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State of Chihuahua, Mexico. July, present day
Fourth in line for his bimonthly haircut and shave, Anson McCord lounged on the barber's porch, which overlooked the town of Creel, swinging hot spot of the Sierra Madres. Last approximation to civilization, north of the Copper Canyons.
Balanced on the back legs of his rickety chair, he thumbed through a year-old National Geographic. A couple of gringo mountain bikers whizzed past, nearly coming to grief as a mule and rider sauntered out of an alley and stopped halfway across the street to admire the view. McCord turned the page, glanced down at the next article. Blinked.
The photo had been taken in the midst of green jungle. A long-legged blonde sat on the skull of a dinosaur roughly the size of a Volkswagen Bug. She wore a broad-brim fedora tipped low against the tropic sun. Its shadow hid all but her knockout smile. Whoever she'd been smiling at must've landed on his butt.
"Hello!" McCord murmured under his breath. "Aren't you just something?" What he was feeling--hell, how could he be jealous of the fielder of that smile, when he'd never even met the woman?--call it wistfulness, or plain old-fashioned lust.
He dragged his eyes down to the caption. Central Borneo. Raine Ashaway of the professional fossil-collecting firm Ashaway All poses with the only known specimen of an opalized T rex. Photo taken by her partner in the historic find: O.A. Kincade.
"Good for you. Glad somebody's finding what she's looking for." McCord scratched his bristly jaw. Come to think of it, a dinosaur expert might even have some advice regarding his own quest. He brought his chair down with athump and rose, to stride into the barbershop. "Felipe, tienes papel?" Might as well drop her a note, while he was waiting.
New York City. October, present day
"I couldn't find a kayak on the Somali coast, but I did meet a Frenchman who loaned me his windsurfer," Raine Ashaway told her younger sister, who'd picked her up at JFK airport. For the past half hour, they'd been stopped dead in traffic on the West Side Highway, not a mile from the apartment that served as the east coast base for Ashaway All, whenever any of the family hit New York City.
Time enough for Raine to tell about her scouting expedition to Ethiopia. She'd found a promising dig site in the gorge of the Blue Nile. A rich fossil stratum of the proper period, if not bones of Paralititan himself. But the war was heating up again. Bringing in a field crew was unthinkable, for the present.
Done with that topic, Jaye had insisted on hearing about Raine's detour, after her Ethiopian venture. Now she pulled her sunglasses down her nose, the better to give her sister the fish eye. "You windsurfed out to an offshore oil rig in the Red Sea?"
"Just the last few miles. I hitched a ride on an Arab fishing dhow. Paid 'em to take me as near as they dared sail to Cade's rig. Asked 'em to wait for me." Raine unclipped her ripply, pale-blond hair and shook it out on her shoulders. She kicked off her sandals, then twisted her long jet-lagged body around, so she could prop her shoulders against the door of Jaye's ancient pickup.
"You're lucky they didn't blast you right out of the water! After Kincade's rig was blown up by terrorists, they've got to be taking a dim view of drop-ins."
"Actually, I was more afraid of the sharks. Red Sea sharks have this reputation..."
"Since you're here, I take it you didn't meet any. When did Kincade's guards spot you?"
With flat seas and a light breeze, they'd seen her coming about a mile out from the rig. Backlit by the fast-sinking sun, her rainbow-colored sail would be hard to miss, if anybody happened to glance down from the platform. Apparently somebody had. An amplified warning like the wrath of Allah himself had thundered out overhead--in Arabic, but the meaning was crystal-clear: "Back off or take the consequences."
But she'd come too far, loved him too well, waited too long to hear his voice to give up now.
She swerved the board to run parallel with the monstrous black tower, so that the sail wouldn't block their view of her. She'd worn a T-shirt over her bikini top, but it was soaked with salt spray and it clung to her body. "See? No dynamite, no plastique, no Uzi, guys, just a woman who wants a straight answer."
A wavering wolf howl floated down from above. She grinned, leaned back against her harness to wave, then swerved back to her attack line. If Kincade was aboard this rig--and her sources said that he was--then she and he were going to talk.
