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Erica gripped the steering wheel as the four-wheel-drive vehicle flew upthe dirt road, caroming around boulders and slamming into potholes. Sittingnext to her, white-faced and anxious, was her assistant Luke, a UCSBgraduate student working on his doctoral dissertation. In his twenties, hislong blond hair tied in a ponytail, Luke wore a T-shirt that said ArchaeologistsDig Older Women.
"I heard it's a mess, Dr. Tyler," he said, as Erica steered the car up thewinding fire road. "Apparently the swimming pool disappeared intothe ground just like that." He snapped his fingers. "It said on the newsthat the sinkhole stretches the whole length of the mesa, and it's underneathmovie stars' homes, and that rock singer who's been in the news,and the baseball player who hit all those runs last year, and some famousplastic surgeon. Under their homes, So you know what that means."
Erica wasn't sure what that meant. Her mind was focused on only onething: the astonishing discovery that had been made.
At the time of the disaster she had been up north working on a projectfor the state. The earthquake, striking two days ago and measuring 7.4,had been felt as far north as San Luis Obispo, as far south as San Diego,and as far east as Phoenix, jolting Southern California's millions of inhabitantsawake. It was the biggest temblor in memory and was believedto have been what had triggered, a day later, the sudden and astonishingdisappearance of a hundred-foot swimming pool, diving board, water slideand all.
A second astonishing event had followed almost immediately: whenthe pool sank, earth had avalanched into it, exposing human bones andthe opening to a previously unknown cave.
"This could be the find of the century!" Luke declared, taking his eyesoff the road for a moment to glance at his boss. It was still dark out andthere were no lights along the mountain road, so Erica had turned on thevehicle's interior light. It illuminated glossy chestnut hair brushing hershoulders with a hint of cuff, and a tan complexion from years of toilingin the sun. Dr. Erica Tyler, whom Luke had worked with for the past sixmonths, was in her thirties and, while he wouldn't call her beautiful, Lukethought she was attractive in a way that registered in a man's gut ratherthan in his eye. "Quite a feather in some lucky archaeologist's cap," headded.
She glanced at him. "Why do you think we just broke every traffic lawon the books getting here?" she said with a smile, and then returned herattention to the road in time to avoid hitting a startled jackrabbit.
They reached the top of the mesa from where the lights of Malibucould be seen in the distance. The rest of the view—Los Angeles to theeast and the Pacific Ocean to the south—was blocked by trees, higherpeaks, and the mansions of millionaires. Erica maneuvered her carthrough the congestion of fire engines, police cars, county trucks, newsvans, and the armada of automobiles parked along the yellow police tapecordoning off the site. Curiosity-seekers sat on hoods and car roofs towatch, drink beer, and ponder disasters and their meanings, or perhapsjust to be entertained for a while, despite warnings shouted through bullhornsthat this was a dangerous area.
"I heard that this whole mesa used to be some sort of retreat run bya nutty spiritualist hack in the twenties," Luke said as the car rolled to ahalt. "People came up here to talk to ghosts."
Erica recalled seeing silent newsreels of Sister Sarah, one of LA's morecolorful characters, who used to hold séances for Hollywood royalty suchas Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. Sarah had held mass séancesin theaters and auditoriums, and when her followers numbered in thehundreds of thousands, she had come to these mountains and built aretreat called The Church of the Spirits.
"Know what this place was originally called?" Luke went on as theyunbuckled their safety belts. "I mean before the spiritualist owned it?Back when," he said, the word `when' conjuring up parchments with waxseals and men dueling at dawn. "Cañon de Fantasmas," he intoned, tastingthe dusty words on his tongue. "Haunted Canyon. Sounds spooky!"He shuddered.
Erica laughed. "Luke, if you want to be an archaeologist when yougrow up, you're just going to have to not let ghosts scare you." She herselflived daily with phantasms and ghosts, spirits and sprites. They peopledher dreams and her archaeological digs, and while ghosts might elude,confound, tease, and frustrate her, they had never frightened her.
