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A mob surrounded the old warehouse in downtown Kirktown, Georgia. Many of the people carried signs and shouted angrily. Police cars and uniformed officers enforced the demarcation between the crowd and the warehouse. A news helicopter hovered overhead.
Seated in the back seat of the cab, Annja Creed stared through the morass of angry civilization. The car slowed, then finally came to a standstill as angry protesters slapped the vehicle and cursed. The action warred with the overall appearance of the city. Kirktown looked like the ideal tourist stop for anyone wanting a taste of genteel Southern manners.
We're not about manners today, Annja thought. Kirktown was a small Georgia town that had limped through the Civil War, became a textile success during industrialization, but had struggled on into the twenty-first century. Old buildings stood with new as the town continued to grow around the industrial area, finally outliving the textile era and leaving the older buildings to rot at the center of the downtown area. Like many Georgia towns, and cities in the South in general, the population was almost equally divided between white and black families, with some Hispanic and Asian communities, as well.
And like a lot of small towns, Kirktown had kept its secrets close and its darkest secrets buried.
Annja Creed had come to help dig up at least one of those. Looking at the site and the crowd thronging it, she felt like an outsider--a familiar feeling. She'd been raised in an orphanage in New Orleans. No matter where she went in her life, most of the time she felt like a visitor.
The cabdriver, a barrel-chested Rastafarian with silver wraparoundsunglasses and a gold tooth, turned to look back over the seat. "I'm sorry, miss, but this looks like it's as far as I can carry you."
"We can walk from here," Annja said.
"You can see what we're up against," Professor Noel Hal-linger said. "Every time there's a race issue, the reactions are immediate and severe. I wasn't sure if the police would be able to hold the site clear long enough for me to bring you from the airport."
Annja nodded as she lifted her backpack from the seat and opened the door. Her head was already full of questions. She'd made notes in a notebook on the way. "How many bodies did you say you'd found?"
"Sixteen so far. But there may be more." Hallinger was a tall man in his early sixties. His hair had turned the yellow-white of old bone and hung over his ears and the back of his collar. His face held a deep tan that testified to long years spent outside in harsh weather. Bright blue eyes narrowed under the Chicago Cubs baseball cap. He wore jeans and a khaki shirt. "Have you made any identifications so far?" Annja slipped her backpack over one shoulder, then wished she'd bought a newer, lighter-weight notebook computer.
"You're sure the bodies are all over a hundred years old?" Annja started for the warehouse.
"Who are you?" a tall black man demanded, stepping in front of her to block the way. He looked to be in his sixties, fierce and imposing. He wore a business suit with the tie at half-mast because of the heat. Even in November, Georgia insisted on being uncomfortably hot.
"Annja Creed." She stood five feet ten inches tall and wore a favorite pair of comfortable working jeans, a sleeveless olive Oxford shirt over a black T-shirt, and hiking boots. Her chestnut-colored hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail. Blue-tinted aviator sunglasses protected her eyes from the midday brightness.
"Why are you here, Miss Creed?" the man boomed. His challenge had drawn a small crowd that was growing steadily. More and more heads turned toward them.
"I came to help," Annja responded.
Beside her, Hallinger took out a cell phone and made a call.
"I'm here to help find out who those people are," Annja replied. "If we can, we're going to get them home."
"It's been 150 years or more," the man said in an accusing tone.
"That's what I've heard," Annja said.
"And you think you can find out who those poor unfortunates are?" The man glared at her with hostility.
"I'm going to try."
"Those people should be left alone," a broad woman shouted. "Just leave 'em alone. They been buried there for 150 years. Ain't no need in disturbin' they rest. All them folks what was gonna miss 'em back then, why, they in they graves, too. You got no call to be a-stirrin' up ghosts an' such."
I so did not need this,Annja thought. But she'd known what she was going to be getting into from the moment Professor Hallinger had outlined the situation in Kirktown. She'd come partly because of her curiosity, but also out of respect for the man. They'd had a sporadic connection over the Internet archaeology boards she liked to frequent, and they'd worked together for a short time on a dig outside London a few years ago.
But the oddities that had been found--which was why Hallinger had sent for her--drew her there. She knew she couldn't have stayed away from something like this. How often could an archaeologist expect to find a dig site inside the United States that might offer a glimpse into WestAfrican history?
Close to never, Annja had told herself back in her New York loft. She reminded herself of that again.
"We can't leave them there." Hallinger folded his cell phone and put it away. "That building is scheduled for demolition."
"That building's been abandoned for close to twenty years now," someone said. "It should just be shut up and left alone."
A police car moved forward through the crowd. The siren chirped intermittently in warning. Grudgingly, the crowd parted.
"Hey!" someone shouted. "I know that woman!"
Annja's stomach spasmed. She was betting there were more television watchers in the crowd than readers of Archaeology Today or any of the other magazines to which she occasionally contributed articles. Besides that, few of those articles featured any pictures of her. There was only one place that people might recognize her from.
"She's that woman from Chasing History's Monsters!" And that was the place, Annja thought. It wasn't the first time that her part-time work on the syndicated television show had created problems for her.
Chasing History's Monsters was a weekly foray into the exploration of creatures, myths and whatever else the show's producers felt comfortable covering. Each week, at least two or three stories, legends or fables would be fleshed out and presented with a mix of facts and fiction.
