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&'grave;His head isn't on straight.''
&'grave;It doesn't seem to fit. Maybe it's not his.''
Diane Fallon, director of RiverTrail Museum of Natural History, looked up from the work she was trying to finish to see the spectacle of Gary and Samantha, two university students, balancing between a ladder and a construction platform, holding the skull of a giant sloth tilted at an odd angle atop its fifteen-foot skeleton. She raked her gaze over the offending skull as Gary was trying to wire it in place. ''Wait a minute,'' she said.
Diane climbed the ladder to the platform to have a look at the problem. She glanced at her watch as she lay down on her stomach on the platform. It was late and she was tired. She inspected the bones and shook her head and pointed to the neck of the giant creature. ''You have the atlas on backward.''
''Are you sure?''
&'grave;Yes, Gary, I'm sure. Bones are like puzzle pieces. When they're put together right, they fit together perfectly. How do you think your head would fit if your neck was on backward?'' The other students giggled. ''Did you follow the diagram I gave you?''
''Yes... I thought we did. I already have it wired in place.'' He said this as if expecting Diane to say, &'grave;Well, then, I guess we'll just have to make the head fit, won't we?''
&'grave;You'll have to redo it.''
&'grave;It's getting late, Dr. Fallon. I've got a big test tomorrow to study for.''
&'grave;The opening of the exhibit is tomorrow evening. Test or no test, we have to finish this display. You've known the schedule since the beginning of the semester. Lay the skull here on the platform, gently. Unwire the atlas and put it on correctly. Follow the diagram.''
''Ah, man,'' Gary whined.
Samantha looked close to tears. Diane could hear the frustration in their voices, but there was nothing else to do. The exhibit had to be finished and they were aware of the timeline.
Leslie, the third of the student threesome, looked at her watch as Diane stepped down off the ladder. ''It is getting late,'' she said.
''I realize this is terribly unfair.'' Diane pulled loose a piece of packing tape that had stuck to her slacks. &'grave;Normally, students get to ask fellow students which teachers are a bitch to work for, but I'm new at the museum and have no track record. You guys can spread the word. Do the work assigned, do it correctly and on time. I give only A's and F's. We miss the opening, it's an F.'' The three students' eyes widened in surprise. &'grave;You've already wired the entire postcranial skeleton and done a good job. Getting the head on straight won't take as long as you think.''
''Dr. Fallon, telephone.'' Andie, her assistant, brought the cordless phone from Diane's office. Diane took it and retreated across the room away from the grumbling students.
''Diane, how are you?'' It was a voice she hadn't heard in three years, and she was surprised that the sound of it made her smile.
&'grave;Frank? Frank, I'm... fine. And you? It's been a while.''
&'grave;I'm good.'' He hesitated half a beat. ''I wrote you several letters.''
&'grave;I didn't receive them.''
&'grave;I didn't mail them.''
''Could I take you to dinner?'' he asked. &'grave;There are some things I'd like to talk with you about.''
&'grave;I don't know. This is a bad time, Frank.''
He hesitated again. ''I hate to ask a favor of you over the phone.''
''A favor? What is it?'' Diane looked over at her students busily working on the sloth exhibit. She hoped she had sufficiently put the fear of God into them so that they wouldn't mess up again.
''I have a bone that may belong to a missing girl....''
Diane's voice caught in her throat. ''A bone? No,'' she said a little too roughly, almost choking on the words.
Andie was standing in front of her, holding out two handfuls of artificial leaves. The interruption gave her mind time to think and her racing heart time to slow down.
''Hold on just a moment, Frank.'' Diane placed a hand over the mouthpiece and raised her eyebrows at Andie.
''They sent the wrong plants, Archaeopteris, but Donald insists we go ahead and use them. He says no one will know the difference.''
&'grave;That's why we're hereto teach them the difference. Tell him this is a museum of natural history, not a B-grade movie setwe have to be accurate.''
Andie smiled. &'grave;That's about what I told him you'd say.''
&'grave;I'm sorry, Frank. We're opening a big exhibit tomorrow evening and I'm up to my ears.''
''What do you mean, no?''
&'grave;No, I don't do that anymore.''
&'grave;Don't do what?''
&'grave;Forensic work. I don't do it anymore.''
There was such a long stretch of silence on the phone that Diane thought he might have hung up. ''You still there?''
&'grave;But that's what you do,'' he said.
&'grave;Look, this is off the record. It's only one bone.''
&'grave;I don't care. There are other bone experts you can take it to. Get them... One bone? You have only one damn bone? There's probably nothing I could do with that anyway.''
&'grave;It's half a bone, really. You can tell me if it's human.''
&'grave;If that's all you want to know, any decent osteology student can tell you that.'' If you can find one, she thought, watching hers fumble with the sloth. &'grave;But I can't do it.''
&'grave;It may belong to someone I know. I play poker with the missing girl's father. He's been my best friend since we were kids, and his daughter baby-sat Kevin. The police are treating this as a runaway, but the girl's parents are afraid her boyfriend has done something to her. Her brother found the bone in the woods behind her boyfriend's parents' home.''
In the woods, Diane thought. ''No.''
&'grave;I have to go, Frank. I'm working with some students, and if they see me talking on the phone, they'll want to do it too. It's good to hear your voice again. It really is. Come by sometime.'' She hung up.
Diane stood still for a moment. Hearing Frank's voice was good. The tenor of it brought back past feelingsof warmth and passion. Why did he have to be talking about bones? She filled her lungs with air to clear her head, exhaled and went back to her students.
It was almost ten o'clock before the last person left. Diane was alone in the museumbut not completely alone. Jake Houser and Leonard Starns, the two night security guards, were making their rounds. And somewhere in the three-story structure the cleaning crew was hard at work.
