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Holly Gates was running ahead of schedule this morning so, on impulse, she decided to turn off the highway and take the old dirt road that ran through the backcountry. This route circled an area of rolling hills filled with fragrant pinon trees, then connected with the natural gas plant's access roadher destination.
The brilliant blue sky and the unseasonably warm December weather here in northwestern New Mexico made it a perfect morning. Mountains dotted with gray-green forests rose to the north and west. The long, table mesa to the east was lined with cliffs colored in deep reds, orange and even layers of violet, like a sandstone sunrise.
Smiling, Holly looked around the brush and low trees for cottontails, quail and whatever else might be out and about. A solitary red-tailed hawk circled above, watchful for an inattentive rodent or bird.
There were few perfect moments in life, but out here in nature she felt completely at ease. Some people chased happiness as if it were a destination. Yet over the years, she'd learned that happiness could also be found in a well-planned journey. Everyday decisions could become building blocks for an even better tomorrow for those with the foresight to work with an eye on the future.
The courage to nurture her hopes and dreams, along with a lot of hard work, had brought her to where she was today. Just as she knew precisely where she was heading this morning, she also knew where her goals would eventually take her.
At twenty-seven, she owned her own business here in New Mexico. TechTalk Incorporated offered consulting and public relations services to its clients. Currently, she was working almost exclusively on a project with the largest tribe in the U.S., the Navajo Nation. What made her services invaluable was her ability to explain highly technical scientific data in everyday English.
Movement off to the left of the graveled road caught her eye. At a glance she could see several grayish-tan coyotes moving at a fast trot, perpendicular to her route. It was a family group probablythree of the five were clearly smaller than the two mature adults at the front and rear of the pack.
Holly slowed to a crawl for a closer look. She rarely got a chance to study coyotes up close. Navajos, she knew, avoided these creatures, considering them bad luck. Coyote, in the Navajo creation stories, was known as The Trickster and, at best, was an undependable ally.
Holly stopped just before the top of a small rise. If she ventured too close, the human-wise coyotes would alter course and disappear into the brush. As she turned off the engine and set the brake, a flash of color and movement to her left caught her eye.
In a small patch of open ground, a bearded man wearing a baseball cap was unloading a pick from the back of a black, newer-model hardtop Jeep. On the ground beside him was a large, green, military-style canvas duffel bag. Not far beyond, she could see a big hole with a mound of freshly dug earth beside it.
Perhaps responding to the sudden lack of engine noise and crunch of tires on gravel, he turned around and gave her the once-over. Holly waved, greeting him with a smile.
Frowning, the man set the pick down on the ground, propped the handle against the tailgate, then walked away.
Either he wasn't the friendly type, or he was just plain tired from digging and in no mood to socialize. Of course if he'd needed a pick to break the crust of the hard-packed ground, he probably had his hands full. Judging from the college parking sticker with its big red F on its rear window and his neatly groomed beard, she figured that he was either an archeology or geology professor from the local college.
Though he hadn't been friendly, Holly scarcely gave it a thought. She always waved at people and greeted them like old friends. She'd learned a long time ago that a smile and a wave could open doors, or at the very least, disarm a potential enemy.
As a new business owner, her friendliness and upbeat nature were an even greater asset to her now. Even a casual wave that called attention to her became added publicity, a method of networking. Her company's name, TechTalk Incorporated, along with the telephone number and website address, were painted on the driver's-side door of her pickup. Since she had no extra funds to pay for advertising, this was an inexpensive way of getting attention and potential clients.
When Holly looked back down the road, searching for the coyotes, she found that they'd already disappeareda survival skill that served them well. Switching on the ignition, she glanced back at the man. The professor or student was by his Jeep again, struggling to load the heavy green duffel bag into the back. For a second she wondered if she should offer to help, but as she reached for the ignition key to turn off the engine again, the man completed the task.
He was probably a geologist with a bag of rock samples. An archeologist would have wrapped up and handled his unearthed find more carefully.
Holly glanced at her watch. It was time for her to get going.
Ten minutes later, she arrived at the gate of the Navajo tribe's New Horizon Energy's secure facility. The natural gas processing plant piped in raw natural gas, cleaned it of contaminants, then sent it downline to be used as fuel by consumers. Three strands of barbed wire stood at the top of the mesh, which surrounded the several-acre facility. Security at energy facilities was always high, but she was getting used to it.
Holly handed her photo ID to the armed, uniformed, middle-aged Navajo man at the guardhouse and gave him a smile. Bruce was barrel-chested and about fifty pounds overweight, but she doubted anyone could knock him down without a lot of help.
"Good morning, young lady," he said with a broad smile. "You all ready for Christmas?"
"If that's a hint, I'll be making those chocolate cake cookies you love in a day or two. You'll be my first stop."
"My wife would love that recipeif you ever change your mind."
"Sorry," Holly said with a smile. "The pastry chef who came up with it made me swear to never tell a soul. She owns a catering business in Texas now."
"I'm sure those cookies paved the way for her, too."
Holly waited until Bruce scanned her ID's bar code into his handheld device, and wrote her arrival time on his clipboard. Once he gave her a nod, she drove through and nosed her pickup into her designated employee parking space.
Holly walked to the next, unmanned checkpoint, used her access card and went inside the administration building. She could see people gathering in the conference room already, but it was mostly around the coffee and doughnut table, so she would have time to review her notes. She took an aisle seat in the front row and opened her briefcase.
Today she was scheduled to present an overview of the proposed new natural gas recovery process to area guests, industry people, and state and local government representatives. Afterward, she'd give the community leaders who had sufficient clearance a tour of the facility.
