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Authors: Christine Gentry

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BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
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“You know how to play?”

She turned. One of the Indians who had been sitting at a front table smiled at her. A cigarette smoldered between his dirty fingers. Middle-aged with short-cropped black hair going gray, he resembled a lot of Arrowhead ranch hands. Except the breath coming from behind his crooked teeth reeked of cheap whiskey.

“No, I've never seen this game.”

“For a buck, you set two sticks down on the table in front of the bird. One stick is an inch shorter than the other. The bird picks up a stick and tries to drop it lengthwise into a slot in that box. You bet that the bird won't pick the right stick. If the Kangi picks the long stick that won't go in, you double your money. If the he picks the short stick, you lose your dollar.”

At that very moment, Kangi picked up the short dowel and dropped it into the box slot. The crowd roared in disappointment as a gambler lost. The raven let loose with a chilling
caw-caw
that reverberated like a diabolical chuckle.

Ansel knew that ravens, though highly intelligent, couldn't judge an object's length. When the birds built their nests, they often brought back sticks too long to fit sideways into the entrance hole. Instead of pushing in the stick end first, the birds dropped long branches onto the ground and searched for another. Only luck helped them complete a nest.

“Ernie Vogue,” said the man loudly in Ansel's ear.

“Excuse me?”

“My name. Ernie Vogue. What's yours?”

A switch flipped in Ansel's head. Amazing. She stared at Ernie, knowing without a doubt what fossil Nick had scanned into the Roosevelt Museum computers.

“The chicken with a brain,” Ansel remembered with delight.

Ernie's uplifted mouth fell. “That's not very nice,” Ernie slurred. “I'm just trying to be friendly.”

“I've got to go,” Ansel replied. She turned on her boot heels and headed for the exit with a jaunty, slightly wobbling gait.

Behind her, Kangi trilled a shrill
caw-caw
of victory.

Chapter 22

“One man's shrine is another man's cemetery.”

Lame Deer, Sioux

Eyes burning even with sunglasses on, Ansel squinted against the bright sunlight streaming across the Resurrection Garden of the Omega Fellowship. She tried not to throw up. Payback for her binge at the Red Rose had ambushed her at the ranch the night before. She'd been too ill to tell Pearl and her father that she'd figured out Nick's secret project. Instead she'd silently suffered Chase's scornful gazes and Pearl's pragmatic, medicinal ministrations in between rushes to the bathroom. She had barely managed to get a couple hours of sleep.

By some perverse quirk of fate, she'd arrived early for Nick's memorial service. Ansel remembered hearing the Fellowship's ads on local radio stations. The organization promoted “low-cost, non-funereal, nondenominational ceremonies for transitional loved ones.” From what she could see, that equaled cheap, generic cremation. Karen could probably count the ceremony's final price on her fingers.

Ansel sat in an end-row, folding wooden chair situated beneath a large green, canvas canopy with scalloped edges. Seven other rows spanned before her. Recorded mood music with ethereal overtones burst from two loudspeakers attached to canopy poles. An oak veneer dais with a microphone stood centered before the cluster of chairs.

Two huge floral sprays on Roman pedestals were positioned on each side of the dais. They repelled her. The gaudy blood-red vases displayed artificial lilies and ferns. Only a stippling of dust on the fabric leaves provided the illusion of living plants threatened by the onset of an insidious fungal disease. A few genuine flower sprays graced the aisles, including one large bouquet of red roses and ferns contributed by the Pangaea Society.

Dressed in her mourning outfit, a black ankle-length broomstick skirt with concha-style side buttons, a black whipstitch blouse, and flat-heeled, black shoes, Ansel sat rod-straight and prayed for an errant breeze to drift across the treeless field. Every time she inhaled, dust particles the size of coal soot seared her parched throat.

She coughed and tugged at a hand-crafted, silver Pico earring. Sweat dripped from her hairline. She'd gone all out for the service, twisting her hair into a chignon and applying heavy makeup to hide her pasty, hangover complexion. Now trapped body sweat prickled her skin like an icy sponge bath.