"So did you?" Jaye eased the pickup forward and braked again.
"A Brit met me down at the boat landing platform, all muscles and pressed khaki and a semiautomatic in a shoulder holster--a bodyguard. He informed me, oh so regretfully, that I seemed to be trespassing." Raine tipped back her head to stare out the open window at a smoggy sky flecked with pigeons.
"What the heck is going on? That man was crazy for you."
"Wish I knew. Everything seemed fine between us when I left for Ethiopia. But then I tried to call Cade when I reached Cairo, got his voice mail. Tried again from Addis Ababa, and his phone number had been cancelled. That seemed weird, but I called the Okab Oil number here in Manhattan. Left a series of messages with his personal assistant that he assured me he'd pass on. After that, I couldn't call Cade, or anybody, for the three months while I was down in a mile-deep gorge."
"Maybe you two were just not connecting. His first rig was bombed about a week after you hit the backcountry. His partner in Okab Oil was critically injured. It makes sense that he'd return to Kurat, pick up the pieces, rally the troops. How could somebody like Cade be a silent partner at a time like that?"
"Of course he couldn't. But however busy he was, he had time enough to reach me on my sat phone."
"Oh, Raine, I'm sorry." Jaye inched the truck forward another few precious feet. "But what about Mr. British Muscles? Did he invite you up for tea?"
"No. He said that Cade was aboard, but that he was too busy to see me."
"Maybe he was lying? Maybe Cade was asleep, or--"
"Nobody could have slept through that warning. And most of his crew was hanging over the rails of the platform, whistling and cheering, by the time I sailed in at its base. Somebody was bound to tell Cade that a woman was sailing around out there." And he'd have known it was me. "No, Jaye, I finally got the message. That was a brush-off."
"So did you punch Muscles in the nose, and ask him to please pass that on?"
"Tempted, but no. He was doing his best to arrange my transportation to anywhere in the world I wished to go. I could have the use of the rig's chopper, with a transfer to the company jet. Or he'd take me ashore himself, in a crew boat. I could have anything I wanted." Except access to Cade.
"So, did you take him up on his offer?"
"Are you kidding? I stomped back to my surfboard and sailed back to the dhow." Cade's bodyguard had idled along behind her in a crashboat, till he'd seen her safely aboard. And if anything convinced her that he was acting under Kincade's direct orders, it was that final courtesy. Cade telling her by proxy that he cared for her.
But it was over. Now she blinked rapidly in the gathering dusk and swung to stare at the chains of red taillights, which miraculously had begun to move.
Home at last--or as near as Raine had to a home these days. The top floor of an old brownstone in the West Eighties, with fresh flowers in every room, and a bar of chocolate on her pillow. The welcoming touches came thanks to Eric Bradley, the freelance writer who lived on the floor below and traded office space in the seldom-used apartment for occasional concierge duties.
His fat orange tomcat came swarming up the fire escape as soon as he heard footsteps overhead. Strolling in from the balcony through the open French windows, Otto leaped to the desk and sat down on the heap of mail waiting there. Ignoring both women, he spit-washed his cheeks and nose, then he tongued his left shoulder.
"I met a lion in the Blue Mountains that had better manners than you," Raine told him, "and a better figure, too."
"Don't let's discuss figures, if we're ordering pizza." Jaye reached for the phone book. "I'll do that, if you want to shower. Barbecue chicken and pineapple, with onions?"
"Yum. And there were a few bottles of Chianti under the kitchen counter when I left. If nobody has guzzled it all..."
The apartment served as a pied-à-terre for any member of the footloose clan who might be passing through the city. Their father and his twin brother had bought the place some forty years ago, long before the neighborhood had become fashionable, while they'd been working at the nearby Museum of Natural History.
"Still here," Jaye called with her head in the cabinet. "Now go get that shower."
