Friday, June 06, 2008

Fossil Hunter by John Olson

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and his book:

Fossil Hunter
Tyndale House Publishers (April 2, 2008)


John Olson is an award-winning novelist and speaker who lives with his wife Amy and two children in San Leandro, CA. John earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and did postdoctoral research at the University of California at San Francisco. After eight years as a director and principal scientist at a major scientific software company, John has quit his day job to devote himself full-time to a ministry of writing and speaking. He has won several awards for his writing, including a Christy Award, a Christy finalist, a Silver Angel award, and placement on the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age.

John's book is part of the Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed campaign. Ben Stein's movie Expelled is now available on DVD. Find more details at Expelled the Movie.

Visit his website.


Chapter One

Katie braced her shoulder against the ladies’ room door. Heavy knocks pounded into her arm, rattling the metal door against its frame.

“Katie, come out right now!” Dietrich Fischer’s voice echoed through the tiled bathroom. “Already we are six minutes late. Everyone is now waiting!”

Squinting her eyes against the hard fluorescent light, Katie tried to clear her mind, but the faces wouldn’t go away. An old man in a brown suit. Bloodshot, yellowing eyes. A generous dusting of dandruff on his shoulders, more on the left than on the right. The Asian woman standing in the back with the Mi-nolta camera clasped tightly in long, manicured fingers. The fat man in the straining yellow polo. The four undergrads in the front row, whispering and nudging when she poked her head into the room . . .

“So what is it that is wrong? You are being sick?” Dietrich’s voice broke through the battery of faces. “Answer me!”

Katie lifted a hand to her cheek. Her skin was cold and moist. Her stomach felt like it was going to boil over. Maybe if she just told him . . .

“Katie?” Dietrich hammered on the door, three piercing blows that buzzed into her brain.

She turned to face the door. “I told you . . . an intimate seminar-—just for the department. You promised.”

“I did. I invited only the department. They made to put up the flyers, but I told them no.”

“But the conference room’s almost full. You know I can’t . . . We had a deal.”

“Katie, listen to me. These people are already liking you. They want to meet this smart, brave fossil hunter they read about in the papers. You should be happy to have such fans. What do you want? To disappoint them?”

“But I . . . you know I can’t do this. It’s too many people. I’ll just make a fool of myself. Maybe if I did a webcast for every-one. I could include pictures and all my data. They’d actually get a much better—”

The door pushed in on her, skidding her ridiculous heels clackety--clack across the tiled floor. Dietrich’s jowly face ap-peared in the doorway, squinty eyes darting around the room before settling on her with a frown.

Pulling herself up straight, Katie stared back at him. She wasn’t budging from the ladies’ room. If he wanted a confronta-tion, he was going to get it right here.

“Katie . . .” Dietrich cleared his throat uneasily. “Katie, I know you don’t like much the speaking to crowds. But I need you to do this. I and the whole lab. We need you.”

Katie searched Dietrich’s face. Something was wrong. Great beads of sweat were rolling down his expansive cheeks. His pupils were too contracted. “This isn’t about the depart-ment, is it? Something else is going on.”

“Nothing is going on with anything. It is a seminar. That is all. A simple seminar in which Thomas Woodburne just hap-pens to be in the audience. But not to worry about him. He’s one of your biggest fans. He told me this himself. Just tell the story of Peru. Show the pictures of the Pericetus. You’ll be very good.”

“Thomas Woodburne? The guy from the Smithsonian? What’s he doing here?”

“He’s very important in Washington. In the NAS.”

“Since when do you care about the National Academy?”

“Since always I care about the Academy. Our grant . . .” Dietrich’s face contorted into a scowl. He cocked his head and turned to face the wall. “Grant money does not grow on the trees, you know. This affects your research as much more than mine.”

“My research?” Katie stepped toward Dietrich, forcing him to look her in the eye. “You said they’d renewed the grant. You said it wasn’t a problem.”