Ansel stared at the large, metallic-gold urn placed on a smaller scrolled column before the dais. Beyond the reach of mortal concerns, Nick had been reduced to several pounds of burnt calcium chips and funneled into a vessel resembling a brass spittoon with a lid.

“Hello, Ansel.”

Karen Capos had definitely shopped for bereavement attire. She wore a black satin, double-breasted jacket with padded shoulders and a matching above-the-knees skirt that zipped up the front. The satin bustier under the jacket was white. Karen also wore black hose and black satin, strappy sandals with covenant heels. A black purse with a satin flowerette latch hung from her cushioned shoulder.

“Hello, Karen.”

“Did you see Nicky's collection?”

Ansel looked as inconspicuously as possible for Alex King. She didn't see him. Had a sense of propriety kept him from attending? Or was it something else?

“I went to the apartment, but the bulk of the collection is gone. Some small amber pieces, not of much value, are the only things left.”

“What do you mean the collection wasn't there?”

“That's all I know.” She opened her purse and pulled out Nick's apartment key. “You should take this back.”

Karen grabbed the key. “That doesn't make any sense. Those fossils have to be somewhere. I wonder if that's what that man who called was talking about,” she said, crinkling her perfectly plucked, blonde eyebrows.

“What man?”

“Oh, he called this week and left me a message. I have no idea how he got my number, but he babbled something about needing to speak with Nicky about fossils. I didn't pay too much attention.”

“Do you remember the caller's name?”

“Nope. He did mention a store called Rockheads in Butte. I remember that. Why don't you check it out? Alex and I are planning a cruise to the Caymans. I'm swamped with details.”

Ansel had heard of Rockheads. It was a large gem and mineral shop. Keeping in contact with Karen didn't appeal to her, but a man calling about Nick's fossils sounded intriguing. Could he have any connection to Athanasios Stouraitis or Nick's computer project?

“All right.”

“Good. I've got to get my seat. Keep me informed.”

Ansel forced a smile as the merry widow sauntered away. More people arrived in batches. As she waited, numerous society members passed her or stopped for a few seconds to exchange comments about Nick's untimely passing. A few tried to gossip about the murders, but she discouraged them with monosyllabic answers and polite nods.

When more shadows hovered beside her, she looked up to see Lydia Hodges and Tim Shanks. She couldn't hide her surprise. What was Lydia doing here? She still remembered how Lydia had rushed from the trailer, proclaiming she wanted nothing more to do with Nick.

“Hi, Miss Phoenix,” said Tim. “We were hoping to see you.”

Lydia looked sheepish and said nothing. She moved nervously from foot to foot within the folds of a navy blue dress and fingered a white pearl necklace. Ansel hardly recognized Tim without his straw hat and camera. His dark blue suit made him look much younger than he was.

“Nice to see you, too. You came together?”

“No. We met here,” Tim said.

Lydia nodded. “Tim talked me into coming. He thought it was the right thing to do. After all, we found him.”

An uncomfortable lull invaded the space around them. Ansel wanted to ask Tim about the pictures he'd taken at the crime scene. She wished Lydia wasn't present. The girl was acting very edgy. Maybe she just didn't really want to be here.

Tim took Lydia's elbow. “We'd better take a seat. If you need anything, Miss Phoenix, just call me.”

“Thanks, Tim. See you both at the next seminar.”

They nodded and walked toward the front of the canopy, taking seats directly in front of Leslie Maze, who had apparently arrived during the last few minutes and hadn't bothered to approach her. She hadn't yet reviewed his research paper. Was he still smarting from his confession yesterday? She would keep her distance.

Slowly her row filled with mourners she didn't know. It appeared there would be a fair turnout for the service and that pleased her, despite her conflicted feelings about Nick. She watched the gathering crowd, hoping her stomach would settle by the time the service began.

“Good morning, Miss Phoenix.”