When Raine returned, combing her damp hair, she wore a blue Indonesian block-print sarong. Cade had bought it for her in Borneo. She'd hesitated now before choosing it, then she'd made a face and slipped it around her bare body. Just because a man had barged into her heart, then wandered out again, she was damned if she'd mourn. Life was too short for that. Carpe diem was the family motto. Seize the day, seize the opportunity, seize the dinosaur, cherish every pleasure. Paleontological fieldwork was one of the most dangerous careers in the world, right up there with test pilots and smoke jumpers. If you lived on the edge, then you learned to savor each moment as if it were your last. You couldn't do that looking wistfully over your shoulder at what might have been. "Another twenty minutes till the pizza," Jaye reported, handing her a glass of wine. She returned to the desk where she'd been sorting the mail, to tug another piece out from under the cat. "Not much here beyond the usual junk. We missed an opening at the Smithsonian last month: fossilized ferns." She handed that over and drew out a long, smudged letter from beneath its furry paperweight. Jaye studied the return address printed on its backside. "Who do we know in Mexico?"
"Beats me. Maybe it's for Trey?" The expediter for Ash-away All was an ex-SEAL, probably also an ex-mercenary. In his dubious travels to unspecified places, he'd collected a raffish circle of friends and contacts. But mail for Trey usually went to Ashaway headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Jaye reversed the envelope. "Nope. It's for you, care of National Geographic."
"Oh?" Raine ripped it open, drew out a single sheet of rather grubby paper and read aloud. "Dear Ms. Ashaway. Don't know if anyone's ever asked you this before, but if you'll glance at the enclosed photo of the temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan--could the stone faces there with the snouts that stick out--be depictions of some kind of dinosaur?"
She exchanged a glance with Jaye and they burst out laughing. "Another kid."
Since Raine's discovery of the world's only known specimen of a fire opal Tyrannosaurus rex, then its subsequent sale at Sotheby's auction house for fifty-seven million dollars, she'd been getting loads of letters from strangers. Most of her correspondents were male; most of them were under the age of twelve. Each was bursting to tell her his latest theory about the coloration or speed or near-human IQ of T rex. Or he was writing to volunteer, offering to drive her Land Rover and tote her rifle on her next bone-hunting expedition.
Or he wanted to send her what he was firmly convinced was a dinosaur fossil--no matter what his dad said about it being just a dirty old cow bone--if she'd promise to put it up for auction at Sotheby's, then send him a million dollars when it sold.
Raine could sympathize with dreamers, even when she couldn't oblige them in their schemes. She was a hunter and a dreamer and a schemer herself. So she lifted the photo in question and studied it with an indulgent sigh.
Gradually her brows drew together. She reached past Otto for a magnifying glass. She could see what the writer meant. He'd sent a close-up shot of a decorative frieze, carved along the top rim of what seemed to be a large rectangular temple. It showed a repeating motif of a grotesque stone face that seemed vaguely human, alternating with the sculpted head of an animal with a spiked neck-frill and a massive, beaky muzzle. If one stretched one's imagination, added in the missing nose horn and discounted a bit of artistic license on the part of the carver, the creature did look...
"He's not entirely nuts," she said, passing the photo to Jaye. "This does look like a cousin of Triceratops, maybe crossed with Styracosaurus." Not a known ceratopid, but some species yet to be discovered.
And, of course, that was what every Ashaway of Ashaway All, the world's foremost fossil supply house, lived to discover. New species of dinosaurs.
"So what's he proposing?" Jaye murmured whimsically.
"That the Aztecs hung out with dinosaurs?" Triceratops had vanished from this earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period, some 65 million years before the Aztecs' forebears strolled across the Bering Strait land bridge, then drifted south in search of sunnier real estate.
"Don't know." Raine resumed reading. "And if you do see a resemblance, then here's a second question for you. Is there any place in Mexico or the southwestern USA where the fossil bones of this sort of dinosaur might be common? Where an Aztec might have uncovered one?'Ah, so that's what he'd been getting at!" Dinosaurs were usually discovered when their bones were exposed by erosion of wind or water, a geologic process that would have been at work a thousand years ago, as well as today. "So he figures that some Aztec stumbled upon a dino skull, extrapolated what the live beast would look like, declared him a god--then carved his portrait all around the sides of this temple?"