Read the Excerpt: Diablo Mesa by Preston & Child

DiabloMesaExcerpt_PrestonChild_NovelSuspects

1

Dr. Marcelle Weingrau, president of the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, slowly unfolded her hands on the glossy expanse of desk in front of her. Then, equally slowly, she reached for a slim manila folder, which she pulled close with exquisitely manicured nails. Even Weingrau’s simplest movements, Nora Kelly noted, had the appearance of being premeditated. But she’d grown used to this since Weingrau had accepted the presidency, and knew it was neither a signal of encouragement nor one of alarm—necessarily.

Now Weingrau gave Nora a broad, warm smile. “The reason I asked you here this morning,” she said, “is because of an opportunity that has come our way. A wonderful new project— extraordinary, really. Connor and I would like you to direct it.”

Nora felt a flood of relief. She wasn’t sure why she had been summoned to the president’s office that morning. Ever since she’d been passed over for a promised promotion in October in favor of Connor Digby—who was seated nearby—she and Weingrau had maintained a formal, carefully calibrated relationship. Nora and Digby shared adjacent offices, and while he was a good archaeologist as well as a friendly if unremarkable fellow, her relationship with this unexpected new boss had been awkward. In the six months since his promotion, she’d kept her head down and focused on her work, trying, and failing, to get over a sense of betrayal and resentment.

“Not to bring up an uncomfortable subject,” Weingrau went on, “but I know you were disappointed not to get the chief of archaeology position. You’ve done excellent work for the Institute, and brought us some welcome publicity. In fact, this new project is a direct result of that.” She tapped the folder three times with a red fingernail.

“Thank you,” said Nora.

“This project is a little different, perhaps, than what we normally undertake—although well within our archaeological mission.”

Nora waited to hear more. Weingrau’s mix of words— complimentary and chipper—was uncharacteristic.

“Your work in locating and recovering the Victorio Peak treasure attracted the attention of a well-known businessman— and potential donor, I might add—who is the motivating force behind this exciting project.”

At this Nora felt a faint stirring of unease. Why was Weingrau laying it on so thick?

“His name is Tappan. Lucas Tappan. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”

Nora paused. “The private space company guy—Icarus? That person?”

“Exactly. Tappan is best known as founder of Icarus Space Systems, but his major interests lie in wind power. The space thing is a bit of a side effort. All worthy businesses, I might add. And he’s a man of means.” Another broad smile.

Nora nodded. He wasn’t just a “man of means”—he was a billionaire.

“Mr. Tappan has brought us not only a very intriguing proposal, but a grant to go with it. Connor and I have discussed it, and we’ve gotten approval from the Executive Committee of the board.”

Nora found herself growing more uneasy. Normally, the board of the Institute did not get involved in project approvals. And why hadn’t she heard anything about this before?

“I’m going to let Connor fill you in on the details,” the president said.

“Right.” Digby turned toward Nora. He was considerably more nervous than the cool Weingrau. “Um, are you familiar with the Roswell site?”

Nora wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. She stared at Digby. “The Roswell site,” he repeated. “It’s located in the remote desert, north of—”

“Do you mean the place where the supposed UFO crashed?” Nora interrupted.

“Yes, exactly,” said Digby, charging ahead before Nora could respond. “To recap: In 1947, the foreman of a ranch northeast of Roswell, New Mexico, found the wreckage of something unusual on a section of BLM land leased by the ranch. The military went out to investigate and, on July 8, issued a press release stating the 509th Composite Group had found the wreckage of a flying disk. Two hours later, the announcement was quickly emended to say it was a weather balloon that had crashed. It was only years later that investigators began to uncover the truth: that a UFO, appar- ently monitoring U.S. nuclear tests, had been struck by lightning and crashed. The government had recovered the remains of the spacecraft and possibly the remains of several aliens. All this was followed by a massive government cover-up.”

He said all this in a rush, then stopped.

Nora continued to stare at Digby. Why would he call this wacko theory “the truth”?

“Mr. Tappan has brought us a proposal, well prepared and fully funded, to excavate the Roswell site. A professional archaeo- logical dig, done by the book.”

