For years, Gorka Bilbao drove sheep back and forth across the hills of north central Oregon. Each day began anew the search for fresh grass and tender green herbs. He baked his bread in a Dutch oven over a sagebrush fire. He slept alone in a coffinlike travel trailer. That is how his father and his grandfather had earned their living, and Bilbao never dreamed of doing anything else. But when he was forty-two, the federal government cut back the number of sheep it allowed to graze on public lands. The conservationists said sheep were overgrazing the range. Most of the herds went to the slaughterhouses, and Bilbao’s old way of life passed away.
What to do?
For a while, he washed dishes at his cousin’s restaurant in Portland. But cities were his downfall. They tempted him to do bad things. A woman would get inside his head and not let go of him until he had her. He was completely helpless against this desire. And it eventually cost him his freedom. Released from prison, he returned to the badlands east of the Cascade Mountains. He could find no way to earn his bread there, so he drank up his welfare money and waited to get sick and die. All things without purpose on the desert get sick and die.
Yet the badlands wouldn’t let him slide off into oblivion.
Each winter, the rains washed a new crop of fossils and old bones out of the volcanic ash that jacketed the barren hills. For as long as he could remember, Bilbao had stumbled across weathered bones and flat rocks with the imprints of leaves and strange creatures in them. He never gave these oddities much of a thought. But then, while waiting for his next welfare check, he came upon a man in a floppy straw hat and short pants who was scratching at the banks of the John Day River with a pick. A college man, it turned out. On that day, Bilbao heard the word fossil for the first time. The college man showed him a fossilized three-toe hoof, explaining that it came from a dog-sized horse that had once roamed this country. Bilbao asked if it had been an Indian pony. Smirking, the college man said no, this was long before there were any men in Oregon, long before there was such a place called Oregon. All this was of mild interest to Bilbao.
But what the college man said next made the unemployed shepherd’s ears perk up.
The professor would pay good money for fossils. Others, although not he, would pay even more for human bones that weren’t quite fossils. As much as their weight in gold. That astonished Bilbao. It also made him grimace as he recalled all the skeletal remains he’d passed by through the years. The college man said that fossils and bones, once exposed to the elements, quickly crumbled and lost their value.
No more would Gorka Bilbao pass them by, and on that afternoon he became a fossil hunter.
Ten years later now, he was back along the John Day River. His shoulders were hunched and burly from a decade of hacking at the ground with a pick, and his tangled beard was flecked with seeds from the thickets that lined the river. It was the last week of September. Mist hid the canyon walls, although a pale sun kept trying to break through. The unseasonable chill had made Bilbao take out his moth-eaten army overcoat and mittens with the fingertips cut off so he could still pick up fine bones. Soon it would be winter. This was a cold desert. Blizzards howled down the canyons. Ice fogs stole in during the night and left diamonds on the brush when the heatless sun came out at dawn. It’d be nice to hole up in his cabin in the Ochoco Mountains during the bad months, to do nothing but drink, but he always seemed to need the cash from more fossils and bones.
Bilbao suddenly halted. “Here we go,” he whispered to himself. “Here we go now . . .”
At the foot of the bank lay a fossil fragment shaped like an oyster cracker. He recognized it right off: a scale from the shell of a giant turtle that had swum the vast, inland lake that had once covered this now parched country.
Bilbao looked over his shoulder for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger who patrolled the area. The cop knew him, knew what he did for a living, and tried to keep an eye on Bilbao. But the desert was a big place.
Seeing no one, Bilbao pocketed the piece of turtle shell. The turtle was an animal with a backbone, and the fossils of animals with backbones were off-limits. Much of what Bilbao collected was against the law to possess, and nothing more so than the remains of human beings. But oh so valuable. Yet, they had to be ancient. Very, very ancient. Once, on a moonless night, Bilbao had dug up a skeleton from the graveyard outside the old Bureau of Indian Affairs hospital in Warm Springs, then soaked the bones in potassium bichromate, hoping to pass them off as being thirteen thousand years old. That was the magic number to the college men; they didn’t figure Indians had been in this country much longer than that. He tried to sell the remains to a professor, but the man knew at once they were fakes and refused to do further business with Bilbao. After that, the fossil hunter became more careful.
