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By John B. Olson TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2008
Premise Media Novel, LP
All right reserved.
Chapter One Katie braced her shoulder against the ladies' room door. Heavy knocks pounded into her arm, rattling the metal door against its frame.
"Katie, come out right now!" Dietrich Fischer's voice echoed through the tiled bathroom. "Already we are six minutes late. Everyone is now waiting!"
Squinting her eyes against the hard fluorescent light, Katie tried to clear her mind, but the faces wouldn't go away. An old man in a brown suit. Bloodshot, yellowing eyes. A generous dusting of dandruff on his shoulders, more on the left than on the right. The Asian woman standing in the back with the Minolta camera clasped tightly in long, manicured fingers. The fat man in the straining yellow polo. The four undergrads in the front row, whispering and nudging when she poked her head into the room ...
"So what is it that is wrong? You are being sick?" Dietrich's voice broke through the battery of faces. "Answer me!"
Katie lifted a hand to her cheek. Her skin was cold and moist. Her stomach felt like it was going to boil over. Maybe if she just told him ...
"Katie?" Dietrich hammered on the door, three piercing blows that buzzed into her brain.
She turned to face the door. "I told you ... an intimate seminar - just for the department. You promised."
"I did. I invited only the department. They made to put up the flyers, but I told them no."
"But the conference room's almost full. You know I can't ... We had a deal."
"Katie, listen to me. These people are already liking you. They want to meet this smart, brave fossil hunter they read about in the papers. You should be happy to have such fans. What do you want? To disappoint them?"
"But I ... you know I can't do this. It's too many people. I'll just make a fool of myself. Maybe if I did a webcast for everyone. I could include pictures and all my data. They'd actually get a much better-"
The door pushed in on her, skidding her ridiculous heels clackety clack across the tiled floor. Dietrich's jowly face appeared in the doorway, squinty eyes darting around the room before settling on her with a frown.
Pulling herself up straight, Katie stared back at him. She wasn't budging from the ladies' room. If he wanted a confrontation, he was going to get it right here.
"Katie ..." Dietrich cleared his throat uneasily. "Katie, I know you don't like much the speaking to crowds. But I need you to do this. I and the whole lab. We need you."
Katie searched Dietrich's face. Something was wrong. Great beads of sweat were rolling down his expansive cheeks. His pupils were too contracted. "This isn't about the department, is it? Something else is going on."
"Nothing is going on with anything. It is a seminar. That is all. A simple seminar in which Thomas Woodburne just happens to be in the audience. But not to worry about him. He's one of your biggest fans. He told me this himself. Just tell the story of Peru. Show the pictures of the Pericetus. You'll be very good."
"Thomas Woodburne? The guy from the Smithsonian? What's he doing here?"
"He's very important in Washington. In the NAS."
"Since when do you care about the National Academy?"
"Since always I care about the Academy. Our grant ..." Dietrich's face contorted into a scowl. He cocked his head and turned to face the wall. "Grant money does not grow on the trees, you know. This affects your research as much more than mine."
"My research?" Katie stepped toward Dietrich, forcing him to look her in the eye. "You said they'd renewed the grant. You said it wasn't a problem."
Dietrich took a couple of shuffling steps backward until he hit the wall. "It won't be. I'm filing an appeal. Once they find out about your new work ..."
"So you invited Woodburne without telling me? Who else did you invite? Half of Albuquerque's in there."
Dietrich looked down at his watch. "Eight minutes late! We must go out there now."
"Fine; go ahead. I'm not stopping you." Katie turned to walk away, but a meaty paw pulled her up short.
"Just tell the story of Peru. The capture of the fossil thieves. That is just what they would like to hear."
"But there isn't anything to tell. They destroyed the fossil before I could even look at it."
"Katie, please." His hand tightened around her shoulder. "I need you to do this. Without the grant renewed ... we'll be out of money by November. I won't be able to pay your salary. Hooman's salary. Wayne's, Peggy's ... No money, no research."
Katie took a deep breath. The room was so crowded....
"You want I should tell Hooman he has to go back?"
"Okay, I get the point. I'm being blackmailed." She resisted the tug on her shoulder.
"Whitemailed only. I'm the good guy boss. Yes?"
Katie couldn't help smiling. She stopped resisting and allowed herself to be led back to the door.
"This will be very easy. You will see." He held the door open for her and guided her through. "They are all your biggest fans."
Katie focused on her adviser's voice as he led her down the hallway. She could do this. It was just like her thesis defense. The number of people didn't matter. Four or four hundred. It was all the same-as long as she didn't look at them.
Dietrich opened the auditorium door and the roar of voices filled her ears. God, help me. Please ... She looked down at the floor, allowing herself to be guided to the front of the room. Her heart pounded in her chest, pulsing through her neck. She couldn't breathe. There was too much pressure.
