job, like, a week? And you haven’t had a day off, what are these people doing to you?” Jillian heard the slight intake of breath and she knew what was coming. “I just don’t see why you couldn’t have gone into private practice. . . why you didn’t-”
“Mom.” The sigh behind her own voice was deeper and well worn. “I never deluded you about wanting a private practice. I never intended to come back to Signal Mountain and check ears and throats for a living. I don’t have the touch for that. Nor the desire.”
Nor was her mother getting the everyday prestige from having her little girl go off to Emory for medicine and come back to help serve the community. But her mother’s high hopes had been just that. And they belonged entirely to her mother. So, as far as Jillian was concerned, her mother could figure out what to do with them.
“So you enjoy traveling all over the place with no days off?”
“Mom, I have days off.” Then, just to be a little facetious she added, “You know, saving the world doesn’t happen on a nine to five schedule.”
That managed to shut her up for all of the three seconds it took her to shift gears. “So are you meeting any nice doctors?”
Her shoulders ached. Slowly rolling the one that wasn’t cramped up under the phone, she gave the same answer she had been giving for two years, since the end of her last major relationship. “No, mom, they’re all assholes.”
There it was, the expected intake of breath, but she spoke again before her mother could criticize her language. “But I did meet a really nice janitor, and he wants to take me out on ThursdayOh Mom! That’s the other line! Maybe it’s him. I’ll call you next week! I love you!”
She barely waited for the resulting “I love you, too.” Before hanging up the phone and tossing it on the dresser. God hang her for using her mother’s prejudices against her, but . . . she just couldn’t put up with it any more.
The bed beckoned. She was tired of being good, tired of putting her clothes away, tired of explaining her life choices to her family. In Chattanooga, smart girls married men with money. Even in this day and age. She knew three girls who attended one semester of freshmen year, just to say they did it, before they went off and married their much older boyfriends. Jillian had wanted her own career, and her own life, and apparently you couldn’t have both.
She flopped back onto the comforter - tomorrow she had to go into the office and they had to write a report on the spider bite, and then there were four glorious days off until Monday again.
She had been in the apartment for all of two and a half weeks, and since starting her job she estimated that she had been here maybe twenty-four hours total, including sleep time. Shaking her head, Jillian decided to pass out.
After half an hour of staring at the ceiling while her thoughts ran rampant with her, she finally accomplished her goal.
Ooooh , Dr. Warden had downshifted to ‘patronizing’. As her boss, his only real function seemed to be the monitoring of anything he deemed to be under his control - which included employees, discoveries, and even paperclips. Becky just knew she wouldn’t last three minutes without actually hitting him.
Taking one deep solid breath, she nodded. “All right. I understand. My resignation will be on your desk in fifteen minutes.”
“Rebecca, where would you go? You can’t just resign.”
She faked a startled look. “My parents live down the street. And I’m sitting on a huge discovery that will pay off in a little while. I’ll be fine, but thank you for worrying about me.”
Turning, she began to walk out of the office. His voice caught up to her quickly. “That’s my paper. Those frogs are university property.”
But she was done. She squared up to face him, as he towered over her tall frame, making her feel small, but she knew she was in the right. “No, it’s not your paper.”
He started to talk but she held up her hand. “Just because three of those frogs are sitting in my office, doesn’t make them university property. I would point out that my purse also sits in my office. Most of those frogs are still at my home. Sitting under a lamp I bought. They were caught in Tuppers that I purchased with my own money, I have a receipt.” She grinned, then continued, even as she talked this was getting better. “They were caught by my siblings, on land owned by my parents, and since you haven’t anted up a penny for them yet, I’d say you would be pretty hard pressed to prove that I don’t own-”
He interrupted, as she knew he would. “In your contract with the university it says that all related discoveries-”
She laughed; God, her day was getting better. She had come for a reward for her brother and sister, and when he’d childishly refused, she’d upped the stakes. And now she was going to walk out with a paper. “Doctor Warden, your contract might stipulate that, but mine doesn’t. I crossed those lines out, on the advice of my brother. Harvard Law, ninety-eight.”
Warden paled, and it was all she could do not to dance a little jig right there in the second floor J hall of the Reynolds building. She forced a smile and continued. “You can sign reward checks for my brother and sister, and my paper will have your name on it. Or I’ll go draft my resignation, effective immediately, and you can explain to the higher-ups why this doesn’t say ‘University of Tennessee’ all over it.”
He didn’t say anything. Just turned and went back to his office.
Becky tried to keep her voice light. “I’ll be back for those checks in an hour.”
“But-” He didn’t finish and she just smiled.
It was down the corridor, around a corner and through another lab that her office sat. Definitively out of the way. She went in and started writing up the findings, but after starting with the date, time, and location she realized that she couldn’t do anything. Not anything. Not until Warden put it in writing that the paper belonged to her and anyone else who she chose to have on it.
If she used university equipment or wrote up anything, the frogs and the paper could legally become property of the UT Biodiversity office. And, since finding new and unusual species and behavior was what the Biodiversity team did, she would be hard pressed to prove it was a personal project. So, for the moment at least, her hands were tied.
The ranas stared at her from their Tuppers lined up on her shelf. Three of them. All in a row, all looking right at her, their little throats bobbing as though with their breathing. One big, one little, one medium. There was nothing extraordinary about any of the three, other than the obvious extra legs.
Becky was suddenly extremely grateful to Aaron. That he had chosen law school and in his own arrogant way had decided that no man was complete without some knowledge of the law. He said she’d be grateful when she was in her first car accident or bought her first house. Neither of those things had happened yet. But she sent up a silent thank you as she sat there.
She was also grateful for her own error, remembering how frustrated she had been, making an extra trip to the restaurant supply store for the lexans she had forgotten to bring home with her. It was all lining up. If she jumped ship she wouldn’t regret it. And if she got fired. . . well, she really still wouldn’t.
She filled her time reading emails, and doodling, and finally gathered the lexans into her arms. The water sloshed as she walked, the frogs trying to stay motionless out of fear, but constantly having to squirm to correct their balance.
Warden looked up as she entered. “You’re leaving?”
“I have your checks.” But he didn’t hand them over.
If she was fired, it would be worth it just to spend this minute watching the prick squirm.
“Do you have your resignation?” He eyed her, and leaned forward but didn’t ask again.
“No. Not if I get my checks now and tomorrow morning I have it in writing that the paper is mine and mine alone.” She took the checks and balanced the frogs in one arm while reaching into her pocket to pull out a sticky note. “Here’s my home phone number so you can call me and tell me when it’s ready.” Already knowing he wouldn’t take it, she stuck it on the nearest bookshelf.
Against the ropes, he nodded, swallowed a bit, then reached out. “Mind if I take a look?”
Just before his mealy hand closed on one of the Tuppers she turned away. “Yes, I do. These are still my frogs.”
It was two city blocks to the parking garage then up two floors, and all the way to the back. And this was privileged parking. She was only allowed here as an employee. Students had to park even further away. Her jacket was cloying and constricting, but she wouldn’t set down the frogs. They were her future right now. And something was very wrong with them.
Her folks’ home was a ways out in the county, it was the only way they could have all that land. It just wasn’t as far out as it had been when she was small. Several of the neighbors had parceled large properties and housing developments now stood where nearby farms and fields had been.
She followed the local school bus the last few turns to her home and met Melanie and Brandon as they leapt down to the gravel roadside. “No one believes we caught six-legged frogs!” The wail was that of a plaintive seven-year-old who was about an inch from a seriously good pout.
But that telling everyone part made her nervous. Becky scooped up her little sister and asked Brandon to grab the Tuppers out of the front seat. “Let’s not tell people just yet. They’ll believe you when they see your picture in the paper, even if it doesn’t happen for a while.”
Melanie consented, and after a slow evening her father showed up and her mother took advantage of adult company, pouring them three glasses of wine from the box in the fridge, if it could be called ‘pouring’. But it wasn’t bad, and partway through nursing her drink and contemplating how she had destroyed her future and was now the proud owner of forty-three frogs she couldn’t investigate any further than a good once-over, Brandon called up from the basement.
“Becky, your frogs are all staring at me! They’re weird!”
Her mother yelled back, but didn’t move an iota. “Of course they are, they’ve got six legs for chrissakes!”
“Becky, can we rotate them?!” Melanie wanted to torment the frogs, and Becky wished she hadn’t started those early biology lessons with her little sister. The girl was too bright - it would be great if she forgot something just once in a while.
“But it’s fun!”
In a low voice she spoke only to the table. “Can’t argue that.” The frogs had a lot of built in responses. When put on their back they would flip upright and get ready to jump. If you rotated the ground beneath them, they would turn to stay oriented to the original direction. And it was all reflex. The frogs would do this in the lab even if they were decapitated. Of course that response only lasted a few seconds before the dead frogs would jello-out and lose all muscle tone.
But it was enough to make the squeamish lab students jump and scream, and the more sturdy-hearted spend good lab time just rotating the dissection trays watching the beheaded frogs reorient one way then the other. elementary school kids for hours. siblings.
It was quiet for a few minutes. Well, maybe more than a few minutes, her wine glass was empty. They all turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Brandon and Melanie emerged on the landing, arms full of little clear lexans.
“Becky, they keep orienting themselves.” Melanie put one Tupper on the table with a small thunk. “Look.” She turned the Tupper and sure enough the little rana moved his front legs hand over hand and shuffled his back feet as the container moved, constantly keeping his nose pointed in the original direction.
“Melanie, I told you not to rotate them.” Looking to her parents for backing, Becky sighed.
Before her folks could put in their two cents, Melanie continued with her mini-lecture on the orienting process of frogs. She picked up the lexan and softly but quickly shifted it onto its side, leaving the inhabitant on his back. She put it on the table again, and up the little guy went, onto all six legs, squat and ready.
“That’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. So stop tormenting my frogs.” And to think she had spent this morning arguing for bonuses for the little Dr. Moreaus.
Melanie ignored her. “Now the four-legger.” She scooted over the container marked with the normal masking tape from its spot at the end of the table. Now center stage, the little rana performed, hand over hand, back legs shuffling, while Melanie rotated the container. Then she flipped him onto his back and set the Tupper upright in line with the three six-leggers.
And Becky saw it.
What Melanie and Brandon had seen. She barely paid attention to the little guy as he flipped himself up off his back and into ‘ready’ stance. It wasn’t what he did. It was what he didn’t do.
The difference was obvious. This time Becky grabbed one of the downstream frogs, flipping her softly onto her back, and as the little rana struggled briefly then expertly flipped herself upright, even Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson were getting onto their feet.
Her Dad spoke first. “Are they supposed to do that?”
“No, Dad, this is definitely new.”
When the four-legger hopped up, he faced whichever direction was easiest. No matter what she did, each time the six-leggers came to a stop, they faced the same way they had previously. All three of them, always the same direction, all the time.
In a few live frogs the responses could entertain a couple of For the frogs’ sakes, Becky regretted showing it to her little
Without speaking, each family member grabbed one lexan, and separated them to different rooms, hollering out. “Same way!” “Toward the bed!” “Facing the sink.” It didn’t matter though. All the phrases meant the same thing.
She left the Tuppers on the floor while scrambling down the stairs, her family close on her heels. With breath held tight, Becky flipped the light switch. All the little six-leggers were staring straight at her. Oriented the same direction as the ones upstairs. Her voice was weaker than she meant it to be. “What direction are they facing, Daddy?”
“Northwest, looks like.”
Greer walked into the lab like he owned the place. Which was silly, David thought, because he did. “Hey, pretty boy, what’s up with your stones? Tell me something interesting, because I’m footing a helluva bill for that shut-down day.”
“It’s good.” It was better thon good, but David went back to perusing his pieces. He didn’t even bother to correct Greer about the ‘stones’. It was just said to annoy him anyway.
“Dude, you’ve got to give me more than that.”
David didn’t even look up. And that was the wonder of Greer. He always meant what he said just as he said it. You never needed to see his face. “All right, you are on par with Hell Creek.”
Yup, he didn’t need to see Greer’s eyes to know that the sarcasm flowed in rivers.
“Now how about something I can use?” His friend prodded. “I want information that I’ll find worthy of shutting down my dig for a full day, and I want it in complete sentences.”
He looked up, gauging what to give away and what to keep. “Well, you’ve got the iridium layer at the KT boundary, just like you were hoping. Only here, it’s better than Hell Creek because you’ve got a rapid lay down. Which gives you as close to full-on proof as you’ll ever get that the dust cover directly coincides with the dino die-out. It’s real thick at the KT, tapering off over the next several hundred years. No glass or ash content that the lab can discern-”
“You just said ‘the lab’, that means you didn’t do my analysis yourself.”
Shit. Explain, explain. David took a steadying breath. “Well, I couldn’t get it done in the time frame you wanted. The lab here did it and I oversaw it. It’s good work.”
Greer nodded slowly. “Our agreement was that you do the testing, but you farmed it out. So tell me what was so hellfire important that you shut down my dig and then blew me off for it?”
This time David looked up. “You don’t tell anyone.”
“Fine, but you tell me.”
Making his way into his office, he closed the doors behind Greer.
“Your dig is a hotspot. A magnetic jump point.”
Greer raised his eyebrows, “Do go on.”
“Every so often, a long time, even by geological standards, the earth’s poles shift . . . swap places. It happens that certain spots shift first, then the theory is that when a critical mass of hotspots, or altered areas, is hit, the poles snap. Bam! And it’s all over. North is south, south is north and all that, magnetically speaking. But no one’s seen a magnetic hotspot on the KT before. It might explain the slight discrepancies in die-out times better than the asteroid theory alone.”
“And you weren’t going to share your dinosaur theory with me?” Greer leaned forward on the desk, eyes blazing, and David wasn’t quite sure how to fill in the empty logic hole he had left. He was going to share, just not now.
“Listen, Greer, I’m still not positive. These rocks are good for it, but I need to get more. You know, most geologists never see a hotspot like this. My Dad was one of the few who did. I always look for it-”
“Jeez, Carter, that chip on your shoulder must’ve been what stunted your growth.”