Dietrich took a couple of shuffling steps backward until he hit the wall. “It won’t be. I’m filing an appeal. Once they find out about your new work . . .”

“So you invited Woodburne without telling me? Who else did you invite? Half of Albuquerque’s in there.”

Dietrich looked down at his watch. “Eight minutes late! We must go out there now.”

“Fine; go ahead. I’m not stopping you.” Katie turned to walk away, but a meaty paw pulled her up short.

“Just tell the story of Peru. The capture of the fossil thieves. That is just what they would like to hear.”

“But there isn’t anything to tell. They destroyed the fossil before I could even look at it.”

“Katie, please.” His hand tightened around her shoulder. “I need you to do this. Without the grant renewed . . . we’ll be out of money by November. I won’t be able to pay your salary. Hooman’s salary. Wayne’s, Peggy’s . . . No money, no re-search.”

Katie took a deep breath. The room was so crowded. . . .

“You want I should tell Hooman he has to go back?”

“Okay, I get the point. I’m being blackmailed.” She resisted the tug on her shoulder.

“Whitemailed only. I’m the good guy boss. Yes?”

Katie couldn’t help smiling. She stopped resisting and al-lowed herself to be led back to the door.

“This will be very easy. You will see.” He held the door open for her and guided her through. “They are all your biggest fans.”

Katie focused on her adviser’s voice as he led her down the hallway. She could do this. It was just like her thesis de-fense. The number of people didn’t matter. Four or four hun-dred. It was all the same—as long as she didn’t look at them.

Dietrich opened the auditorium door and the roar of voices filled her ears. God, help me. Please . . . She looked down at the floor, allowing herself to be guided to the front of the room. Her heart pounded in her chest, pulsing through her neck. She couldn’t breathe. There was too much pressure.

“Everyone, thank you for being so patient. . . .” Dietrich’s voice beat against the roar. Seats squeaked. Desktops clanged into place. Zippers, papers, the shuffling of feet . . .

Katie tightened her grip on Dietrich’s arm, leaning against his bulk for balance. One step at a time, she focused on each carpeted stair tread as she climbed higher and higher onto the stage. The murmur of voices assaulted her. She could feel thousands of eyes staring at her. She was naked, exposed, on display for all the world to see.

God, please . . .

“. . . earned her PhD in earth and planetary sciences here at the University of New Mexico, where she was the first to dis-cover . . .”

Katie gripped the podium with both hands and pulled her-self up straight as Dietrich introduced her. The Pericetus whales, the geology of South America . . . She could do this. She didn’t have many geology slides, but she could start with her latest findings and use them as a segue into her research on the Pericetus fossils. And then maybe, if everything was going okay, she’d tell them about Peru. It was the only thing people seemed to care about these days—even the other pale-ontologists were more interested in Peru than in her research. Nothing ever changed. Even behind bars the fossil poachers were still stealing her science.

A burst of applause washed through the auditorium. Flashes of blinding light. Katie stared determinedly down at the laptop on the podium. Her ears and cheeks were burning scar-let. Who was taking pictures? She was going to look like a blushing radish.

“Thank you for coming.” Her words came out strong and clear. “Before I start talking about ancient whale anatomy, which is, I’m sure, the reason you’re all here—” Katie took a calming breath as a ripple of laughter ran through the room—“I’d like to give a brief summary of some recent work I’ve done on the geology of South America.”

The auditorium was perfectly still. Katie relaxed her grip on the podium. She could do this. Piece of cake.

“As you all know, the Tethys Sea, which once covered In-dia, Pakistan, and most of what is now the modern Middle East, was home to the earliest archaeocetes we’ve uncovered to date: the pakicetids, ambulocetids, protocetids, basilo-saurines—”

“Katie, a tiny minute please!” Dietrich called out from the corner of the stage. “For the undergrads and guests . . . Per-haps you must explain the evolutionary significance of these early whales. What is it, the reason of their importance?”

