Here's the first chapter!
Levels of Deception -- Chapter 1
Paul's e-mail said the craters left at the dig site in Montana had likely been made by big earth-moving equipment. They were literally deep enough to swallow a truck. Every last fossil Paul located last year was gone. With a scant two days before the start of his fieldwork class, he needed my help. Now. He was the professor in charge.
I shut down my computer, shoved my camera and the other assorted items he'd listed into a tote bag, and dressed at a rate that would have impressed Wonder Woman. He and I had been together for three blissful, intense months, and this was my first opportunity to show him I'd be there for him when he had a crisis. I flew out my front door and into the fickle Northwest summer sunshine, headed for Seattle and the Burke Museum. I was "girlfriend on a mission" doing everything she could to help the man she was crazy about.
In the short while it took to drive south from Snohomish, and the long while I spent bogged down in Seattle's frustrating rush-hour traffic near the University District, I mentally reviewed Paul's instructions and rehearsed the procedures: Find the parking garage, speed-walk to the museum's archives, locate and photograph each of the fifteen fossils he listed, in the manner he indicated, zip home and e-mail him the photographs. Piece of cake. I'd be a hero and have time to take a dressage lesson on my horse after a full day of work, exactly as I'd planned before reading Paul's e-mail.
However, the annoying delays I'd experienced negotiating the U District's narrow, clogged streets were nothing compared to what I found when I went through the big double doors to the museum's basement archives. My mission stood in danger of being aborted. I stood toe-to-desk with a guard-dragon masquerading as a severely coiffed, gray-haired receptionist. She would not let me pass and would not give me information. There was no negotiating with this woman. I wanted to smite her precious rules right off her thin, tight, policy-reciting lips.
"I'm sorry, Miss Campbell, I told you. I can't let you into the archives," Mrs. Mildred Peabody said, with a sanctimonious lift of her chin and a haughty flare of her nostrils.
Sorry my ass. I drew a breath to plead my case, but she cut me off.
"You're not a student or staff member. The regulations are clear. You missed your appointment time by an hour. General access to the archives must be limited to staff and students or research will suffer. Appointments are meant to be kept." She folded her hands on her aircraft carrier-sized desk. Her gaze did not budge, and her mouth formed an exact, upside-down U.
Freaking stubborn lizard-woman.
"I didn't have an appointment," I said, lowering my heavy bag to the floor and pulling out the printed e-mail. "My instructions arrived at eight this morning." I waved the print-out like a battle flag. "I drove in immediately. Thirty-four and a half miles from Snohomish. Dr. Hudson said," I cleared my throat, "'Go to the archives, find the specimens listed below, use your digital camera and take three views of each. Get them to me yesterday.'" For a long moment the dragon and I locked in a glare-off over the top of the paper. "Dr. Hudson made no mention of an appointment." He'd also failed to mention this potentially mission-foiling road block. I flipped the paper around and held it at arm's length for her to verify.
Her gaze skimmed along the e-mail over the top of her red-framed glasses, then flashed back to me as though she believed eye contact was all that held me in check. Clearly she had no intention of reading anything. Her rule was law. Any reasonable person would have recognized this as an emergency. Any reasonable person would have pitched in to help. Any reasonable person would have been, dammit, reasonable.
"I don't understand why you can't make an exception in an emergency." I crossed my arms. The e-mail still clutched in my hand now sported new creases thanks to my frustration.
"This is not an emergency." The little lines that led the way to her upper lip deepened into furrows.
"Yes, it is." I forced my jaw and mouth to relax so they wouldn't match hers.
Her eyes sparked. "If we make an exception for one person then it won't be long until we have a veritable stream of people wandering in off the street. That's what the museum upstairs is for. Those are the rules."
I'd be damned if I was leaving the museum's archives without the pictures. I opened my mouth, intending to defeat her with the calm, faultless logic that pointed out how a professor's emergency needs for his class pre-empted her trivial protocol, but my temper substituted words and turned up the volume of my voice.