Greer smiled, “You’re welcome.” It would have sounded very genuine if not taken in the context of following the word fuckhole. “What are you going to do when the old man kicks off?”
He shrugged; it had been a question that plagued him for many years. “Same as I’ve been doing. Sit around, live off my Dad’s money and his name.”
“Dude, I’m going to let you in on something, because I think I’m the only person who likes you enough to tell you.” Greer shook his head, but David knew that last part was true. “You are the only one who thinks you’re getting by on your Dad’s name.”
“Yes, but you don’t have all the facts. My Dad bought my way into Princeton when my grades weren’t good enough.”
“Oh, so sad, and boo hoo, and suck me. You’ve proven your worth on your own since then.” Greer sighed, and that meant that the conversation was finished. “So when are you going to get positive about this theory and let me in on it?”
“I have to go to the Appalachians next.”
“Pray tell, why?”
“Because, I was scrounging old files, looking, and three years ago there was a KT dig there. Wharton took his top dogs and then got furious when they got back because the specimens were all mislabeled. He even dismissed three of his graduate students over it. But, I’m guessing now that it might have been another hotspot. And that, my friend would make a great paper.”
“Who are you taking on this secret dig?” Greer’s arms were crossed over his chest.
“I don’t know. I only just started thinking about going back to check it out this morning. Those are the specimens I was looking over out there. By the way, they have the same iridium strata as your Warren Fault pieces. – Hey, do you want to go to Tennessee with me?”
There were three slow blinks of his eyes. “I’m a black man. Why in the hell would I want to go to Tennessee?”
“Greer, this is the new millennium. No one’s going to make you jump down, turn around and pick a bale of cotton. I’m pretty sure they’ve gotten rid of that ‘separate but equal’ stuff, too.”
This time the eyes blinked once.
David smiled, “What you really have to be afraid of are the cabbages.”
“I need to fear leafy greens now?”
David shook his head. “It’s the name for the inbred, backwoods folks. They were called cabbages because the inbreeding led to large heads and equivalent mental capabilities.” The more he tried to convince Greer to come the more he realized that Greer was ideal for the spot. “Come on. They found bones. . .” He trailed off, using something Greer would enjoy as bait.
But Greer sighed. He was a smart fish, and he recognized that the worm had a hook jabbed in its back. “Haven’t your paleo guys checked it out yet?”
“Nope, there are just bits and pieces, and because they thought all the specimens were mislabeled, when they got back Wharton was furious and just threw everything into storage, calling the dig a complete waste.”
“What kind of bones are they?”
That question began to make David hopeful. “I don’t know, I’m not a paleontologist. But you’re welcome to look them over, they’re sitting right out there on the lab table.” He stood and opened the door letting Greer out into the main lab again.
They didn’t speak. Working side by side, shuffling around the lab, getting a book or a test kit here or there. After a deep intake of breath Greer uttered the first words in two hours. “Damn, this could be crap or it could be a goldmine.”
Carter just nodded. He’d had the exact same thought.
“All right, answer me honestly.” Greer squared up to David, a good nine inches taller and with all the dignity David felt lacking in his own moral fiber. “Is there a chance that these are just mislabeled specimens? That the students didn’t know what they were doing and none of this info is correct?”
David nodded. “I wasn’t on the dig. I didn’t know any of the students other than a few faces I saw in class as undergrads. I’d have to say that there’s a possibility it’s not even KT. But it appears that all the specimens are mislabeled. I have to go check it out.”
Greer nodded slowly then pulled out his palm pilot. “How long do we need?”
“Two to four weeks. No telling ‘til we get there.” Carter went back into the lab for his own schedule, cool as cucumber, but inside wildly excited that it was Greer going with him. No one knew his shit like Greer. “The major work is already done. But the site’s three years old. It’ll take some reworking and we won’t have any students.”
David looked for a reasonable chunk of time when he could go. Most of these digs were planned months in advance. “If we just need to confirm what we have, it’ll be short, but if we find new pieces, we’ll be longer, you know how it is.”
“Then I have to head home now. Explain all this to my ever-so-understanding wife. Find a way to make it up to her. Then I can leave two Mondays from now.” His head was bent low over the palm pilot and he tapped at it rapidly with the little stylus. “But I have to be back at my place one month later.”
David picked up his red marker and drew a line through the dates Greer mentioned, noting that he had drawn through two staff meetings and a dinner with the head of the department, and all sorts of other stuff that would have to be moved. “Looks great.”
“Are you expecting U Wisconsin to kick in funding?”
David shook his head. “This is a private venture. It’s the only way I know to not have to write a paper explaining my suspicions and then wait an eon while they decide to give it back to Wharton who fucked it up in the first place.”
“Daddy?” It didn’t sound as snotty as it could have. It was from Greer and there was no malice behind it.
But David shook his head again. “Nope.” He took a deep breath. “I’m touching my trust fund for this one.”
“Really?” Greer’s eyebrows rose. “Then I’ll fly in baggage and try not to eat.”
“Nah, we’re going nice all the way. Once I touch it, it’s touched. It’s about the principle, not the amount. But this will be worth it.”
Jordan let the water sluice down over him. He had been right, which usually made him pretty happy. Except when his prediction had been a solid ass-whupping. When he had gotten to town, even before he had unpacked, he had driven in ever-widening circles from his new place, looking for a gym.
The first evening after joining, he’d met Martin. So they had signed up for racquetball together, and every Wednesday, except when he’d been in Florida, they had played. Jordan had come close quite a few times, but he had beaten Martin only once. The workout was good and the challenge and standing date was better.
If he was ever going to be in good shape and have a healthy sex life it would be now. He had avoided relationships through med school, focusing on his studies and what few one-night-stands he could manage. It worked well and didn’t distract much, but didn’t keep the johnson as happy as he’d have liked.
He cranked the water hotter, something he hadn’t done before receiving his gas bill just yesterday. He could afford it. And today he had earned it. God, he ached. So he stood there, hands flat on the slick tile, one leg straight, the other bent in calf stretches. After a few seconds he switched legs.
His mind wandered to Jillian in her tub, surrounded by white bubbles. He’d seen her place. Her tub probably had the same yellowing tiles with cracked caulking that his did. But in his imagination it was a pristine white claw foot.
It got bigger. Room for two. He added Marla from UCLA. One of the other med students. Two years older than him and hotter than hell. She hadn’t had time for any of them, as she was hell-bent on a surgeon out of residency and with his loans already paid off. But she was in his tub right now in his head. With Jillian nonetheless.
By the time the shower water turned colder, the tub was a hot tub. And included his high school crush, but with bigger boobs, Angelina Jolie, and Marcy the tech from earlier today. All kissing each other. And . . .
He had to face two of these women tomorrow. The water was cold and he thought that the phone was ringing anyway. So he cranked the faucet off and grabbed for one of the two towels he owned. Wrapping it around him as he ran, he dove to catch the phone before the machine picked up. He didn’t get to look at the caller ID even, “Hello?”
It was his Dad. And that in itself was odd. They weren’t estranged, just not close. If it wasn’t a holiday, they didn’t talk. So instantly he was alert for problems. “Hey, Dad, is something going on?”
“Yeah,” It was a sigh, low and long, like when his dad talked about Mom. “Eddie died.”
“Oh, no.” The weight in his chest took him by surprise. He and Eddie had rarely seen each other since they were children, and Eddie had always seemed ill at ease after Jordan had gone off to pursue medicine and Eddie had left high school early to go into construction. In the ten years since he’d been out, Eddie had made a name in Lake James, built himself a nice house, married a cute girl and had a daughter. Then got leukemia. “I thought he was in remission.”
“Well, they thought he was better, that he was going to make it. He put the weight back on. Grew some hair, was fine. . . we thought.”
Jordan wracked his brains. He couldn’t talk medicine with his Dad, but he had with Eddie. They had finally seemed to be on more even footing, and Eddie now spoke some med-lingo from his time in the ‘slammer,’ as he referred to the hospital. He had seemed fine at the family Fourth of July picnic, only a few months ago. “So, do you know what happened?”
“Don’t think anyone really does. He got some stomach flu. Next thing you know he’s in a coma and then this morning he died.”
That didn’t sound like anything Jordan had ever heard of. He wanted to drill his Dad. Get answers. Because that sure didn’t make a shitlick of sense.
“Funeral’s Friday. You should be here.”
“I will, I’ll be there sometime tomorrow. I’ll call and let you know when I get in.”
And that was the end of the conversation. He stood with the cordless phone loose in his hand, shoulders slumped, one hand running down his wet face.
In a few moments he was on the line with Jillian, briefly wondering if she was also wrapped in a towel, bothered mid-bubble bath by his call. But the thought was momentary at most. Her sympathies were heartfelt and he was told in no uncertain terms to leave for the funeral right away, she’d be fine inspecting the latest staph infection by herself. She even offered to drive him to the airport. He almost told her ‘no’, then thought better of it. Between low level pay, student loans, and now a last minute plane ticket, he could use the savings from not parking.
Next he called Landerly and left a message. Then hopped online, and even called the airline, getting all the requirements for the grievance discount. Thank god for credit cards. Lord knew, none of it was in his account right now.
Becky protested. “You’re trying to distract me from my frogs.” She sounded like a petulant teenager and she knew it. But that was the politics of the professional academic world. Gain your footing and hold on for all you’re worth.
“Rebecca, what, really, have you found out about those frogs?”
“Exactly. So I don’t understand why you are so determined to miss out on this great
She hadn’t told any of them about the directionality of the frogs. Probably because she couldn’t explain it. And she didn’t want anyone else explaining it before she found a suitable solution. Not that she had found even an unsuitable solution in the last week. Her mouth opened, but there wasn’t anything to come out. She closed it again. Biodiversity was her job. She traveled all the time to collect and study animals. She would pack all her frogs home first. They would be in better hands with Brandon and Melanie, even if they would be slightly tormented.“All right. Where are these birds, and why do I need to see them?” “I knew you would realize that this is the right thing, Rebecca.”
That’s Doctor Sorenson to you was the first thought that entered her head. He called her by her birth name, Rebecca. Which she thought sounded far too mature for herself, yet he treated her like a child. An idiot child at that. The second thought that went through her head was, Bite my ass.“It seems there’s a flock of warblers in Dalton, Georgia.”
She waited the briefest of moments. “This is an odd time of year for them. Did they just never leave? They should be in Canada.”
“They did leave. But the local birdwatchers say they’re back, and they’re nesting.”
“Nesting?” This was maybe as interesting as the frogs. “All right. I’m hooked. What do I do?”
“When can you go?” His fingers still steepled in front of him. His hair was still on the greasy side and she still trusted him about as far as she could throw him.
“You’ll drive down, make a preliminary assessment and let us know if we need to assemble an ornithology team, or if there’s a fluke or an obvious issue.” He handed her a three by five lined card. The cheapest paper for making small notes on, by his own statements. “Call this man at this number when you get in; he’ll be more than happy to show you the birds and their newly chosen habitat.” Warden dismissed her with a disdainful wave of his hand, and gave her his back even before she could have possibly started out the door. But that was okay, his front wasn’t his best side.
Chapter 3Jordan looked around the living room. It was cozy and warm, and the deep-toned plaid couch screamed everything but ‘Eddie’ to him. Kelly must have done all the decorating.
The room was a definite step up from his own place. One, that it was in a house, on a lot with a yard and a swing set even. Two, the carpet was lacking in the stains his had come with. Three, the kitchen was fully functional.
He’d never been here before. After all the time he and Eddie had spent blowing things up together as kids, somehow he had never seen the house his cousin had built with his own hands and his own construction crew. It seemed a shame to see it only now that Eddie was getting buried.
Kelly sat on the couch, taking all of it much better than Jordan had expected. So when Aunt Agnes left her alone, he tried to casually saunter over with his soda in hand and position himself next to Kelly.
“How are you holding up?” It was her voice asking him that question before he could ask it of her.
“I’m all in one piece.” And before he could ask anything, she started in.
“Eddie was always telling me stories about the two of you and the M-eighties, or the illegal fireworks. Were they true? Could he have really walked into your medical school and convinced them that you had a sordid past and shouldn’t have been admitted?”
Jordan laughed. He hadn’t expected laughter and not from Eddie’s widow. “Yes, it’s all true.” And Jordan tried to use his opening. He had to know. “What happened? I thought he was in remission.”
“He just caught this stomach flu. It got worse and worse. The E.R. and his regular doctor told us that it would pass. Then he passed out, and by the time they admitted him he was in a coma.” She took a sip of the gin and tonic that she was holding in both hands, unaware that it had sweated a ring onto her linen skirt. Jordan waited, seeing that she was just steeling herself for something important. “Before . . . with the leukemia . . . he had made me promise to pull the plug. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. I just knew he’d come back around. But three days later he flatlined and there wasn’t anything they could do. He was gone.”
For a moment, her hand shook, rattling the small cubes of ice exposed above the level of liquid in her glass. But then it stilled.
“Kelly, I don’t get it. That doesn’t sound like Leukemia at all. And I never heard of a stomach flu that put anyone in a coma. How was his white count?” He had leaned forward, elbows on knees, soda clenched in both hands.
This time when she looked at him her eyes saw his face, but no further. “Jordan, what are you doing?”
“I just want to find out what happened.” He reached for her arm, but she was already jerking it back out of his way, standing in one fluid motion, her hands raising.
“Why!?” Her voice was as loud as it was high pitched. “Why! What can you do? He’s gone. Just when I was getting comfortable with the thought that I might get the forever I signed on for. In five days he went from healthy to dead.”
Jordan opened his mouth to apologize, but she didn’t let him.
“Can you bring him back? I know that he’s dead. But stop asking me these goddamn questions. I don’t know what his blood count was. I just want him back.” She dropped the glass then. It fell in almost slow motion, and even as he was aware of everyone in the room staring at him like the leper he was, he reached for Kelly and set her back on the couch to keeping her from falling. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She was in tears now, full streaming tears, the fallen glass unnoticed.
