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Excerpt for The Salvage Job by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



The Salvage Job

Copyright 2018 Teresa Hubley

Smashwords Edition



Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Chapters

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34

[[1]]


She was not prepared to hear that name again, not then, not there. Who would ever expect it to come up out of the blue in the middle of a family barbeque?

Charlotte’s grown siblings and their various progeny and paramours were huddled together on a sunny, muggy summer day under the canopy in the parents’ Midwestern U.S. backyard, all the cicadas and crickets in full voice. The occasion was the introduction of Charlotte’s future sister-in-law, Paulette, to the family. Paulette was a petite Lakota woman with a wide face and large dark eyes framed by shoulder-length blue-black hair, bravely working through her first time at the boisterous Irish-American Parrish family table.

It would never have struck Charlotte as a setting where her old paramour’s name would rule the conversation at any time. He wasn’t natural fodder for the ‘Charlotte’s Loser Ex-Boyfriends’ topic, a topic not completely out of place for the occasion (as she could be made suffer by comparison to her more settled siblings once everyone was done praising them). However, the majority had never heard of him before, their association being brief and somewhat secret even back in Vancouver where she lived. There were plenty other, more colorful entrants on the list for discussion and lecture, from The Burglar to The Stalker (ending with the most recent entry Would Rather Work for a Certain Russian President). She’d purposely not mentioned him to anyone but her brother, loyal Ted, who always kept the faith between them and buried their secrets well.

Charlotte’s younger brother, Ted, favored the ‘Black Irish’ side of the family and so vaguely resembled a Native American, if you squinted a bit, being wiry and dark-haired and almost black-eyed. He looked at home beside Paulette. Charlotte and her twin, Sybil, took after the fairer Irish in the Parrish gene pool. Charlotte had mousy, curly hair whereas Sybil wore a flat-ironed sweep of hair tinted in various golden shades (formerly the same color and texture as Charlotte’s but whipped into shape by a high-toned stylist). Their parents, Joe and Matty, resembled the twins. There were jokes aplenty about Ted’s parentage as a result.

Sybil was picking through the salad Charlotte had made with Matty, tossing the items her latest diet did not allow onto her husband’s plate. Juan Suarez took the items with the air of one familiar with the ritual, giving it his solemn approval. He ate each new morsel that came his way. Juan reflected the classic mix of Central American ancestry with a faintly russet complexion, dark brown hair, and thick-set, tallish build. His upper lip was adorned with a narrow stripe meant to be a moustache. He wriggled the stripe as he sorted through the food that came his way.

Juan had just completed his customary rant about how the local police in the Parrish family’s Midwestern rural hometown seemed to “have it in for him” because he “looked Mexican.” Ted had once commented on the side to Charlotte that the real problem was that Juan looked Native and that in their area people tended to associate the reservations just off to the West and North with “trouble.” Ted and Paulette got stopped by police about as often as Juan, maybe more so, since Juan’s luxury SUV had become well known and so had his wife’s tendency to call up superiors and complain, while Ted’s rusty hatchback looked ready to crumble and no one had ever heard a peep from the Parrish family about pulling over their youngest child.

Now Sybil was ranting about the pompous bureaucrats who posed obstacles to Juan’s construction projects. As business owners, Charlotte’s parents, an auto parts dealer and a hair stylist, tended to sympathize with Juan’s “plight.” They were nodding in unison and muttering their sympathy. Sybil paused only to say “not now” repeatedly to various members of her squirming brood of children.

Ted and Paulette, a journalist and a bookkeeper respectively, pretended to pay attention. Paulette’s narrow window of opportunity to speak had closed shortly after the introductions. Being naturally reticent, she did not care but Ted was fuming, gnashing his teeth and rolling his eyes. Sybil took his gestures as encouragement and forged ahead.

Charlotte held her breath, waiting for what she knew would come, a jab at the historic preservation laws that necessitated clearing the construction site for possible antiquities before development could begin. Sybil would always shoot her twin a glare, as if she, as an archaeologist herself, was personally to blame for the laws. Sometimes Joe or Matty would glance at Charlotte too as if to say “DO something.” In fact, Matty did ask once whether she could help her sister out, since she happened to be “in the business.” Charlotte begged off getting involved by explaining that since she didn’t know any of the persons involved and worked for a far-off Canadian university, she wouldn’t be able to do anything but stir up resentment among the local archaeological community.

Then in the middle of her familiar ramble, Sybil dropped the name. She started by informing her listeners that Juan, “the genius” (as she sometimes—well, fairly often--put it), had hired a salvage archaeologist, a woman named Phyllis Louden. Did Charlotte know her? No. She plunged ahead and added that the laws in the state where they were building a hunting lodge and spa, the next state over, a high-plains state best known for lots of bison scapula shovels in the prehistoric record and plenty of live pheasants and other critters for shooting, had a law that compelled sites to give time and space to the state university.

Sybil huffed, “That’s where the problem sits now. The state university crew has slowed everything to a crawl. And the guy who runs that crew, he’s an archaeology professor with a real attitude.” She looked to Charlotte, conspiratorially nodding. “You know the type, sis. He drives Phyllis nuts with his better-than-you airs. Apparently, he wrote the intro text they use in the classes there. He has an ego the size of Brazil. I can’t stand the man but we have to put up with him because the state archaeologist insists. By the book. As if the state archaeologist can really DO anything to us if we don’t include the university crew in every little thing.”