College men knew bones like shepherds knew sheep.
Still, there were ways to find the genuine article.
Last autumn, the Army Corps of Engineers had finished the Clarno Reservoir Bilbao could see the sweeping concrete face of the dam from where he stood. And three weeks ago, the spillway gates had been opened, disgorging a man-made flood. This was to help the Chinook salmon make their way up the canyon and over the dam’s fish ladder to their spawning places. The torrent had chewed at the banks of the John Day, hopefully scouring out old bones like nuggets of gold. Last night, the gates had been shut, and the river had dropped again. These fluctuations were posted by the Army Corps of Engineers in the local newspaper, and Bilbao was usually first to search any canyon after a water release.
A loud splash turned him around a slab of bank had just peeled off into a muddy pool.
Bilbao scurried over to this hump of dissolving earth and ran his practiced eye over the debris of centuries. There were flakes of stone left by Indian arrowhead makers. Charcoal from a brush fire that may have swept this way a thousand years ago. Black pellets of sheep dung from a herd he himself might have run when he was younger.
By noon, Bilbao had found the vertebra of an oreodont, a stubby-legged, plant-eating creature.
But nothing else.
He waded across the shallow river. The water slopped into his boots and soaked his socks. He must get used to the cold again. He couldn’t let the weather stop his searching, just as he’d never let it make him neglect his herd.
At dusk, a chip of darkly soiled bone caught Bilbao’s attention along the east side of the John Day. It was resting on top of another slab of earth that had sloughed off the bank. Anyone but Bilbao, who saw bone fragments in his dreams, would have missed it.
“Slow down, slow down.” Bilbao reminded himself. Haste had no purpose here.
Just to the left of the chip was a knee joint. Carefully, he pried the thigh bone out of the silt and examined it. Human. It was definitely human. But how old? Bilbao sucked on his lower lip, studying the bone. By nature, he was suspicious of good fortune, for he’d had almost none in his life, but his heart was beating fast. This was good, so very good.
He peered down.
Strewn around his boots were a jumble of rib, finger and toe bones.
“Jesus!” he cried out loud.
Most of a skeleton, maybe. Rare, so very rare, for with time the Earth scattered her dead children far and wide. But this specimen still might be in one place.
All of a sudden, the hair on the back of his neck prickled. As if he’d blundered into a rattlesnake den. Something rattled angrily all around him, but when he held his breath to listen over his pounding heart, he heard only the murmur of the river. Something was rising from the mud. He could feel it swirling in the air, almost see it spinning into shape. The fog blew back from the mound, and the brush topping the bank shivered as if trying to yank free of its roots and bolt away.
Bilbao shut his eyes.
The nearby Warm Springs Indians claimed that there was bad power in old bones. This power was easy to awaken but almost impossible to put to rest again. He didn’t want to see anymore. He was chilled by his find. Evil surrounded it, just as evil surrounded him when the city got hold of his soul and made him do things against his nature.
But there was also pleasure in evil and profit. As if on that thought, the air went still. Dead still.
Slowly, Bilbao opened his eyes.
There was no sign of the strange restlessness that had just sprung from the ground. Calming down, he began searching for the other bones of the skeleton.
He located the sternum several yards upstream. Grinning, he was reaching for it when the same blustery evil seemed to explode out of the silt. It gave the breastbone life, made it appear to be a gigantic centipede scuttling through the ooze.
Bilbao staggered back on his heels.
This had happened before. In the detoxification tank of the Portland city jail. Things had wriggled out of the lime green walls to molest him, a gushing mass of cockroaches, worms and spiders that vanished only when the jailer answered Bilbao’s hysterical screams.
He forced himself to approach the breastbone again. It lay completely still now. Just a sternum. But one stained dark with age. He made up his mind that nothing was going to spoil his good fortune.
Then his breath seized in his throat jutting from a sand bar was the domed curvature of a human skull.