Even if everyone else hated him, Kelly didn’t seem to. Although he would have understood. He shouldn’t have pushed her like that. With a great sigh Aunt Agnes picked up the glass, luckily still in one piece, and sent her husband, Bill, running for paper towels. Kelly stayed there, crying into his shoulder, while slowly, everyone around him went back to their business.
He had forgotten the cardinal rule. That these were people. He could always remember that when it was strangers. But with his own family he pushed. And he shouldn’t.
And he had ruined it. As much as he regretted hurting Kelly, and pushing her past whatever safety barrier she had found, he more regretted that he wasn’t going to get his information that he wanted.
They were all still looking at him. Why had he done it? He could answer but they wouldn’t like it. They were all blue collar by choice, and he had gone out and paid through the nose to educate himself, to do what he wanted. But he had learned a whole new language, and they didn’t speak it. Jordan didn’t fit. And he’d upset one of the people who did. One at the center of the circle.
He rode home with his Dad in silence. Anyone else would think his father carefully schooled and stoic in his lack of expression these past few days. But Jordan knew better. Dad simply hadn’t had it in him since his Mom had died.
He was in his old easy chair within moments, tonight. There was no reproach for Jordan’s behavior, as he might have gotten when his mother was alive. Even though he knew his Dad didn’t approve, he didn’t hear about it. “’Night, Dad.”
His father didn’t answer. Just a quick look in his direction and a nod let him know he had even been heard.
Jordan lay on the bed, his hands laced behind his head as he stared at the ceiling. His thoughts turned to Jillian briefly, wondering if her day at Grady Hospital had been horrifyingly long. But he realized that she had probably done just fine without him. A small smile played across his lips before it was erased by his medical mind.
Eddie had died of the stomach flu and a coma. And none of it added up. If anyone here would know that something was off with Eddie’s death it was Jordan. But no one was listening.
Kelly’s words haunted him.
Why! What can you do?
In five days he went from healthy to dead.
He couldn’t bring Eddie back. He just wanted to understand. But there wasn’t even an autopsy. Not for a man who had leukemia for five years.
His lids slowly gained the weight of sleep, and within moments the glare of bright light. He blinked against the harsh sun through the windows he hadn’t bothered to close, because he hadn’t believed that sleep was coming. He was still in his slacks, his shirt, and his tie. All of it formerly pressed and Sunday best.
He had the whole day to contemplate his horrible behavior from the evening before. The idea that God was punishing him for it began with the taste of old gym towels in his mouth.
With only a few blinks in a lazy attempt to clear his head, he pushed his way off the bed and into the bathroom. Relief surged at the flavor of mint replacing the gumminess of sleep. Jordan reached into the stall and flicked the shower on, the sense memory of where exactly to turn the dial remained even in this blurry state. Within a minute the water was a decent temperature, and he had yanked his tie loose and proceeded to strip. He almost fell back asleep standing there naked under the ancient showerhead.
By the time Jordan was downstairs, his Dad stood at the stove, his one concession to reallife cooking was the electric griddle that was perpetually on the counter top. The smell of Bisquick pancakes brought Jordan back to every other weekend he and his Dad had spent since his mother had died. He sat down with no conversation and ate until he was near bursting. Wondering all the while, as he always did, if his father made the pancakes even on weekends when he wasn’t home. He’d never had the heart to ask.
Just as Jordan set down his fork, the phone rang. His father motioned with the spatula that Jordan was to answer it. In China, children cared for their parents unto old age. In Lake James, Jordan saved his Dad the social effort involved in answering the phone. “Hello?”
“Jordan?” The voice was soft and sweet and he couldn’t quite place it. “It’s me, Kelly.”
“I wanted to apologize for my behavior yesterday. We all need to make sense of it in our own way.” He could hear her breath across the line in the sharp inhale she needed before she continued. “You need to know. I don’t want to. I don’t care what you find out. But I signed a release to the hospital, and told them you were with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that you needed them to cooperate.”
“Kelly . . .”
“No, It’s okay. If it had been you, Eddie would have found the answers leveling a field with a caterpillar and a backhoe. This is how you find yours. I’m just sorry I wasn’t more understanding yesterday.”
“Kelly.” He took a deep breath. “Thank you, and I’m sorry I upset you. I just . . .”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry.”
“Listen Kelly, I wanted to tell you that Eddie once told me that he was the luckiest guy alive to have you.”
“No he did. He then told me what a pansyass I was with my nose in books all the time.”
He heard her sniff even as she laughed. “Thank you. . . have a good flight home tonight Jordan.”
Great, he had made her cry. Yet, she had given him access to Eddie’s medical records. He wanted to jump up and down and cheer. He hated himself for it. But he had nine hours at the hospital until he had to leave for his flight.
Becky wasted little time unpacking her duffle bag and simply splashed some water on her face. The hotel was covered by the Amateur Birdwatchers; it was far nicer than anything Warden would have approved of her staying in.
She pocketed her room card and slipped her purse over her shoulder. Making certain that her door locked behind her, she found her way back to the elevators and wondered what she was getting herself into. She spotted Marshall Harfield easily, mainly because he was the only person actually sitting and waiting in the lobby. He had told her that he had dark hair and dark eyes, and that he would be wearing a blue ABA jacket. What he had neglected to tell her was that the dark hair was thinning and the ABA jacket was bright enough to scare away all kinds of wildlife and that it was struggling to stay closed around the wide girth of his belly.
He neglected to tell her that he was nervous and that he would startle when she approached him. Wiping his hand on his pants he held it out while he greeted her. But she couldn’t very well refuse to shake his hand. He led her out to his car, plastered with ABA and various other bird bumper stickers. Some even thought they were funny.
As they left the parking lot, he began a stream of nervous chatter. Becky, of course, listened with half her thoughts to Marshall, and the other half wondering what she’d gotten herself into. Her heart leapt when he reached into the backseat, but all he produced was a series of marked volumes on the Georgia Spotted Warbler.
Within moments, he had her flipping pages, finding out details and seeing that everyone who had ever printed anything about the Georgia Spotted Warbler agreed that they were only Georgian during the winter months. If it was true, then these birds were way out of sync. And Marshall Harfield had found his groove and a warm smile that he shared with anyone who could get excited over an unremarkable brown bird.
Her whole attention was turned to him as he continued, and she didn’t even notice the drive. They were pulling up to a farmhouse outside Dalton and four people were standing in the middle of the front lawn, their bright blue ABA jackets giving them away. They all but pulled Becky from the car and smiled and shook her hand in turn as Marshall introduced Dr. Rebecca Sorenson around to the lot of them. They were polite enough to make it through introductions, then they were all speaking on top of each other.
She posed the question to the group in general as she was getting the hang of understanding them. “So last year the birds flew in the proper pattern, and they left last spring at the appropriate time . . . but now they’re here way too early.”
Becky decided to go with the kid, Weston, who had said ‘not exactly’. “Explain please.” “This is the nesting ground for this flock, every year they’re here in Mrs. Chesterfield’s
orchard. Well, last year they didn’t arrive on time. And two weeks later we found them while we were out looking for spotted woodpeckers over at the Dalton Arboretum. They were there, the warblers, and they were nesting. So we thought that was weird-”
Becky’s brows knit with questions. “How do you know it’s the same flock?” Anne, the older woman, spoke up this time. “I’ve been watching this flock for years. The birds come and go, but there’s a consistency. You’ll see the same birds for quite a few years. We named the ones we can positively I.D. There’s Marsha, Jan, Cindy, Greg, Bobby, and Alice. Sam, Peter, and Tiger didn’t come back this year.”
Clearly no one else in the group thought anything of the names that Anne was rattling off.
Marshall smiled again, his big beaming smile. “That’s why we called the Biodiversity lab. Last year our birds our birds were a bit off. But this is way out of our league.” He grabbed her by the arm, but by now she took it as a good sign, “Do you want to go see them?”
She nodded, and Weston rummaged through his backpack to come up with a bright blue ABA hat, which he held out to her. “I thought you might like a hat. We have Lyme ticks.”
“Thank you, Weston.” Before she knew it, she was in the back woods of Georgia, in eighty-five degree heat, and eighty-five percent humidity, trailing a team of birdwatchers. They laughed, and she didn’t even ask as they pointed out Boss Hog and Roscoe, two woodpeckers who were squabbling over a nearby tree.
It was two a.m. when Jillian spotted Jordan at the airport curb. He stood with one bag over his shoulder and a carry-on just clinging to the tips of his fingers, looking much worse for the wear than she was.
Pulling up, she spilled out of the car, her arms offering up a hug, and immediately she saw the awkwardness of the move, but it was too late to stop herself. He was a co-worker, and not family. Even if she was here in the middle of the night.
Jordan was startled by the move, but he hugged her back, maybe even just a moment too long, clearly out of it, and she wouldn’t have been surprised if he passed out right there in the pickup lane. But he simply threw his bag into the backseat, and slid, bone weary, into the passenger side. “Thank you . . .”
If he was going to say something else, it was lost in the moments between starting the car, and her intense scrutiny of the few other vehicles in the pick-up lane while she tried to find her way back to the freeway. From the expression on his face and the way he hid it behind spread fingers, his cousin’s death had been hard on him.
When he finally looked up, she handed him the extra soft drink she had gotten for him. “I don’t know if you want this, maybe you just need to go home and pass out, but I was getting one anyway.”
“No. I’m starving, actually. Thank you.” soda, and two seconds later started talking again. come up and share it with me? I need your help.”
That pulled her brows together. He was tired and not in there. And he wanted her to come up for pizza in the middle of the night? But again she didn’t get to say anything.
“Eddie had leukemia. But he died of a stomach flu that put him in a coma.” Frustration carried bell-clear in the soft deep timbre of his voice.
“What? I don’t know of any stomach flu that does that.” She pulled up to the curb in front of his building.
“Exactly.” asking questions. can’t answer any of the questions either. . . . And you probably really want to go home and get some sleep.”
“Actually, I’m wide awake now. Buy me a pizza and tell me all about it.” She closed her car door and turned the key, managing only a small wince in the still city night air as the horn beeped that the alarm was engaged.
In the elevator he rummaged through his carry-on bag, producing a heavy folder that looked at once brand-new and well-worn. Jillian took it from him, while he entered his unit and went around the small living/dining area, opening windows, and turning on lights and the fan. The first He sighed, sucked down a good portion of the “I can order a pizza right now, right? Will you
He popped open the car door and retrieved his bag. “I alienated my family All they know is that he’s gone. His wife is right, I can’t bring him back. But I slight breeze hit her face and it occurred to her that it was stuffy in here, even for the middle of the night. She turned the file over. “This says the file was released to Dr. Jordan Abellard of the CDCP. . . Did you use the CDC to get this?”
He shook his head. “I went in with Kelly’s release form, she had put CDCP on it. I had my badge and they never questioned it.”
“That’s not really-”
“I know,” He put his hands up in the air. “What do you want me to do? I never said anything, they assumed. And I had the complete file in my hands in under twenty minutes.”
Jillian couldn’t smother her smile. “I’m fine with that; I was just curious if you knew that it was against policy.”
His stance relaxed. “So what do you like on your pizza?”
“Canadian bacon and pineapple-”
His face immediately told her that he didn’t feel the same way about toppings.
So she continued. “But I’ll eat pepperoni, or sausage or olives, or peppers.”
He paced while he was on hold and she thumbed through the huge file; it would take hours just to see what was in there, but it wasn’t like she had a busy social life demanding her time. After a few minutes she had found nothing unusual and Jordan was ordering. A few phrases broke through while she was reading. “ . . . two-liter coke . . . large pizza . . . half Canadian-bacon and pineapple the other half . . .”
She smiled. By the time he was sitting next to her at the old coffee table she had made a once over. “It looks normal - for a leukemia patient - up until that last stomach flu. So fill me in on the rest.”
“You got the basics from the file. There were a few scares, but he kept pulling through. He was in remission since this time last year.” Jordan shoved his fingers through his hair. “It was the longest remission he had maintained over the five year course of the disease. His white count was normal up until the end. It was fine when he was brought in. It sounded like flu, but everything sounds like flu.”
Her heart ached for him. It wasn’t just a medical mystery he was trying to solve. Jillian couldn’t remember him ever mentioning his cousin, but clearly Eddie’s death had shaken him up. “You know, there may not be an answer.”
“I know. It’s just so odd. If it’s a disease that took advantage of his weak immune system . . . I work for a company that has the foremost technology to prevent these kinds of things from happening.” He shrugged.
Jillian began dismantling the large folder into sections by visit and series. She handed one chunk back to Jordan. “Tell me about him.”
He shook his head. “Twenty-nine year old, Caucasian male, mild smoker, mild drinker-”
She cut him off. “No, really tell me. Where did he live? What is his place like? His family?”
Two hours later, she was exhausted.
Jordan probably would have been asleep except that he was pacing tracks into the carpet. “What do I do, Jilly?”
“Let’s sleep now, and at noon, when we get in, we take it to Landerly.”
David pushed his hair back off his face. In the wet wool of the thick air it clung like spiderwebs, giving him willies as he imagined the one thing he was really afraid of.
Greer laughed at him, his usual low chuckle when David’s harsh personality amused him.
“What are you laughing at? You’re okay because your people are from here, you darkie!”
“Dude, you are way messed up. My people are from Africa. Trust me, we aren’t built for this kind of humidity.” Greer never stopped his careful chipping at the rock beneath him.
“At least your hair sticks up and out of the way.”
“Yup. Which is the reason my race is superior and yours felt the need to better yourselves by enslaving us.”
David also never took his eyes off the ground layer beneath them. There was no good comeback, and so he avoided one all together, the conversation trickling off to nothing while they worked.
There was water making constant background static nearby, and a damned obnoxious bird that had a call that just never quit. God had been laughing when he put the lungs on that thing. Just as soon as it shut up another one would answer it.