Ansel flinched when the voice spoke directly into her right ear. She looked up. Detective Dorbandt, wearing his usual suit and smelling of spicy cologne, leaned toward her. He was immaculately groomed today, thick hair combed and parted, tanned face shaved, blue eyes sparkling. Ansel felt a spark ignite in her chest and drowned it with a wave of annoyance.

“You scared me again. I wish you'd stop that, Lieutenant.”

Dorbandt straightened. “I'm sorry.”

Ansel noted that he didn't look repentant. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you. We need to talk.”

“Now?”

“After the services.” He thumbed toward the parking lot. “I'll be waiting.”

Before she could protest, Dorbandt walked away. Her stomach flip-flopped with apprehension. What did he want? She watched him move beyond the canopy, heading toward the parking lot adjacent to the Omega crematorium. There was no way she could sneak past him and reach her truck.

Ansel turned and glanced at the man who had taken the seat next to her while she talked to the cop. Damn. Cameron Bieselmore's hulking mass had spread into her personal space, and he positively reeked of Old Spice aftershave. Clad in a midnight-black suit with vest and shiny black loafers, he must be in heaven, she considered angrily. At last his dreadful fashion tastes doubled as suitable apparel. If she didn't vomit on them first.

“Good day, Ansel. Though I guess such a salutation is inappropriate given the occasion.”

“You have some nerve sitting next to me, Cameron,” Ansel said, a vitriolic edge deepening her voice, “after shoving me out the door. I faced those press piranhas alone.”

Cameron frowned. “I didn't shove you. I gave you a firm, supportive tap of comradeship.”

“You deserted me and slammed the door,” Ansel uttered between clenched teeth so other people wouldn't hear.

“Nonsense. The museum was closed. I had to secure the premises. If anyone should be indignant, it's I. A neanderthal named Detective Fiskar visited me. He grilled me about my relationship with Nick, and he knew all about the dispute over the extinction diorama and the strychnine connection. You told the police about it.”

“Not about the strychnine. Somebody else did. I warned you this would happen.”

“Yes, I suppose,” Cameron acquiesced. “This is excruciating for all of us.” He scrutinized her. “You look terrible. You're not going embarrass me by fainting, are you?”

Before Ansel could make a justifiably nasty retort, the area quieted as a short, mousy man with a goatee silently positioned himself behind the dais. A taller black man, who served as an usher, approached the cassette player and cut off a harp-infused, symphonic melody with a loud, amplified crackle.

Ansel hardly listened as the squeaky-voiced man delivered a dreary, uninspired eulogy about a murdered man he never knew. For the next thirty minutes, she forced herself to sit calmly and observe the people around her. Was the killer here, flaunting his or her invulnerability?

Throughout the service Leslie Maze didn't move an inch. He stared ahead like an automaton. Cameron hunkered down in his wood-slat chair looking extremely put out and staring at the urn with undisguised loathing. The eulogy abruptly ended when the speaker, acting as a spiritual shepherd, gave a wave of his hand and dismissed the mourners.

Karen Capos bolted down the aisle toward the parking lot. Would she return later and pick up Nick's remains for the trip to the Caymans? Ansel wondered sarcastically. Other mourners walked by the urn, paying their last respects.

Lydia and Tim stood, and a swirling stampede of exiting mourners enveloped them. As Ansel rose, Cameron bumped her while lumbering upward from his own seat, knees popping. Ansel almost lost her balance on the grassy terrain. When she looked again, the students were nowhere to be seen. Was she ever going to get to ask Tim about those pictures?

“Such an inspirational eulogy,” Cameron said. “Can you imagine Nick ‘at slumber within the Eternal Flame'? I bet Nick's a tempest in a cinerary pot after hearing that drivel.”

Disgusted, Ansel bit her tongue and simply walked away.

Chapter 23

“I am of another nation, when I speak you do not understand me. When you speak, I do not understand you.”