As Erica got out of the car and felt the night wind on her face, shegazed spellbound at the horrific scene. She had already seen news photosand had heard eyewitness accounts of the event—how the earthquakehad somehow destabilized the ground beneath the gated community ofEmerald Hills Estates, an exclusive enclave in the Santa Monica Mountains,causing one swimming pool to suddenly sink into the ground andthreatening the rest of the homes with the same. But nothing had preparedher for what her eyes now beheld.
Although the eastern sky was starting to pale, night was still a dark,stubborn bowl over Los Angeles so that emergency lights had to hebrought in, man-made suns placed at intervals around the perimeter ofthe site, illuminating one square block of a super-ritzy neighborhoodwhere houses stood like marble temples in the milky moon. In the centerof this surreal scene was a black crater—the devil's mouth that had swallowedthe swimming pool of movie producer Harmon Zimmerman. Helicoptersbuzzed overhead, sweeping blinding circles of light over surveyorssetting up equipment, geologists moving in with drills and maps, men inhard hats warming their hands on cups of coffee as they waited for daybreak,and police trying to evacuate residents who were refusing to leave.
Flashing the ID that identified her as an anthropologist working forthe State Archaeologist's Office, Erica and her assistant were permittedto climb over the yellow police tape keeping the crowd out. They ran tothe crater, where Los Angeles County firefighters were inspecting the rimof the cave-in. Erica quickly searched for the entrance to the cavern.
"Is that it?" Luke said, pointing with a lanky arm to the other side ofthe crater. Erica could just make out, about eighty feet below groundlevel, an opening in the side of the cliff. "Looks dangerous, Dr. Tyler. Youplan on going in?"
"I've been in caves before."
"What in blazes are you doing here!"
Erica spun around to see a large man with leonine gray hair comestriding toward her, a scowl on his face. Sam Carter, senior state archaeologistfrom the California Office of Historical Preservation, a man whowore colorful suspenders and spoke in a stentorian voice. And who wasclearly not happy to see her.
"You know why I'm here, Sam," Erica said as she pushed her hair backfrom her face and looked around at the chaos. Residents of the threatenedhomes were arguing with the police and refusing to leave their property."Tell me about the cave. Have you been inside?"
Sam noticed two things: that Erica's eyes were bright with an innerfever, and that her sweater was buttoned wrong. Clearly she had droppedeverything and driven down from Santa Barbara as if she were on fire. "Ihaven't been inside yet," he said. "There's a geologist and a couple ofcavers exploring it right now for structural soundness. As soon as theygive the go-ahead, I'm going to take a look." He rubbed his jaw. Gettingrid of Erica, now that she was here, was not going to be easy. The womanstuck like glue once she put her mind to something. "What about theGaviota Project? I assume you left it in capable hands?"
Erica didn't hear him. She was watching the gaping hole in the hillsideand thinking of heavy boots tramping over the cave's delicate ecology. Sheprayed they hadn't inadvertently destroyed precious historical evidence.The archaeology in these hills was paltry enough, despite the fact thatpeople had lived here for ten thousand years. The few caves that hadbeen found yielded very little because in the early part of the twentiethcentury bulldozers and dynamite had brutalized these wild mountains tomake way for roads, bridges, and human progress. Burial sites had beenplowed under, village mounds scraped away, all traces of previous humanhabitation obliterated.
"Erica?" Sam prompted.
"I have to go in," she said.
He knew she meant the cave. "Erica, you shouldn't even be here."
"Assign me to the job, Sam. You're going to be excavating. And boneswere found, it said on the news."
In frustration, Sam turned on his heel and headed back through theZimmerman's trampled garden to an area at the end of the street wherea makeshift command center had been created. People holding clipboardsand talking on cell phones milled around folding metal tables and chairs,where two-way radios had been set up, surveillance monitors, a bulletinboard for messages. A catering truck parked nearby was being patronizedby people wearing various official uniforms and badges: Southern CaliforniaGas, Department of Water and Power, LAPD, County Office ofEmergency Management. There was even someone from the HumaneSociety trying to round up loose animals from the evacuated area.