Evidence of deer had been all over the first few days, and it had taken nearly a week to push back what time and the East Tennessee climate had done to the abandoned site.
It was slow going in the back woods, with the rustles of forest and the slope of the Appalachians beneath them. The only sound that broke the peace was the two men calling each other names and the high ‘ching’ of the tiny picks striking rock. Neither of them had the easy swing of a student, so the calls of the birds were periodically interrupted by the sharp screech of metal glancing off rock followed by a colorful string of swear words. Then, after a brief pause, nature would resume its noise, hiding the fact that they were there from the cities and homes not that far away.
“Greer, this one’s for you.” Carter brushed off his knees, and stood, not cursing out loud this time. The pain in his joints that told of age was not anything he wished to acknowledge to the world.
“What is it?”
“Fuck if I know. It’s a bone, maybe it’s a damn trilobite. If you’re lucky it’s one of your lizards.”
He heard the edge in David’s voice. “Dinosaurs aren’t lizards. You know it, I’ve told you that.”
“Ah.” David stood and stretched his hands over his head, taking in the thick mass of tall trees and virtually untouched wilderness that enclosed them. “That would imply that I listen to you.”
He tried not to let his legs give him away as he moved to a new spot that had looked interesting. But, even from where he was bent over his dig, Greer saw it. “Well listen to this, my honky friend: I’m bigger than you, and stronger than you, and -” he pointed his pick at David’s knees, “not nearly as arthritic as you. So don’t call my dinos lizards. It’s insulting.”
“Hey Greer, you do know that all your dinos died, right? That means that you’re studying an animal that is gone, gone, gone, and won’t ever come back. You have a totally useless profession.”
Greer snorted. “Dude, you think the limestone you hold is going to reveal anything other than what happened a zillion years ago?”
David held up one chunk that he had extracted, and smiled. “This baby can tell the future.” “Well, you just tell me what your Magic Eight Ball there says.”
“We’re headed for another polarity shift.” David smiled. There he’d said it, out loud, even if it was only to Greer.
But Greer snorted again. “Yeah, in another million years.” He pushed himself to his feet and dusted off. “Be sure to let me know how that pans out for you.”
David started carefully picking his way through the grid lines. “Just go play with your petrified lizard.”
But Greer was already standing over it looking down, trying to figure what the piece that David’s pick had revealed might be. He turned his head one way then another, before sliding the instrument into the hammer-loop of his carpenter jeans and pulling out a smaller, lighter one from a deep pocket somewhere. His voice was no longer the one that insulted David, but a little more thoughtful. “There’s a good chance this dig will help us solidify the dinosaur-therapsid link.”
“Us? I don’t need a link.”
“Us paleontologists.” Greer knelt down and spoke to the small whitish smooth piece buried within the packed limestone, “Come to Papa.” He took a few small swings at the peripheries before speaking to David. “Actually, you do need a dino-therapsid link. The therapsids were dinosaurlike pre-mammals and warm-blooded to boot. Which means they are absolutely pertinent to you, Mr. Mammal.”
“Like I care about the distinction between dinos and lizards and theradons-”
“Exactly, I don’t care. My kind survived. Me and my mammal friends.”
David could see the edges of Greer’s smile even though he was bent over, softly chipping at the rock. “Come to think, I’m not so sure that you are a mammal. Mammals are warm-blooded.”
“Ohhhhhh.” David drolled out the monotone. “That was low, Greer.” Then he smiled. “Congratulations, I didn’t think you had it in you. I thought maybe ‘honky’ was the best you could do.”
“At least I don’t have to carry limestone in my pockets. Seems to me that’s the only rocks swinging in your pants.”
David turned to look at his friend, but Greer was on his hands and knees, and all he could see was an eyeful of upturned ass. So he looked away. “You’re sooo funny.”
But Greer didn’t seem to hear him. At least, he didn’t respond. So, bending over, David went back to reading the tags hanging off the intersecting lines in the grid he and Greer had painstakingly mapped. They had tried to match it to the original site that Wharton had laid out, and they’d gotten damned close as best as they could tell.
He turned to find the specimens that matched this location and came back with a few zipper baggies heavy in his hands. Wharton would kill if he knew that Carter was at this site. More specifically he would kill David. And bring shame upon his father. Ah, well. Wharton could go to hell. He was the one who had missed the geologic hotspot here. More the fool he.
Turning the baggies over in his hands, David read the markings through the clear plastic. The KT boundary here was much closer to the surface, much of geological evidence of the past washed away by wind and time. The Appalachians were much older than the Rockies, the fault lines here all but inactive, and so they had been worn smooth and low, exposing things to the surface, or hiding them just barely underneath. For him and Greer to come and pick at.
“Sweet!” The exclamation came from the spot he had abandoned to Greer moments before. “This was worth leaving my pregnant wife at home.”
“That ain’t saying much.” Carter could hear the drawl developing in his voice, not that they spoke to much of anyone around here. But like the humidity, the accents were so thick in this part of the state that you couldn’t help but absorb it. Like some communicable disease. “What’d you find? Petrified turd?”
“Dude, you have no sense at all. It’s an egg, maybe a whole nest, so back off.” The steady sound of the light pick striking stone picked up again as Greer tried to unearth his find.
For the briefest of moments David wished for a team, where he and Greer could lead like they usually did, and have other people do the labor, the intensive and time-consuming picking and brushing and getting things out. But then he remembered why they were here alone; they had to be.
Another baggie with another set of markings was telling the same story. The polarity here was reversed. This specimen from just at the KT boundary had a clear magnetic direction. But when it was lined up with the site, north was south and south was north. Wharton had fucked up. And David was more than certain that he had dug up another hotspot. He tried to keep his breathing regular even as he felt his stomach roll over.
Greer let up a cheer as he unearthed something that would interest only him, so David just pressed his hand to his middle hoping to quell the churning there and did his best to ignore all of it. Damned birds started up again, and to add insult to injury a woodpecker started in on a nearby tree. He was only familiar with the Woody Woodpecker variety, so with a great sigh of misery, David lifted his head to see if he could see the thing. Sure enough it was racking its head at jackhammer speed against a trunk, but luckily no obnoxious laughter emerged.
At this point the Deep South was so disturbing to him that he wouldn’t have been surprised if Injuns had popped out from behind the tall oaks with feathers in their hair, and looking for scalps. Or maybe the deer could just come out and do a tap dance.
He had his hotspot, he knew it. Soon he’d be able to leave the land that time forgot. He just needed to unearth enough evidence so that there could be no argument. If Greer found a tie between the hotspots and the dieout times, well . . . there was no telling where it might go. Except that they would get themselves immortalized in every high school science textbook.
Carter needed more evidence. The rest of the world might not know what he knew in his gut. It was here and he was standing on top of it.
So he lowered himself to his knees and hunched-over again, and began wounding the earth beneath him, just a little more.
“ Botulism, botulism, and botulism” had been Jordan’s guess on the caseload that morning. Yesterday they had arrived at two in the afternoon, squinting in the bright sun, and trying to look like they hadn’t slept sideways on his couch, Eddie’s file dangling from their sleep slackened fingertips.
So the guess hadn’t been very exuberant. It hadn’t been creative. And it sure as hell hadn’t been right. Jordan figured one of these days he had to hit. But then he began the worrying: Would he die of boredom writing reports about food poisoning while he never figured out what happened to Eddie?
And why the hell did old man Landerly have to pick this week of all weeks to leave town? He was barely able to get around the office some days, so what was he doing climbing on a 747 and hitting the beach? Just when he was needed, too.
He hadn’t said anything, but Jillian’s voice cut into his thoughts, so accurate that for a moment he wasn’t sure that she was actually speaking, “He’ll be back in a few days. Eddie’s file won’t change in that time.”
He did look up to nod and force a small half-smile as thanks for her concern. Today she was well put together, her dark hair drawn back away from her face in a tight clip. Her usual look for the office. Her clothing was getting more casual, and she was questioning him less and less as she worked. She churned out files like she was writing emails to friends. And she didn’t question why his pace had ground to a near halt.
A few blinks and he tried to clear his head. A quick scan down to the bottom of the front page showed that it was not, in fact, anything like botulism. He had a clear cut case of Legionnaire’s Disease in his hot little hands and he had stared at it blankly for half an hour.
Something pestered him while he began to slowly type, tabbing across the open fields on the computer screen, inputting bits of information here and there. And . . .
Jilly was watching him. Her keys didn’t click, they had stopped some time ago, and that’s what was bothering him. Just as his eyes lifted to meet her gaze, she spoke up. “Let’s go get lunch. My treat.”
He shook his head. “I’m not keeping up, I’m just going to eat out of the vending machines. I just need to get back into the groove of things.” Why he wasn’t already in the groove of it, after a full day back, was beyond him though.
“No you won’t-”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, doll.” But even though he had refused verbally, Jillian was walking around the large desk, shedding her labcoat and dropping it onto a hook on the old curly coatstand shoved into the corner of the room. But the cubby of an office was so small it was all in arms reach.
“You need chicken nuggets.” Her smile got wider. “You’re frustrated because you lost someone you’ve been trained to save, and not only weren’t you there, you still can’t figure out what went wrong. And I can’t figure it out for you. And to make matters worse, Landerly is suddenly out of town, so you can’t get answers from the one person who might be able to provide them. But I can buy you chicken nuggets and I can help take up the slack a little so you can figure things out.” With a small shrug she dismissed her own generosity for nothing.
She had his hand in hers, although he was unsure when it had gotten there. And suddenly it seemed like a rather intimate gesture. When added in to the fact that she had just put to words what was eating at him, he couldn’t stop the curl of his fingers around the heat she offered with just her hand. He couldn’t stop the first smile he had formed all day, and he let her lean her full weight back as she made the motions of pulling him up from his seat.
They didn’t speak on the way over, and he let her order for him, not surprised that she knew exactly what he wanted; they’d been here at least six times in the past month and he hadn’t varied his order at all. So he tried not to dwell on Eddie. And three empty sauce containers later, he asked her, “So what did you find in the reports today? Botulism?”
She shook her head, knowing that she had blasted his predictions all to hell. “Salmonella-” Her voice kept his mind from wandering too far astray, “Then there were the three old people in the nursing home. Some sort of vague guess at a staph infection. It killed them but there was no real conclusive evidence-”
He looked up because her voice had just trailed off. Jilly’s mouth hung in a small open ‘o’, her blue eyes focused somewhere beyond his shoulder. The gears working in her brain were visible and he waited her out. The tension he hadn’t realized he was carrying tightening in his muscles every second. But he didn’t push her to voice her reasoning.
Briefly it flashed across his thoughts again that he hadn’t been hired to be the brilliant theorist. And if she was both the workhorse and the genius then perhaps he was just window dressing. Her lip turned in, and just as he had leaned all the way forward, waiting on edge for whatever she was going to announce, she looked at him and spoke. “Jordan, we have to go back and double check that file.”
Chapter 4Becky sank into her wooden swivel chair, with her head cradled in her hands. Warden hadn’t let
up on her regular load because of the frogs. Never mind that investigating animal oddities was what the Biodiversity lab was set up to do. Never mind that she had stayed and kept the paper with the university. Warden seemed to begrudge her the find because it had been hers. Angry birds here, creepy frogs there, it was all too much.
Her head snapped up. Maybe . . .
Maybe there was a connection between the screwed up frogs and the screwed up birds. She
worked on it for the rest of the day, trying to come up with some sort of link. Then drove most of the way home until her little Jetta sputtered and died on her. She trudged the last mile, and arrived weary in her soul, brain, and body. From where she threw open the front door, Becky could see that her mother was in the kitchen and Brandon and Melanie were playing with two frogs loose on the living room carpet. “Those better not be my frogs.” It was meant to be a threat but she didn’t really have the energy to back it.
“They are, but I’m supervising.” The voice sounded so much like her Dad’s that her head snapped up.
“Aaron!” She felt the smile spread across her face as she launched herself into his arms. Only two years older, Aaron had been her god since the day she was born. In her early teens, she had suffered through the indignities of having to share him with her friends. And later with having to share him with the town. Knoxville was like every other southern town. There were three religions: ‘Baptist,’ ‘Football,’ and ‘Other,’ in order of their likelihood of gaining you a spot in heaven. And Aaron had led the town to a state championship.
“Hey, Becky.” His hair was blonde and short but his eyes were green moss just like hers. “Long time, no see.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Just drove up for the weekend. And come to find out you’ve got yourself some weird little frogs.” He looked over her shoulder, his eyes snapping wide. “Hey! Melanie! I told you two hands!”
That made Becky jerk her head around. Only to see Melanie roll her eyes and hold the frog out at arm’s length wrapped in the short fingers of her right hand. She shook the frog slightly for emphasis as she spoke. “This is how you’re supposed to hold them - with only one hand. Back fingers hold their legs down. Top finger and thumb hold their arms out, and they can’t get away!” She rotated the frog to upside-down and back upright. It waved its hands but didn’t accomplish much else. “Tell him, Becky.”
Forced to display a small smile to Aaron, she conceded. “She’s right.” But then she turned back to her sister and with two hands slipped the frog from Melanie’s grip into her own identical hold. “But you aren’t supposed to flip them around like that.”
“Whatever, they’re so creepy anyway. I was just getting a lexan.” With that the reprimand was dismissed and the little girl wandered off to get the plastic container. In a moment she held it up for Becky to slide the frog down in, head first, then snapped the container back closed.
Becky started when her mother spoke suddenly from directly behind them, and turned to find the woman using the same emphasizing hand gestures her younger daughter had just moments before, only with a spatula not a frog. “We’re really looking into sending her to that gifted school out in Cedar Bluff. They just opened that new Magnet Program out there.”
“NO!” It was earshattering and they all turned to stare at Melanie who had gone red in the face in the space of a breath. “I won’t go! I don’t want to ride the short bus!”
Becky shook her head, far more used to their little sister’s antics than Aaron ever would be. He had moved away to college the first chance he had gotten, his status of ‘Golden Boy’ eating at him in a way even Becky had never understood. He had been out of the house before Melanie came along and had never really gotten to see her full-fledged personality.
