When he was done, he eased himself out of the cave and back to the real world—a real world that would no longer call him Bitter Eagle, but Cripple Eagle.
Very well. He had paid the price for his son.
He lifted the jacket.
It was so light, for a moment he wondered if the child had vanished, stolen from him by the gods while he hacked at his own flesh.
But no. The baby was still there, no longer blue with cold, moving his arms and legs, and starting to squawk in hunger as a healthy child should.
Perhaps the gods had been placated.
And as soon as he had finished the thought, the first flakes of snow trickled out of the lowering sky.
Placated? No. They were determined to mock Bitter Eagle’s struggles, and kill him and his child.
Now Bitter Eagle set to work to make sure he and his child lived long enough to make it down the mountain. He wrapped his long johns around the bleeding stump where his foot had been, fumbled his way into his flannel shirt, painfully pulled his jeans over his legs, and put both socks over his one remaining foot. He unwrapped the baby from his jacket and placed him so they rested together, chest to chest, heart to heart. Swiftly, he buttoned the flannel over them both—then, catching a glimpse of the child’s back, he stopped.
Lifting the baby, he wiped his thumb down the fragile spine, and stared with wonder and with dread. For there, etched in black and spreading toward the baby’s shoulder blades, was the mark of crumpled angel wings.
Bitter Eagle knew of a legend told among his people for generations, of children abandoned by their parents, deprived of their love and care, and instead given by the great Creator gifts of power and magic. Yet never had Bitter Eagle seen the mark that set one of those children apart.
Now he held one such child against his heart.
No wonder the evil gods had punished him for stealing their sacrifice.
This child was special. This child was one of the Abandoned Ones.
’m looking for the antiquities librarian. I have an
appointment. I’m Aaron Eagle.”
“Yes, Mr. Eagle, I’ve got you on the schedule.” The library’s administrative assistant was gorgeous, lush, and fully aware of his eligibility. She smiled into his eyes as she pushed the book toward him. “If you would sign in here.” She pointed, handed him a pen, and managed to brush his fingers with hers. “And here.” She pointed again. “Then if you don’t mind, we’d like your fingerprint. Just your left thumb.”
“I’m always amazed at the security required to visit antiquities.” Aaron smiled at her as he pressed his thumb onto the glass set into the desk. A light from beneath scanned his thumb.
“The Arthur W. Nelson Fine Arts Library antiquities department contains some extremely rare manuscripts and scrolls, and we take security very seriously because of it.”
“So if I made my living stealing antiquities, you’d know.”
“If I’d been caught.”
“Thieves always eventually get caught.” She had him stand on the line and took his photograph.
“I would certainly hope so.” He stepped onto a grate that shook him hard, then through an explosives screener that puffed air around him.
She riffled through the piles of paper on her desk, compared them to the information on her computer screen, and smiled with satisfaction. “But you seem to be exactly who you say you are.”
“I do seem to be, don’t I?” He leaned back over the grate. “Perhaps we could discuss who you are tonight over drinks”—he glanced down at the nameplate on the desk—“Jessica?”
“I’d like that”—she glanced down at the form on her desk—“Aaron.”
“Great. I’ll get your number on the way out, and we can arrange a time and place.”
She nodded and smiled.
He smiled back and headed down the corridor, and as he walked, he peeled off his thumbprint and slipped the micromillimeter-thin plastic into his pocket.
“Just take the elevator down to the bottom floor,” she called after him.
“Thank you, I will. I’ve been here before.”
“That’s right. You have.” Her voice faded.
The corridor was plain, painted industrial gray, while the elevator was stainless steel on the outside and pure mid-twentieth-century technology on the inside. The wood paneling was obviously plastic, the button covers were cracked, the numbers worn to near invisibility, and the mechanism creaked as it descended at a stately rate.
But this was the Arthur W. Nelson Fine Arts Library, and their funding didn’t include upkeep on nonessen tials like a new elevator for the seldom-visited antiquities department. They were lucky to have updated security in the last ten years, and that only occurred when it was discovered one of the librarians had been systematically removing pages from medieval manuscripts and selling them for a fortune to collectors. If he hadn’t decided to get greedy and remove a Persian scroll, he might still be in business, but Dr. Hall had been the antiquities librarian for about a hundred and fifty years and he caught on to that right away.
In fact, it was Dr. Hall that Aaron was on his way to see now. When it came to ancient languages, the old guy was a genius, and he knew a hell of a lot about prophecies, religious and otherwise. Which was exactly the kind of expertise Aaron needed right now.
The elevator door opened, and he strode along another short, industrial gray corridor that led to a metal door at the end. He rang the doorbell at the side. The lock clicked, he turned the handle, and he walked in.
Nobody was there. Whoever had let him in had done so remotely.
The place smelled like a library: dust, old paper, cracking glue, broken linoleum, and more dust. Gray metal shelving extended from one end of the basement to the other, clustered in rows, filled to capacity with books.
No one was in sight.
“Hello?” he called. “Dr. Hall? It’s Aaron Eagle.”
“Back here!” A voice floated over and through the shelves. A woman’s voice.
They must have finally dug up the funding to get Dr. Hall another assistant. Good thing. The old guy could croak down here and no one would notice for days.