Their mother helpfully hinted, “Charlotte doesn’t know Dr. Louden but she might have heard of the state university guy. She may have even read his book, might have even met him.”

Sybil worked at a speck of salad stuck in her teeth with her tongue and said, “Right… René something.” She gave up and picked at her teeth with one of her artful fingernails.

Juan said, “Claude is his first name.”

“I think it’s all hyphenated.”

“It’s not. He uses the whole name professionally, like on the book, but usually goes by Claude or Dr. Guilbeau when he’s at the site. He makes us non-academic types call him by his title..His title! Doctor so-and-so. Only Phyllis calls him ‘Claude,’ her and the history guy.”

Sybil snapped, “I’ll be dammed if I call him ‘Doctor’ anything. Hell will freeze over first!”

Charlotte felt queasy but managed to keep it off her face. Juan and Sybil had not been curious enough to check out Claude René Guilbeau’s background or they would have known he used to work for Humantias University in Vancouver as Charlotte now did. The rest, they would not have guessed, since they tended to think Sybil’s twin was a hapless spinster with no decent prospects and most probably a virgin too, despite the ardor of The Stalker. After all, The Stalker was clearly deranged.

Charlotte glanced at Ted, but he had managed to make his face go blank. He would know that name, because his sister had bleated it through tears once or twice on late night phone calls. Things hadn’t gone well in the brief interlude between them. Claude had taken off and married one of his students rather than work it through with Charlotte. It had been three years since she’d watched them drive away together and nearly that long since anyone had said his name aloud to her. The university had sailed on without him, blithely inserting a couple desperate adjuncts in his place while claiming that was a temporary measure. They’d all saved themselves a boatload of money and a similar-sized cache of headaches when they said “Adieu” to Monsieur Guilbeau.

Joe said, “Maybe while you have Charlotte out here you can bring her over and have her take a look at things, give the place a professional look-over and maybe hand you some pointers. At least you’d have one more person in your corner against those red tape mongers at the government and that jerk of a professor.”

Sybil nodded. “That would be a big help to us.”

Matty asked, “What do you think, dear?”

Charlotte recognized the ‘not-really-asking-but-telling’ tone of the question. The parents expected her to help out. ‘No’ was not an option, not if she ever wanted to hear the end of it. They could expertly hound a person until their victim begged for mercy. And she had a whole six months sabbatical on her hands with plans to spend it at home (whereat she’d be expected to follow ‘house rules’). Her stated plan was to write up several items she’d been meaning to work on and follow through on one new project to end with a publication and a proposal for funding a more permanent investigation. She’d thought her own hometown area under-appreciated by her colleagues and perhaps ripe for attention. Also, she badly needed to prove her worth for an upcoming tenure review. If anything, the quiet of the small town would be perfect to motivate her, if only by provoking enough boredom to propel her through the project in hopes of getting out faster. Such was her theory. She was feeling a lot less clever just now.

Ted piped up, “Charlotte’s pretty busy with her sabbatical work. I was supposed to help her get into a project for it.”

Sybil asked, “How are you helping?”

“There are a lot of stories that came up in the paper this year with a historical-type angle. We were going to go through them together. I’ve got a couple great ideas where she can start.”

“I’ve got a project all lined up already, a real live Indiana Jones set-up, complete with a bad-mannered Frenchman.”

Juan grunted, “Man’s Cajun. Not real French.”

“But the bad-mannered part sticks.”

“Agreed. Don’t forget. He’s just a shrimper’s son from down on the gulf. Going to the Sorbonne didn’t make him a prince.”

“Don’t I know it.”

So, thought Charlotte, do I. She still kept that thought out of her expression.

Matty said, “You can help your sister, Charlotte. And she’ll get you anything you need to do your project on her site. Everybody wins.”

Joe said, “How about dessert?” His ‘not-a-question’ pronouncement shifted the conversation away from Matty’s decisive closure. The young kids in the crowd that thronged around the table cheered. Sybil shook her head and announced she was watching her weight. Ted shrugged. Matty crooked her finger at Charlotte and she trundled after her into the house.

Thankfully in Charlotte’s eyes, they stuck to talking in low tones only about the dessert, how long it took to make and how skinny Sybil looked just now. Matty praised Charlotte along the way for ‘having some healthy meat on her bones.’ That was a nice way of saying that she’d noticed Charlotte’s perpetual struggle with her weight hadn’t yielded any results and left her little on the chunky side but she was better off not obsessing. Claude’s student lover, a Costa Rican by birth, had called Chalotte ‘vaca gorda,’ meaning ‘fat cow.’ From her it was a slam. Her mother’s ‘healthy meat’ comment was just her way of putting a positive spin on matters and it did serve to cheer her up a little. As little as Charlotte looked forward to ever laying eyes on Claude again, seeing Gabriela was less appealing, less so now that Charlotte had experienced a much less painful method of being reminded of her weight gain. Well, she had sought a lot of comfort in chocolate at the end of the Claude chapter, so in some ways it was Gabriela’s fault anyway for having helped to end it.

Matty winked at Charlotte to let her know it was time to jump into the next wave of feeding frenzy in the backyard. They delivered the dessert together into the surging crowd of youngsters. The two stars of the show were a raisin sour cream pie and a double-fudge volcano cake. In honor of the dieters in the crowd, Matty had added strawberries with cream (“lite” of course) but the Parrish family did not count those in the dessert column. Sybil wrinkled her nose again even at that.