"Then I guess you'll have to be the one to explain to Dr. Hudson why he can't get the material he needs for his fieldwork class, and why the robbery of his dig site isn't as important as your, your rules."
"Is there a problem here?" The man's voice came from behind me.
I spun, ready to defend my mission to the newest obstacle on the scene, but didn't get the chance. A girlish purr answered the very tall and angular middle-aged man first.
I swiveled back to see who else had shown up. No one. No one new, that is. A glow bathed Mrs. Peabody's cheeks. She removed her glasses and delicately touched the edge of her crisp, white collar. The dragon had turned into the damsel, and she wasn't in distress. Astounding.
"This is Thea Campbell. She --"
"Oh, you're Thea," he said, his tone both surprised and pleased.
I made another quick pivot.
Dr. Fogel extended his hand. Pure reflex caused me to shake it. "Nice to meet you. I'm Andrew Fogel. Paul dropped me a note, said you'd be by sometime this morning. Helping him with some material he needs, eh?"
The unexpected courtesy caused me to stumble over my "Yes." I darted a sideways glance at Mrs. Peabody. Her gaze narrowed ever so slightly at me before focusing softly on Dr. Fogel.
"Dr. Fogel, Miss Campbell isn't a student or staff member." She seemed to be having trouble holding down a confident little smirk -- like she'd found the trump card necessary to boot me out.
I geared up to argue my case once more, but didn't get the chance.
He smiled thinly at Mrs. Peabody. "I guess you'll need to give her directions, then. I'm off to my meeting." He turned to me. "I'm sure Mrs. Peabody will give you all the assistance you need." With a minute nod, he was out the door. I hadn't had time to gather my wits and thank him.
"Through there." Mrs. Peabody pointed her glasses to a set of double doors to the right, her expression a wintry shade of neutral. "Take the first right and second left. There will be a door on the right. The sign says 'Storage: Vertebrate Fossils'. The light switches are to the left, just inside the doors."
"Thank you," I said, shouldering my bag.
She ignored me, slid her glasses on and returned to her typing. If I pounded on my keyboard the way she did I'd break a finger. I walked away, shoulders braced against possible flying objects. None came.
When I rounded the first corner in the dank hallway I pranced an impromptu jig complete with a victory arm-pump. The dragon was conquered. I'd get Paul's errand done and save his class. His relief when he saw my pictures would light up the phone lines -- when he could get to a phone to call. Yes sir, we were a team, despite the hundreds of miles separating us.
I followed Mrs. Peabody's directions of a right turn then a left, separated by a couple of long hallways she didn't mention, until I reached the heavy metal doors with the sign "Storage: Vertebrate Fossils." I pushed through into darkness that smelled of frigid, dry dirt, and shivered. My skin shrank under my cotton tank top and summer-weight crop pants. My sockless ankles felt like they'd been splashed with ice water. A steady, low hum from an air-conditioning duct somewhere above virtually announced I wouldn't be warming up any time soon.
Feeling my way along the rough concrete wall, I located the bank of light switches, and flipped them all up. So far, so good -- until I turned around.
Row after row after row of industrial-heft racks stretched to the ceiling far above and marched away into the distance. Specimens crowded every shelf.
Like a little boat with a big hole, my mood sank, and with it my confidence in providing Paul the fast rescue he needed. Hope was lost before I'd begun. Hell, I was lost before I'd begun. If I moved away from the door I'd vanish, forgotten until my desiccated body was discovered years from now by some fledgling paleontologist who'd speculate over my remains, assign me a number, and shove me onto a shelf for possible future study.
Then my gaze settled on a scrap of salvation.
A paper scrap.
An index card taped to the end support of a unit.
I hurried over for a closer look. Hot damn. I'd been tossed a life preserver. On the card were handwritten numbers. Numbers with the same format as the ones on my list. A quick survey confirmed that there were cards affixed to each unit. My morbid musings dissolved. I was buoyant with hope once again.
