|by Robin Alexander
I failed you as a father. I know my work was never important to you, and you see it as the thing that has kept us apart through the years. You’ll come to resent it more now. Your life depends on what you’re about to read. Don’t dismiss or take it lightly.
Look around you. Do you see unfamiliar faces standing off in the distance pretending to be interested in something else?
Jodi Grant looked up from the paper held tightly in her grasp. A man stood away from the small cache of mourners surrounding her father’s burial site. He averted his gaze when she caught his eye. Beyond him, a woman put flowers on a grave. She too glanced in Jodi’s direction and looked away quickly. Jodi tried to look casually to her left and noticed another man leaning against one of the large oaks of the cemetery. He exhaled a large puff of smoke and stubbed his cigarette out on the bark of the tree. He made no move to avert his gaze and met Jodi’s head-on.
I was close. Jodi, in my hand, I held artifacts that no man has touched in thousands of years. The final prize is still out there waiting to be discovered.
Jodi swallowed convulsively, hoping that he would not ask the unthinkable. She was not going to tramp through some jungle to finish what he started.
I want you to finish what I started. Actually, honey, you have no choice. The people surrounding you have no intention of letting you return to the life you knew. By now, your apartment has been ransacked. You can’t go back there. You can’t stay here. You must go. I’ve sent help. He’ll probably reveal himself by the time you finish this note.
Jodi inhaled sharply as she folded the letter.
"Ms. Grant, come with me, please."
She spun on her heel and looked into the soft brown eyes of a man her own height of five-foot-seven. Her so-called help looked as though a strong wind would blow him away. He pushed his spectacles farther up the bridge of his nose with a scrawny index finger, then smoothed back the few stray hairs in his receding hairline.
"Ms. Grant, we don’t have time to lose. I’m your escort."
"I’m not going. Whatever Nicolas Grant was digging in the dirt for can stay there."
The escort licked his lips. "It’s not that simple." His gaze moved beyond Jodi as the traffic on the road behind them seemed to grow louder.
Jodi felt her shoulders slam into a crypt that a few moments earlier had been a few feet away. A piece of marble shattered and grazed her temple. The escort grabbed the front of her suit, a suit she’d paid what she considered a lot of money for. With the other hand, he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a gun; the barrel appeared to be a foot long. She saw his wrist move with the recoil but heard little of a report as he dragged her behind the protective wall of another crypt.
"Gotta love New Orleans." He continued to fire at the rider of the motorcycle bearing down on them. "Fascinating city, the way you bury the dead above ground. The seafood gumbo I had for lunch was exquisite. Made me regret not being able to stay a bit longer."
Jodi was being dragged like a rag doll between crypts as bullets ricocheted off of marble and stone. The escort’s diatribe made the whole scene seem even more surreal. A car appeared in front of them, and Jodi was shoved into the backseat as one of the escort’s bullets caught the cyclist just below his helmet. Jodi watched in shock as the bike went on without him.
Her protector moved onto the seat beside her and slammed the door. "My name’s Jason Platt, and our driver with the perfect timing is Antoinette." Jason dropped the spent clip of his weapon onto the floorboard and reloaded. "We call her Ant." He smiled over at Jodi, who lay slumped in the seat. "She’s shorter than me."
Jodi began slapping at the pockets of her black suit jacket, hoping to feel her phone. She sat up slightly, peering over the driver’s seat in hopes of ascertaining her location and direction being traveled. Perhaps New Orleans’ finest could intercept them.
"Looking for this?" Jason waved her phone. Jodi felt a wave of nausea overcome her as he tossed it out the window. "Won’t do you any good."
She felt the car go airborne, then land with a jarring thud. "My God, your roads are in terrible shape here." Jason jerked a thumb toward his chest. "I’ve seen plenty. Been all over the world, and I have to say your streets are one of the absolute worst for a modern society. It’s the water table, isn’t it? And I imagine the roots from some of the trees lining the road."
"I…don’t care," Jodi said, unable to comprehend the conversation while careening at breakneck speeds through the city.
"You should probably sleep."
The last thing Jodi noticed was a handkerchief gliding toward her face.
"Of course, she’s coming. What choice did she have in the matter?" Blair Whittington sipped her scotch and leaned heavily against the scarred wooden table. "Nic has absconded with all our choices and took them and his secrets to the grave."
"You’re drunk, Doc."
Blair watched as Tad Connelly filled a glass with amber liquid, and the bottle hit the table with a thud. He gave the contents a sniff and downed it all in one swallow.
"I’m tired. I’d like to go home and bathe whenever I choose, eat something and not worry that it may be poisoned or more likely ruined." Blair yawned. "And not have to constantly look over my shoulder."
Tad refilled his glass and raised it in toast. "To home sweet home."
Blair raised hers, as well, and drained the glass. "When shall I expect Ms. Grant? Perhaps I’ll tidy the guest suite, put on a kettle for tea."
Tad rubbed at the thick stubble growing along his jaw and laughed. "Maybe I’ll shave and put on a fresh shirt. I might even put on a little deodorant. Can’t have the girl thinking we’re uncivilized."