Letting herself sink down into one of the dining room chairs, Becky toed off her thick sneakersand let the feeling of relief soak into her feet. She leaned back and almost closed her eyes before she realized that Brandon was standing right beside her, clear tupper in hand, the frog inside pointed toward the window. Becky raised her eyebrows; too worn out to voice her question, she let it show on her face.
“Melanie got too mad to tell you what we discovered. Watch.” Brandon walked over to the refrigerator. Becky tilted her head to see, but expected nothing other than the appearance of a moldy ham sandwich. He placed the lexan flush against the fridge and waited.
Slowly, the frog turned to face the old white unit. When he pulled the container away, the little fellow re-oriented to his original direction. He put it back and the frog turned again to face the fridge. Waving his hands like some demented magician, Brandon declared it “Cool, huh?” Then gave his theory. “I think he’s hungry see. . . Melanie says that’s not it, but she’ll see. Can I give him pizza?”
“No!” But her brows were pulled together and she was out of her chair in her bare feet, traipsing over to where he stood, her fatigue dismissed in the wake of her growing curiosity.
Trying it herself, Becky kneeled in front of the fridge and moved the container slowly towards and away from the white door. Her frown deepened as the frog made the same subtle adjustments every time.
“For god’s sakes Becky, I need to get the margarine.” Her mother tapped her foot impatiently behind her, not at all moved by the new level of oddity displayed by her catch.
Obligingly, she stood up and went in search of other objects the frog might turn to. She started toward the TV, which Brandon pertly informed her wouldn’t work. He grinned like a praised puppy when it didn’t. “It’s just the fridge.”
But Becky didn’t believe that. There had to be something else. But she just wasn’t sure what. She traipsed through the house, testing every large object she could think of. Aaron dogged her heels, for once following her to see what she would come up with next.
They were all three piled behind the front door watching the frog shuffle uncomfortably, waiting to see if it would change direction or settle into its familiar line. None of them heard the door click and all three fell into a startled heap when Mr. Sorenson opened the door onto them.
Melanie came bouncing over the pile of bodies struggling to right themselves, “Daddy, Daddy, you’re home!”
“Yes, I am.” He grabbed up his youngest and stepped gingerly over his other children, trying to gracefully right themselves. “Were you all so anxious to see me?”
Aaron shrugged, and Becky was amazed to watch the transformation from grown man to child that was so rapid across his features. “We were just checking out Becky’s weird frogs.” Her father’s eyes caught her gaze. “Is it something new?”
“Yes! Daddy, Yes!” Melanie bounced in his arms. “They turn toward the fridge!”
Becky decided to be grateful her sister was no longer sulking in her room, withholding what might be valuable information, and she held the frog next to the oven. It stayed in its normal direction. Becky swore under her breath, dropping her behavior marks another few notches. But at the top of the oven, the little guy turned. He turned toward the washer and dryer, too.
“I know what it is!” She yelled out as she turned and smacked squared into Aaron’s chest.
Jordan smiled and pointed. He was afraid his expression screamed ‘It’s a forgery’. He had vetoed Jillian standing beside him at this point, so she didn’t have to be here for this display of fraud. Also because she was a really terrible liar.
Anne giggled. “The way you’re grinning at me, and the number of times this thing’s been through a fax . . . you could have forged this.”
“I didn’t forge it.” The irritation that the difficult-to-read signature was his work was genuine. He hadn’t forged it. Jillian had.
But Anne just giggled again and entered the data. “It’ll be about half an hour.”
He raised his eyebrows, not giving voice to all the questions he desperately wanted to ask, but couldn’t because they’d give him away like a neon sign. Was she going to call to corroborate with Landerly? She had already made a comment about forgeries. Was she going to run it by the higher ups?
“Yeah, I can’t whip up a plane ticket out of thin air.” She giggled again, and as much as it reassured Jordan that she was dumb enough that he just might pull this off, it also was beginning to annoy the hell out of him.
“Thanks, babe.” He turned and walked away, not getting to see her response. Babe? He winced inwardly and went back to his desk. He already knew what would happen if they were found out. Landerly had told them that first day that the CDC would just send them into the Ebola lab without suits. His breathing picked up.
Just as he entered his cubby hole of an office and leaned wearily back against the inside wall, his leg vibrated, scaring the shit out of him. But it was just his cell phone, and as he held up the display panel he realized that it was Jillian. “Hi.”
Her panic radiated through the phone even before she spoke, poor thing. “Jordan, are you okay? They didn’t find out did they?”
“No. Our flights will be ready in about half an hour.”
“Where are you going?” The voice was masculine, and coming from behind him. In that first split second Jordan schooled himself to a calm response.
“You startled me.” Turning, he saw it was Mark from the lab. “We’re going to Florida.”
Mark nodded in understanding, although just what he understood was beyond Jordan’s capabilities. “Spiderbite-girl having a relapse?”
“Nope, something new. . .” He stopped himself before launching into an explanation; it would just be more to get tangled in later. Offering a smile, he turned his attention back to the conversation with Jillian, and ended it as quickly as possible in hopes of avoiding other such scares.
Mark simply wished him good luck, and turned to go. startled him. “Is Dr. Brookwood going with you?”
“Hm?” It came out before he put the pieces together. back to his sorting, it occurred to him to add up Mark’s actions over the last few weeks: it equaled a crush on Jillian. But Jillian would never put up with that shuffling walk. No authority.
The desk phone yelled at him, an angry electronic buzz that was supposed to resemble a bell ringing. He answered it gruffly just to stop the noise. Realizing only as he got the phone to his ear, that there was every possibility that it was Landerly, calling to check up on them. Perhaps having noticed the, oh say, thirty fax pages he had received from them before they went about forging his signature.
“Dr. Abellard.” The wispy quality and lilt of the voice dispelled any of those fears in less than the time it had taken them to form. “This is Anne, at reception. Travel has confirmed your flights. You leave in three hours.”
“Thank you, Anne.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, glad that the one thing keeping him here was finished. He wanted to get away and hide from the people he was cheating. Maybe he could be on the plane before anyone figured out what was going on. “I’ll be by within the next ten minutes.”
No, they wouldn’t get caught. Landerly wasn’t going to be back for another week and they would be back before then; no one would be the wiser. And even Jillian thought she could justify the trip after the fact. Landerly listened to her.
He grabbed his briefcase, and hefted it to the desk, stuffing in the extra files. It brimmed already with all the paperwork he could find on Eddie and Lake James’ medical history. He gave only the barest of smiles to Anne as he breezed by the front desk. Her voice trailed him down the hall like so much cheap perfume, “Have a good trip Dr. Abellard!” Jeez, could she yell it next time? Hope that forgery pans out for you!
But he stuck his badge on the reader at the front door without unclipping it and waited the short eternity for the computer to decide that he deserved to leave and then actually slide the glass doors open. It was all he could do not to squeeze through sideways the instant a crack appeared.
The afternoon sun hit him full force, blinding him almost as thoroughly as it would after a matinee movie. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, knowing full well that his sight adjusting was a matter of time and not moisture. He was basically tear free by the time he popped open the door of his overly blue Cavalier. He should get a better car. But that would happen a lot easier once his student loans were paid off. And that was a minimum of a few years away. He shoved the car into drive and left the building that was threatening to reveal his secrets to his bosses.
He dug his cell phone out of his pants pocket and depressed his #2 speed dial while he was waiting to merge onto the freeway. “Hi, Jillian. . . I’m out. Our flight is at seven-fifteen. . . . we get into Sarasota-Bradenton Airport at midnightish, . . . yeah, I’ll come by your place. . . . All right, Bye.” Traffic was getting heavier and he was glad to hang up.
But a conversation would have been preferable to the thoughts running through his head. Landerly would call from Hawaii. Or he would see his pager had gone off and all the numbers were the same. And when he did finally call in Jordan and Jilly would be gone. Bad move.
He pulled out the cell and held it at arm’s length in front of him, carefully feeling his way around the number pad. “Hi, Anne, can I ask you a favor? Can you forward all the calls to my office to my cell phone?”
Or so he thought. Again the voice
“What about the calls for Dr. Brookwood?” He could hear her eyelashes beating a steady rhythm just from her voice.
“She’ll be with me, so they can all come to my cell.”
And he gave her the number and hung up feeling much better, until he realized that he’d given Anne his personal number. He just prayed that he hadn’t given her any ideas.
His apartment seemed to be about ten miles further away than he remembered it. Crime sure did find a way of turning you upside down. And once he was there he wasn’t really sure what to pack. So he threw in all the same things he had packed for his earlier trip to Florida and headed out to Jillian’s.
He parked on the curb and buzzed her apartment, leaving his bag in the back seat. She didn’t even answer the ring. Instantly the door began to buzz, and he followed the sound inside. Jordan jogged up the stairs hoping to burn off some extra energy. It didn’t work, and coming face to face with Jillian, her hall door flung wide, didn’t help him calm down either.
She was taking deep breaths and talking. Almost to him, . . . maybe not. “Landerly told us that when we found an answer we would know it. And that he would back us when that time came. He wasn’t available. No one else would help, we knew that. We can ask each of them in turn if they would have signed off on it. They’ll say ‘no’.”
So he took her by her upper arms and guided her back into the small apartment, “Jillian, calm down. We’re going to be fine. We aren’t going to get fired, for all the reasons you just listed.” He breathed in. “Take a deep breath.” And he waited until she did, “Now, we have to leave. Are you ready?”
She just nodded and started to reach for her bag, then fumbled with the lock to her front door.
“Jillian, if you don’t calm down, they’re going to detain us at the airport for being suspicious.”
“Huh?” Her whole body stilled. “I was a cheerleader and a girl scout. I couldn’t possibly be a terrorist.”
He laughed. “Actually that would make you the ideal terrorist. So pull it together.”
She laughed with him, the first easy, relaxed sound he had heard from her since they had hatched this horrible plan over lunch. And she managed to keep herself steady and calm, even when security did an open check on her bags. For the briefest of moments Jordan wondered if they would pull out anything good, like a vibrator or a chain of foil condom packets. But no, there was a novel and a bunch of photocopied files that he was pretty certain represented cases that she had searched and pulled together.
They made it to the terminal just as loading was beginning and joined all the other fliers funneling themselves down to the gate like so many cows to the slaughter. Once they were at their row, he made Jillian give up the window seat, arguing that she had slept through every single flight the last time. He didn’t add that he had never gotten to fly until he was an adult paying his own way. The window still held a kind of magic for him that had worn off most middle-class kids by the age where they could read the take-off time on cartoon watches. And sure enough, even as he watched the houses and freeways below getting smaller and smaller, he felt the soft weight of her head settling on his shoulder, and the swish of her hair, unbound, falling across her face. Becky’s eyes adjusted to where Aaron swung the highbeam, lighting the whole area in front of them to ghastly shades of bright and black. All the shadows of midnight remained, just thoroughly delineated by the overpowering light. It became even creepier when they entered the woods at the back side of the field.
She started talking just to quell the feeling that she was walking where she didn’t belong and where she was unwanted. “So how has-”
So did Aaron. “How do these frogs do-”
They laughed together, then she let him finish asking about her catch. “These are rana. A genus that really includes all your garden variety frogs, no bullfrogs though. They’re indicator species - really sensitive to the environment. They’ll mutate, like my little guys, really quick, if anything is off. You know, radiation, pollution, that kind of thing. Or magnetics.”
“So, what is this then? We’re visiting a polluted frog spot in the middle of the night, that might be loaded with radiation from the power plant?”
“I thought of Oak Ridge, too. They actually do grow some creepy frogs out that way sometimes. But they’re on the other side of the town from us, and they tend to hop down towards Chattanooga.”
“How comforting.” He muttered.
She maneuvered around behind him, disliking how her own shadow gave her such a case of the creeps. “I checked them all out at school with a Geiger-counter and got nothing. Like almost zilch. I mean you would register on these meters, they’re that sensitive.”
“All right.” He raised the light, letting her decide which path to take, and even though it didn’t look anything like it did during the day, she instinctively knew which way to go.
“So, anyway, other than the fact that they have spare legs, and are all from this one spot, I’ve got nothing.” She took another long pull on the coke she carried with her. “That is, until tonight I had nothing.”
“But what is it? Are all frogs magnetic and yours are just backward?”
“Nope, I’ve never heard of it in frogs.” They were getting close, the tiny creek making burbling noises even at this late hour, and the local frogs raising their voices in a hellish chorus.
“So why would these frogs be magnetic?”
“Other animals are.” She raised the compass in her palm, angling it to catch the light, and read it. Still in the right direction. No worries there. Yet. She kept up her chatter with Aaron, they were getting close and she was nervous about what she might find out. “Bees are, and so are homing pigeons.”
“Not enough to stick to the refrigerator.”
“You’re sooo funny - Aaron, look!” She held up the compass. The needle had flopped to the opposite direction. She stepped backwards retracing her steps out of the area where she had first found the freaky little frogs. The needle swung back to the correct orientation.
“Sweet Jesus.” As she walked back and forth, it changed. To exactly the opposite direction. Sure she wasn’t seeing it right, she lifted her head to ask her brother to shine the light over her way and was met with a blinding glare. For a moment she had visions that the sheriff had found them and was going to haul them in, cuffs and cruiser and all. Although they were on their own property and all they could be cited for was leaving the car by the side of the road.
In a second Aaron was at her side and the blinding glare was gone, directed down at the face of the compass, leaving her completely unable to distinguish anything beyond the borders of the light. Back and forth they walked for a minute or two, mesmerized by the swing of the needle. Then Becky pulled him forward to the edge of the stream and the spot where she and Brandon had caught all the frogs.