"Everyone, thank you for being so patient...." Dietrich's voice beat against the roar. Seats squeaked. Desktops clanged into place. Zippers, papers, the shuffling of feet ...
Katie tightened her grip on Dietrich's arm, leaning against his bulk for balance. One step at a time, she focused on each carpeted stair tread as she climbed higher and higher onto the stage. The murmur of voices assaulted her. She could feel thousands of eyes staring at her. She was naked, exposed, on display for all the world to see.
God, please ...
"... earned her PhD in earth and planetary sciences here at the University of New Mexico, where she was the first to discover ..."
Katie gripped the podium with both hands and pulled herself up straight as Dietrich introduced her. The Pericetus whales, the geology of South America ... She could do this. She didn't have many geology slides, but she could start with her latest findings and use them as a segue into her research on the Pericetus fossils. And then maybe, if everything was going okay, she'd tell them about Peru. It was the only thing people seemed to care about these days-even the other paleontologists were more interested in Peru than in her research. Nothing ever changed. Even behind bars the fossil poachers were still stealing her science.
A burst of applause washed through the auditorium. Flashes of blinding light. Katie stared determinedly down at the laptop on the podium. Her ears and cheeks were burning scarlet. Who was taking pictures? She was going to look like a blushing radish.
"Thank you for coming." Her words came out strong and clear. "Before I start talking about ancient whale anatomy, which is, I'm sure, the reason you're all here-" Katie took a calming breath as a ripple of laughter ran through the room-"I'd like to give a brief summary of some recent work I've done on the geology of South America."
The auditorium was perfectly still. Katie relaxed her grip on the podium. She could do this. Piece of cake.
"As you all know, the Tethys Sea, which once covered India, Pakistan, and most of what is now the modern Middle East, was home to the earliest archaeocetes we've uncovered to date: the pakicetids, ambulocetids, protocetids, basilosaurines-"
"Katie, a tiny minute please!" Dietrich called out from the corner of the stage. "For the undergrads and guests ... Perhaps you must explain the evolutionary significance of these early whales. What is it, the reason of their importance?"
"Okay ..." Katie closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. She wouldn't let him get to her. Now wasn't the time. "Fifty years ago-" she chose her words carefully-"whales were held up as an argument against the evolutionary model. If modern whales evolved from terrestrial mammals, why didn't we see any evidence in the fossil record? Why didn't we see any intermediary forms?
"Since then, however, paleontologists have uncovered scores of putative intermediary whale forms. The pakicetids, first discovered in Pakistan by Gingerich in 1981, were fleet-footed land animals with very few adaptations for marine life except for a few features of their ears. They lived roughly 50 million years ago during the early Eocene sub-epoch.
"The ambulocetids, or so-called walking whales, also lived during the early Eocene of Pakistan. They too seemed primarily terrestrial and had well-developed limbs and feet.
"The protocetids of the middle Eocene, however, were primarily aquatic. The Rodhocetus, for example, swam using elongated, paddle-like hind feet and the side-to-side motion of its powerful tail.
"Later, during the late Eocene, we get the appearance of the basilosaurines and durodontines, which were fully aquatic and swam like modern whales using an up-and-down motion of their tale flukes. These archaeocetes differed from modern whales in that they had very small, almost vestigial, hind limbs. They also lacked blowholes on the tops of their skulls."
Katie glanced over at Dietrich and received a curt nod. So far so good. "Okay, as I was saying before, most of the earliest whales have been found in and around the Middle East, but due to certain social and political, um ... factors, most Western paleontologists haven't been able to get into these areas for a long time. A few privileged scientists have obtained exclusive permits to go into Pakistan, and one scientist in particular, who shall remain nameless, has recently made some pretty amazing discoveries there, but since the fossils aren't allowed outside the country, none of the rest of us have been able to verify them. So those of us who want to study ancient whales are pretty much out of luck. Until now ...
"It just so happens that the geology of the western South American continent is very similar to that of the Middle East. In theory we should be able to find the same types of whales there that Nick Murad, our unnamed scientist, has found in Pakistan but without all the social and political factors that make expeditions to the Tethys region so prohibitive.
"As many of you know, I had the opportunity to explore a middle Eocene plain in Peru and was able to demonstrate the presence of whale fossils there. Unfortunately, the fossil I found was destroyed before I had the chance to study it. The part of the skull I could see looked fairly modern, but until we return to the area and uncover another one, we won't know for sure whether the whale had hind limbs and nostrils at the front of the snout like a Rodhocetus or a strong swimming tail and a blowhole on the top of the skull like the more modern Pericetus whales we've already found in Peru. The sooner we-"
"Katie, a question." Dietrich called out. "Sorry to be interrupting again, but Dr. Webb has a question."