“Okay . . .” Katie closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. She wouldn’t let him get to her. Now wasn’t the time. “Fifty years ago—” she chose her words carefully—“whales were held up as an argument against the evolutionary model. If modern whales evolved from terrestrial mammals, why didn’t we see any evidence in the fossil record? Why didn’t we see any intermediary forms?

“Since then, however, paleontologists have uncovered scores of putative intermediary whale forms. The pakicetids, first discov-ered in Pakistan by Gingerich in 1981, were fleet-footed land animals with very few adaptations for marine life except for a few features of their ears. They lived roughly 50 million years ago during the early Eocene sub-epoch.

“The ambulocetids, or so-called walking whales, also lived during the early Eocene of Pakistan. They too seemed primarily terrestrial and had well-developed limbs and feet.

“The protocetids of the middle Eocene, however, were pri-marily aquatic. The Rodhocetus, for example, swam using elongated, paddlelike hind feet and the side-to-side motion of its powerful tail.

“Later, during the late Eocene, we get the appearance of the basilosaurines and durodontines, which were fully aquatic and swam like modern whales using an up-and-down motion of their tale flukes. These archaeocetes differed from modern whales in that they had very small, almost vestigial, hind limbs. They also lacked blowholes on the tops of their skulls.”

Katie glanced over at Dietrich and received a curt nod. So far so good. “Okay, as I was saying before, most of the earliest whales have been found in and around the Middle East, but due to certain social and political, um . . . factors, most Western paleontologists haven’t been able to get into these areas for a long time. A few privileged scientists have obtained exclusive permits to go into Pakistan, and one scientist in particular, who shall remain nameless, has recently made some pretty amaz-ing discoveries there, but since the fossils aren’t allowed out-side the country, none of the rest of us have been able to verify them. So those of us who want to study ancient whales are pretty much out of luck. Until now . . .

“It just so happens that the geology of the western South American continent is very similar to that of the Middle East. In theory we should be able to find the same types of whales there that Nick Murad, our unnamed scientist, has found in Pakistan but without all the social and political factors that make expeditions to the Tethys region so prohibitive.

“As many of you know, I had the opportunity to explore a middle Eocene plain in Peru and was able to demonstrate the presence of whale fossils there. Unfortunately, the fossil I found was destroyed before I had the chance to study it. The part of the skull I could see looked fairly modern, but until we return to the area and uncover another one, we won’t know for sure whether the whale had hind limbs and nostrils at the front of the snout like a Rodhocetus or a strong swimming tail and a blowhole on the top of the skull like the more modern Perice-tus whales we’ve already found in Peru. The sooner we—”

“Katie, a question.” Dietrich called out. “Sorry to be inter-rupting again, but Dr. Webb has a question.”

Katie gripped the podium tighter. She could feel the pres-sure building in her chest. “Okay . . . Dr. Webb?” She kept her eyes fixed on the laptop keyboard.

“So what makes you question the age of the layer? Was it the appearance of the fossil or the geology of the layer itself?”

“I’m sorry.” Katie ran through the question in her mind. “I wasn’t questioning the age of the layer. It’s definitely middle Eocene. Several other finds confirm the geology report.”

“Then how can you question the morphology? If it’s middle Eocene, it has to be a primitive whale, an Archaeoceti.”

“How can I question it?” Katie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I question it because it’s not known yet. Until we find another fossil, we can’t know for sure what it will look like. For all we know, it could have the morphology of Shamu, the killer whale.”

A gasp sounded somewhere in the auditorium. So much for her attempt at levity.

“Dr. James,” a woman’s voice called out from the back of the room, “this whale you’re talking about—the one that was destroyed—it was the reason you were attacked by fossil poachers?”

