Subterranean, Page 2James Rollins
"Watch your tongue, mister," she warned. "You know we don't allow that sort of language here. Now show me what this is all about. " She waved at Randy as she was tugged toward the family room.
Her son pointed to the briefcase and whispered, "It's in there. "
The sound of rushing water from the hall bathroom drew her attention. The door opened and a tall black man, thin as a pole and dressed in a three-piece suit, entered the hallway. He was older, his close-cropped hair graying slightly. He pushed a pair of wire-rim spectacles farther up the bridge of his nose. Spotting Ashley, he broke out in a sudden smile of recognition. He stepped toward her quickly, hand proffered. "Professor Ashley Carter. Your picture in last year's Archaeology magazine failed to do you justice. "
She knew a snow job when she heard one. Caked with trail dirt, arm in a sling, clad in mud-stained jeans, she was no beauty queen. "Can the crap, Doc. What are you doing here?"
He dropped his hand. His eyes widened a moment, and then he smiled even broader. He had more teeth than a shark. "I like your no-nonsense attitude," he said. "It's refreshing. I have a proposal to-"
"Not interested. " She pointed to the door. "You and your entourage can hit the trail now. Thanks anyway. "
"If you'll only lis-"
"Don't make me toss your butt outta here. " She snapped her arm toward the screen door.
"It pays a hundred grand for two months' work. "
"Just get your-" Her arm dropped to her side. Clearing her throat, she stared at Dr. Blakely, then raised an eyebrow. "Now I'm listening. "
Since her divorce, she had been struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. An assistant professor's salary barely covered their living expenses, let alone her research projects.
"Wait," she started. "Wait a minute. Is it legal? It can't be legal. "
"I assure you, Dr. Carter, this offer is legit. And that's only the beginning," Dr. Blakely continued. "Exclusive authorship of research garnered. Guaranteed tenure at the university of your choice. "
She had dreams like this after too much sausage-and-onion pizza. "How can that be possible? There are university statutes… rules… seniority… How?"
"This is a project advocated by the highest people. I have been given free rein to hire whomever I want at whatever salary I desire. " He sat down on the sofa and crossed his legs, arms spread the length of the sofa. "And I want you. "
"Why?" Ashley questioned tentatively, still suspicious.
Leaning forward, he held up a hand, begging patience. He reached for his briefcase and clicked it open. Using both hands, he carefully lifted a crystal statuette from its interior. He turned it upright toward her.
It was a human figure-judging from the pendulous breasts and gravid belly, a female figure. The fading light caught the crystalline structure and reflected radiant bursts.
He nodded for her to take it. "What do you think?"
She hesitated, afraid to touch its fragile beauty. "Definitely primitive… Appears to be a type of fertility icon. "
Dr. Blakely nodded his head vigorously. "Right, right… Here, look closer. " He raised the heavy statue, arms shaking with the strain. "Please examine it. "
She reached to take the statuette.
"It's sculpted out of a single diamond," he said. "Flawless. "
Now she understood the armed escort. She withdrew her hands from such a priceless object as she pondered the implications. "Bitchin'," she whispered.
* * *
Across the kitchen table, Ashley Carter watched as Dr. Blakely flipped the cellular phone closed and returned it to his breast pocket. "Now, Professor Carter, where were we?"
"Is anything the matter?" Ashley asked, sopping up tomato sauce from her plate with a piece of garlic toast. The two of them sat at her green metal kitchen table.
The doctor shook his head. "Not at all. Just confirming the addition of one of your potential teammates. An Australian caving expert. " He smiled reassuringly. "Now, where were we?"
She eyed him warily. "Who else will be joining the expedition?"
"I'm afraid those names are confidential. But I can tell you we're talking to a leading biologist in Canada and a geologist from Egypt. And a few… others. "
Ashley could tell this line of questioning was futile. "Fine. Back to the diamond statue, then. You never told me where the artifact was discovered. "
He pursed his lips. "That information is also confidential. Only for those involved with the research. " He folded the gingham napkin on his lap.
"Doctor, I thought this was going to be a discussion. You're rather lean on your answers. "
"Perhaps. But you still haven't given me a concrete answer yet either. Are you willing to join my research team?"