Aaron headed back between a shelf marked MEDIEVAL STUDIES and one marked BABYLONIAN GODS. He broke out from among the shelves into the work area where wide library tables were covered with manuscripts, scrolls, and a giant stone tablet.
A girl leaned over the stone tablet, mink brush in hand. “Put it on the table over there.” She waved the brush vaguely toward the corner.
Aaron glanced over at the table piled with Styrofoam containers and fast-food bags wadded up into little balls. He looked back at the girl.
Her skin was creamy, fine-grained and perfect, and that was a good thing, since she did not wear a single drop of makeup. No foundation, no blush, no powder, no lipstick. She was of medium height, perhaps a little skinny, but with what she was wearing, who could tell? Her blue dress drooped where it should fit and hung unevenly at the hem. He supposed she wore it for comfort. He didn’t know any other reason any woman would be caught dead in it. The neckline hung off one shoulder, revealing a dingy bra strap, the elastic stretched and frayed. She had thin latex gloves stretched over her hands—nothing killed a man’s amorous intentions like latex gloves—and she wore brown leather clogs. Birkenstocks. Antiques. As the crowning touch, she wore plastic-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses that looked like an extension of the frizzy carrot red hair trapped at the back of her neck by a scrunchie that had seen better days . . . about five years ago.
Yet for all that she was not in any way attractive, she paid him no heed, and he wasn’t used to that treatment from a woman. “Who do you think I am?”
“Lunch. Or”—her glasses had slid down her nose—“did I miss lunch? Is it time for dinner already? What time is it?”
“Rats. I did miss lunch.” Lifting her head, she looked at him.
He did a double take violent enough to give him whiplash.
Beneath the glasses, dense, dark lashes surrounded the biggest, most emphatically violet eyes he’d ever seen.
Like a newly wakened owl, she blinked at him. “Who are you?”
“I’m. Aaron. Eagle.” He emphasized each word, giving time between for the village idiot to absorb the name. “Who are
“I’m Dr. Hall.”
Aaron was immediately pissed. “I’ve met Dr. Hall. You are most definitely not Dr. Hall.”
“Oh.” A silly smile curved her pale pink lips. “You knew Father.”
“Dr. Elijah Hall. He retired a year ago.” Her smile died. “I’m sorry to tell you, but he, um, died a few months ago.”
“Dr. Elijah Hall was your father?” Aaron didn’t believe that for a minute. Her “mentor,” maybe, but Dr. Hall was way too old to have a daughter this girl’s age.
Aaron frowned. Of course, Dr. Hall was way too old to be a “mentor,” too.
“Where did he die? How?”
“On the Yucatan Peninsula. Of a heart attack.”
“You were there with him?”
“No, he . . . After he retired and had settled me into this job, he went off adventuring. Alone.”
The girl was grieved. Aaron could see that.
She was also irked at being left behind.
The cynical part of him observed, “He left you in a good job.”
“Nepotism. It’s true.” She lifted her chin. “It’s also true I’m qualified for the job. I’m not as good with the ancient languages as my father was, but really, with a brain like his, how is that even possible? What cinched it for the library, of course, is that I’m cheap.”
“Yes. I see that.” He also saw she wasn’t as unattractive as he’d first thought. Hidden under that dress, she had boobs, B, maybe C cups, some kind of waist, and curvy hips. She had good bones, like a racehorse, and of course those amazing eyes. But her lips were good, too, lush and sensual, the kind a man would like to have wrapped around his—“So let me get this straight. You are Dr. Elijah Hall’s granddaughter?”
“No. I’m. His. Daughter.” Now she spoke like
was the village idiot. “He married late in life.”
“To somebody much younger.”
younger. Ten years isn’t much younger, would you say? Mama was forty-two when she had me.”
“And you’re twenty now?”
“I’m twenty-five. I’ve got a BS in archeology from Oxford and a graduate degree and PhD in linguistics from Stanford, not to mention some extras like a stint teaching vanished languages at MIT.” She waved at a desk overflowing with papers, artifacts and, atop it all, a new Apple laptop. Her voice got louder and more aggravated as she spoke. “I’ve got all the papers in there if you need to see them. I’ve had to keep track of all that stuff because everyone thinks I’m twenty!”
“Obviously, we’re all dolts.”
He could tell it never occurred to her to deny it, or flatter him in any way. The girl was clueless about the most basic social niceties, and worse, she didn’t seem to notice he was a man.
Why did he care?
“When I was seven, my mother died in a cenote in Guatemala retrieving this stela.” The girl waved her hand at the table.
He glanced at the stone tablet engraved with hieroglyphic-like characters, then did his second double take of the day. He leaned over it, studied it with intense interest. “Central American. Pre-Columbian. Logosyllabic. Epi-Olmec script. Perhaps a Rosetta stone for the transition between the Olmec and Mayan languages . . .”
“Very good.” For the first time, she looked at him, noticed him, and viewed him with respect. Not interest, but respect.
“I had no idea this existed.” His fingers itched to touch the stela, and he carefully tucked his hands into his pockets.
“No one did. After Mama died, Father brought it here and shut it in the vault. I think he blamed himself for letting her go down there.” As she spoke, Aaron glimpsed a hint of something more beneath the open artlessness he’d so condescendingly diagnosed. In the depths of her soul, she had carefully constructed a wall of sadness, and with it, she kept the world out.