As the plates hit the table, everyone but Sybil fell on the bounty with forks drawn. She sat back and scowled at the mess on the kids, directing Juan to wipe here and there. He took a few swipes and then turned the job over to the oldest daughter. The strawberries and cream were shoved to the side while the volcano erupted all over the children.

Charlotte backed out of the chaos with a modest sliver of pie loaded on her plate and retreated to the house. Ted caught up with her as she slipped into the craft room that had once been Charlotte’s bedroom.

“What are you at, Lottie?” Ted called as Charlotte wrangled with the bag of books she’d brought for reference. She silently fished it out of the pile and held it aloft, That Book.

“Oh,” he said, clasping his elbows and furrowing his brow in worry.

Charlotte stood and rifled through her copy of “Archaeologist in the Field,” fondly known as ‘ATF’ back at Humanitas University where that had been the introductory text for first year students. How excited they’d been to get the author into their faculty stable! He’d soaked it up with an entitled air at first, coming off exactly as Sybil and Juan had seen him, all ego and bluster. Charlotte’s first encounter with him had been near the doors to the museum beside the “no smoking” sign, where, of course, he had just lit up. To her observation that there was this sign behind him that he may not have seen, he snapped, “You have any idea who I am?”

Charlotte flipped through the book, avoiding but yet wanting to see the author picture at the back, blitzing over the scribbled notes, hers and his, in the margins, his correcting her at times, sharply of course. She couldn’t resist a peek in the end. There were those pale, ice-blue eyes, the sweep of sandy hair, the confident side-look, immaculate, tidy tailoring. It was all the classroom persona he wore, a character he played almost everywhere he went, complete with put-on accent, sometimes vaguely French with a tinge of Boston. Not many got the backstage pass to the real article but she had had it once.

Then she had to see the front of the book, the formal dedication, that cryptic note: “A Ma Chère Shay.” No one else knew what it meant, which was just as well. He’d scrawled underneath it in his own hand “Toujours” and then his name, his plain, unadorned real name and not the academic version. For her at that time, he had been just “Claude” without his middle name “René” (which he sometimes tacked on with a hyphen to become “Claude-René Guilbeau,” as it was on the book cover). Here, he wasn’t trying to emphasize his being a Sorbonne graduate or “actually French” (If you stretched your definition to an American-born Cajun) as he’d preferred to do in academic circles. Here, he was just “Claude,” reduced to “C,” her own nickname for him, as “Shay” was his shorthand for her.

She sighed and slammed the book shut.

Ted shook his head at her. “You don’t have to go there, Lottie. I’ll find you something nearby. That would make more sense anyway. You’ve got all your stuff here and a place to live. Mom and Dad will settle down and see reason once I’ve explained my logic.”

“No offense but I doubt they’d define yours as the voice of reason.”

Ted considered the book, drawing a finger across the cover. “Why do we let Sybil walk all over us?”

“She walks with more confidence and she never walks alone. It’s hard to beat her back. You won’t say anything, right?”

“No, of course not. It would just turn into another chorus of ‘loser ex-boyfriends on parade,’ no good for you and not so hot for him either. Knowing Sybil and Juan and the way they exaggerate everything, he’s probably just doing a perfectly decent job that doesn’t deserve all the whining they’re doing. You might be able to do him a favor by speaking up on his behalf. He might appreciate you for it.”

“It’s an impossible position I’m going to be in. I can’t do or say anything right for any good reason for anybody.”

Ted patted her on the arm and said, “Well, I suppose you’re used to that by now.” Ted picked the book up and waved it at Charlotte. “Stop tormenting yourself with this thing. Put it away someplace. That’s my advice. Get rid of it even.”

Charlotte replied, “Well, I need it for…” She shrugged. It was an intro text, an instructor’s version, full of insights from its author, both personal and public...It was...It was utterly irrelevant to the project and she knew it. It was also her touchstone in life and she couldn’t imagine being without it.

Out in the kitchen, Matty was calling for help with the dishes. Ted started out the door in response. Charlotte stopped him with a hug.

Charlotte said, “Thanks for being there, Bro. It was a pleasure meeting Paulette. I think she’ll be good for you.”

“With any luck, you’ll be there yourself some day.”

As Ted ambled towards the kitchen, Charlotte considered the book. If that’s my good luck charm, no wonder I’m cursed.

[[2]]


The welcome packet came in a big envelope emblazoned with the corporate logo of River Mist, LTD, Charlotte’s new overlords. Sybil had handwritten her name in scrolling, flowery script above the headquarters address: Sybil Parrish-Suarez. There was a brief, typed (typed!) cover letter from some secretary “On behalf of Sra. Suarez” welcoming Charlotte as the newest member of the salvage archaeology team. The tone was clearly set by the lack of a personal note from her own sister. Charlotte was going to be just another hired hand in the site. Perhaps that was a blessing of sorts. No one would be accusing her of being the boss’ pet.

Phyllis Louden’s name adorned on the site report as lead author and head archaeologist but there were about fifty people listed on the second page, the students it seemed. So many of them had the handful of names popular for babies born about two decades ago and last names common to the region. Finally, buried on the next page, an acknowledgment in tiny print gave grudging recognition to the university investigators, Mycroft ManyBears and Claude Guilbeau (no titles).

Charlotte’s eye kept being drawn by the loud River Mist logo. It was everywhere on the report. There was a self-congratulatory preamble by Juan Suarez himself in the front of the report, lauding his company for their responsible ways. Responsible or not, he was just as beholden to the antiquities laws as any other businessman so he had some pressure to do the right thing. He also liked to whine about the laws at family gatherings so his purity was definitely a sham.