I found the correct aisle, and located the first fossil. The dang dinosaur bone was heavier than it appeared. I wrapped both arms around it, hugged it to my chest, and staggered to the back of the storage room where Paul told me I would find work space. Sure enough, there was a large, sturdy table. I eased the fossil onto it and investigated the area. Lights, magnifying glasses and other tools that even an untrained person, namely me, could see were meant for examining specimens were stored neatly on open shelves or hanging on pegboard. A computer station was set up next to the table, a typed sheet of instructions taped to the desk top beside the keyboard -- coffee rings indicated its preferred use. I emptied my bag of the camera and other supplies, positioned the fossil on top of a large square of black felt, and arranged the lights. In no time, my makeshift photography studio was ready for business.
"At least three clear, shadow-free views of each specimen" were my instructions. I experimented with different orientations of the piece and took a number of shots, being careful to include a metric ruler to show size. Paul already had pictures of dinosaur bones, in situ, that he'd taken with him to Montana for the lecture and PowerPoint presentation that would start off his class. My guess was that the photographs I was taking were similar to what had been stolen, or what he expected to find at the new site. He probably wanted his students to see what the entire object would look like once recovered. Made sense. I'd sure need to see what I was supposed to be looking for.
A month or so ago I'd been leafing through one of his journals, looking at pictures of bones not yet removed from the ground where they were found. In most cases it was difficult for me to tell the difference between fossils and regular old rocks, even when someone was pointing to them.
"It takes practice to develop an 'eye'," my lover said. Delighted at my interest, he explained what to look for, pulling visual aids from his briefcase and dragging me out to the garden behind the house for a live comparison with actual rocks.
After that, every time I went out to the garden to weed I'd examine each rock for fossil potential. Every time he'd grin, kiss me, say, "Nope," and toss it into the blackberry bushes at the back of the yard.
After a week of that routine I uncovered a fist-sized, pulse-quickening treasure.
"Excellent example of lepus silicis." He hefted the smooth, gray, probable fossil, turning it with care.
Then he pitched it.
I jumped, too late, for his arm.
"Hey! That's a lepus silicis!" I restrained myself from smacking him with my gardening gloves. "Go get it out of the blackberries."
"You never took Latin, did you?" The edges of his eyes crinkled.
"No. I took Advanced Calculus to feel superior."
"Lepus silicis. Rabbit rock."
"What the hell's a rabbitrock?"
With solemn authority he laid a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. "A rock you throw at rabbits."
I punched his arm. Laughing, he caught me before I could hit him again, threw me over his shoulder, and carted me back to the house. Frickin' comedian.
An hour later, when we were both smiling contentedly, he enticed me to accompany him in July to Montana where he'd teach his six-week fieldwork class. But, there was no way I could leave my accounting business. The best I could arrange was two weeks. At the time it was barely May, and although he wouldn't be leaving until the end of June, a missing-him ache already surrounded my heart.
In hindsight, it turned out to be a good thing. My dedication to my clients made it possible to run these errands today.
I finished photographing the first fossil and admired the images on my camera. All twelve of them. I'd send them all. He'd be thrilled, and with the help I was giving him he'd still have time to scout out a new location for the students to explore and excavate. I was swimming in self-confidence.
After returning the first fossil to its proper shelf, I located the next one and repeated the process. As I was setting up the third specimen there was a whoosh and thump as the big storage room door opened then closed. I didn't expect to be the only one doing work but was a little surprised when the echo of footsteps came closer. A young man, probably a few years short of my twenty-nine, dressed in khakis and an almost white short-sleeve shirt, rounded the end of the stacks and approached. His aquiline nose found the perfect accompaniment in the unrestrained, enthusiastically curling brown hair that brushed his shoulders. However, an aggressive scowl trumped any potential friendliness his appearance might have produced.
"Hello," he said, and crossed his arms.