Erica caught up with her boss. "So what happened, Sam? What causeda swimming pool to suddenly sink into the ground?"
"County engineers and state geologists have been working around theclock to determine the cause. Those boys over there"—he pointed downthe street, where men were setting up drilling equipment beneath brightspotlights—"are going to run soils tests to find out exactly what this housingdevelopment is sitting on." Sam swept a beefy hand over the topographicalmaps and geological surveys spread out on the tables, theircorners anchored by rocks. "These were brought up from City Hall a fewhours ago. This here is a geological survey from 1908. And here's onefrom 1956, when this area was being proposed for a residential developmentthat never got built."
Erica's eyes went back and forth over the two maps. "They aren't thesame."
"Apparently the current builder didn't run soils tests on every buildingpad—which he wasn't required to do. The tests he did run showed stableground and bedrock. But that's at the north and south boundaries of themesa, which it turns out are the two ridges embracing the canyon. RememberSister Sarah back in the twenties? This was her religious retreator something and it seems she had the canyon filled in and never gotpermission or informed City Hall. The work was apparently done withoutstandard compaction procedures and a lot of the fill was organic—wood,vegetation, garbage—that eventually rotted away." Sam's sleep-deprivedeyes scanned the street, where fountains and imported trees graced expensivelytended lawns. "These folks have been sitting on a time bomb.I wouldn't be surprised if this whole area was on the verge of collapsing."
While Sam spoke, he watched Erica as she stood with her hands onher hips, shifting from foot to foot like a runner eager for the race tobegin. He had seen her like this before, when she was "onto" something.Erica Tyler was one of the most passionate scientists he had ever met,but sometimes her enthusiasm could be her undoing. "I know why you'rehere, Erica," he said wearily, "and I can't give you the job."
She whirled on him, her cheeks two spots of red. "Sam, you've got mecounting abalone shells, for God's sake!"
He was the first to admit that putting Erica in charge of a molluskmidden was a waste of her brains and talent. But after the shipwreckdebacle last year, he thought it best that she cool her heels in a low-profilejob for a while. So she had spent the past six months excavatinga newly discovered mound that turned out to be the refuse heap of Indiansthat had lived north of Santa Barbara four thousand years ago.Erica's job was to sort, classify, and carbon-date the thousands of abaloneshells found there.
"Sam," she said, putting her hand on his arm, urgency in her voice. "Ineed this. I have to salvage my career. I need to make people forgetChadwick—"
"Erica, the Chadwick incident is precisely the reason why I can't putyou on this job. You're just not disciplined. You're impulsive, and you don'tpossess the necessary scientific detachment and objectivity."
"I've learned my lesson, Sam," she said. She felt like screaming. TheWreck of the Erica Tyler, people in inner circles had called the Chadwickfiasco. Was she going to be made to pay for it the rest of her life? "I'll beextra careful."
He scowled. "Erica, you made my office a laughingstock."
"And I've apologized a thousand times! Sam, be logical about this. Youknow that I've studied every example of rock art this side of the RioGrande. There is no one better qualified. When I saw that cave paintingon the news I knew this job was for me."
Sam drove his thick fingers through his mane of hair. It was so likeErica to just drop everything. Had she even bothered to turn the GaviotaProject over to someone else?
"Come on, Sam. Put me to work doing what I was born to do."
He looked into her amber eyes and saw the desperation there. Hedidn't know what it was like to be discredited in one's own profession, tobe laughed at by colleagues. He could only guess what these past twelvemonths had been like for Erica. "I tell you what," he said. "A member ofthe Search and Rescue team volunteered to go back in and take pictures.We should have them any minute. You can have a look at them, see whatyou make of the pictographs."
"Search and Rescue?"
"After the pool sank, it was learned that Zimmerman's daughter wasmissing. So the County Sheriff launched a search for her in all that mess.That was how the cave painting was discovered."
"And the girl?"