Charlotte rolled her eyes.

That logo, again, again, and again, kept slamming against her. These were the people who would own her, body and soul, for six months. Her heart would be in their hands most of all.

Charlotte shut the report and looked again at the cold-toned letter. They wanted her out there in two days. They had found a trailer for her to live in at a nearby trailer park. The site was a woodland site, a community at the time it had been inhabited, now a farm plot just purchased by River Mist for the purpose of putting up a spa and hunting lodge. There was good pheasant hunting to be had and maybe some deer and antelope too. There was money to make off of the land if they could just get through the “formality” of removing the artifacts and recording the context for posterity (or, Charlotte guessed Sybil and Juan thought, merely the ultra-nerdy types who belonged to the historical society and worked for the detested university). The guests at the new spa would experience unequaled rapture and the town would benefit. Again, there was serious money to be made (as if to say, “what else is there?”).

Charlotte stuffed the report back in the envelope and marched to “her” room, or rather the room grudgingly designated for her use in her parents’ house. It had been her mother’s craft room and she clearly wanted it back sooner rather than later. After a brief moment of self-pitying regard, Charlotte plunged into the task of packing.

She stopped in the middle of wrangling her belongings and thought of The Book, buried now in a pile of boxes on Ted’s advice. Why, perhaps it might impress Dr. Louden, especially if she mentioned knowing the author or rather having once known him at some time (unspecified) in the past. Professionally, she’d say, although that was the very least of the matter. A little rewrite of the past would do the trick. The signature? It seemed personal but she could explain it away as faux familiarity, ego preening by the author (and who wouldn’t believe that once they met him?). She could then control the narrative before Claude could make it his own. He’d want to ignore her no doubt and pretend they were strangers. She would start with at least partial honesty with her new colleagues. They could relax and be professional from there. It made sense.

She had to pull several boxes down from the rafters in the garage to get to her object, enough that her father came in from weeding the flower beds in response to the clatter and asked, “What are you up to, Lottie?”

“Getting ready to go out west, to the site.”

“You’re taking all this stuff too?”

“Only one thing.”

Charlotte pulled her prize from the box and held it aloft. Joe shrugged and said, “Well, let me know if you need help.” As expected, he showed less than no interest in The Book. Good. He shambled away, back to the garden.

Charotte paused were she stood and looked over that signature again. She satisfied herself with the lie that she was only checking to be sure that if Sybil got a peek at it (why would she ever look?) she’d never understand what that page was saying: “I owe it all to you my darling and will never forget it.” Yeah, he forgot it, just like they all do. Charlotte did not need her nose rubbed in that fact.

Charlotte tucked the book under her arm, feeling the brief sear of a blush across her cheek as she returned to the house and to her half-packed bags. She put a hand to her cheek as she considered Ted’s old hatchback stowed in the driveway. He’d loved that car with an intensity that had grown as his parents came to loathe its rattle-trap looks and Paulette to hate its uneven ride. The car was his talisman and he had turned it over to her for her use during the sabbatical. Matty and Joe had made a wishful (pre-wedding perhaps) present of a “more family oriented car,” an older mini-van they’d picked up at auction. It was not a luxury ride by any means but had a lot less rust on it.

Ted will not keep his word any more than I did. I’m sure he’s not selling that car anymore than I’m keeping my hands off this book.

Assured of her righteousness, Charlotte took the book in the house and packed it.


[[3]]


From the right booth in the Uptown café on Main Street, Claude could catch a glimpse of her as she paced about behind the cash register in the antique store across the street and he would watch, rapt and snared. Sometimes her black hair would cascade down her back. Sometimes she wore it twisted at the nape, touching her just where his lips should go. He could see other men’s eyes follow her, maybe thinking the same. Her gently curvy figure would shimmy in the confines of her dress, swaying in response to the motion of her dress pumps. He didn’t blame the others for the hunger in their eyes.

The waitresses all knew him by now and would slide the cup of hot chocolate all loaded down with whipped cream across the table without a word. He would mutter his thanks and turn his eyes back over across the street. They all knew what drew his attention.

One of the older waitresses, the kind who were brave enough to push in with their advice, followed his gaze this toasty Friday morning over to the still dark window of the antique store and shook her head. “Thinking of the clerk with the body I bet. She’s beautiful. I give you that. But, honey, she’s a world of trouble. I can just read that on her hips. And let’s not forget that little golden band on your finger, fella.”

He pulled out his wallet and laid it open to the relevant photo. The waitress craned her head around to look. The customer was there in the foreground, familiar by his bright blue eyes, though his hair was different, short and neatly swept to the side, nothing like that long cascade of bleached hair he’d worn lately in an epic ponytail. His face was clean-shaven in the photo, unlike this morning when he’d been too lazy to do more than take a swipe at it. He was dressed in a tuxedo and flashing a brilliant smile into the camera. Beside him stood the very woman, the clerk herself, amazing in a blue sheath that traced her sleek contours and plunged just right around her breasts, making the most of them. Her flawless face was scrunched in an ugly scowl.

Adjacent to the photo, the customer’s university ID showed a different face, a wide-eyed look of fear and anxiety, framed by the same short sweep of hair as the other photo but slicked back. He was trussed up in a plain tie and gray jacket. Today, he looked weary, although the day was young. The waitress wondered where that nicely coifed young man had gone and how he’d gotten replaced by this tattered specimen.