The needle stayed re-oriented. North was south and south was north. “This is where we caught them.” She shoved up her sleeve and slowly bent over, sinking her hand into the cold water. The forest around them was now quiet, except for the wild trickle of the creek. It had no instincts and didn’t know that something was amiss with all this bright light in the middle of the dark. But the frogs knew, and Becky could spot their shapes under the edges of the bumps and eddies. Their little noses and eyes stuck up above the surface, trying to catch a breath, and yet be still enough to thwart the predator.
But Becky got lucky, and in a moment she had reached down and slowly wrapped her hand around one of the little guys thinking he had it made by being motionless. She held up her catch, even as the nearby frogs scattered away from the site of the latest loss of their brethren. “Look Aaron, four back legs.”
When she finished pulling up several six-legged frogs, she wandered the area using the compass as a guide, certain that some large object was buried here. Sighing, she was grateful again that Aaron was a lawyer. “What if whatever’s here is government? Can they keep me from publishing my findings?”
“If this is a dump site, you know, for some magnetic ore, or there’s a secret lab under the ground,” Okay, now she was getting really far-fetched, “well, would they be able to stop me from writing this up and letting the world know?”
He thought for a moment. “No, we’re on our own land. I don’t think they have any legal recourse. But if you have skeletons in your closet that they might blackmail you with, who knows?”
She laughed with him. “I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t even steal paperclips from the school, and I’ve never made one of those freaky sex tapes.”
“Don’t let Mom and Dad even know that you know what those are.”
“No joke.” She crossed the stream on large stones that she had put there years ago and wandered through the woods, crashing through underbrush and sounding much like the Jolly Green Giant. She was half trying to convince herself that it was just the unearthly silence that made it sound that way. If Satan himself rose up before her, she couldn’t say that she would be too shocked. But just then the compass needle jumped.
Becky startled, then walked back and forth a few times, using the sway of the thin red magnet to get a feel for the edge of the spot. “Aaron.”
“Hm?” He looked up from his musings. “What?”
“We need to go get stakes and a . . . that yellow police tape stuff. There’s a clear boundary here. We can mark it.”
“But not now.” He refused, and once he shined the light back the way they had come, she had no choice but to follow or be abandoned to the noise and the blackness.
Jillian just smiled. She wasn’t half bad at this lying. “Really? I’m sorry. Our secretary was supposed to let you know that we’re following up the interviews done by Drs. Smith and Webber.” Maddie was Maddie Levinson. She and her husband owned and ran the Levinson Home for the Aged.
The round-faced woman just smiled and stepped back, holding the door open for them. “Well, you’re here now.” She seemed perfectly content to let them come in and reassess the place. Which clicked in Jillian’s mind as a good thing. If they were trying to cover up elder-abuse or something, the case for a new disease would never hold.
Jordan trailed her in and she introduced both herself and him to the woman’s husband, who was just as round and polyestered as she was. They had the same pie-faced smiles that ultimately seemed kind and gentle. A visual sweep of the area made it clear that this was a home that had been converted to a care facility. She’d read beforehand that these two lived here, twenty-four seven. “We would love to comb through your patient records, if we could. Maybe we could just stay out of your way.”
But she had barely gotten the last word out when Jordan started speaking over her. “We just think that there might be something new here, and we want to be certain that it gets identified and stopped. I know the last CDC team suggested a staph infection-”
And for the first time the sweet moon face looked disgruntled. “I just don’t know how that could have happened. We’re so. . . . it sure hasn’t happened again, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
Jordan stepped close and put his arm on the woman’s shoulder, leading her to sit at her own breakfast table where he pulled a seat a little closer. “When Dr. Brookwood and I reviewed the file, we didn’t feel it was a staph infection at all. There wasn’t any evidence of it; they just couldn’t find anything else.” His hand covered the older woman’s, calming her immeasurably by that simple, unforward touch. Jillian watched the changes in her with awe. “Jillian is right.”
She couldn’t believe he had used her first name. Not that she was angry, but she didn’t understand. It was all about being professional, right? And having no clue where he was going, she decided to step back and let Jordan ride the wave he had created.
“We’ll want to go through all the old records like the other team. But beyond that, we’ll need some time to talk to you. Maybe you can tell us something that isn’t in the records.”
Maddie balked a little, “We keep very thorough records.”
Jordan didn’t even try to argue that one. “I’ve seen them, they’re some of the best in the business, but there are other things that you’d never think were medical, things that only a close caretaker, like yourselves, might notice. Any information you can give us would only help.”
Arthur Levinson, ‘Art’ by his nametag, finally spoke up, but only to talk to his wife. “Honey, why don’t you help them get the files and I’ll serve breakfast.”
And with that Maddie led them down the hall and unlocked a large, very neat office with mauve frills above the windows and ducks walking around the border at the top of the room. Walls of cheap, black file cabinets surrounded them, each carefully labeled and clearly locked. Mrs. Levinson let them know they were welcome to anything they wanted to peruse and, smiling at Jordan, handed over the small key ring labeled ‘office’ and asked what she could bring them to drink, or if they wanted a danish?
God, that was Jordan for you. Five minutes and any woman would be eating out of his hand. Look at the way he had worked over Anne at the front desk. Jillian was glad she wasn’t that kind of girl. But here they were - in the office, with all the files at their disposal. And coffee on the way. Sweet deal.
She took a deep breath. “Let’s get to work.”
“Roommates?” Jordan asked, not looking up from the labels on the file drawers.
It was Maddie’s voice that answered. “The roommates of our members who got sick? Well, there’s Mildred Hartford. She’s still here in the green room.” She paused while Jillian started scribbling furiously on her notepad, “third down the hall on the right. She was Joseph Finklestein’s roommate.”
Maddie continued - the second roommate was in the hospital in Sarasota with a broken hip. And the third roommate had moved to another home after developing a more severe case of emphysema. But Mrs. Levinson said she had numbers to reach all the current caretakers. Then she named names and rattled the numbers off from memory, impressing the hell out of Jillian.
Three hours later Jillian had about thirty folders pulled and open in various states of disarray around her. Jordan had about twenty more. They were getting somewhere. But God, if she had to look at these cream-colored walls for five more minutes she was going to spontaneously combust. “Jordan?”
He didn’t look up from where he hunched over the files on the floor. He had graciously insisted that she take the only desk space. But in the hours in between he had sprawled, his jacket getting hung up over the inside doorknob, his tie loosening then disappearing. Now his sleeves were rolled up and he was in some unnatural position, chewing on the end of his red pen.
“I don’t know about you, but I need lunch.” She stood and stretched, ignoring the fact that her suit was wrinkled. That was okay, it wasn’t designed for stretching either.
When they finally pulled out of the driveway, they both began talking at once. “I think it’s a-”
“I’m positive it wasn’t staph.”
“Me, too.” She sighed, running her hand over her hair, smartly pulled back into a ponytail that looked as professional as a ponytail could.
“There’s no positive culture and nothing to link the three patients. No chain of infection.” Jordan looked out the window at the passing communities of cookie-cutter bungalows, all labeled as “Sunset” this or “Retirement” that. “And I don’t know if you’ve watched these guys . . .” he trailed off and waited for her to shake her head. Of course Jordan had observed them in action. She wasn’t sure why the thought hadn’t even occurred to her. “They are fastidious. Every injection clean. Every surface wiped down. Hugs and touching all the time, but I have never seen two people wash their hands so much.” He sighed, slumping a little lower into his seat.
“Do you think it was all just for show?”
“No way.” He turned to look at her, not doing his part to help find food anymore. “We walked in here, unannounced, just as we planned. There were already hand sanitizer bottles everywhere, sharps containers in every room, and if you noticed, both the Levinsons have very chapped hands, indicating this handwashing was going on long before we got there.”
Of course she hadn’t noticed.
What she did notice was a small sub stand with a name she didn’t recognize, and she pulled into the lot and climbed out. “None of the roommates has anything even resembling this. I called the nursing home and the hospital for the two that are gone. The hospital is ready to send the broken hip back to the Levinsons for the remainder of care.” She didn’t stop talking while she read the menu up and down. “So there’s nothing there to indicate it being airborne.”
Jordan sighed and pushed both his hands through his hair, adding his order right on the tail end of hers. Only his was twice as big. “They have all the same symptoms that Eddie did. I don’t get it.”
Jillian waited until they were seated and Jordan had his head turned sideways, taking a huge sharklike bite from the sub. “They were the three most immuno-compromised patients in the home at the time.”
That made Jordan look up. But she still didn’t pick up her sandwich. “And get this: Bertha Martin was a leukemia survivor.”
Becky thought they probably looked odd, marching across the field, dressed for camping, snapping photos while they went. Melanie had suggested the disposable camera from the checkout at Home Depot this morning. And Becky had gotten two. You just never knew.
The real work was in getting all the equipment out there. Aaron had taken that upon himself; he looked like a hiker gone mad - or a serial killer - with the lumpy bags, the pack and the shovel. She, Brandon and Melanie followed like ducks, holding clear lexans of frogs that were finally returning to their home. But just to visit.
Once they arrived at the site, the frogs were set down and they all went to work with the compasses they had picked up. Melanie swung her little hammer, pounding a stake meant to hold garden edging into the soft ground near the stream. With the small mallet she hit at it until it was low, or until she mistakenly whacked some part of her body and swore a word that Becky wasn’t aware her sister knew.
Brandon was a more efficient force; he and Aaron both having seen the need for method early on. Baggy army pants oozing garden stakes, both guys walked a line designated by the compass in their left hand, periodically pulling a stake from some previously unused spot on their person and pounding it into the ground with one swift stroke. Of course, Brandon pulling stakes out of his pockets resembled a gunslinger, with a swagger and a little preening where Aaron was all efficiency of movement.
Aaron looked up at her right then. “Hey, Doctor Smartypants, get in here and help.” “Aye, aye!” She crossed the creek on the old stones and set about mapping the other side. Within half an hour, all the loose ends had met up and they had an oddly shaped circle. Becky set Melanie to winding the tape from spike to spike clearly delineating the magnetic boundary, while the rest of them wandered the site, eyes glued to compass needles, looking for any smaller spots of greater activity.
That was an exercise in futility. There was nothing. Well, it was all or nothing. No one spot that gave a greater reading, or even caused the compass needles to jump or shimmy. No such luck.
“Okay, guys.” They lifted their heads from whatever they were meddling around with at the sound of her voice. “It’s hokey pokey time. Put all the frogs in the circle.”
Even Aaron got into it. Each of the four eagerly grabbed a lexan and walked inside the orange boundary. They each set down the tupper with a flourish and waited for . . . nothing.
“Anyone?” Becky whispered.
“Nothing.” Aaron told her. His voice strong with certainty.
“Nothing.” Brandon repeated, bell clear.
Becky felt her heart sink. She had thought surely bringing the frogs back here would accomplish something. Melanie’s voice called out next. “Nothing! Nothing!”
That was a little too chipper. Wasn’t it true that the really smart ones always cracked?
“They aren’t doing anything Becky!”
“Duh, Dorko.” Brandon sneered, standing guard over his frog, legs spread, fists on his hips, sneer worthy of the schoolyard. “They’re just acting like normal frogs.”
“And they aren’t normal frogs!” Melanie was at a near fever pitch.
“Holy shit.” Becky whispered. “She’s right.” The frogs were no longer orienting. Reaching down, she turned the container. Aside from the usual the-world-is-rotating-under-me shuffle that all frogs did, this one didn’t do anything. It didn’t re-orient northwest. “Turn your frogs!”
This time even Aaron and Brandon caught on. “Okay, this is just too freaky.” Aaron looked up at her. “I like things neat and understandable. This is beyond my boundaries. Can I have these little green guys arrested for disorderly conduct?”
Becky laughed to herself. The disorderly conduct was what they were supposed to do. It was the lining-up-in-one-direction that was creepy.
She took a moment to write notes. Then had everyone take their frog out of the circle.
That got noted too.
Into the circle, in new spots, this time.
Out of the circle.
But this time there was more.
“Everyone, back in the circle.” At least they didn’t look at her like she was crazy. Something was drastically wrong in the spot where they were standing. Her breathing hitched.
“Okay, we’re going to take our frogs and walk out a bit.” Three nods. “Every one has compasses?” Three nods. “Good, now start walking, carefully, away from the site.”
She had lined each of them up in a different direction, so they backed out like four corners on a compass until Becky couldn’t see any of her siblings anymore. But, loud bunch that they were, vocal contact wasn’t an issue. She yelled out, “My frog is facing southwest. Aaron?”
She hollered out to her sister, whose little voice was coming through the thick trees from somewhere on the left. “Melanie! Have you figured it out?”
“Yes! They’re all facing the site!”
Chapter 5Jordan scribbled furiously on the pages of loose leaf paper spread out on the floor of the office
with the awful mauve accents. He and Jillian had been here for two days, and he was never happier to not have a laptop. He had survived med school, ridiculed for his handwritten notes, but remembered everything far better than if he had typed it. And now this spreadsheet was taking over its eighth page, and he never would have accomplished this with the best notebook program.
Jillian watched while he organized and wrote and drew arrows in multiple colors. He started thinking out loud, “Okay, recap: Joseph Finklestein had lupus, Bertha Martin was a leukemia survivor, and Beatrice Weitzman had a kidney transplant and was on immunosuppressive drugs.”
Jilly picked up. “No other transplant patients here, according to files, the Levinsons, and patient report. No HIV positive patients. No one even close in immuno-status. So that gives us a set-up but what is it?” She chewed on the end of the marker she was holding. Normally that would have driven him nuts to watch, but he was too keyed up. He couldn’t sleep last night. And now he was running on pure caffeine.“Go over Eddie’s case with me.”
Jillian nodded and started rattling stats again. She was better at that than any doctor he had ever met. “Stomach ache, reported by wife, at seven days prior to death, vomiting at six days,”
Desperately, Jordan tried to push it out of his mind that this was Eddie she was so carefully reducing to a series of numbers and isolated incidents. But that was what would solve the case. “Admitted for dehydration, in E.R., at day five. Given IV fluids and Raglan for nausea. Seemed to be doing better but was mildly disoriented and complaining of sleepiness. Nurses report that he was very sleepy and slept a good portion of his time in the ward. Nothing unusual there.