Spokan Garry, Middle Spokane

Ansel followed Dorbandt to a nearby restaurant called the Rincon Grill. They shared a booth in a small bustling diner serving breakfast twenty-four hours a day. Food didn't interest her, but sitting someplace cool felt wonderful.

She pulled off her sunglasses and stared at Dorbandt. “What is this about?”

“I haven't received your suspect sketch.”

“It's in my truck, for all the good it will do.”

“I'll get it before you leave.”

“Anything else?”

Dorbandt swivelled toward his steel briefcase sitting on the seat beside him. He popped the latches, pulled out a paper and placed it on the table. “Ever see this man?”

The photocopied color print was a blow-up from a driver's license. Flash glare had overexposed it. Ansel half-hoped it was her cowboy attacker, but it wasn't. The man wore a plain white tee shirt and looked in his mid thirties with short, dirty-blond hair and a dark complexion. Crows' feet latched onto the corners of his brown eyes. Black stubble peppered his cheeks and jaw. He had a tough, weatherbeaten look that reminded Ansel of someone used to hard, outdoor labor.

“No. Who is he?”

“Theodore Melba. Ring any bells?”

Ansel pushed the photo back. “No. Is he Greek?”

Dorbandt gave her a double take as he picked up the paper. “He was.”

“Was?”

“He's dead. Committed suicide a year ago. Hanged himself in a barn.”

“That's terrible, but why are you showing it to me?”

Dorbandt pinned her with a hard look before speaking. “This doesn't go any further than you.”

“Fair enough.”

“I looked into Capos' employment history. I ran the names of every person mentioned in his personal file through the computers. Melba's name popped out.”

A harried, brown-haired waitress wearing a “Cindy” name tag appeared at their booth. “Sorry I didn't get here sooner. What can I get y'all?”

“Water for me, please,” Ansel replied.

Dorbandt eyeballed her. “That's it?”

“Yes.” She hoped her face didn't look as inhuman as she felt.

Without using a menu, he said, “I'll take the Durango Special.”

Cindy scribbled on a tiny pink pad. “How do you want your steak and eggs?”

“Medium rare and sunny-side up.”

“Be right back.” She smiled and hurried away on squeaky, rubber-soled shoes.

Dorbandt gazed at Ansel. “Hard night?”

She had expected him to jump back into his Melba story. “Funerals aren't pleasant.”

“That's some hangover. You should eat something.”

Not appreciating his fishing expedition inside her head, she changed the subject. “Was Melba's death suspicious?”

“No. Everything looked plumb in the police report. Melba ran a small cattle ranch along the Big Hole River. A passel of federally protected sage grouse lived there, too. The Cooperative came in and said Melba was overgrazing the grassland ecosystem, driving the grouse out. The BLM revoked Melba's federal land-use permits so the birds got their habitat. Melba went bankrupt and committed suicide during a fit of depression. He lost the ranch his family had owned for more than a hundred and fifty years.”

“What has that got to do with Nick? The government made the decision to close Melba down.”

Dorbandt nodded. “Sure. A faceless tree-hugger lowered the ax, but Capos sharpened the blade. He was the drone doing the government's dirty work, and he helped chop down a fellow Greek. Maybe that stuck in somebody's craw.”

“Maybe somebody could blame Nick, but his actions weren't personal.”

“At least Melba's a lead.” He put the paper in his briefcase and snapped it shut.

Cindy returned, carrying a tray with a glass of water, a stainless steel carafe of coffee, and a plastic basket brimming with fresh blueberry muffins. After she'd left, Dorbandt poured his coffee, adding two sugars and creams to the steaming caffeine brew before stirring slowly.

Ansel watched Dorbandt. His motions were always fluid, as well coordinated and efficient as his police demeanor. For the first time, she noticed he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, only a gold college ring with a red-faceted stone. If Dorbandt had a girlfriend, what did she look like, and how in the world could she put up with his overbearing cop attitude?

“I may have some other leads for you,” she volunteered.

Dorbandt glanced up, his face unreadable. “Such as?”