"She turned up later. Seems she was in Vegas with her boyfriend atthe time of the earthquake. Listen, Erica, there's no point in you hangingaround here. I'm not putting you on the case. Go back to Gaviota." Evenas he said it, Sam knew she wouldn't obey orders. Once Erica Tyler gotsomething in her head, it was impossible to shake it loose. That was whathad happened last year, when Irving Chadwick discovered the underwatershipwreck of what he claimed was an ancient Chinese boat on the Californiacoast, proving his theory that people from Asia didn't just comeacross the Bering Strait, but had arrived in ships as well. Erica had alreadybeen enamored of Chadwick's hypothesis so that when he invited her toauthenticate pottery found in the shipwreck, she had already made upher mind that this was indeed proof.
Sam had tried even then to dissuade her from jumping to conclusions,to convince her to move slowly and cautiously. But Erica's middle namewas exuberance. She had gone ahead with her public announcement thatthe pottery was genuine and for a while she and Irving Chadwick baskedin the spotlight. When the shipwreck was later proven to be a hoax, andChadwick confessed to having engineered it, it was too late for EricaTyler. Her reputation was in ruins.
"They said on the news that bones have been found," she said now."What have you found out so far about them?"
Sam picked up a clipboard, knowing she was stalling for time. "All wehave are small fragments but they were found with arrowheads, whichwas enough reason to call my office. Here's the Coroner's report."
While Erica scanned the findings, Sam said, "As you can see, accordingto the Kjeldahl test, the quantity of nitrogenous components in thebone is less than four grams. And the benzidine-acetic test shows noevidence of albuminous material."
"Which means the bones are older than a hundred years. Was theCoroner able to determine how much older?"
"Unfortunately, no. And we can't do it through soil analysis since wehave no way of determining exactly which soil the bones had been restingin. This canyon was filled in seventy years ago, and then last year the soilwas disturbed during trenching for the swimming pool. When the earthbeneath liquefied and gave way because of the earthquake, causing thepool to sink, the earth on the sides spilled in. It's all mixed up, Erica. Wedid find the arrowheads, though, and crude flint tools."
"Which point to an Indian burial ground." She handed him the clipboard."I take it NAHC has been notified?" she asked, looking around forsomeone who looked like they might be from the State of CaliforniaNative American Heritage Commission.
"They've been notified all right," Sam said in a wry tone. "In fact they'realready here. Rather, he's here."
She read Sam's look. "Jared Black?"
"Your old adversary."
Erica and Black had tangled on Native American legal issues before,and the outcome had been decidedly unpleasant.
A young man came running up then, his face smudged with dirt,caver's helmet askew on his head. He held out the Polaroid snapshots hehad taken inside the cave and apologized for their amateur quality. Thankingthe young man, Sam divided up the pictures, handing half to Erica.
"My God," Erica whispered as she stared at them one by one. "Theseare ... beautiful. And these symbols—" Her voice caught.
"So what do you think?" Sam muttered as he squinted at the pictures."Can you identify the tribe?"
When she didn't respond, he looked at her. Erica was staring at thepictures in her hands, her lips slightly parted. For a minute Sam thoughtshe had gone shockingly pale, but then he realized it must be due to thefluorescent lighting hastily strung around the disaster site. "Erica?"
She blinked like someone brought out of a trance. When she lookedat him, Sam had the odd notion that, for just an instant, she didn't knowwho he was. Then, with color returning to her face, she said, "We havethe find of the century in our hands, Sam. This painting is vast, and I'venever seen such an excellent state of preservation. Think of the nativehistory we could fill in once these pictographs have been deciphered.Sam, don't send me back to those abalone shells."
He released a sigh. "All right, you can hang around for a day or twoand give us a preliminary analysis, but"—he held up his hand—"you areto go back to Gaviota after that. I can't put you on this project, Erica.I'm sorry. It's interdepartmental politics."
"But you're the boss—" She suddenly stopped and stared.
He followed her line of vision and saw what had caught her attention.In this chilly hour just before dawn, with everyone unshaven, bleary-eyed,craving coffee and sleep and a fresh change of clothes, CommissionerJared Black, with not a hair out of place, wore a tailored three-piece suitwith French cuffs, silk tie, and polished loafers as if he had just steppedout of a courtroom. As he approached, dark irises glittered beneath frowningbrows.