“Files indicated normal white counts, CBC and full Chem Panel show nothing out of the ordinary, in fact all numbers are very normal. Day three, patient goes to sleep and wife reports that he’s difficult to rouse. After medical intervention, a CT scan is performed and it is determined that the patient slipped into coma during sleep. On day one patient is put on ventilation due to oxygen sats being under eighty-four percent, and on day zero, all brain activity stops, and staff performs heroic measures to no avail. Patient dies at 2p.m.”
There wasn’t much he could do at this point except sigh. He had arrows drawn to and from what he knew. Joseph Finklestein hadn’t had vomiting. His decline had taken nine days from first complaint to death. He had died at the home, with a very short delay between slipping into a coma and simply passing away while waiting for transport to a full medical facility.
Jillian opened the reports again. “Aaagh.”
He looked up, hoping that it was a good ‘aaaagh’, but apparently it wasn’t. “These guys were on so much medication that you can’t tell what changed and what didn’t. Just tracking their medication would take a whole flow chart like that!”
“Then we do it.”
Her eyes widened, and she almost looked scared, which was about the funniest thing he had thought in days. Jillian scared of paperwork.
She begged, “Only if you do it. I can’t do that . . . whatever you’re drawing. I need a spreadsheet.”
“Can you do this on a spreadsheet?”
She shook her head, her mouth moving to the straw of the supersize coke she was drinking, while she rubbed the sides to remove the sweat. Her scrubs bore the stains from the water drips where she had rested the drink on her leg earlier, and in this heat he didn’t blame her that she didn’t care.
He sat up to be close and spoke low; he didn’t want the Levinsons getting tipped off that this wasn’t an official investigation. “We still have to get Landerly’s signature on this. The only way I feel relatively assured that that will happen is with a solid diagnosis.”
Her voice pitched lower as well, but for an entirely different reason. “Do you think we’re seeing SuperAIDS?” She didn’t want to scare the Levinsons.
“Shit.” He barely breathed it. “I hadn’t even thought of that.” His pushed his fingers through his hair and looked again at the gaily colored chart. Immuno-compromised patients.
She shook her head. “The set-up is right. But the play-out isn’t.”
Jordan waited for her to continue, he agreed, but wondered if she was following the same angle as him. “Flu-like symptoms at onset match, but not the lack of time lag, although that’s always been hypothesized as the new trick up the virus’ sleeve. Then coma and death. The issue is, those cultures should have shown not just something but everything.”
“Right, HIV doesn’t kill you. It’s what AIDS allows to get a foothold that kills. So, no superAIDS.” He was on the floor again, spread out with his paper. He’d been here for their whole stay, getting more and more ragged looking. Jillian had stayed up at the desk, but her posture had gone to hell in a handbasket. She was slumped in the chair, bringing her head to the coke instead of vice versa. Her knees pressed together, and her sneakered feet turned at odd angles resting on the shaggy caramel carpet. Her right hand played incessantly with her ponytail and if her mouth wasn’t speaking it was gnawing something, the straw, the poor pen. He’d never seen her like this.
Then again, they hadn’t yet had anything they couldn’t solve with a report and a spreadsheet before. The only real trip they had taken had involved a case with clear answers once they looked at it from a few angles. This they’d tipped over, looked underneath, and shaken down, and only the barest of glimpses of ideas were falling into place.
“Okay.” It was just a small statement, made on a tiny breath, but it was the beginning of a change. He sat patiently while Jilly straightened herself, and pulled a well worn folder off the desk. “Clear out some papers, flow-chart-boy, here goes.”
And she rattled off a list of about thirty medications, making him mark in a different color any that had been prescribed within the last month prior to death. Joseph Finklestein had two. Increased dose of Lipitor, and Prescription Naprosyn for pain, because Ibuprofen was upsetting his stomach. Bertha Martin had one, Cephalexin for an imagined ear infection. And Beatrice Weitzman had no new scrips in that time. Between the three of them they were on forty different medications, and the number was only that low because so many overlapped.
Jillian set down her soda with a clunk and opened Eddie’s file, her fingers expertly shuffling through reams of loose paper, never letting any fall or even slip out of place. “Ready?”
She rattled off a short list. When she closed the file, Jilly joined him on the carpet, scanning the flow chart. She watched and pointed a few times while Jordan cross-referenced and drew marks and asterisks between any duplicated medications that showed up. But they didn’t seem to yield any new information. So the nursing home victims had been old? They knew that already. Not a single medication or even medication category cross referenced to Eddie. Eddie was close to med free. They checked lifestyle markers then. But as expected, the three Levinson Home victims all cross categorized nearly perfectly. Leaving Eddie the outsider, and thus the key to the whole thing.
Jillian ran her fingers down the list again. “Cephalexin.” She pointed to Bertha’s quadrant of the chart. “Why was she on it?” She fingered open the chart and looked puzzled. “Ear infection. That’s probably what tipped them off to staph.” She thumbed through the tome, coming up with the prescription date. “No good indication of an ear infection though. ‘Mild redness’ that’s all.”
Jordan frowned. That bothered him for some reason he couldn’t put his finger on, and he followed a hunch out to the courtyard where Maddie Levinson was hosing down the plastic furniture. She smiled when he approached, which he had to admit was a very magnanimous gesture at this point. He and Jilly had taken over her office for three days now. But she just offered him lemonade and asked, “What can I help you with?”
“Do you have a minute? I’m looking for some of that personal information that I thought might not be found in a medical file.”
Her eyebrows raised, but she quickly set aside the hose and wiped down two chairs offering him the first before settling her large frame into the second. She still seemed wary until he asked the first question. “Bertha Martin was prescribed Cephalexin for an ear infection she didn’t seem to have, just five days before she died. Do you know why that was?”
Maddie laughed. A clear vibrant sound accompanied by her slapping her thigh. “Yes, I know why.” She wiped at her eye where a small tear had formed, although he wasn’t sure if she missed her houseguest or had just laughed too hard. “Bertha was ornery, at times. And she insisted she had an ear infection. Wouldn’t quit her caterwauling until the doc gave it to her. He finally relented. She’d had enough ear infections that she probably knew.”
“And Joseph Finklestein. He was changed from Ibuprofen to Naprosyn also within the last few days before his death. Why was that?”
Her expression sobered right up, and Jordan didn’t doubt that her answers were as accurate as any could be. She knew each of these patients, and he’d lay odds that the woman couldn’t do simple algebra but could rattle off every dose of every medication every patient here was on, and put even money that she still knew the old doses, too. “Joseph started getting headaches right then. We didn’t think anything of it at the time.”
“So he said the Motrin wasn’t really helping?”
She sighed, her shoulders doing a soft heave before she went on. “He didn’t really say it. He didn’t communicate well for the last several months. But he kept grabbing his head, rubbing his temples, and . . .” She couldn’t find the words so she showed Jordan. She shoved her shoulders up under her chin, and put her hands behind her ears, shoving them forward rubbing the bone where her skull met her neck.
Headache, maybe. Ear pain. Maybe.
“Thank you, Maddie.” He stood and offered his hand, which she shook politely.
When he entered the office, Jillian looked up at him, and Jordan launched into a shortened version of his discussion with Maddie, ending it punctuated by Jillian’s “Wow.”
“Will you call my cousin Kelly and ask her if Eddie had ear pain?” He continued. “I think we can safely say that we have something new, that isn’t airborne, and we’ve been sitting in it for three days.”
David hung up the phone. He had to. His ears were ringing. If Greer so much as got one iota more excited the earth was going to shift on its axis. The eggs were a true find. A full clutch, almost all intact. Yada yada yada.
And McCann, Tennessee was a hotspot.
He turned over a specimen, eyeing it carefully. His old man would love to get his hands on this piece of history. But that was too damn bad.
The testing was showing up just like the Warren Fault pieces. Heavy iridium layer at the KT boundary. Reversed magnetics in all the pieces. What was killing him was the size of the spot. It seemed so small.
From his father’s work he had believed, as his father always had, that the hotspots had to have a certain size, a critical mass, in order to carry a reversed magnetic field. Something there had to support it. Had to keep it out of alignment with the field of the earth as a whole. That implied some level of size.
But this didn’t come anywhere near close.
He and Greer had practically gone door to door asking if anyone had an oil rig in their backyard, which had sounded retarded as all hell the first three times he asked. But sure enough, folks were friendly, and by the end of day three, they had awful stomach aches and forty-two core samples, giving David a nice view of the strata around his dig.
And here he sat. Wishing he had stayed longer. That he had known the horrible nausea and vomiting would disappear the next day. Because every oil well sample had come up negative. No magnetic reversals in any layer.
Add in that the lab staff had done the experiment blind. None of them knew what he was looking for. Just the series of tests, and that was it. So he sighed at the core samples. They had given up all their secrets like cheap whores. And he was done with it. Depressed almost to the point of tossing it at the trash.
While he had his hotspot, none of this was going to accomplish much more than remind everyone that his father had seen it first. Damnit.
Jordan pulled his decrepit Chevy into the CDCP lot right behind Jilly’s pert Rav4. They had stayed at her apartment last night, still going over the paperwork. Landerly would be back in a day. They had to get prepared to explain. To make their case and make it stick well enough to not get fired.
Together they had hovered over Jillian’s computer, filling in the codes for the visit and symptoms. They labeled and sorted and listed evidence. They spent hours searching for linked cases and only came up with three in addition to the four they started with. And even those only looked similar. There wasn’t any evidence that was close to conclusive. Then they wrote a paper for Landerly explaining why they had forged the signature. Documenting how many times and when they had tried to get it legitimately.
And here Jordan was: pulling into the parking lot, papers printed and sitting on the passenger seat beside him. Whether or not they would save his ass was still up in the air.
He and Jillian met again in between the cars where they parked. Took deep breaths together and then walked down the hall. Reaching the office felt like they crossed a finish line. Jordan wanted to hunch over and gulp air. He wasn’t cut out for lying. Within a minute they silently took their seats and turned on the monitors on the desk, pulling up their files. Jillian looked up at him and smiled, her nod indicating that they were going to be okay.
The movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention just seconds before the loud clap of their door slamming open caused all his muscles to instantly clench. His heart plummeted when he saw that Landerly was standing inside their office. Well, those were his feet anyway. It took Jordan to the full count of ten to force himself to look up to Landerly’s face.
The voice was old and soft, and anything but calm. “You two have some serious explaining to do about a signature of mine that I don’t remember being on the continent to sign for.”
The world was going to hell.
There was a long lull, then they both began speaking. “Dr. Landerly, we had so much evidence-”
“We tried so hard to get in touch with you-”
His leathery hand, palm out, put an end to the words frothing from their mouths. “I’ll talk to you separately.” He pointed to Jillian. “In my office, now.”
As Jordan watched, she stood as though pulled by strings. Her expression that of sheer horror. And then she walked out the door followed by Landerly, who didn’t so much as glance Jordan’s way.
For long minutes, he sat there, unmoving, still digesting what had happened. Landerly shouldn’t have gotten in until tomorrow. Had someone tipped him off? Had he come back early to corral his renegade peons?
Jordan knew he was going to get fired. That was all there was to it. He considered himself too much of a man to get up and start packing his belongings, not until he was actually told that he was fired. But it wasn’t beneath him to let his gaze wander around the office, falling on various objects and cataloguing what was his.
The phone buzzer shocked him to life, his heart missing several beats before picking up a steady rhythm again. Gingerly he lifted the receiver from the cradle, “Hello?”
“Abellard. Get in here.”
He winced, “Okay,” but it was too late. Landerly had already hung up and Jordan was holding a phone that was softly buzzing a dial tone at him. He hadn’t been this afraid of getting spanked since elementary school. At least then he had put smoke bombs behind the toilets in the girls’ room and the whole thing had been fun.
The hall felt long, and Landerly’s office was closed, forcing Jordan to grip the knob and open the door on the scene of his own demise. Jillian sat in the visitor chair across from where Landerly lorded behind his desk. She was ashen and looked like she had early stage Parkinson’s, fine tremors snaked their way down her arms and out her fingers. Anger broke in a tidal wave as Jordan looked her up and down. Landerly had tormented her. He turned to let the old man have it, but was brought up short by the bark that Landerly leveled at him. “Is it true, what she tells me?”
He had to force himself to take a deep breath. “I’ve never heard Jillian lie.”
That put the old man’s eyebrows up. “So you orchestrated all this? By yourself?”
“I realize that I am not the genius here, and that this ploy may seem a bit above me. And, no, I didn’t ‘orchestrate’ the whole thing. But Jillian didn’t speak any lies to anyone. Jillian has many talents. Lying isn’t one of them.”
Landerly snorted. “Forgery apparently is.”
“Apparently.” Jordan knew he was shoveling the hole he was standing in. But he couldn’t stop himself. “Tell me if that paper was three years old you would have recognized that it wasn’t your signature.”
Jillian gasped, but at least it earned him a respectable nod from Landerly, who then began talking right over Jordan’s thoughts. “If you’d like to not get fired effective immediately, you had damn well better explain this and why you couldn’t wait until I got back, and it had better match Dr. Brookwood’s story exactly.”
Jordan thanked God Jilly couldn’t lie worth shit. He knew their stories would match word for word. So he took a moment to gather himself, watching her visibly relax as he did. They would be here a while.
Eventually Landerly interrupted. “Same thing she said. The two of you using company policy to support your illegal trip . . .”
Jillian paled a bit at that, and Jordan put his hand over hers where it gripped the spindle arm of the chair. They’d at least be fired together. “Are you going to hear us out or not?”
Landerly nodded and managed to not interrupt again for the remainder of the story. He was silent for several minutes after Jordan finished. Finally he placed his soft leather hands on the desk and leaned forward, somehow managing to invade Jordan’s personal space from over three feet away. “One: we never had this conversation. I don’t know about that signature. I assume someone else okay’d your trip. Two: one slip from either of you and I will suddenly find that paper, and recognize the forged signature and you’ll be out so fast your head will spin.”