“Never saw you look so happy in real life, Claude,” the waitress commented. “But she looks about like she wants to kick your head in. She your ex-wife? Is that what this is about?”

“She’s my current wife.”

“She never comes in with you.”

“No. This is not her sort of place.”

“Well, she doesn’t have much choice around here, does she?”

“Don’t be hurt. It’s not just the café that’s not her sort of place.”

The waitress set down his bill. “There must be more flattering pictures of her, you know. She is a real beauty. She must hate that you carry that one around.”

“It’s not a picture of her, really, though she’s in it. She has no idea that I carry this. She never looks in my wallet.”

Mike ManyBears, who nearly always showed up at some time or another when Claude was there, slid into the booth across from him, flipping his long black pony tail back over his shoulder.

“Coffee?” the waitress asked.

“You got it.”

“And one of them big sweet rolls too, heated just a little?”

“What else? You know the routine.”

Mike reached across the table as the waitress twisted over to the hutch where they kept the coffee and cups and took his colleague’s open wallet. He studied the photo and looked over to the antique shop. “Well that captures Gabriela, all right, but don’t you think it’s a little too literal?”

Claude held his hand out to Mike, palm up. Mike tucked the wallet back into his hand.

“As I told our waitress friend here, it’s not a picture of Gabriela.”

“You keep it to remind yourself that you’re capable of being happy, right?”

“Mais oui. Comme ça.”

The waitress set Mike’s coffee down on the table and shook her head, tucking the back of her hand against her hip. “Why do you need a photo to remind you? You should learn to appreciate what’s right in your hands. God’s been good to you, you know. Jesus loves you too.”

Claude registered no reaction to the advice but Mike laughed through his nose and said, “You’re preaching to the wrong church’s choir, sweetheart.”

Claude opened his wallet again, this time to fish out a five dollar bill.

“What were you so afraid of there in that picture?” The waitress asked. She waved her hand at the university ID.

“Everyone would realize what a fraud am I. I would let down all the people I cared about. Things would turn out just like this.”

The waitress took up the fiver and said, “Mercy, Claude.”

“Mer-cee Ren-nay,” Mike corrected. “Oh Fran-cayze.”

“No, I mean it. Mercy me, honey. The Lord helps only them who help themselves. I’ll get you your change and your pal his roll.”

“No change. Put it towards the roll and coffee. Let me know what I owe you after that.”

Mike nodded his thanks and turned to the task of making the coffee sweet and creamy enough to tolerate in his eyes. He stirred it first one way and then the other. “What’s making you so cheery today? I’m worried you might slip up and show the students your well-hidden good guy side if you get lazy enough. You seem tired.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will kill that rumor off shortly. We’ve got River Mist’s new overseer coming in sometime soon, possibly today, maybe next week. I have no doubt we’ll butt heads and just when I finally got Dr. Louden to a place where we trust each other. We’re starting all over again it seems.”

Once outside, Mike growled, “Hell, it’s going to be hot. Why’d you let me eat all that stuff? It hurts to breathe already. Coffee was a bad idea.” He stretched and muttered something in his native Ni’qat. Claude recognized a reference to Mike’s brother, the local sheriff’s deputy. The sheriff’s department cruiser crawled by them, affording them one glance of the barrel-shaped, buzz-cut head of Maynard ManyBears. Mike saluted him with a stiff wave and ambled down the sidewalk towards Claude’s battered Jeep.

“Such the hard ass,” Mike said as Claude dropped into the driver’s seat.

“What?”

“Not you,” Mike said, settling into the passenger seat. He pushed at the glove compartment door, which lay slightly ajar. “Maynard. He must be in Heaven behind the wheel of that bear-mobile of his, carrying on the family tradition.” Another push at the glove compartment caused it to spring open, rather than closing, revealing a pile of paperwork and a handgun. Mike clicked his tongue and shook his head.

Claude reached across Mike and slammed the glove compartment door into place, giving Mike a “stay out of my stuff” glare. “Papa Marcel is no police officer.”

“You know what I mean…he’s the American hero type…let me school you a bit, C.R.”

Claude guided the Jeep out onto the street, conscious of Maynard’s vehicle as he took the wide turn at the other end of the street. He may have been a friend but he never balked at doing his job for any reason and Claude knew from experience that meant an even possibility of traffic tickets if the deputy spotted even the tiniest item that pushed the edge of any regulation. The OUI charge had meant extra scrutiny of course.

Mike carried on, listing his father’s accomplishments. “Navy pilot, bush pilot, fire chief, and now director of the summer youth program for the reservation. Maynard wears his hair in the same military style. He wears the same kind of clothes. He’s trying to improve on the model by being a bit tougher, a shade less jovial, a lot more vigilant. Someone ought to knock some sense into him before he turns into a lonely old man. How about you? I’ve seen you kick some pretty mean butt.”

Claude shook his head. In his rear view mirror he could clearly see the determined nod of Maynard’s head, the way he pursed his lips as he watched the Jeep travel through the slowest speed zone in the city. The speedometer didn’t work but trailing the car in front usually did. His eye strayed to the glove compartment, willing it to stay shut. The handgun was registered now but Maynard did not approve of his toting it around, even given that he had legitimate reason to have a weapon on hand, given…well…everything from the remote possibility of crossing paths with a rabid…something… to the rough trade at his favorite roadhouse…not to mention his usual excuse: you never know who might try to shake you down at a dig site, especially given the prevalence of meth cooking operations in remote places in the area.