Splashing over to the bar, he lifted the cranium free. Only the upper portion of the skull. The lower jaw was probably buried nearby. Bilbao studied the specimen. A narrow face and a slightly projecting upper jaw. Not the round face and flat upper jaw of other skulls he’d found. He’d found no Indian skulls like this, but he’d been told to keep an eye out for this very thing, a different-looking skull of great age.
My God, this is one of them! This is one!
Through the gaping eye sockets, he saw himself sitting in front of his cabin in the shade of his pine tree, sipping Thunderbird wine, planning his next trip to the listless but complying women who walked Portland’s streets.
Bundling the bones up in his coat, Bilbao laughed giddily to himself. “Son of a bitch, yes I’m on a roll! Nothin’ can stop me now!”
Out of an awkward silence and there’d been several awkward silences so far Anna Turnipseed’s gently smiling, white-haired therapist said, “Well, you’re both Native American. That should make communication a snap. And you both have the same job, FBI agents . . .” Anna expected Emmett Parker, her yet unconsummated lover of three months, to correct Dr. Tischler. Anna was the FBI agent; Emmett was a criminal investigator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
But he didn’t.
He looked like a POW under interrogation. One who’d resolved to give nothing more than name, rank and serial number.
“How’s communication been flowing lately, Emmett?”? Dr. Tischler asked.
Parker shifted his tall, muscular frame on the sofa as if the simple act of sitting had begun to torture him. “Okay,” he finally replied.
Less than a ringing endorsement for Anna’s and his progress since their last session three weeks ago in this office.
Dr. Tischler pressed, “Has Anna continued to share things about her childhood with you?”
“This and that,” Emmett said indifferently, avoiding Anna’s eyes. That stung. She’d told him more than this and that. Dredging up those malignant memories had nearly killed her. It had amounted to an extraordinary act of trust, running her soul over the cutting edge of the past. For an adult survivor of child abuse, the past was not a stroll down memory lane. She wanted to smack Emmett, but relaxed her fists for fear Dr. Tischler would scope on this hint of aggression.
“Do you appreciate how hard it is for Anna to discuss these memories, Emmett?”
“Of course I do.” He slowly ran his hand over his close-cropped black hair. Hair with the lustrous sheen of raven feathers, but for the recently sprouted touches of gray. I’ve investigated dozens of cases just like hers, and I can’t imagine a worse nightmare for a child than being molested by a parent. But what’s past is past. Why can’t Anna accept that?”
“Good question,” Dr. Tischler said. “People who were sexually traumatized by their caregivers have recurring experiences long after the abuse. Such as flashbacks. The past is very much part of their daily lives.” The psychiatrist folded her hands in her lap. Her one concession to Emmett’s presence was not to break out the knitting she worked at when alone with Anna. “Last time, Emmett, you promised to be patient with Anna while she develops a perspective toward her late father.”
Anna blurted, “Emmett’s been more than patient, Myra.” Then, too late, she realized that she was rushing to defend Emmett just as her mother had her father. All at once, she wanted nothing more than to get out of this office, even if it was out into the glaring, wide-eyed Las Vegas evening.
“I’m pleased, Anna,” Dr. Tischler said. “So you two continue to lay the groundwork for healthy sexual expression . . .” She took a sip of mineral water, the loose skin of her underarm jiggling as she set the glass back on the coffee table. The psychiatrist was pushing seventy, and Anna dreaded the day the woman would retire. She didn’t want to go through all this with somebody new. “And I sense a strong desire for commitment here. Anna, didn’t you just turn down a promotion so you could remain relatively close to Emmett?”
“The assistant directorship of the Indian Desk at FBI headquarters in Washington.”
“What’s that, dear?”
“A special department that oversees cases in Indian Country.”
“So at this time in your life you consider your relationship with Emmett to be more important than career advancement?”
“Yes.” But Anna’s quick reply made her feel nauseatingly compliant, so she echoed, “At this point.”
Dr. Tischler brightly shifted gears. “Okay, let’s try to figure out what went wrong this time and adjust our tactics. Any ideas, Emmett?”