"I need more details. And more time to reorganize my work schedule. "
"We'd take care of such minor concerns. "
She thought of Jason, who was eating dinner from a rickety tray in front of the television. "I have my son. I can't just up and leave. And he's no minor concern. "
"You have an ex-husband. A Scott Vandercleve, I believe. "
"Jason's not staying with him. Forget it. "
Blakely sighed loudly. "Then we do have a problem. "
This point was going to be a stickler. Jason had been having trouble at school, and this summer Ashley had vowed to spend some time with him. "This is not up for debate," she said with as much conviction as she could muster. "Jason accompanies me, or I have no choice but to decline. "
Blakely studied her silently.
She continued, "He's been on other digs with me. I know he can handle this. "
"I don't think that would be prudent. " He smiled wanly.
"He's a tough and resourceful kid. "
Blakely grimaced. "If I agree to this point, then you'll join the team?" He paused, removing his glasses and rubbing at the indentations on the bridge of his nose. He seemed to be thinking aloud. "I suppose he could stay in Alpha Base. It's secure. " Replacing his glasses, he reached across the table and held out an open palm. "Agreed. "
Relieved, she let out her breath and shook his dry hand. "So why so much effort to get me on your team?"
"Your specialty. The anthropology of cliff-dwelling primitives. Your work on the Gila dwellings was brilliant. "
"Still, why me? There are other paleoanthropologists with similar interests. "
"Several reasons. One"-he began ticking off the points on his fingers-"you've demonstrated you can manage teams on other digs. Two, your nose for detail is superb. Three, your perseverance in solving mysteries is bone-hard obstinate. Four, you're in excellent physical shape. Five, you've earned my respect. Any other questions?"
Satisfied for now, she shook her head, slightly embarrassed. She fought back a blush. Rarely did one hear praise in her field. Uncomfortable, she changed the tack of the conversation.
"Now that we're partners, maybe you can tell me where you discovered this unique artifact. " She rose to clear the dishes. "Somewhere in Africa, I'd guess. "
He smiled. "No, in Antarctica, actually. "
She glanced over her shoulder, trying to judge if he was testing her. "There are no primitive cultures on that continent. It's a barren glacier. "
Blakely shrugged. "Who said on it?"
She rattled a dish in the sink. "So where, then?" She turned to him, leaned back against the sink, and dried her hands with a damp dish towel.
He just pointed a single finger toward the floor.
Black Rock, Australia
BENJAMIN BRUST WATCHED A BROWN COCKROACH SKITTER across the white lavatory sink. He crossed over to the bars, running a hand across the stubble that had grown over his cheeks since his incarceration. The stink of old urine in the cell was less intense by the door. A khaki-uniformed military guard glanced up from the GQ magazine on his lap. He nodded to the
guard, who, without acknowledgment, returned to his reading.
At least Ben's client, Hans Biederman, was recuperating well. Thank god for that. He sure as hell didn't need an involuntary manslaughter charge on top of everything else. Mr. Biederman was due to fly back to Germany today, having received no more than a slap on the wrist for their little escapade-while Ben, as the planner of the expedition, had a long stint in a military prison ahead of him.
For the past five years, Ben had specialized in escorting those with the proper ticket price to exotic locales to see rare sights. Trips that required bending, even breaking a few rules to accomplish. He specialized in underground adventures: abandoned diamond mines in South Africa, monastic ruins buried under the Himalayas, undersea tunnels off the Caribbean coast-and now, here in Australia, a set of stunning caverns restricted by the military from human sight.
The caverns were on a remote section of the Black Rock military installation. These exquisite caves had been discovered and mapped by Ben himself four years ago when he had once been stationed here.
It had all been going perfectly until Herr Biederman, his pudgy German client, slipped and broke his leg. Ben should have just left him to rot for ignoring his warning, but instead Ben had tried to haul the bastard's sorry butt out of the caverns. Herr Biederman's bellows of pain drew the military police, and Ben got caught for his efforts.
He turned from the bars and dropped onto the moth-eaten cot, then leaned back, studying the stains on the ceiling. He heard hard-heeled boots tapping down the hall and something mumbled to the guard.
The heavy magazine slapped on the floor. "In there, sir. Fourth one down. " He heard the fear in the guard's answer.
The tapping heels approached, then stopped. He pushed up onto his elbows to see who stood in front of the cell. He recognized the face of his old commander. Bald head, beak of a nose, gray eyes that drilled. "Colonel Matson?"