Holly saw Martin Roanhorse, the tribal department head, at the front of the room speaking with the facility manager. She was glad that Martin approved of her work, but she hated the way he'd often give her assignments at the last minute. He'd never understood how much preparation her presentations actually took, especially when the audience included both PhD-level engineers and local media who preferred information in sound bites.
Spotting her, Martin hurried over, arriving just as she opened her folder. As usual, he was well dressed. Today, his bolo tie complemented his brown wool Western suit and his snakeskin boots were shined to perfection.
"Here's an update on our guest list, Holly," he said. "We've made some last-minute additions. We've expanded this event to include several people from the public sector. I've listed the occupation of each participant, as well as their stated reason for attending," Martin said, ignoring her scowl. "The tour of the facility, of course, will remain restricted to those who've already been cleared."
"I've asked you before not to spring these things on me at the last minute, Martin. Half of what I've already prepared will probably go right over their heads. I'm supposed to communicate, not confuse."
"I know, and I'm sorry about that, but this request came from the tribal president. He's been getting flak from some activists and wanted you to make sure everyone understood that there's no danger to the aquifer."
She took a deep breath and let it out again. "The new guests Is that why I'm seeing extra security this morning?" Holly cocked her head toward the back of the room where two plant security guards were stationed just inside the exit.
"Yeah," he said. "Don't worry. Everyone was checked with the wands when they came through the security gates."
"Who's the tall Navajo man in the brown leather jacket with a pistol on his hip? A tribal cop? He looks ex-military."
"You may have heard his name mentioned during tribal agency meetings. That's Daniel Hawk," he said, following her gaze. "Like you, he's a private consultant. Hawk owns Level One Security and conducts our training exercises, not only here, but also at every critical tribal facility. Naturally he's got the highest clearance level."
Holly nodded, finally being able to place a face to the name. She'd heard Daniel Hawk described as a one-time bad boy who could attract women faster than free chocolate. Daniel had presence. That confidence and take-charge attitude, coupled with those wide shoulders and long legs, sure made him easy on the eyes.
She watched Daniel Hawk as he moved, his back straight, his steps measured and filled with purpose. He came to a stop and glanced around the room, his gaze missing nothing. Then, for a brief moment, his eyes met hers. That steady, penetrating look was a blend of curiosity and casual sensuality that made her body tingle all over.
Holly was used to being checked out by men wherever she was. Though she wasn't drop-dead gorgeous, at five foot three she had generous curves in all the right places and men had a tendency to turn their heads to look when she stepped into a room. Yet it wasn't admiration that was mirrored in the dark eyes that held hersit was a subtle challenge.
Taking a deep breath, Holly forced herself to look away. He wasn't checking her out in a man-woman sort of way. He was a professional, sizing her up as he would any stranger in his environment.
Hearing herself being introduced, her focus shifted instantly to the job at hand. Holly beamed a confident smile to everyone in the audience as she strode up to the podium. Prepared, she started her presentation without skipping a beat. Martin had already loaded her graphics into the projection system and the remote worked perfectly.
Even though nearly every seat in the room was occupied, she felt completely at ease. Her engaging voice kept everyone's attention, even through the dry, technical segments of her presentation.
Everything went smoothly until she began to explain the specifics of the new extraction processan improved technique for freeing up deposits of natural gas far below the surface. Out of the corner of her eye Holly saw a Navajo man wearing a denim jacket rise from his seat. He sidestepped past the seated guests and headed toward the center aisle.
Holly wondered if the man was having difficulty keeping up with the technical portion, but she was forced to block him from her mind and focus on her presentation.
As soon as he reached the aisle and turned toward the podium instead of the exit, Holly recognized him instantly. Clyde Keeswood was a community activist who'd opposed the tribe's energy resource operations from day one. He'd shouted out his opposition in every press conference and lecture she'd held the past few months. Now what?
Almost as the thought formed, she saw Daniel Hawk on the move.
"This is the same PR bull we hear every day," Keeswood shouted, walking toward her. "Why don't you give us the whole story?" He came to a stop next to her empty chair and glared at her.
"I promise to answer your questions after I finish explaining the details of the extraction process," Holly said, refusing to raise her voice. "I'll keep it brief, Mr. Keeswood, then we'll address whatever concerns you have. If you can take a seat "
He remained standing. "Nothing will be brief, except our way of life after the wells run dry. Sure, the tribe and their big business partners will make gobs of money selling natural gas to I don't know, big developers, factories? But the water table will be contaminated with chemicalsthat's if the wells don't go dry first. You think this is a desert now? Just wait."
"No chemicals except water itself will be used to free up the gas formations. Let me show you how it works," she said.
She stepped to the left and pressed a remote. A projector on the far side of the room produced an image on the screen behind her on the wall.
The man spat out a curse and picked up her chair. As he raised it over his head, Daniel Hawk was suddenly there. In a split second he yanked the chair away from Keeswood.
The force threw the activist off balance. He fell backward and toppled onto the tile floor. Daniel set the chair aside, and straddled the troublemaker, ready to roll him over and cuff him.
Keeswood punched upward but Daniel blocked the jab, grabbed his hand, then twisted it around, forcing the man facedown on the floor. By then, two uniformed security guards arrived. They hauled Keeswood to his feet and quickly led him away.
Barely ten seconds had passed, but the room had grown completely silent. Holly glanced at Daniel, and he nodded, giving her a thumbs-up.
"Harmony has been restored. I think we can continue now," she said, and the room exploded in applause. Holly glanced back, looking for Daniel, but all she saw was his back as he left the room.
Disappointed, she focused on what she had to do. Later, when she could get away, she'd catch up to him and thank him personally for what he'd done.