Anna had to unclench her hands again. In private to her, Emmett had accused the psychiatrist of showing “survivor bias,” aligning with Anna. Now he was apparently out to prove it.
Dr. Tischler said, “Our goal is to create a good sexual experience for the two of you. Right?” Anna nodded, but Emmett’s face remained deadpan. “Of all the techniques I suggested, which has come closest to achieving that?”
“What about hand-holding?” Dr. Tischler checked the mantel clock over her gas-fed fireplace. Blue teardrops of flame flickered up from the grill. It was the middle of October, and the north winds were just starting to abate southern Nevada’s furnacelike heat, enough so for the Boston-bred doctor to celebrate the seasonal change by lighting the burners. Yet she seemed to be one of those easterners who’d been captivated against her will by the desert. The stark and haunting quality of its sunlight, she’d once explained. “Did you enjoy the hand-holding, Anna?”
“Very much so.”
Dr. Tischler smiled coolly. “Meaning you didn’t enjoy it?”
“No, I did,” he answered. “It just felt a little funny to me.”
“Well, sitting in Anna’s living room in the dark, holding hands half the night like a couple of teenagers.”
“How old are you, Emmett?”
“Forty,” he replied as Dr. Tischler scribbled a note on her pad. “Thirteen years older than Anna,” he added pointedly.
The psychiatrist asked, “Is hand-holding a traditional way of expressing affection in Comanche and Modoc cultures?”
Anna shrugged, then saw Emmett do the same. Her mother and father had never held hands in her presence. Nor shown any tenderness to each other, which told Anna that deep down her mother had known what was going on.
“All right,” Dr. Tischler said, “how else did you two try to build a foundation of comfort? Any imagery rehearsal?”
Anna replied, “I think we’re a little too old-fashioned to talk . . . you know, Myra . . . so explicitly about the act.”
“Are the Comanche a prudish people, Emmett?”
He sat up, obviously provoked. “Not at all.”
Anna swiftly inserted, “Emmett also shampooed my hair.”
“And how’d you find that, dear?”
“It was sweet. He kept asking if he was hurting me.”
“No, he was very gentle. And we laughed a lot.”
“Excellent, Emmett,” Dr. Tischler said. “So I take it you enjoyed the experience as well?”
“Kind of . . . what?”
“Well, I got this crazy urge to do her nails too.” Emmett laid his Oklahoma drawl on thick. “And I dang near asked Anna if I was too old for beauty school.”
Dr. Tischler chuckled after a moment. “All right, you character so you both worked up to taking a shower together. Tell me how you prepared yourselves.”
Emmett clammed up again, so Anna volunteered, “The week before, we talked about it over the phone.”
“And how’d that make you feel?”
“I don’t know,” Anna said. “Silly. But safe.”
“That’s right. Things don’t strike us as being silly unless we feel safe,” the psychiatrist observed. “In this case, Anna, your sense of safety came from distance. You live here and Emmett lives in Santa Fe.”
“Phoenix,” he corrected.
Anna could tell that he was smarting from her “safe” remark. She now regretted having uttered it. Regretted everything she’d ever contaminated with her sordid problem. In every other regard of her life, she was strong and in control. But as soon as she stepped inside this office . . .
“Go on, Anna,” Dr. Tischler coached. “You’re doing fine.”
Anna suddenly choked up.
Emmett took over. “She flew down to Phoenix last Friday night. Dinner was great. The drive to my apartment was great. She thought my idea of putting candles in the bathroom was great. Everything was great till I turned on the taps and dropped my Levi’s. Then she freaked on me.”
“I did not freak.” Anna raised her voice enough for Dr. Tischler to jump a little.
“Could’ve fooled me,” Emmett went on. “When a woman buries her face in her hands, I call that freaking.”
Dr. Tischler turned to Anna. “Flashback?”
Anna nodded vehemently.
“Just because I took off my goddamn trousers?” Emmett said. “I don’t know how you Modoc are raised, but everybody in my family showers in the nude. Now, I don’t want to be culturally insensitive, but there are a helluva lot more Comanche than Modoc, and I’m beginning to see a pattern that might explain...”