“Not me,” Mike sighed. “I’m nobody’s idea of a hero.”

“Next to me, you’re Superman.”

“Boy, the waitress had it right. Mercy, C.R.”

Maynard turned away from the Jeep and veered off towards campus. Claude loosened his grip on the steering wheel and sped up ever so slightly.

“Hey, don’t let me down,” Mike said. “I helped hire you because you look good on paper and you talked yourself up like a champ. You’re supposed to be my best achievement here at the university. Making me look good is the least you can do, considering what you owe me.”

“You won’t ever let me forget that, will you?”

“I don’t let aces out of my sleeve, pal. You’ve got a legacy to live up to, just like me, and one of us will be successful.”

“My legacy…so called…I’m flop as a Jew, a mediocre fisherman, and never could settle into the working class. I will give myself this: I was a peerless mean drunk in my day.”

The time, according to the battery clock clipped on the visor, was 6:20 AM. If he picked up speed just past the town line, Claude would beat the student van and the River Mist crew to the site. As soon as he began to rehearse his lines in his head, he cut back on the gas and the Jeep growled. The voice in his head sounded too stern for what energy he thought he could muster. He wasn’t up yet to facing another layer of oversight. Praying it’s not today…

“Maynard’s not watching,” Mike said.

“No. But everyone else is.”

Mike looked over his shoulder and saw no other vehicle. “Okay. If you say so. Relax a little more, though. You’re actually scaring me more than you did in town with the fuzz on your tail.” He elbowed Claude. “Try being yourself today. Comme ça.”

The Jeep sped up but just enough to be on time.

[[4]]


At the end of the first leg of her journey that following weekend, Charlotte confronted the reality of her new life and altered project plans with a sense of shock that went beyond the bodily blow of the wall of heat outside the car. She hadn’t even unpacked her duffel yet. She’d taken one look at the dumpy trailer, a battered, chipped white metal box resting on a patch of hard-packed bare earth, and tossed the bag back in the car. As battle-scarred as Ted’s old vehicle was, it looked distinguished next to the trailer. There was a line of trailers surrounding the short dead-end road, each just as plain and frowsy as the first.

Charlotte huffed in a mouthful of the suffocating summer air and considered whether family peace was worth living in a dispiriting pile of tin cans or whether that was just the last straw. She mopped her brow and thought of the site. Perhaps the site would rouse her love of the discipline enough to overcome her repugnance. Maybe that would be the result if she went to see it in person. Right now. It was Sunday and she might find the place vacant, perfect for her personal survey.

She open the car door and dug out the duffel. She stood rifling through it for the report as a voice addressed her: “Well?”

Charlotte turned on the speaker, Mrs. Wolinski, the trailer park manager, a frail, hunched little woman, in a polyester dress, stockings and a white cardigan, despite the heat. Mrs. Wolinksi tucked her hands in her armpits and stalled just beside the car. Again, she asked, “Well?” Before Charlotte could compose an answer, the old woman said, “Your sister got lucky that I had any vacancy. Housing’s hard to come by out here. You been inside yet?”

“I..uh…have an errand to run that I just remembered but I’ll b-be back…very soon. I don’t…have a scrap of food and..I’ll take care of that too.”

“You want a puppy?”

“Excuse me?”

“One of my bridge partners has a dog, just had puppies.”

“Oh..you allow pets?”

“Sure.”

“I…I probably don’t have time for a puppy. Maybe some time later. Maybe a bigger dog?”

“Same partner has a grown one from last summer’s litter. Needs a good home.”

“Um…show me some day and I’ll consider it.”

Mrs. Wolinski cast an eye into the duffel and remarked, “You pack anything besides books?”

Charlotte glanced at the duffel herself and noted her copy of ATF lay prominently atop her clothes. She’d had her priorities. “I..you gotta read up on the stuff I’m doing to keep current. Anyway, I..I’m headed out…back later.” Well, reading ATF was not “keeping current” but Mrs. Wolinski wouldn’t know the difference and, sure enough, she shrugged and walked away.

As Charlotte drove up the service road that connected the park to the main road, she mused on the watchful eye of Mrs. Wolinski. It could be comforting, kind of like a low-tech security system, to have that kind of surveillance. And it could be miserable too.

She drew to a stop just before the road and fished out her GPS and the site report. “Knudson’s Farm,” the place was called. Phyllis had included geo-coordinates for the site. Charlotte plugged them into her GPS unit and followed its lead.

Eight miles up the main road and then three miles from there, off on a well-graded dirt road, she found the Knudson farm. The enormous blue mailbox, door yawning wide open, confirmed the find with the family named stenciled in white on its side. Just beyond the mailbox stood the farmhouse, with its sagging porch and creaking, old-fashioned windmill (not a new-fangled wind power turbine but a real Dorothy-from-Oz setup). Knudson had a crop of sunflowers in along the flanks of the hill but he’d left the plot in question (just a half mile past the mailbox and across the road) to weeds. Over the years, diggers had come and gone with the ebb and flow of grant money and scratched about in the dirt. Rumor had it, there was more to be found on the rest of his property but Knudson felt he’d given enough up to science already. In fact, he was tired of the parade of academics and ready to get beyond their occupation. The cash settlement with River Mist had been a factor too. Knudson was getting on in years and had no progeny interested in the family business. Also, he liked hunting pheasants as much as the next guy out there and wouldn’t mind a plush setting to support his hobby.