Everything was almost ready for the reception the next eveningjust a few odds and ends left. Diane walked among the exhibits representing North America in the Pleistocene. The skeleton of a huge Bison antiquus stood, as if on the ancient tundra, against the background of a restored mural of a grazing herd, oblivious to the Paleo-Indians hiding in the tall grass with their Clovis point-tipped spears.
The giant sloth turned out not to be the disaster she had feared. It stood majestic among prehistoric flora, head on straight, looking out at the skeleton of Mammothus columbi several feet in front of it. Something in the mammoth exhibit caught her eye. Archaeopteris leaves sprouting around the mammoth's feet. Donald, damn him, had put the wrong vegetation in anyway. He was such a willful... She stepped over the barrier rope carefully and took up the plants. A loud knock on the front doors brought her head up with a start.
She leaned over to look through the double doorway into the museum lobby. Jake appeared from the direction of the primate room.
&'grave;I'll get it, Dr. Fallon,'' he called out as he pressed the intercom button. ''The museum is closed,'' he said into the speaker.
&'grave;Hey, Jake, it's Frank.''
Frank Duncan. So he wasn't giving up. Diane heard the clank of keys in the door and their voices.
''Frank, what the hell you doing around here this late?''
''Checking up on your moonlighting. Might try it myself. You get to sleep a lot, I hear.''
She heard them both laugh.
&'grave;How's that boy of yours?'' asked Frank. &'grave;In an Ivy League school, isn't he?''
She still couldn't see Frank, but Jake had turned so she could see his face. He was a lean-looking man, at home with a scowl, but a large grin pushed his deep frown lines upward.
&'grave;Dylan's great. You know he graduated? With honors. I have this cousin who's always bragging about his boys being first in our family to get a college education.'' Jake laughed. ''The twins went to community college. Dylan went to Harvard.''
Diane listened as Jake and Frank talked about Jake's son. She liked the normalcy of their conversationso far removed from recent events in her life. Coming here to the museum was the right decision.
&'grave;What's he going to do now he's graduated?'' asked Frank.
&'grave;Looks like he's going to be accepted to Harvard Business School. They don't just take everybody right out of college, you know. Most of the time they wait till they've worked a bit. See who's rising to the top. I'm real proud of the boy.''
&'grave;What I can't figure,'' said Frank, ''is where he got his brains.''
&'grave;Not from his daddy, that's for sure. I told Carol it's a good thing he looks like me, or I'd be suspicious. How's your Kevin?''
&'grave;Growing. He's in eighth grade now. I'm glad I have a while before I have to start shelling out for college tuition.''
''I hear you there.''
''Diane Fallon here?'' asked Frank.
Jake turned and looked in her direction. &'grave;Yes, she's here.''
Diane was still standing underneath the huge tusks of the mammoth. She watched Detective Frank Duncan of the Metro-Atlanta Fraud and Computer Forensics Unit set down a briefcase at the door and cross the wide marble lobby into the Pleistocene room. He had the same handsomeness, the same smile, the same familiar faceperhaps just a little older than the last time she saw him.
''Nice,'' he said, reaching up and brushing the tips of his fingers along the bottom of a gigantic curved tusk. It reminded her of that Celine Dion song&'grave;It's All Coming Back to Me Now.''
''Did these things used to roam the neighborhood?'' he asked.
''Up until about ten thousand years ago.''
''Long gone, eh?''
''A mere blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things.''
He stood under the head and tusks of the mammoth with her, his eyes searching her face. ''You look good. Damn good.''
Diane brushed a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. ''Too much time in the sun. My face is looking like parchment.''
Frank shook his head. &'grave;A few lines around the eyes and mouth only give you character. You're a little thin, maybe. Didn't they feed you in South America? You're all right, aren't you? Didn't pick up anything?''
&'grave;No, Frank, I didn't pick up anything. I'm fine.''
Frank tilted his head to one side, inspecting her wrist and arm. &'grave;A fellow I know came back from the Amazon and he had this insect bite on his arm that wouldn't go away. Swelled up, started itching and turned black. When he couldn't stand the itch any longer, he went to the doctor. The doctor thought it was a boil and started to lance it. Just as he touched the skin with his scalpel,'' Frank touched his finger gently to her forearm, ''the thing burst open and this big, black, ugly fly crawled out of his arm and flew off. Disgusting.'' He tickled her skin with the tips of his fingers.
Diane pulled her arm back reflexively, but smiled despite herself. &'grave;You haven't changed. What are you doing at the museum this late?''
His eyes were smiling again, searching her face. ''I just got off from work. I was passing this way.''
&'grave;Don't tell me that. You don't pass this place going anywhere.'' She stepped out of the exhibit, still holding the artificial leaves like an odd bouquet.
&'grave;It's been a couple of years....'' he began.
''I wanted to see you. How about a late dinner?''
He was wearing jeans and a navy sweater and smelled like aftershave. He hadn't just stopped off from work. Diane wished she didn't feel so comforted by that realization. She lay the leaves next to the exhibit and dusted off her hands, aware that she must have the aroma of the day's accumulation of glue, paint and perspiration. &'grave;How about you telling me why you're really here?''
''I really came to see you. Talking with you got me worried about you. What happened? Why did you give up your career?''
''I changed jobs. People do that.'' Diane turned away from his gaze and started toward the Bison antiquus. &'grave;I need to check out the exhibits before I leave. We're having a preopening party for the contributors tomorrow evening.''
''Wait.'' Frank put a hand on her arm. &'grave;I want to know about you. What do you mean, you aren't a forensic anthropologist anymore? What happened in South America?''
Diane stopped and looked into Frank's blue-green eyes. ''Just one mass grave too many.''