"Dr. Tyler. Dr. Carter."
Although an outspoken advocate on Indian issues, Jared Black washimself pure Anglo, having once claimed that it was his Irish heritagethat made him empathetic to the plight of oppressed peoples. He addressedSam Carter. "When do you expect to make a tribal identificationof the cave painting?" His tone implied that he wanted an answer soon.
"That will be up to the people I assign to the job."
Jared didn't look at Erica. "I will be bringing in my own experts, ofcourse."
"After we have conducted our preliminary analysis," Carter said. "I'msure I don't need to remind you that that is standard protocol."
Jared Black's eyes flickered. There was no love lost between him andthe senior state archaeologist. Carter had vocally opposed Black's appointmentto the Commission, citing Jared's extreme prejudice against the academicand scientific communities.
Erica's own clash with Jared Black happened four years ago, when awealthy recluse named Reddman had died and left an astonishing collectionof Indian artifacts to be housed in his mansion, which was to beturned into a public museum named for himself. Erica had been broughtin to identify and catalogue the priceless collection, and when she tracedthem to a small, local tribe, the tribe hired attorney Jared Black, whospecialized in land rights and property law, to sue for possession of theobjects. Erica asked the state to challenge the suit on the grounds thatthe tribe planned to rebury the objects without prior historical analysis."The heritage in these bones and artifacts," she had argued, "belong notjust to the Indians but to all Americans." It had been a passionate issue,with crowds picketing in front of the courthouse—Native Americans demandingthe return of all their lands and cultural objects; teachers, historians,and archaeologists insisting upon the creation of the ReddmanMuseum. Jared Black's wife, a member of the Maidu tribe and a passionateIndian rights activist—a woman who had once thrown herself infront of bulldozers to stop a new freeway from being pushed throughIndian land—had been among the most vocal in favor of "keeping thecollection out of white man's hands."
The case dragged on for months until Jared finally uncovered a factthat had not been previously known: that unbeknownst to state and localauthorities, Reddman had dug up the objects from his own property, anestate covering five hundred acres, and had kept them without permission.Arguing that because the objects indicated a living mound—and Erica,although working for the other side, was forced to admit that the estatehad most likely been built on the site of an ancient village—Jared Blackdeclared that the property had not therefore legally belonged to Mr. Reddmanbut to the descendents of those who had lived in the village. Thefive hundred acres, as well as over a thousand Indian relics—includingrare pottery, basketry, bows, and arrows—were handed over to the tribe,which consisted of exactly sixteen members. Reddman's museum wasnever built, the artifacts never seen again.
Erica recalled now how the media had played up her and Jared'sbattle in and out of court. One now-famous photograph of the two arguing,snapped on the courthouse steps, had been sold to the tabloidsand run under the headline "Secret Lovers?" because a trick of thelighting and the unlucky timing of the cameraman's shutter had capturedErica and Jared in one of those quirky, split-second freeze framesthat give the very opposite impression of what is really happening: Erica'seyes wide as she looks up at him, her tongue touching her lips, herbody inclined in a suggestive way, with Black, towering over her on theupper step, arms outstretched as if about to sweep her into a torrid embrace.Both had been outraged by the photograph and its false message,but both had decided to let the matter drop and not add grist to thegossip mill.
"And I'm sure I don't need to remind you, Dr. Carter," he said to Sam,"that I'm here to see you keep your desecration to a minimum, and thatthe instant the MLD is found I am going to personally and with greatsatisfaction escort you and your fellow grave robbers off this site."
As they watched him go, Sam thrust his hands into his pockets andmuttered, "I definitely do not like that man."
"Well then," Erica said. "I guess it's a good thing you aren't assigningme to this case, because that would really annoy Jared Black."
Sam looked at her and caught the hint of a smile. "You really wantthis job, don't you?"
"Have I been too subtle?"
"All right," he said at last, rubbing the back of his neck. "It goes againstmy better judgment, but I suppose I can send someone else to Gaviota."
Excerpted from Sacred Ground by Barbara Wood. Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Wood. 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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