Blair laughed with him for the first time in days. "You have more than one shirt, and it’s clean? You lucky man. I won’t go so easy on you the next time we play poker."
She wasn’t joking. Tad’s clean shirt, if he truly had one, would hang off her like a dress, but she’d take it. The smell of her own stale sweat offended even her. Blair didn’t dare count how many days she had been in the clothes she was presently wearing.
Archaeology by no means was a clean profession, but when she signed on for the expedition, she’d been promised a great many things—lodging at a hotel, state-of-the-art equipment, and a capable crew. What she got was a tent and equipment that lay at the bottom of a ravine along with half of her crew. And the topper? The people responsible for the loss were out there somewhere looking for her, and if they were successful in their search, she’d have been better off going off the side of the cliff with those hapless souls and the supplies.
"To Nicolas Grant." She raised her glass. "He was a thief, liar, and all-around asshole." The last of her sentence trailed off into a slur.
"Tomorrow evening," Tad said with a raise of his glass.
"Ms. Grant will arrive tomorrow evening. I’ll send Jason the coordinates on the new camp. He’ll meet us there."
"Highly efficient, he and Ant. Good people." Blair looked at the bottom of her empty glass. "Shame they had to get mixed up with Grant."
Tad threw back his head and laughed boisterously. Blair grinned along with him, though she had no idea what he’d found so funny. The chair he sat in creaked, bearing the strain of his six-foot-five-inch, two hundred fifty-give-or-take-a-pound frame. Black hair in need of a cut poked out from beneath his baseball cap. When he regarded her, his dark eyes were filled with tears of laughter.
"They’re hired guns, Doc. They kill people, lots of people. They’re good people because they’re on our side, at least until we stop paying them."
Blair pursed her lips before saying, "Well, there is that. As long as they’re killing the people who’re trying to kill us, they’re good people in my book." She put both hands on the table and rose slowly to her unsteady feet. "I’m calling it a night."
Tad grinned up at her. "Would you like company?"
"No, thank you."
Blair shook her head.
"Doc, we’re hiding out in the jungle. Speaking frankly, there’s nothing wrong with two adults taking comfort in each other."
She pulled her hand away before Tad could reach it. "If we’re being frank, you should know you’re not my type."
"What is your type then?" Tad asked with his smile in place. "I can be versatile."
"I don’t have one. When I was on the assembly line, I missed out on a sex drive. Even if your breath didn’t smell like decomp, I still wouldn’t be able to muster a sigh. Good night, Tad," she said before he could formulate a rebuttal.
Though Blair longed for it, there was no shower. No stream or river nearby in which to bathe, but if there had been, she would not have taken the chance anyway. Their camp was surrounded by armed locals willing to shoot anyone who came near without question for a pittance. She would not leave the protective barrier until Jason and Ant returned, even if it meant crawling onto her cot with dirt caked on her skin and face.
She would brush her teeth, though, and use what little water she had left in her canteen to rinse. The next day, they’d move closer to one of the villages. A runner would be sent in for supplies.
Her tent was large enough to stand in and would accommodate another cot but precious little else. She loathed being forced to share what space she had with a stranger. As much as she coveted her privacy, she could not in good conscience demand that Jodi Grant sleep outside with the mosquitos. As much as Blair despised the elder Grant for putting her into a precarious position, she could not find it in her heart to be cruel to his daughter, who had also become a pawn in his deadly game.
Blair spat a mouthful of toothpaste out of the flap door of her tent, then swatted at the flock of mosquitos she’d let in. She rinsed her mouth and repeated the process, allowing more of the winged bloodsuckers into her makeshift home. She kicked off her boots and stretched out on her cot with a sigh. With her hands clasped behind her head, she tried to think about anything besides the comfort of her own bed, clean clothes, and scented bath soap. Instead, she focused on her favorite damn it doll—Nicolas Grant.
She’d been the perfect fool for Grant’s plans. No field experience and no street smarts, but a knowledge of Peruvian artifacts that would rival any tome or Web page. Grant had claimed that the expedition had been financed by a Peruvian benefactor living in the States who wanted his ancient culture to be memorialized in a museum before robbers made off with his history. That much was true. What Grant failed to disclose was that benefactor also wanted pieces for himself. He’d used his money to get around the political permissions that would’ve drawn attention to what Nicolas had claimed to have found.
Getting involved in the project opened Blair’s eyes to the illegal antiquities trade that she knew existed but had not realized operated with the same brutality as illegal drugs. Once she had a grasp on the fact that she was involved in something nefarious, she was in far too deep to cry foul.
The plan was simple but rife with too many flaws to consider. They’d obtain the pieces sought by the benefactor and use them to barter for their lives. She wondered if Nicolas Grant had bitten off more than he could chew and formulated the same plan but chose not to inform the rest of the team until a bullet found a way into his chest. He lingered long enough to inform the crew that he’d safeguarded integral information in the States in the care of his daughter who had not a clue.