Jordan digested that. It actually sounded like they weren’t getting fired.
“Three: you drive out tonight. There’s another case that sounds like the same thing in the Appalachians. You’re going to an area just south of Knoxville, McCann County.”
“Another case?” It was Jillian’s voice, though hard to recognize, it was shaky and soft and lacked all her normal confidence.
“Yup.” Finally Landerly leaned back, “We’ll name the disease after you two as punishment for this escapade. Now get out of my office. Go home. Pack and get your asses back here by five so I can hand you the paperwork.”
“Yes, sir.” His voice was strong, even if his belief wasn’t. And Jilly was falling all over herself to thank the man whose name she had so expertly forged less than a week ago. She was gesturing wildly and Jordan reached up to pluck one of her hands out of its flightpath and used it to drag her out of the office.
She trailed him down the hall, hand still tucked in his, getting tugged along. When they got to the office she released herself from his grip and sank like pudding into her wooden swivel chair, leaning it back and bringing her hands to her head as though she could hold all the thoughts in. “I can’t believe he didn’t fire us.”
“Yes, and we’re not waiting around to let it happen either.” Jordan grabbed her purse and handed it to her, before yanking her up out of the chair. “I’ll drive, you’re in no shape.”
In seconds he had pulled her down the hallway, waving the ID card miraculously still in his possession at each coded entry and finally emerging into the bright sun. Jilly raised her hand to shield her face, then pawed inside her purse for a moment before producing sunglasses and keys.
He pulled the keys from her hand and dropped them back into the leather bag. “You shouldn’t drive. I’ll drop you off then swing by and get you on the way back.”
“No, really, I’m-” She cut herself off when she saw how badly she was shaking. “All right, thank you.”
He settled her into the passenger seat of the crappy little Cavalier, then closed her in and jogged around to the driver’s side.
“Do you think-”
“You go first.” He braced his arm on the back of her seat and looked out the rear window while he backed out of the spot doing all he could not to lay some serious rubber on the pavement in his hurry to be away.
“Do you think we’re really onto something? That there really are more cases?”
Jordan sighed. “It has to be. The only alternative I can figure is that Landerly is sending us into the mountains and a hitman will follow us. You know, so no one will ever find the bodies.”
“So, we’re going up into the Appalachians.”
“I have to say I’m freaking out about that.”
Jilly looked sideways at him again. “Why?”
“I’ve seen Deliverance.”
Jillian listened to the deep sigh Jordan heaved into the door of the car. In sleep, he had wedged himself between the seat and the window, stuck at an awkward angle that seemed to bother only her.
His remark about being sent to McCann County to meet up with Landerly’s hitman ricocheted in her brain. But it morphed as it went. Landerly wouldn’t need a hitman; McCann was itself Purgatory, or so it would seem.
The Rav-4 bounced along the horrid road, and Jillian had thoughts about not getting reimbursed for the damage to her car. She tempered them with thoughts about not getting fired. Darkness had come to cover them like smog while she drove, along roads that needed little instruction. Blinking to keep her eyes open, she was assaulted by the bright glare of a green interstate sign bouncing her brights back at her. McCann, 1 mile, population 232. That was telling. That they included the population on the sign. And that the population included a significant digit in the ones spot. Ouch. Jordan had been right about Deliverance.
Jillian looked at the glowing digital numbers on the dash, they were going to arrive early, and she wondered how that could be possible. The drive had seemed interminable; she couldn’t even sing to the radio to stay awake, not with Jordan sleeping in the passenger seat.
Their turn was highlighted by a small brown sign atop a metal post, with one word “McCANN” and an arrow pointing the only direction there was to go down the dirt trail. She had the distinct feeling she was entering a land where a sixth grade education would be considered intelligent.
Jordan bounced around in his seat, his shoulders and head periodically knocking about. Surely he would wake right up, keep her company. But he didn’t. When she felt the frown cross her face she realized that she had been anticipating his presence. Landerly had done a good job putting the two of them together. They communicated well about what needed to be done, and they worked well together to be certain that it was achieved. She hadn’t ever felt that Jordan wasn’t pulling his own weight, nor had she felt she’d been carried. And he was good company. Which was more than she had expected. Most people had found her cold and distant, and she understood that. Pretty much she was cold and distant; she lived in her own world where the need to achieve drove her every waking moment.
Funny how Jordan had become her personal life now. He had other commitments and friends in the outside world of Atlanta. In the few weeks he had been here, he had made more connections than she had in all her five years at Grady and in Atlanta combined. On the way out he had taken time to call his friend Martin and cancel his Wednesday night racquetball game. For a brief moment she had regretted that she didn’t have anyone to call.
The road went on forever, made worse by the fact that it was little more than ruts in the hard-packed earth and any sort of speed was an unattainable goal. At least it had been used recently. Small bushes and grasses had been flattened in the middle of the parallel ditches that had yet to pop back up and look alive. Beside her, Jordan finally stirred, his eyes opened, his jaw worked and his voice uttered a soft, What? Before he shook himself fully awake and realized that he knew exactly where he was. In that moment he began apologizing for sleeping through such a long portion of the ride.
“So make it up to me by checking out the map to James Hann’s place so we can get the key to the house where we’re staying.”
Jordan complied, looking over the hand-drawn lines that Hann had faxed to Landerly earlier today. Google had come up with nothing. Not surprising since McCann itself didn’t register on most maps.
According to the shakily scrawled fax there were five roads in McCann. Parson, Main, Lintle, Shields, and Squirrel. Jillian had to admit that ‘Squirrel’ bothered her. And that, of course, was the road where the rented house was marked with a wavery X on the map.
Jordan turned the map one way then the other, “I take it we’re on Main.”
“To the best of my knowledge.” Her casual shrug was lost in the movement of the jostling car.
Trees had closed in over the road, overgrown and hanging low, scraping the top of the small car. It was either romantic or horrifying and Jillian squashed the urge to look into the backseat for stowaways. She was searching desperately for road signs, and when she was ready to sigh with weariness and frustration, Jordan pointed low. A hand-lettered wood two-by-four was nailed to the base of an old tree. Parson Rd.
That was good enough for her. And she cranked the wheel of the Rav4 hand over hand, wishing that she was already at the house on Squirrel.
The road was even worse than Main, if that was possible. Branches whipped the windshield at a ferocious pace, slowing them even more. Just when she was ready to comment, Jordan broke the nearly rhythmic thwapping sound, “Landerly hates us. He does not expect us to return.”
Jillian had to laugh.
It was that or cry. She’d had no more sleep than Jordan, and while she was glad they weren’t fired, never had she imagined this kind of sick punishment.
Just then the trees broke, and a small house stood probably a half mile back off the road. No front lawn or porch lights illuminated the outside, but lights were on in the windows, and given that it was approaching eleven, Jillian was willing to turn the car down the gravel driveway and take her chances that this was the Hann residence. A porch light flashed on in welcome even as she pulled up next to the garage.
In the dying residuals of her headlights Jillian noted the dilapidated horse barn and matching shed tilting precariously in the background, but her attention was diverted by the older man walking down the stairs. He looked nicer than what she had expected in these parts. His jeans were clean and unpatched, like his red plaid flannel shirt. And his face was just enough weathered to appear kind.
She plastered on a smile and threw open the car door. But he spoke first. “You must be Dr. Brookwood. Miss Greene didn’t tell me you were so pretty.” His smile reached his eyes and he held his hand out to her, somehow managing to convey comfort and friendliness with his remarks.
He held out his hand again as Jordan approached. “I’m James Hann. And I have a set of keys to our rental house. Just come inside and Melissa will get you a drink.”
Jillian started to protest, “Oh, thank you, but-”
Jordan’s elbow in her lower back cut her off and his voice overpowered her own, “That would be great. It’s been a bit of a drive.”
So she bit off her retort and followed the two men up the short stairs. The inside of the place reminded her of her Aunt Lenora’s house. There was a whipstitched cover for the Kleenex box in the shape of a church, complete with a steeple and open doors. Sampler pillows dotted the old brown couch in shades of pastel, broken only by the hideously yellow crocheted throw.
James introduced his wife Melissa, a woman who appeared to be in her fifties like him, who brooked no protest about popping out of her seat to get drinks even as he settled in. Jillian let Jordan handle all the talking, since he was the one who had accepted this invitation anyway.
She felt herself drifting asleep with her eyes open until James Hann’s voice cut through the filters she had thought were turned off. “Y’all are married, right?”
While she tried to hide the startled look she was sure had materialized on her face, all thoughts vaporized at Jordan’s immediate smile and knowing nod. “Of course we are.”
Snapping her jaw shut, she turned to stare at him. Then worked furiously to cover the expression that she knew had clouded her eyes. If there was one thing she had learned at the CDCP, it was that Jordan said some wild stuff, but he could be trusted. So she forced a grin, praying it looked less demonic than it felt.
His smile was far more genuine, and he reached across to lightly brush her fingers. “Jilly decided to keep her last name. Dr. and Dr. Abellard . . . well you’d never know who was who.”
Hann accepted the iced tea his wife was holding out to him without even acknowledging her presence, which of course prompted another negative reaction that Jillian fought hard to tamp down. Then she was discretely passed a bumpy glass full of tea and garnished with a lemon and a mint sprig. Garnish! At eleven thirty at night! And Jordan smiling and talking about them being married. It was the damn twilight zone.
“I noticed you don’t wear any rings.”
Jordan held out his hand for Hann to inspect. Could the night get any weirder? She just couldn’t wait to hear this. “I’ve got a bit of a mark from it.”
Jillian couldn’t see anything but a pristine ring finger, but she kept her mouth shut.
“We can’t wear our rings when we work. They get caught on the gloves.” He smiled at her again, and she saw genuine humor in his eyes. He knew that she had no idea where he was going with this and he wasn’t going to explain. “And Jilly here won’t let us bring them on trips. They might get lost.”
So she turned back to Mr. Hann and nodded as if she agreed. “You know. They’re too important.”
James nodded to her conspiratorially. “Melissa would have my hide if I lost mine.”
In a few minutes she had guzzled her tea, far thirstier than she had known she was. Then Jordan was taking her hand and pulling her up off the couch. He had the keys to the house on Squirrel firmly in his other hand and the Hanns’ blessings.
Mr. Hann watched from the doorway, while Jordan folded her into the passenger seat of her own car, then smiled as he held his hand out discretely for the keys. She slipped them to him, wondering even as she did it why she was going along with it all. A smile and a wave later Jordan had them turned around and bouncing back up the driveway, and Jillian could keep her mouth shut no longer.
He laughed. “This is not like Atlanta. They just rented us a house and they’d probably rescind the offer if they had known we weren’t married. Sin is sin.”
“Did you see all the God stuff in there?” He looked both ways for the non-existent traffic at the end of the drive, “They would have insisted that you stay with them. Is that what you wanted?”
He just raised his eyebrows and held up the keys to the house. The keychain read With Jesus all things are possible.
“Well, holy Mary, mother and Joseph.” She hated when he was right and she didn’t have the wherewithal to even catch on.
It was fifteen minutes of relative silence later that they parked the Rav4 in front of the rental. Jillian fought the urge to cry. It was straight out of the Apple Dumpling Gang. Weathered wood siding, hanging loose in several places, the porch had a slight tilt to it, and in the windows she could see curtains with red roosters prancing back and forth.
She prayed that the beds didn’t sag too much.
Jordan hopped out and reached into the backseat to grab both duffle bags and headed to unlock the front door. Following right behind him, she was assaulted by the stale smell and stagnant air in the place. Jordan made a face that must have mirrored her own and immediately dropped their luggage and went around opening the windows. The night air was a welcome addition into the house.
Jillian wandered the place, snapping on lights. The kitchen was a countrified hell - roosters covered every surface. Wire mesh lined some of the cabinets in a way that could have been charming were it not part of the whole overdone theme. The hallway boasted a linen closet that was stacked with chenille throws and a variety of outdated floral print sheets. The one bathroom was cramped and pink, but Jillian thought the sink looked about as good as any could right now.
The faucet handle didn’t give when she turned it. And so, with a much harder crank, she sent the thing spinning and started a horrifying series of moans and gurgles that culminated in a brown thick liquid spewing from the faucet.
“Now that’s what I call hard water.” Jordan laughed from behind her.
Jillian spun around, furious not at him, but that things could be this bad at midnight when she hadn’t slept in four days and hadn’t even begun to unpack. She started to turn off the offending spigot, but Jordan’s hand on her shoulder stilled her, “Let it run, it’ll clear up.”
With that she turned and left the faucet to its own devices and started opening the doors at the end of the hallway. One was a master bedroom, if the term was applied loosely. The bed was queen-sized and looked like it had been furnished from a barn somewhere. The other bedroom sported a single pressed into the far corner with only a lone pillow and no headboard.
“I’ll take this one.” Jillian went back for her bag, but Jordan beat her to it and argued chivalrously that he would take the smaller room. In a few minutes she got him to concede and he lowered her bag to the floor, then called from a little further down the hallway “The water’s good now, bathroom’s all yours.”
She’d have to see that clean water to believe it, but sure enough, when she re-entered the water ran clear and pristine. Except for a smudge in the bottom of the basin there was no evidence of the sludge it had been turning out a few minutes ago.
Rapidly she brushed her teeth and scrubbed her face before heading back to her room and changing into her flannel pajamas. The bed both called to her and repulsed her. But exhaustion won out over unfamiliarity and she lifted the layers of sheets and blankets to slide beneath. She was rolling over to punch the pillow when the world dropped out from under her.
Eyes wide, she sat up and promptly slid off the end of the bed where the foot of it had fallen out from under her. She just gave up. Mumbling swear words, she yanked the covers off, and tromped down the short hall dragging them after her. Jordan’s door was ajar and he was centered on the large bed in a draping sprawl, t-shirt and sweatpants bunched in a way that would be uncomfortable to all but the truly tired.
Jillian sighed. “Scoot over.”