“Yes, I . . .” Katie could feel the blood rushing into her cheeks. “With more and more private collectors buying fossils on the black market, fossil poaching is getting to be a huge problem, especially in impoverished countries where—”

“Could you confirm the report that you single-handedly captured five armed men?” A man’s voice.

“I . . .” Katie’s face was burning now. “Yes, there were five of them. But I . . .”

“How did you do it?” The woman again. “How did you stop so many men?”

“How did I stop them?” Katie sagged against the podium. Weren’t these people listening? “I didn’t stop them. I tried, but by the time I got back to camp, they’d already started digging. And then, like an idiot, I let myself get captured. By the time I got back in control of the situation, they’d already powdered the fossil. We think they were looking for teeth. A tooth from a T. rex can sell for as much as five thousand dollars.”

She hit the Page Down key on the laptop to bring up her first slide. “The whales I typically study, including the Pericetus whales I want to talk about now, don’t have teeth. They have baleen, which they use to—”

“But how did you do it? How did you get away?”

Katie gripped the podium tighter. “It wasn’t a big deal. They weren’t paying attention so I . . . whacked them on the head.”

A volley of flashes hit Katie in the face as a wave of shouted questions washed over her. She squeezed her eyes shut. Tried to tune out the voices. “Baleen whales—”

“Dr. James! Please! Dr. James!” The woman’s shouts rose above the roar, beating the other voices down to a low murmur. “Dr. James, please. How do you expect us to believe you hit five men over their heads?”

“Not all at once. They only had two men guarding—”

“Dr. James!” Webb’s bellowing voice. “Back to the subject at hand. You still haven’t answered my question!”

Katie looked up from the podium. The Asian woman in the back. Her hand was still raised. A man, freckles and thinning red hair, was holding out a microphone. The man with dandruff. The woman beside him, twisting a finger through her hair. Drooping earlobes with big dangly earrings. Mark Cranley from the White lab. Joe Sayers . . . They were all staring, watching. . . .

Katie’s stomach surged. Cold sweat streamed down her face. She felt dizzy. Couldn’t breathe. Please, no . . . not again!

Pushing away from the podium, she staggered across the stage to the stairs. A shoe twisted beneath her foot, sending her crashing down the steps. She hit the carpeted floor and rolled back onto her feet, running. Up the side aisle. Out the door.

The echoes of clacking footsteps chased her down the hallway and into the bathroom. Through the swinging door, into one of the stalls, she collapsed onto her knees in front of a toi-let.

Reporters . . . Dietrich was such a liar. He’d promised inti-mate, but he’d invited reporters! A shudder convulsed her body. She took a long, deep breath. It would serve him right if she walked into his office right now and quit. Let him find someone else to lead the next Peru expedition.

Katie stood up slowly, bracing herself against the stall par-tition. The pressure in her stomach was subsiding. She took a few experimental steps.

Of all the childish stunts . . . She tottered over to the coun-ter, pulled out a wad of paper towels, and started dabbing her skin. It’d serve him right if the visas were denied. She leaned against the sink, staring at the drain to avoid the reflection that hovered mockingly in the mirror. All those cameras. Thomas Woodburne. She’d looked like an idiot.

A knock sounded at the door. Katie spun around, bracing herself for another encounter.

“Katie?” It was Hooman, one of the grad students from Dietrich’s lab. “Katie, are you all right? Dr. Fischer sent me. He asked me to make sure you’re okay.”

Great . . . Does he have to yell? Katie took a step toward the door. Why didn’t bathroom doors have locks?

“He wants you to come back to the conference room as soon as you feel better, okay? There are some people in the audience who want to meet you.”

An unfamiliar voice sounded in the hallway. Another voice, this one female. Katie cast a glance back at the mirror. Tendrils of fine dark hair were plastered to the side of her sweat-beaded face. She was white as a ghost.

“Katie, are you there?”

Katie glanced around the room. A window was partially open. It looked big enough.