“And this is the wonderful new project you want me to direct?” He gave her a nervous smile. “Exactly. With all the staff, equipment, and money you require to do an excavation to the highest professional standards.”

When Nora continued to stare at him, he fell into a nervous silence, taking a pencil from his shirt pocket and starting to fiddle with it.

Nora finally turned to Weingrau. “Is this some kind of joke?” “Not at all,” she said. “The project’s been thoroughly vetted and board approved. Something crashed there. What, we don’t really know.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Please don’t jump to conclusions, Nora. We’re not endorsing any UFO theory. What we’ve agreed to is a professional excavation of the crash site. That’s it.”

“With all due respect, Dr. Weingrau, by even agreeing to this, you’re endorsing it. I mean, that UFO incident was debunked years ago.”

“Reasonable people disagree. Nobody knows for sure. As Connor mentioned, there’s evidence of a government cover-up. Mr. Tappan has done considerable research into the incident, and he’s come upon new information confirming that alien technology was recovered from the area, possibly even remains.”

“As in, alien bodies? I’m sorry, but do you really mean to involve the Institute in something as . . . tacky as this?”

“We already have,” said Weingrau, her voice taking on an edge. “This is a done deal. And I take exception to your characterization. I’ve been patient with you, Nora. Very patient . . . even as you continue to work on the Tsankawi project long past the expected deadline, with no end in sight.”

Nora could hardly believe what she was hearing. “I imagine that, in addition to funding the dig, Tappan has promised the Institute a wad of cash—right?”

“While a generous donation is involved, that’s not why we’re doing it. This is a genuine unsolved mystery. If we can shed light on it with archaeological science, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m giving you a wonderful opportunity to polish your CV and raise your profile.”

“Forget it,” said Nora before she could stop herself.

“Denying the existence of things beyond our knowledge is as dangerous as promoting them.”

Nora tried for a moment to think about it from the president’s perspective, but she couldn’t quite get there. “I’m sorry, but I won’t do it. I couldn’t do it.”

Weingrau stared at her. “Perhaps I gave you the wrong impression. We’re not asking for your approval. The project has been accepted and you’re going to direct it. Period.”

“This isn’t right,” said Nora, getting control of her anger and lowering her voice. “I wasn’t consulted while all this was being decided, and by rights I should have been. I’m in the middle of an important project right now, delayed through no fault of my own by that business with Victorio Peak. You can’t dump something like this on me with no notice. The fact is, you haven’t been treating me with the professionalism I deserve since you came here—and this is just another example. It’ll make the Institute the laughingstock of the archaeological community. It won’t raise my profile; it’ll endanger my career. I decline to participate.”

“You heard Dr. Weingrau,” Digby piped up shrilly. “It’s already been decided.”

She fixed a cool eye on him before looking back at Weingrau. This demand, on top of everything else, was the last straw. “Here’s an idea. Get your toady to direct it.”

“That’s not only uncalled for, it’s offensive.”

“You’re probably right. So let Digby speak for himself.” She turned to him. “Why don’t you direct the excavation, Connor?”

“Because . . .” he stammered, “Mr. Tappan mentioned you specifically.”

“Is that right?” Nora said coolly. “Well, please tell Tappan I’m not available.”

A tense silence developed in the office. Finally, Weingrau said: “Is that your final word, Nora?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Then I suggest you go back to your office, gather your personal effects, put your files in order, and take your leave of the Institute.”

Nora took a deep breath. This abrupt airing of her grievances, tumbling as it had from her lips, was almost as unexpected to her as it must have been to Weingrau. But it was now said—and, maybe, for the better. The fact was, being honest with herself, for some time now she’d been practically looking for an excuse to leave. And here it was, gift-wrapped. If the Institute wanted to ruin its reputation, at least she wouldn’t be around to catch the blowback.

“In other words, you’re firing me,” she said.

“If you drop off a letter of resignation on your way out, we won’t have to term it a dismissal. We’ll call it a resignation.”

“No.”

“No what?”

“If you’re going to fire me, fire me.” She turned to Digby. “Good luck. You’re going to need it.”

And with that, she stood up and left the office.