Katie gripped the podium tighter. She could feel the pressure building in her chest. "Okay ... Dr. Webb?" She kept her eyes fixed on the laptop keyboard.
"So what makes you question the age of the layer? Was it the appearance of the fossil or the geology of the layer itself?"
"I'm sorry." Katie ran through the question in her mind. "I wasn't questioning the age of the layer. It's definitely middle Eocene. Several other finds confirm the geology report."
"Then how can you question the morphology? If it's middle Eocene, it has to be a primitive whale, an Archaeoceti."
"How can I question it?" Katie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I question it because it's not known yet. Until we find another fossil, we can't know for sure what it will look like. For all we know, it could have the morphology of Shamu, the killer whale."
A gasp sounded somewhere in the auditorium. So much for her attempt at levity.
"Dr. James," a woman's voice called out from the back of the room, "this whale you're talking about-the one that was destroyed-it was the reason you were attacked by fossil poachers?"
"Yes, I ..." Katie could feel the blood rushing into her cheeks. "With more and more private collectors buying fossils on the black market, fossil poaching is getting to be a huge problem, especially in impoverished countries where-"
"Could you confirm the report that you single-handedly captured five armed men?" A man's voice.
"I ..." Katie's face was burning now. "Yes, there were five of them. But I ..."
"How did you do it?" The woman again. "How did you stop so many men?"
"How did I stop them?" Katie sagged against the podium. Weren't these people listening? "I didn't stop them. I tried, but by the time I got back to camp, they'd already started digging. And then, like an idiot, I let myself get captured. By the time I got back in control of the situation, they'd already powdered the fossil. We think they were looking for teeth. A tooth from a T. rex can sell for as much as five thousand dollars."
She hit the Page Down key on the laptop to bring up her first slide. "The whales I typically study, including the Pericetus whales I want to talk about now, don't have teeth. They have baleen, which they use to-"
"But how did you do it? How did you get away?"
Katie gripped the podium tighter. "It wasn't a big deal. They weren't paying attention so I ... whacked them on the head."
A volley of flashes hit Katie in the face as a wave of shouted questions washed over her. She squeezed her eyes shut. Tried to tune out the voices. "Baleen whales-"
"Dr. James! Please! Dr. James!" The woman's shouts rose above the roar, beating the other voices down to a low murmur. "Dr. James, please. How do you expect us to believe you hit five men over their heads?"
"Not all at once. They only had two men guarding-"
"Dr. James!" Webb's bellowing voice. "Back to the subject at hand. You still haven't answered my question!"
Katie looked up from the podium. The Asian woman in the back. Her hand was still raised. A man, freckles and thinning red hair, was holding out a microphone. The man with dandruff. The woman beside him, twisting a finger through her hair. Drooping earlobes with big dangly earrings. Mark Cranley from the White lab. Joe Sayers ... They were all staring, watching....
Katie's stomach surged. Cold sweat streamed down her face. She felt dizzy. Couldn't breathe. Please, no ... not again!
Pushing away from the podium, she staggered across the stage to the stairs. A shoe twisted beneath her foot, sending her crashing down the steps. She hit the carpeted floor and rolled back onto her feet, running. Up the side aisle. Out the door.
The echoes of clacking footsteps chased her down the hallway and into the bathroom. Through the swinging door, into one of the stalls, she collapsed onto her knees in front of a toilet.
Reporters ... Dietrich was such a liar. He'd promised intimate, but he'd invited reporters! A shudder convulsed her body. She took a long, deep breath. It would serve him right if she walked into his office right now and quit. Let him find someone else to lead the next Peru expedition.
Katie stood up slowly, bracing herself against the stall partition. The pressure in her stomach was subsiding. She took a few experimental steps.
Of all the childish stunts ... She tottered over to the counter, pulled out a wad of paper towels, and started dabbing her skin. It'd serve him right if the visas were denied. She leaned against the sink, staring at the drain to avoid the reflection that hovered mockingly in the mirror. All those cameras. Thomas Woodburne. She'd looked like an idiot.
A knock sounded at the door. Katie spun around, bracing herself for another encounter.
"Katie?" It was Hooman, one of the grad students from Dietrich's lab. "Katie, are you all right? Dr. Fischer sent me. He asked me to make sure you're okay."
Great ... Does he have to yell? Katie took a step toward the door. Why didn't bathroom doors have locks?
"He wants you to come back to the conference room as soon as you feel better, okay? There are some people in the audience who want to meet you."
An unfamiliar voice sounded in the hallway. Another voice, this one female. Katie cast a glance back at the mirror. Tendrils of fine dark hair were plastered to the side of her sweat-beaded face. She was white as a ghost.
"Katie, are you there?"
Katie glanced around the room. A window was partially open. It looked big enough.
Excerpted from Fossil Hunter by John B. Olson Copyright © 2008 by Premise Media Novel, LP. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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