Tiptoeing to the back of the room, she slid the frosted glass panel all the way up and stuck her head out. The courtyard was three stories below her, but at least it was empty. And the ledge was more than wide enough. . . .


Glancing back at the door, Katie kicked off her heels and tossed them through the window. Then, lifting a leg cautiously over the sill, she ducked through the opening and stepped gin-gerly out onto the pigeon-stained ledge.

An image flashed before her eyes. She was five years old, scaling a rocky cliff on the Navajo reservation. Her father was down below, calling up to her with a ragged voice. A geyser of panic surged through her body, freezing her against the dusty wall. Her father . . . She couldn’t lose her job. Not now. Her father needed her.

She swung a knee over the windowsill and ducked her head back inside. If Dietrich didn’t get his grant renewed . . . because of her freaking out . . .

Another knock rapped at the bathroom door. The murmur of anxious voices. How many people were out there? It sounded like the whole seminar room.

Katie’s head started to throb. What was the point? She took a deep breath and stepped back onto the ledge. Going inside would only make it worse. Throwing up on the reporters wasn’t going to get Dietrich’s grant renewed.

Gripping the bricks with her fingertips, she inched her way along the ledge, careful not to look down. Heights didn’t bother her, but if someone was down there watching her . . . if the crowd from the auditorium . . .

Flashing cameras lit her memory. The man with red hair. Orange-brown freckles framing pale blue eyes. The man with dandruff . . .

Stop it! Katie stared hard at a grainy line of off-white mortar. What had gotten into her? She was acting like a baby.

She worked her way around a projecting windowsill and si-dled to the corner of the building in long, determined strides. She swung herself around the corner and looked down at the roof of the adjoining building. Only a ten-foot drop. Piece of cake.

Pushing off the wall, she twisted her body into the shrieking air. Pain stabbed into her feet as she hit and rolled across a sweltering surface of gravel and tar. Hot! She hopped from foot to foot across the burning rooftop and flung herself at the edge of the building. Clinging to the blistering cornice work, she swung her legs over the side and climbed down the ladderlike arrangement of ornamental bricks before dropping onto the ground below.

Brilliant. Katie lay on her back, combing her feet through the soothing coolness of the grass. Jumping barefoot onto a blazing-hot rooftop. Katie James, brilliant fossil hunter. For her next trick she would jump barefoot into a hot unemployment line.

Nick Murad leaned against an outcropping of rock and wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. The dusty fabric gritted like wet sand-paper. His right eye burned as a drop of sweat rolled across his upper lid. He raised a hand to wipe his face, but his fingers were coated with a paste of sunscreen and dirt. His shirt, his hat, his pants . . . the grit was everywhere. Eating its way like hookworms into every crease and crevice of his body.

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head from side to side, flinging away drops of sweat like a big Labrador after a swim. Beautiful . . . Now both eyes were burning. What he needed was a shower. A hot shower using nonbiodegradable soap and a towel that wasn’t full of sand. He stood slowly, arching his lower back against the Pakistani sunset.

Tomorrow . . . less than twenty hours away. He checked his watch, automatically subtracting nine hours in his mind. It was almost 5 a.m. in New York. Cindy would already be at the air-port by now. He could see her standing in line at the flight counter dressed to the nines in an impossibly impractical but totally seductive skirt and blouse. He tried to imagine her car-rying twice her limit of suitcases by herself, but his mind’s eye kept drifting to her face. Soft, limpid eyes. Full, pouty lips. Her dark sapphire necklace caressing soft, creamy skin.

A hungry ache coiled around Nick’s chest, squeezing him until he couldn’t breathe. “Okay. Enough.” He dropped back to the ground and retrieved his geology hammer from the rocky shelf he’d been working on since noon. He’d see Cindy soon enough. But only a third of the whale vertebra was exposed. If he was going to get it pedestaled before he left, he had to hurry. He grabbed a chisel and started chipping away at the mudstone that encased the fossilized bone. His students wouldn’t have time to finish the excavation before their expedition to Iraq, but he at least wanted to know what it was he’d found.