"Hi." I lowered my camera and smiled.
His gaze barely touched my setup before snapping back to me. "Taking pictures?"
Wow. What a masterful command of the obvious. In the pause before I answered, a flush crept up his neck and he shoved his hands into his pockets. Poor guy. He really didn't have a firm grip on "man-in-charge."
"Yes. Dr. Hudson asked me to take some photographs and e-mail them to him. I'm Thea Campbell, by the way." I held out my hand.
"Scott Loch." He extracted a hand from his pocket and gave mine a damp, cursory shake. "I'm surprised the web site photos aren't sufficient." His gaze went to the list of fossils sitting on the table. "Is this yours?" He picked up the e-mail printout.
"Yes. The web site shows only one view of each fossil." I was surprised he didn't know that. "Are you part of the Paleontology Department staff?"
Instead of replying, he took a long look at the e-mail with my name and Paul's in the heading. Call me crazy, but I was willing to bet he hadn't shown up out of curiosity. He was checking on me, and I suspected Mrs. Peabody had put him up to it. The woman wasn't going to give up. He put the paper down before he answered my question.
"More or less. I'm a grad student and Dr. Whitaker's secretary for the summer. Are you an undergrad?"
"Oh, right. Actually," I said. "I'm a friend of Dr. Hudson's. I'm just running this errand for him."
A hank of his hair fell forward. Frowning, he pushed it back, briefly snagging his fingers. "He could have asked one of us. Why didn't he?"
"I'm sure I don't know." And as much as I hated to admit it, he had a point.
"Are you sure you're able to manage this?" He picked up the copy of Paul's e-mail again. This time he seemed to be reading the instructions. He kept glancing at my setup. "Pat should have gotten in touch with me."
"Pat?" I asked. The name wasn't familiar.
"She's Dr. Hudson's graduate assistant this summer."
My molars slammed together with enough force to send a sharp pain through my temples. Paul's graduate assistant out in the wilderness with him was a woman? Was there a reason he had not told me his assistant was female, had not corrected me when I'd commented on how pleased he seemed to be that he had gotten him for an assistant? This was phone call material. E-mail was too easy to evade. Not that I was jealous. Just cautious. And not stupid.
"The camera? Can I see it?" Scott's hand extended toward me and flapped in a give-it-to-me gesture. I guess I missed the first request.
Although I tried to think of one, I couldn't find a reason why he shouldn't see my photographs. Irritated, I passed the camera to him and waited for him to ask me how to operate it. He scanned the shots I had taken with the assurance of a techno-geek, then returned it to me.
"Don't let me keep you from your work," he said. "Nice to meet you."
Within two undisturbed hours I'd relegated Pat to the status where she belonged -- an academic necessity -- and photographed nearly all the fossils. There were four I couldn't locate, although I spent a good deal of time trying. Paul needed them. Maybe someone had checked them out, like library books. I rolled my shoulders and sighed. There was only one thing to do. Get help. I would have to go back to the dragon.
She wasn't there, but Dr. Fogel was. My jaw unlocked.
He stood, absorbed in some papers, and didn't notice me walk up.
"Excuse me," I said.
He paused in his reading, gave me a blank look, then a congenial nod.
"Miss Campbell, done already?" He pushed his glasses up his long thin nose.
"No, I'm afraid not. I ran into some problems and wondered if you could help."
"I can try." Although the man was all straight lines and angles, his expression held soft humor.
"I'm having some trouble locating some fossils on my list." I handed it to him. "I circled the catalogue numbers of the ones I couldn't find."
All at once his edges and angles sharpened. "Ah yes, I see. How's everything going at the dig?"
He should know. Paul told him I was coming, he must have told him why as well. A zing of warning spiked up my spine. It was the same feeling I got whenever a horse I was riding telegraphed his tension when sensing a possible threat. Instinct kicked in; minimize my reaction, and divert attention. "He hasn't said much. So, the fossils I couldn't find -- I was wondering if someone might have checked them out."