“I know what fossil Nick scanned into the museum computers.”

Dorbandt sipped his coffee and reached for a muffin. “What?”


Urvogel
,” announced Ansel. “In German it means ‘first bird.' It's an
Archeopteryx
.”

“How do you know?”

“Evelyn saw the phrase HMN-1880 in Nick's research notebook. I remembered that's the catalog number for an
Archaeopteryx
fossil found in Solnhofen, Germany, in 1861. HMN stands for the Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, where the specimen is housed. The fossil's famous because it's a remarkably well preserved and complete specimen with a head. The first one discovered didn't have a skull.”

Dorbandt finished his muffin in three bites. “That's important? It's just a bird.”

“No.
Archaeopteryx
is a small, feathered reptile that lived during the Upper Jurassic one hundred and fifty million years ago. It's believed to be the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and modern birds. Have you ever seen a picture of
Archaeopteryx
?”

Dorbandt nodded. “Ugly-looking thing. Reminds me of a prairie chicken with fangs and claws. If they weren't already extinct, I'd shoot them on sight.”

Ansel almost smiled. “Right.
Archaeopteryx
was a pigeon-sized dinosaur with bird-like feathers, wings, perching feet, hip bones, and a wishbone. The long bony tail, scaled snout, sharp teeth, and three claw-like fingers positioned midway down the wings are reptilian features.”

Dorbandt's breakfast arrived. The waitress set down a cattleman's spread consisting of two eggs, hash browns, and a sizzling T-bone steak.

Cindy grinned. “Anything else?”

An air-sick bag, thought Ansel desperately. The smells of cooked bird ova, fried spuds, cow muscle, and grease assaulted her digestive tract with a vengeance.

Dorbandt gave her a gracious smile. “Nothing, thanks.” He speared his steak with a fork, then spied Ansel. “Don't heave on me.”

“Very funny. Where were we?”

“Old bird. Big choppers.” Using a wicked-looking steak knife, he lopped off a large chunk of blood-tinged meat and pushed it into his mouth, chewing heartily.

Beneath the table, Ansel clutched her stomach. Was he taunting her or just ravenous? “The point is, Nick was a paleobotanist. It makes sense that any new research he did on
Archaeopteryx
might be connected to his new interests in amber inclusions.”

“In what way?”

“I'm not sure,” Ansel admitted. “I do know that Nick had research material concerning pyrolysis in amber. Pyrolysis is the destructive action of heat. Amber is a poor conductor of heat, and it oxidizes when exposed to extreme temperatures. This changes its natural physical and chemical properties.”

“Sounds pretty thin to me. You may never know what Capos was researching.”

“Well, I know that experts have claimed that finding
Archaeopteryx
in lithographic limestone was the paleohistorical equivalent of finding the Rosetta Stone. If Nick found some new trace fossil evidence relating to
Archaeopteryx
and amber, specifically DNA materials, it could be the equivalent of finding the Ten Commandments.”

“Just speculation. I can't use it.”

“Wait. I have something to show you.” Ansel removed the bracelet from her black purse and placed it on the table.

Dorbandt's pupils transformed into cold pinpricks of black. “Where did you get that?”

“The jerk who attacked me left it behind.”

Dorbandt set his fork down. “Impossible. I examined your trailer, remember?” He pulled out his leather notebook and flipped it open.

“Sorry, but you missed it,” Ansel lied.

He slid his notepad across the table. “Benchley wore a necklace with the same design.”

Surprise widened her eyes as she looked at his
utchat
drawing. “You're sure it belonged to her?”

“Yeah, I'm sure. I watched her autopsy from body bag to Y-cut. She was killed by a dart filled with enough strychnine to stiff a cow, so quit yanking my chain. When did you really find the bracelet?”

The shocking image of Evelyn on an autopsy table with the detective observing every medical debasement hit home hard with Ansel. And Evelyn had been murdered with strychnine, too. Bile rose in her throat. “Right after I was attacked.”