A soft cry drifted up from the valley. Nick stopped chiseling and turned back to stare into the setting sun. The clank of metal on metal. Nick held his breath, listening.

Maaaah, maaaah. The bleating of sheep.

Diving for his pack, Nick pulled a radio out of one of the side pockets.

“Okay, people, we’ve got sheep!” He threw open the bag and started stuffing it with gear as the static of answering calls filled the air.

“Nick, this is Andy. Annalise is down by the ridge with Ahamed. Waseem, where are you?”

“Karl here. Waseem’s with me. We’re at the ridge, but An-nalise isn’t here.”

“Annalise, where are you? We’ve got sheep coming through!”

Nick swung the pack onto his shoulder and ran sliding and skidding down the gravelly slope. When he got to the bottom, he held the radio to his mouth. “Everybody, this is Nick. Get to the camp right away. Karl, tell Waseem I need him to find An-nalise now!”

Leaping a clump of polygonaceae shrubs, Nick took off running toward a point just to the right of the ridge excavation. If Annalise had gone off on her own to do some prospecting, she’d probably work her way west along the hills. That’s what he’d do.

A bell clanked—just beyond the rise. Nick, already panting for breath, pushed his burning legs to move faster. The bedouin tribes in the north were usually pretty friendly, but this close to the Afghanistan border all bets were off—especially after what happened to the GSP team in western Baluchistan.

A burst of static cut through the radio. “Nick, this is Andy. We’ve got Annalise. She and Ahamed were already on their way back to camp.”

Relief washed through Nick’s body, turning his legs to jelly. He slowed to a jog and turned back in the direction of the camp. “Okay, everybody. Stay inside! Have Waseem watch the trucks. . . . I’ll be right there.”

By the time Nick reached the campsite, only a half mile separated him from the advance guard of the camel-mounted bedouins. He risked another backward glance. Still too far to make out their features. Unless they had binoculars, they couldn’t be sure he was a Westerner. Lots of Pakistanis wore baseball caps.

He jogged into the circle of four tents and three vehicles that made up their camp. Karl and Andy were shuttling equipment from one of the transport trucks to the cook tent at the base of a rocky mound. Annalise was rolling up the win-dows of one of the jeeps.

“Michigan students out of sight now!” Nick leaned over, swept up a pack emblazoned with a big gold M, and tossed it into the cook tent. “Waseem, stay with the trucks. Ahamed, you’re with me. Make sure you keep your hands out of sight!”

Nick paced the length of the camp, inspecting all of their visible gear. Some pickaxes, a tripod and surveyor’s scope, a field laptop wrapped in a sheet of plastic . . . There was a lot of expensive -equipment, but nothing to indicate the presence of Westerners. Theft was the least of his concerns. Bedouins weren’t generally thieves—even the poorest of them. But with all the anti-American sentiment these days, he couldn’t afford to have their whereabouts leak out. Even if they weren’t harboring terrorists, bedouins liked to talk. And no news traveled like the news of American scientists prospecting alone and unprotected out in the middle of the Baluchistan desert.

The echo of Pakistani voices carried across the thin desert air. The clomp of heavy hooves. Nick hurried over to his tent and crawled past Ahamed, who was already sitting in the entrance, his right arm extended awkwardly back inside the tent like he was holding a concealed weapon.

“Okay . . . everybody quiet.” Nick hissed in a whisper loud enough to carry to all the tents. “I hear one word of English and I’m shipping you back to the States.”

“Jee haan maan.” Urdu for Yes, Mommy. . . . Nick couldn’t tell whether it was Andy or Karl. A feminine giggle broke the silence off to the right.

“I’m serious.” Nick put a hand to his mouth even though none of his students were there to see his smile. “We’ll pack this camp up and leave that Basilosaurus behind.”