The site was a flat spot atop a long, sweeping hill, a natural spring feeding a strip of cottonwoods across the road. A tent marked the area where the researchers usually congregated with their computers and notebooks when not digging and also took their lunch and water breaks. Down the hill, a small metal shed clung to the slope. Another vehicle stood in the parking area near the tent, a jaunty little silver Mercedes that seemed an unusual choice for an archaeologist. But then, Charlotte reminded herself, Dr. Louden works for a spa developer. She’s not an academic. She must have some moola….and that surely is not Claude’s car. No way.

She forged down the hill to the shed with her duffel hanging from one shoulder calling, “Hello! Hello! Dr. Louden!”

No one answered the call. There were vague whisperings from somewhere nearby but she couldn’t make them out and dismissed them as unimportant, maybe misheard. The shed, she saw, had no lock at all. She shrugged and yanked the door open.

Inside, the only light was the sunlight streaming from behind. Pent-up heat roiled out of the darkness. Something rustled. She stepped in to turn on a hanging work lamp that dangled from a hook. The rustle became a swoosh and a length of canvas bound her.

A voice snapped “Hurry! Get her with this!”

A mighty crack to the head finished the job of blacking out Charlotte’s world. When she came to, the canvas was gone and she lay on the ground, pinned by the weight of a toothy young woman with smartly bobbed brown hair leaning on a knee pressed into her chest. She held a switchblade near Charlotte’s nose. Behind her, a husky blond guy with a short raft of dreadlocks flopping over razored temples and a lot of piercings wrestled with a roll of duct tape.

“Baird!” the girl growled. “Can’t you do the simplest thing? Get me that tape now!”

Baird whined, “Why are we hanging onto this ho’? What’s the point?”

He held out the loosened tape, which the young woman expertly hacked at and applied to Charlotte’s mouth. She handed the roll back to Baird and said, “Get her feet. Look, she caught us where we weren’t supposed to be and we had to knock her out.”

“But why wait ‘til she woke up? Why didn’t we bolt?”

“She’s one of the crew. She can lead us to their big find.”

The find. Charlotte had just read about it the night before in Dr. Louden’s report.

“We got what we came for,” Baird said. “What do we want with this other thing?”

What they came for?

“Shut up and hand me the tape so I can finish. Get her bag. Get any notebooks or whatever she’s got…Not that report! Duh! I’ve seen that thing already. And that’s the same old dumb book we use in class.”

“It’s the instructor copy. Could be worth something.”

“Whatever. Just shut up and look.”

“What’s it look like, Sylvia?” Baird asked. “The…thingy-do?”

“For the fiftieth time, I don’t know!” Sylvia shrieked. She shoved Charlotte onto her stomach and immobilized her wrists, strapping them together. “All I know is, it’s something really important. It’s exactly why I took that stupid class in the first place. When I heard our professor carry on about it at the reception, I thought, this is it! I get that thing to myself and I’m done fencing stuff. This is my last job.”

“Why would it be here and not in the museum?” Baird asked.

“Because, stupid, the matrix gets you! You know, providence! He said it right in class. They never move anything out of the site until they put little numbers on it and photograph it. Then it goes in the lab and they clean it. Believe me, no one in the lab has seen it yet. I got my sources.”

Sylvia seemed to know a bit about archaeology all right, though it was a little off. The word “providence” must have been “provenience” and “The Matrix” sounded more like a reference to the science-fiction film than the archaeological concept. She wasn’t one of Claude’s brighter students but she did have a spy in the lab.

“How do you know it’s not there if you don’t know what it is?” Baird asked.

“You are so dumb, Baird,” Sylvia groaned. “Listen. It’s something really big and exciting. It’s supposed to be the key to this whole site. The professor’s publishing on this thing as soon as they don’t need it down here anymore. He said that at the reception and he was practically drooling.”

“Maybe it was the food.”

“Idiot! I saw the whole thing. It was all about the find.”

Or something… Charlotte thought. Maybe the fawning attention of a cute student had its effect too. Sylvia and Baird had apparently skipped the actual lecture on the new find, assuming, probably with some accuracy, that it would be too boring and technical. They certainly hadn’t read the report and hadn’t paid any attention to the professor or to Dr. Louden when they were talking about it.

“I’m tired of trashing this place. There’s nothing left to look at,” Baird announced. “Let’s just make her tell us where it is and get out of here.”

“Not so fast. We have to finish up all the way with this lady before we go. You want her identifying you?”

“Me?”

“That’s right. I’m just an impressionable girl and not very bright. You’re a big strong guy with an obvious anger management problem. Who do you think would get blamed?”

There was a loud click and then a husky voice said to them, “Looks like plenty blame to go around, if you ask me.”

A man in uniform came into Charlotte’s view, handgun trained on the two robbers. He was a large Native American, all square angles right up to his brush cut. “Maynard ManyBears,” he grunted, in Charlotte’s general direction, “Sheriff’s deputy. No one’s supposed to be out here just now so you-all caught my attention. Lucky you.”

Maynard kept the gun trained on Sylvia and Baird with one hand and cut Charlotte partly loose with the other. Charlotte herself finished the job. Soon, Charlotte staggered to her feet and faced her captors, prying the tape off her mouth.

By then, Maynard had cuffed them together, back-to-back and sitting on the floor. Charlotte considered the two prisoners for a moment and then decided to show them the thing that had brought them there. She rummaged around and pulled the report out of her duffel.