For her part, Annja usually shot down the myths and debunked hauntings and demonic possession, blowing away legerdemain with research and study. Her concentration was on the history of the time, of the thinking and the people and how all of that related to what was going on in the world of today. Of course, even though she poked holes in fabrications, that didn't make true believers any less willing to believe.
"Kristie!" some young men shouted, mistaking Annja for her popular co-star. They jumped up and down, mired in the crowd, trying to get a closer look. They were pushed farther back as the police car rolled through. "Kristie! Over here!"
The tall black man turned to the police vehicle. He slammed both hands on the hood. The sudden loud noise quieted everyone.
"I've filed an injunction to stop this demolition," the man roared. "The sanctity of those graves needs to be maintained."
Two policemen stepped out of the car. The older one was black and the younger one was Hispanic. Both of them had that hard-edged look thatAnnja recognized. She'd seen it first on the faces of the men who patrolled New Orleans, then in the faces of men serving in the same capacity around the world.
"John," the older policeman said, "I'm going to ask you to back off once, politely. And if you don't, I'm going to arrest you."
"We have the right to assemble," the man said.
"Assemble," the officer agreed, "but not to impede. The construction company and the owners of this land have graciously allowed people to come in and make the attempt to find out who those dead folks are. They didn't have to do that. They could have just cleaned them out of there."
"Like the refuse they were treated as all those years ago?"
"I'm not here to debate, John," the policeman said. "I'm asking you to step aside and let these people get on with their jobs."
"They were murdered!" John shouted.
Murmurs came from the crowd.
"We don't know that," the policeman said. "And even if they were murdered, whoever did it is dead. We're not going to find a guilty party." He took a breath. "Now step down."
Reluctantly, the big man stepped back. A corridor opened up to the police car. Annja walked forward.
"Afternoon, miss," the police officer said. The badge on his shirt identified him as A. Marcus. He opened the squad car's rear door for Annja.
"Thank you, Officer Marcus."Annja slid into the back seat.
The younger officer put Hallinger in on the other side. They were driven to the building less than a hundred yards away. The sea of protesters, driven to a new frenzy, flowed in behind them.
"You'll have to forgive them," Marcus said. "Kirktown is usually a fine city. A place where you'd want to bring your family." He glanced up at the news helicopter circling in the sky. Sunlight splintered from the frames of his glasses.
"Today...well, we're just not at our best."
"Is there a chance that any of the people located under the building are ancestors of the people here?" Annja asked.
"Probably. The Civil War and the Underground Railroad was a long time ago, but people haven't forgotten. Racial tension is something that I don't think will ever go away in this state."
"It's too easy to separate people by skin color," Annja agreed. "Then you've got money, politics and religious preference."
Marcus grinned. "Yes, ma'am. I figure that's about the size of it. Always has been."
"Before the construction workers found the bodies," Hal-linger said, "protests were already working to stop the demolition. Some groups wanted to preserve the building as a historic site. Others didn't want new business coming into the area."
A large metal sign hung on the front of the four-story building. It read Weidman Brothers Construction. Future home of Lark Shopping Center.
The young officer turned around and peered at Annja. "You're not the one on Chasing History's Monsters who posed for Maxim, are you?"
"Luis," Marcus growled. "No," Annja said. Biting her tongue, she thought, I'm the one with an actual college degree, years of training and personal integrity.
"I didn't think so." Luis looked and sounded a little disappointed. "I saw the magazine spread she did a few months ago. She looked bigger."
Since Annja was six inches taller than Kristie Chatham, she knew the young policeman wasn't talking about height.
"No offense," Luis said quickly.
Annja made considerable effort not to unload on the policeman. After all, she'd just arrived and didn't need to make a bad impression.
"Thanks for the ride," she told Marcus as he opened the door to let her out. She missed the air-conditioning inside the car as soon as the hot wind blew over her.
Hallinger joined her. "The rest of the excavation crew is inside the building," he said.
"Who do you have?"
"Kids from the university mostly," Hallinger admitted. "A retiree who has an interest in the Underground Railroad. A few people from the historical society here and from Atlanta to help with some of the heavy lifting."
Annja didn't point out that Hallinger didn't have much skilled help. The man already knew that.
"So why did you call for me?" She hadn't wanted to ask him that question until they were face-to-face.
"Because you've got some recent experience with African culture."
"With Poulson's dig?" Annja shook her head. "That shouldn't count. I was on the ground less than three weeks before the government suspended Poulson's visa." That was still a sore point with her. She'd waited years to go to Africa, then got kicked out almost as soon as she'd settled in.
"That," Hallinger told her, "is two weeks longer than I've had. You've been exposed to the Hausa culture?"
"I've read up on it. Saw a little of it while I was in Nigeria."
Hallinger smiled. "Then you're light-years ahead of my university students and volunteers."
"I couldn't have been at the top of your list," Annja said.
"No. Nineteenth, actually. I received eighteen rejections before you accepted, Miss Creed."
Okay, that stings a bit, Annja thought as she returned his smile.
"I'm just fortunate to have called you at a good time," he said graciously. "You have an outstanding reputation in the field, Miss Creed."
Hallinger was being generous. Outside of Chasing History's Monsters, few people knew her. She was in her midtwenties and didn't have any significant finds to her credit. But she was good at what she did and loved the work.