“Thank you, Emmett,” the psychiatrist cut him off. “Anna, did your father wear Levi’s back in those . . . ” The woman didn’t have to finish.
Her stomach churning, Anna confessed, “Old faded pairs. Like Emmett was wearing Friday night.”
“How was I supposed to know that?” he complained. “I always put on my old Levi’s as soon as I can get out of that monkey suit and tie the BIA makes me wear.”
“Anna tells me you have a scientific degree.”
“Criminology major, anthropology minor,” he said sullenly.
“Then you’ll understand we’re dealing with conditioned stimuli that inhibit Anna’s arousal. It isn’t you. And this is a trial-and-error process. Now you both know the effect a pair of old jeans can have on your attempts at intimacy.” Dr. Tischler checked the clock again. “What’s really important how’d Emmett’s disrobing make you feel, Anna?”
“Small,” she said quietly.
“Made you feel small!”
Anna gave his hand a squeeze. “Don’t be mad, Em. It’s just that some things you do take me back to how I used to feel. Not all the time. I like the way you make me feel when we’re detailed together on a case.”
“Good point,” Dr. Tischler interjected. “You learned to bond as professional partners over these past months. Now you must learn to do the same as lovers. In either case, it’s seldom easy.”
Emmett’s look softened, and Anna let go of his hand. No one said anything, and the ticking of the clock became audible.
Dr. Tischler was first to break another extended silence. “Anna, did you look forward to the shower or dread it? Be honest with us.”
Anna felt the heat of a blush on her cheeks. “Looked forward. There were moments when the thought of it really seemed sexy. That’s what so disappointed me Friday night, Myra. I’d really looked forward to being with Emmett like that.”
“All right, dear. We have to design a different kind of situation. Another stepping-stone on the path to full intimacy. One that assures you that you’re not expected to go all the way, but gives you a taste of sensual pleasure under controlled conditions. Emmett, take Anna somewhere public and show her how much fun heavy petting can be. The only condition it has to be a place where intercourse is completely out of the question.”
Emmett’s jaw had dropped. “We’re federal law enforcement officers.”
“We’ve got conduct codes hanging over our heads.”
Dr. Tischler smiled impishly. “Then you’ll have to be sneaky, won’t you?”
On the drive across Las Vegas, Emmett came within a breath of asking Anna how long this delay would go on. Previously, he’d been married and divorced in less time than the nine months he’d known Turnipseed. But as he cooled down after another profitless and embarrassing session with her shrink, he realized that any sign of his growing exasperation would devastate her. He was tired, yet suggesting that they just go back to her condo and relax before she retired to her bed upstairs and he to her couch downstairs would be taken as his throwing in the towel.
“You hungry?” she asked. Strange how swiftly after the turmoil of these sessions her self-confidence returned. As if there were two halves of her self that never intersected.
He shook his head at her offer to eat.
She was so damned pretty. Petite, pert bobbed brown hair, big and expressive eyes, a light cinnamon complexion, great legs. But how much more simple and less convulsive his life would be today if that prettiness had left him cold last December when they were teamed up in Las Vegas to investigate the homicide of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management bureaucrat. Long hours together in the field had led to his infatuation with her, and that infatuation had deepened into love over the months of her convalescence. She, an innocent and a rookie at the time, had been tortured and nearly beaten to death by a sociopath who’d been after Emmett, and that made him wonder if his inexplicable patience with her had as much to do with guilt as passion. Endless patience from an impatient man who was used to sensual gratification. For Anna Turnipseed was apparently untouchable. As much as she obviously cared for him, she would not be touched.
Maybe this troubled relationship was Emmett’s personal purgatory. The dead were the last to realize that they were dead. He’d been shot on duty out on some lonely reservation and had yet to comprehend this otherworldly reality. Anna was a tantalizing object lesson, and now he had to confront the rampant desires of his youth before moving on to a higher spiritual plane. Or maybe he was doomed forever to try to draw the waters of lust with a sieve. But what have I done wrong? Sex was like food to a Comanche, essential for healthy life.