Affable once again, his warm brown eyes regarded me with amusement over the top of his glasses. "No, all specimens remain in the archives. Although it's possible someone might have put them back on the wrong shelf. That happens sometimes." He perused the list, his eyebrows making journeys up and down his forehead as he read. "Well, let's go see what we can find."
He preceded me down the hallway at a brisk pace, my list fluttering in his grasp. I sprinted, catching the storage room door just before it closed behind him, slipping once again into the chilly, dry-earth-scented repository.
Dr. Fogel had already reached the first fossil location and was scanning the shelf above and below its assigned spot when I caught up. He made an about-face and examined the shelves on the opposite side of the aisle, just as I had done. He harrumphed, consulted the list, and hustled to another aisle. This he did twice more with the remaining specimens while I followed anxiously waiting for an exclamation of success that never came. With a shake of his head, he headed to the computer, pulled up a search screen, and typed in the catalogue numbers, his large hands moving with surprising dexterity over the keyboard. Then he repeated the search using the Latin name of each specimen, and again with other search criteria. With each effort his frown grew more pronounced, and the furrow between his eyebrows deeper. He consulted my list again, then headed for the stacks. Again. I listened to his rummaging as he moved from one area to another, checking areas of the storage room I hadn't. My worry grew right along with my irritation at being left uninformed. After several long minutes he returned.
"Let me check something else."
I chewed my lip and traipsed after him to the computer. He clicked on a couple of links, and stared at the screen, one hand resting on his hip and the other covering his mouth and chin. The blue and white screen cast an eerie reflection on the lenses of his glasses, making him appear eyeless.
"At least I can get the rest off to Paul." I tried to sound unworried.
"What? Oh, right, yes. Good idea." He lightly tapped his jaw.
"Maybe the photographs I have already will be enough."
He nodded as though he were responding to the sound of my voice rather than the words, then shut down the computer and walked away. He stopped and turned, his index finger touching his lips before pointing at me. "Perhaps the specimens you found will be sufficient."
"Thank you for your help," I said to his now-retreating back.
I combed my fingers through my hair and massaged the back of my neck, rolling my head. There was nothing to do but go home with what I had. The idea didn't make me happy. I should be able to do better than this. Giving up never sat well with me, whether riding my horse, working on my clients' books, or anything else. Paul was fast becoming the most important person in my life, yet I had to give up on something that was important to him. But, dammit, what else was I supposed to do?
I packed my camera and supplies in my bag and left. I'd found and photographed eleven of the items on Paul's list. I paced, distracted, down the now-familiar, long hallway flogging my memory for some clue, some approach I'd missed that would help me get the remaining four fossils.
Paul was efficient. Every photograph would have a specific purpose for his lecture, and he was missing better than a quarter of them. If I'd planned the presentation my list would … include back-ups -- duplicates, or near duplicates, just in case there were problems.
I stopped. Why hadn't I thought of that earlier? That was it!
Had he thought of that -- to include back-ups?
My excitement sputtered. How was I going to find out? Why hadn't I asked Dr. Fogel before he left? The dragon was probably back at her desk. Now I'd have to ask her where I could find him. Damn.
I hiked my bag more securely on my shoulder. Okay, then. I'd faced her once. I could face her again. As I rounded a turn in the corridor Dr. Fogel's voice echoed softly ahead, coming toward me but still some ways away. Hope I could avoid Mrs. Peabody again quickened the pat-pat of my sneakered feet until Scott's angry, strident pitch cut off Andrew Fogel's quiet tone, halting my rush.
"If you don't do something I'll --"
"You'll do nothing. I'm certain he already suspects me. If you're found out it will --"
Their voices were getting closer.
"I won't jeopardize our plan." Scott's tone was a sneer. "But I'm telling you we have to do something about her."
Her? Her who? Her me? What had I done? Crap.
There was nowhere to hide.