A voice jabbered off to the left. The bedouins were almost even with the camp. Keeping well back from the tent opening, Nick angled forward until he had a clear view of the pass. It was getting darker. The shadow of the tents already stretched most of the way across the camp. If those bedouins didn’t hurry up . . .

A pang stabbed through him like a knife. Surely the bed-ouins wouldn’t set up camp so close to their campsite? He had to drive to Quetta in the morning. He needed time to shower and shave and get a haircut. Cindy would be there by noon. If he was going to have any time at all to clean the apartment, he had to leave by 5 a.m. Why hadn’t he gone with his instincts and cleaned up before he left?

Come on. Hurry up. Nick’s eyes strained into the shadows, willing the bedouins to appear. Maybe they’d already stopped for the night. At least that way the road would be clear for him. As long as they didn’t see him leave . . .

Beautiful. Two camel riders plodded into view—not more than a hundred feet from where Nick sat crouched in the shad-ows of his tent. The bedouins stared back silently at the camp, long rifles still holstered against the sides of their complaining mounts. Go on. Keep on going. . . . Nick repeated the words like a prayer as one rider after another passed, guiding a stream of dust-colored sheep.

One of the riders, a tall, lanky, dark-skinned man in a cloak of dusty brown, pulled his mount over to the side and stood facing the tents. He waved with his left hand, keeping his right hand within easy reach of his rifle. Nick crept around the back of the tent until he could see Waseem wave from one of the trucks. Waseem’s movements seemed wooden, like he was nervous . . . hiding something. Of all the stupid mistakes . . . He should have put Ahamed in the trucks.

He moved back to the right. The bedouin was just sitting there, staring at the camp. Nick shrank even farther into the tent. Of course the guy was staring. They should have been cooking, preparing for the approaching night.

A musical ring tone shattered the silence. Ahamed jumped like he’d been shot. Nick searched frantically about the tent, his eyes finally settling on his nylon pack. Crawling over to the bag, he ripped open the outer compartment and pulled out his satel-lite phone. Just as he was about to hit the Off switch, he no-ticed the name glowing on the display. It was Cindy. . . .

The phone rang again.

Had there been another travel advisory? Had they can-celed the flight? Please, no . . . She wasn’t chickening out again. Not now!

He stabbed at the green button and pressed the phone to his ear, turning away from the entrance. “Hello?” he whispered into his cupped hand.

“Hello, Nick? Are you there? I can’t hear you.” Cindy sounded frantic. Something was wrong. He had to talk to her.

“Hey, Cindy. I really can’t talk now. Can you call back in a few minutes?” Nick raised his voice to a hoarse whisper.

“Nick, is that you? I can barely hear you.”

“I hear you fine. What’s wrong?” His voice sounded like a shout in his ears.

“Must be a bad connection. Anyway, I . . .” Cindy was about to panic. He could hear it in her voice. “The Middle East is all over the news. New fighting in Iraq. Pakistanis protesting the president’s visit. I . . . It just doesn’t seem like a good time.”

“No . . . it’s fine. There’s nothing to worry about.” Nick knew he was talking too loud, but he had no choice. He couldn’t let her back out now. Not after all his plans . . .

“You’re sure? They showed a huge crowd on the news. They were yelling and burning American flags.”

“That’s just for the cameras. Just get on the plane. You’ll be safe. I promise. Okay? Just get on the plane. I’ve got every-thing planned. I even have a surprise.”

“A surprise?” Nick could hear the life coming back into her voice. “What kind of surprise?”

“Just get on the plane, okay? You’ll see when you get here.”

“You’re sure it’s safe?”

“I’m positive. I love you, okay?”

“Nick, I . . .”

“I’ve got to go now. Bye.” Nick switched off the phone and turned back to the opening of the tent. The bedouin was still watching their camp, his face lit by the faintest hint of a smile.

Ahamed turned and looked back at Nick, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “I love you too . . . honey.”

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