2

Ninety minutes later, Nora exited the main door of the Institute into the bright April sunlight, carrying a box and a backpack toward her car. Her rage was starting to cool, replaced by bitter regret and second-guessing. If she’d handled the situation differently; if she hadn’t pushed back so hard; if she’d only said she needed to give it some thought; if she hadn’t called the project tacky or Digby a toady . . . maybe she could have talked her way out of it and sloughed the excavation off on him. Beyond that was the sheer stubbornness that kept her from taking the resignation offer. It was going to be hard enough to find another position in the current academic job market, but with a dismissal on her record . . . What was she thinking? And yet the thought of submitting a resignation letter now, after all she’d said, was just too much humiliation for her to bear.

And she couldn’t help but worry about her brother, Skip, who also worked at the Institute. He was likely to quit in a huff as soon as he heard she was fired. He was in a tougher position than she: he didn’t exactly have a stellar résumé or a good academic record. How many collections manager positions were there in Santa Fe? But even if he didn’t quit, Weingrau might fire him just to spite her. Nora didn’t want to see him spiraling back down to the dark place he’d been in a few years before.

A vehicle was idling in the parking lot, blocking the way to her car. As she walked around it, wrestling with her stuff, a man got out.

“Dr. Kelly?”

She stopped. “Yes?”

“Could we have a moment to chat?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really busy and I’ve got to go.” Whatever he wanted, whatever he was doing here at the Institute, was no longer of interest to her. She resumed her walk.

“Here, let me help you with the box,” he said, hurrying over. “No thanks,” she said sharply. She arrived at her car, fumbled

out the key, unlocked the doors, and threw the box in the back seat, tossing the backpack in after it. She slammed the door and realized the man had come up and was standing behind her.

She ignored him, opening the driver’s door and getting in. He placed a hand on it, preventing her from shutting it in his face.

“I take it you quit?” he said.

She stared, momentarily flummoxed. Had word gotten around already? Nobody knew that, not even Skip.

“Who the hell are you?” she asked.

He smiled. “Lucas Tappan.” He held out his hand.

She stared at him, really seeing him for the first time. He was around her age, mid-to-late thirties, in a linen jacket, black lamb-skin cowboy shirt, jeans, suede Lanvin sneakers, with curly black hair, gray eyes, white teeth, cleft chin, dimples. She immediately disliked him and his smug I’ve got unlimited money but it hasn’t really changed me look.

“Get your hand off my door or I’ll call the police.”

He complied, and she slammed it and shoved the key into the ignition. The engine started and she twisted around to back up, pressing the accelerator harder than she intended and spinning the wheels in the gravel.

“I’m glad you quit,” he said, raising his voice to be heard through the window. “Now we can work free of encumbrance.” She jammed on the brakes, rolled down the window. “What?”

“I was hoping this might happen. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to working with that Weingrau lady.”

“You were hoping? This is ridiculous—”

“Look, can we talk? Just for a moment?”

Nora stared at him. “I really don’t have time for this.” “You have all the time in the world. You don’t have a job.”

“Thanks for that. You’re an asshole, you know? And you’re crazy. UFOs. Roswell. What a crock.” All her anger spilled out.

“Okay, fine. I’ve been told all that before and worse. Five minutes? Please?”

She was about to drive off, but then stopped. All of a sudden, she felt herself deflate, as if her energy had escaped along with her anger. Had the last two hours really happened? Earlier that morning, she’d been in her office, working on one of the final Tsankawi write-ups . . . and now she had no office, no job, only a couple of burned bridges still smoking in her rearview mirror.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake. Five minutes, then.” She waited behind the wheel, crossing her arms.

“Do you think maybe we could not have this conversation through a car window? I want to show you something.”

Against her better judgment, Nora eased the car back into the parking space and got out, then followed Tappan to what was obviously his vehicle. An ice-blue Tesla. Of course.

“Would you mind getting into the passenger seat?”

She did as he requested, sliding onto the buttery white leather. The dashboard gleamed with burl wood, satin nickel, and a large computer screen.

She shut the door; the man pushed a button, and the windows magically darkened. He reached under the dash and removed a large rolled-up document, which he proceeded to unfurl.

“Take a look.” He held it open so she could see. Nora immediately recognized it.

“It’s a ground-penetrating radar survey—” he began. “I know what it is,” said Nora impatiently.