“Take a look,” she said, standing in front of Sylvia with the opened report upraised in one hand.

Sylvia shook her head and said, “What? I don’t get it.”

“Those little dots in the photo there are carbonized seeds,” Charlotte told her. “These seeds can be dated and their presence shows a trade relationship with groups to the north. It’s a very big deal in our world, a reputation maker. To you, it’s a useless piece of garbage, especially since I bet you never read your book or took notes or bothered to listen closely to your professor. It was never worth robbery, kidnapping and murder but then what is? That, my dear, is your ‘find.’”

Sylvia silently cursed and turned her head but Baird began to laugh.


[[5]]


Mike ManyBears took a deep breath and uttered an oath under it before letting the padlock swing loose. The shed would be trashed, he knew. Maynard had warned him of that. That new digger, Charlotte, had sworn she would come back and clean it all up before Dr. Louden, the students, and Dr. Guilbeau came back but Maynard had to be his stubborn self and tell her to stay away, just because she didn’t seem to have the common sense to avoid getting kidnapped. So now Mike, the site historian, had the honor.

Mike blinked in the semi-darkness as the room came into focus and then blinked harder to wipe away the image of the upended containers and scattered papers. The large tool set lay on one side.

“Why’d you guys leave it like this?” he asked. As usual, when he was alone with his brother and father, he addressed them in Ni’qat where he could, throwing in English for the words his native tongue lacked.

“We needed photos for the record,” Maynard told him. “And now we need you to verify what’s missing, if anything. I believe there is much more to this incident than we know. They claim to have been only here after some so-called ‘find’ but seem to have been more interested in other items here. They acted surprised when they found out it was just some of your usual junk but they were in your friend’s class. You would think they knew better.”

Behind Maynard, Marcel ManyBears picked his way through the rough turf around the edges of the excavation site and then squatted, staring into the hole. Like his older son, he wore his hair military-short. While Maynard wore his deputy’s uniform, his father had come in camo pants and a t-shirt that advertised his naval service, with a cap reminding them both he had once been reservation fire chief. Mike wore his hair in a single braid down his back and veered away from all the paramilitary garb, favoring a pair of striped shorts and a tank top advertising his employers, the local public university (or rather its football team) instead.

“Well, my teeth will be what’s missing when C.R. gets his hands on me,” Mike grumbled, turning back in towards the mess that had been their headquarters. “Looks like they didn’t find anything interesting enough to steal but that’s the good news.”

Marcel stood up, dusting his pant legs. “I agree with the thieves,” he said. “I don’t see why grown men would give up their lives to dig through the dirt for a pile of charred wood and a handful of pollen. Maybe it’s a blessing that they chose to disrupt your antics. Makes you think, doesn’t it, Mycroft? Makes you know what’s important sometimes. The past is gone.”

Mike shrugged. “There’s always someone selfish enough to think they should have something you value. That’s not new. That’s a useful lesson they teach you in History, Pop. ” He set the smaller tool bin back up, figuring that would be easier to wrangle Maynard easily righted a heavier bin and then moved around the room helping Mike right the fallen objects and return unboxed items to their places.

“This is a new pattern, Pop,” Maynard said. “There’s always been petty crime around the campus but it’s getting more serious.”

“Too much television,” Marcel mused. “In my day, we didn’t live and breathe by what’s on the tube.”

“That’s because we don’t get any reception on the Rez,” Maynard replied.

Mike pulled the small table back into place for another easy victory. “Or more likely because Pop had no electricity as a child,” he said.

“We rode dinosaurs to school, too,” Marcel said.

“We know that was a conscious choice that Old Ma made,” Maynard said. “I have no judgment about that myself. I’m more interested in what’s happening right here and now, with my case.”

Mike grunted as he heaved one of the heavier bins back into place on the table and let it slip at just the right moment back into its accustomed place, just as his grip faltered. “Some case,” he said, shaking his stinging fingers. “The principles are both in jail and you’re one of the witnesses. Open and shut.”

“Oh, yeah?” Maynard shot back. “What do you think the so-called ‘principles’ were planning to do with all that supposed loot they thought they were going to score?”

“What loot?” a voice cut in, the native tongue clear and sure but with a faint accent.

“Fiddlesticks,” Mike said in English. He turned about and faced the newcomer.

Claude tipped his John Deere hat to Marcel, ruffling his back-sweeping ponytail in the process, and offered a respectful greeting in Ni’qat. He spoke the language competently but without fluency.

“There was a robbery here,” Mike announced, pulling as many assorted items into his arms as he could manage.

“I hope that’s true,” Claude said, shouldering in past Marcel, back to speaking English, which he did with an indefinable hint of some other place. “We need to fire the housekeeping staff if not.”

“There was a hostage situation here,” Maynard corrected. “It was close.”

“What? Who would take hostages in this place?” Claude asked. “Why? How?”

“All good questions,” Mike acknowledged. He shoved his armload of items into the nearest bin in a heap. “The answers are very simple and I would love to go over them with a couple beers. How ‘bout it?”

“Not that redneck bar down the road?” Marcel wondered. He pulled a water jug up and began gathering papers.

“No one bothers me with C.R. by my side,” Mike chirped as he sorted out the scattered small tool bits. “He’s got a reputation and I have Maynard to thank for it. After he busted him for carrying an unregistered handgun down there, all the resident beer nuts grew some respect. It didn’t hurt that he helped bounce some Klan-meister bikers out of the place either, let them get a look at his martial arts skills up close and personal.”


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