“You mucked up potential fingerprint evidence, and then didn't tell me? That's not only stupid, but suspicious behavior.” He shoved both the notebook and the bracelet back into his coat pocket. “What's the matter with you, Ansel? When are you going to trust me?”

“Why should I? Nobody trusts me because I'm...” She clamped her mouth shut.

Dorbandt nodded his head as the revelation hit him. “So the big bad, white world is oppressing the little misunderstood Indian girl. That's your excuse? Did I ever give you any reason to think I'm prejudicial because you're half Indian?”

Ansel stiffened. “You have no right to sit there and label me as some paranoid female.”

“Then don't label me as a male bigot. Tell me everything you know about this case right now, or I'll haul your pretty hide down to the Sheriff's Department and let Captain McKenzie browbeat you for a day or two. Maybe that will teach you the difference between my investigative techniques and extrajudicial racism.”

“That's not fair.”

“Life ain't fair and death don't care.” He crossed his arms and gazed at her, eyebrows cocked.

Ansel glared back. Neither of them spoke for a full minute. Finally she snorted in exasperation. “All right. I'll level with you.”

Dorbandt picked up his fork. “Get to it.”

“I visited a warlock and learned the charm is called an
utchat
. It represents the Eye of Apollo. Ancient Greek religions believed the
utchat
brought good luck. There's a rich Greek, Dr. Athanasios Stouraitis, living in Lustre. He's an oracle who runs a New Age group called the Avis Arcana. They're reviving the old Greek religion of augury, foretelling prophesies by using birds. This bracelet may connect Stouraitis, the cowboy, Evelyn, and probably Nick together. And Stouraitis would probably be very interested in a half-bird reptile like
Archaeopteryx
.”

Ansel stopped and took a big breath. She also gulped down a few swallows of water. Dorbandt had shoveled eggs into his mouth until she finished. He still looked angry.

“A warlock and a Greek oracle. You've been busy.”

“I'm not done. Lydia Hodges told me that she overheard Nick talking on a Bowie College pay phone before he was murdered. Nick mentioned a ‘Griffin.' I thought Griffin was a person, but now I don't think so. When the first headless
Archaeopteryx
was found, it was given the temporary name of Griphosaurus, which is a taxonomic description that literally means ‘the problematical griffin lizard.' Nick might have used the term ‘griffin' to refer to
Archaeopteryx
.”

“A griffin, too? Anything else?”

Ansel ignored Dorbandt's sarcasm. “Yes. That paper on pyrolysis and caustobioliths I mentioned was written by Leslie Maze. Nick used the paper to blackmail him over an old scandal at Yale. Nick found out that Leslie and a man named Jack Kittredge had stolen research material from a Harvard researcher, Carolyn Ryes. They used it to pad their own research data and got it published first.”

“Jack Kittredge?” Dorbandt considered. “He's a researcher at the Cooperative.”

“Really? So that's how Nick found out about the scandal. Oh, I also found out that Shane Roco is Leslie Maze's grandson.”

Dorbandt pushed his near empty plate away from him. “Finished?”

“Yes. Are you going to check out Stouraitis?”

“I'll be going out of town for a bit first.” Dorbandt waved to catch Cindy's notice.

“Are you checking out Melba?”

“I can't talk about that.”

“Will you come to the Beastly Buffet?”

“Don't think so.”

Damn. She'd really messed up with him. He was shutting her out. Time to move on. Ansel gathered her sunglasses and purse. She waited while he paid the bill. Then they walked out to the hot parking lot in silence. Dorbandt escorted her promptly to her vehicle.

As Ansel handed him the eleven by fourteen pencil sketch of the cowboy's face, her eyes met Dorbandt's. “May I ask you one question, Lieutenant?”

His piercing stare was all business. “What?”

“Do you really think I have a pretty hide?”

Dorbandt blushed and Ansel savored his discomfiture. The perverse pleasure was almost as satisfying as blowing off Moose Drool bottle necks with her Colt .45.

BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
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