“Any ideas where we can go?” Anna asked.
“Not without getting both of us dragged before a review board,” he replied. He’d considered the airport, but just the notion of necking in a phone booth among hordes of pot- bellied, camera-toting tourists was enough to turn his stomach. “You mind just driving out into the desert?”
“Myra said someplace public,” Anna sharply reminded him.
“How about the nuclear test site? It’s monitored around the clock by Department of Defense police. That safe enough?” Emmett turned right on Tropicana Avenue around the New York, New York casino. Manhattan, Venice, Paris, imperial Rome not one of the megaresorts had a motif to remind the tourist that he was in Great Basin, Nevada. Maybe it was a blessing. Emmett couldn’t imagine all this chintz invested in a desert-Indian ambiance. The Southern Paiutes who’d lost these lands preferred their landscape unadorned.
Emmett had powered down his car window, and a mix of squeals and screams drifted from the top of the false New York skyline that overspread the hotel.
On an impulse, he veered into the valet parking entrance.
Within minutes, Anna and he were gliding up an escalator out of the casino hubbub to the arcade level. Without looking at him, she touched the back of her hand against his. Again. Then she took his hand. It was done with such silken grace, Emmett felt his pulse quicken. Was she trying to drive him out of his mind? If so, she was close to succeeding. “When I want you . . .” he started, then stopped.
“When I want you, I’m not trying to punish you.”
“I know, Em.” She looked hurt. And extraordinarily attractive. But then, glancing around, she laughed when she saw what he had in mind. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope. If this ain’t imagery rehearsal, I don’t know what is.” Standing back, he waited until a throng of Japanese tourists had filled the first seats in the Manhattan Express. The roller coaster train resembled four New York taxis jammed bumper-to-bumper in traffic. The taxicab seats were high backed, creating enough privacy from the other riders for Anna to eye Emmett apprehensively as he helped her into the last car. The restraining bar lowered across their laps, locking them in.
The train rolled outside and started ratcheting up a towering incline with no guardrails. The weight of the climb pressed them back into their seats, but Anna looked over at him. “You getting tired of me, Em?”
Of this endless wait for something he’d wanted to do since the first time he’d seen her? Yes. God, yes. With his right hand, he reached a few inches under her skirt and brushed the backs of his knuckles against the smooth skin of her thigh.
She braced slightly at his touch, but whispered, “Go on.”
Before he could continue his exploration, they crested the top of the steep incline and began hurtling down toward Tropicana Avenue. He let go of Anna as they plummeted, and gripped the handles to the sides of his head. Now he knew what it was like to auger into the ground in a jet fighter. Las Vegas Boulevard, twinkling with white headlights and red brakelights, flashed past in a dizzying corkscrew. He wanted off this mechanical aberration. He had no faith in something that didn’t share his instinct for self-preservation. But his only escape was to close his eyes.
The Japanese screamed gleefully.
Anna shouted something he couldn’t make out over the rush of the wind. Opening one eye, he glanced at her she looked exhilarated. And, like some of the tourists, she was actually waving her arms over her head as the car completely inverted again.
An object slid across Emmett’s chest. His BIA-issued encrypted cellular phone creeping out of his jacket pocket. It took all his willpower to let go of the handle with his right hand and grab the phone before it fell out. As the train slowed for its reentry inside the casino, he realized that the cellular was ringing.
“Let’s go again,” Anna said with a huskiness in her voice he’d never heard before. She further encouraged him with a fast, hard kiss.
But Emmett, rubber kneed, pulled her out of the car and answered his phone. It was from his supervisor in Phoenix, a Mescalero Apache of few words.
Twenty seconds later, Emmett disconnected and led Anna toward the escalator.
“What is it?” she asked.
“We’ve got an unwitnessed death in Oregon.”
“Nobody can tell.”
She grimaced, no doubt thinking of maggots and decomposition. She wore a certain perfume for homicide calls. Strong. “How recent was it?”
“Several thousand years ago at least.”