“Good. Now, do you see this area here? This is our target area— where the UFO is said to have crashed. What do you see?”

Nora looked closer at the grayscale image. It was clear, right off the bat, that something had happened there.

“You tell me: Is that disturbance consistent with the crash of a weather balloon?”

She looked still more closely. She could see, just barely, a blurry but deep-looking furrow or groove in the sand, along with other evidence of extensive and widespread disturbance.

“Not really,” she replied.

“That’s right. And look how it’s surrounded by old traces of earthmoving equipment and vehicles. The GPR also revealed two faint roads leading from the area, and another one circling around it. At one time this was a heavily trafficked place. Suggestive, don’t you think?”

“Isn’t this kind of small for a UFO? I mean, that groove isn’t very wide. And it could be anything—a missile, small plane, even a meteorite. I don’t see evidence it was a UFO.”

“The point is,” said Tappan, “that something happened here totally inconsistent with a balloon or nuclear monitoring device crash. And then you can see where topsoil, here, and here, was moved to bury the target area and cover up all these tracks—and smoothed over. Why would they have gone to so much trouble to cover up a balloon crash? That’s a lot of earthmoving.”

She scrutinized the survey more closely in the confines of the car. There were signs of a lot of old activity extending from the target area.

Tappan smiled. He took out another chart and unrolled it. This was obviously a magnetometer survey, a tool archaeologists used to record the magnetic properties of soil for mapping sub-surface terrain. There were various anomalies and dark spots in and around the target area. The disturbed area with its faint furrow was also vaguely delineated.

“All those dark spots and smudges are what we laymen would call ‘buried stuff,’” said Tappan. “Stuff that your excavation will unearth.”

“It could be anything,” Nora said. “Rocks, tin cans, trash.”

Tappan tapped the charts with a finger. “Maybe so, but this proves one thing: The government lied. There was no weather balloon or secret nuclear surveillance device. Why would they lie?”

He stared at her with gray, searching eyes. It was a fair question. “And the lying goes on,” Tappan said. “A few years ago, the government allegedly declassified its files on UFOs. There was some startling stuff in there, as you probably know—videos of objects taken by fighter pilots and so forth. But even earlier they had released documents indicating the Roswell crash was not a weather balloon, but a classified government device, developed at Los Alamos for detecting aboveground nuclear blasts. It was being tested but got away in high winds and crashed at the Roswell site. The ‘disk’ that witnesses described was actually a radar reflector, used for tracking purposes.”

“Sounds reasonable,” she said. “That might explain the furrow—the thing getting dragged along the ground, perhaps.”

“The furrow is at least fifteen feet deep. No—the nuclear device with a radar detector attached was also misinformation: a second layer of it. First a weather balloon, then a secret surveillance device. All disinformation. Nothing to see here, folks! The real Roswell files—and the artifacts and debris they found at the site—remain secret.”

She shook her head. “And the alien bodies?” she asked sarcastically.

He smiled. “Look, the point is, there’s more to be found at the crash site. You can see it in these two surveys. A professional archaeological excavation would reveal what, exactly: not only a ground disturbance, but something more . . . perhaps much more.” He rolled up the maps. “What do you say, Nora?”

“Um, are these charts all you’ve got?”

“All? I think it’s quite a lot. Look, I didn’t want the Institute. I wanted you. I thought you’d probably quit when you heard the proposal, and I was right.”

“You were wrong. I was fired.”

He chuckled. “Now that I’ve met you, I can see how that might have happened. Digby, that poor homunculus . . . ” He shook his head sadly. “Have you really been reporting to him these last six months?”

Nora deflected the question. “Why me?” she asked. “There’s plenty of archaeologists out there.”

“I followed the Victorio Peak treasure story with great interest. And then I acquainted myself with the work you did at Donner Pass and, before that, the Quivira site. I don’t want some slope-shouldered academic. You’ve got all the qualities I need: courage, ability, perseverance, judgment. I built my business by finding the right people.”

She watched almost with regret as he snapped rubber bands back on the charts and put them away.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t do this. I just can’t.”

“I’m not asking you to make a decision now. All I’m asking is that you come and see the site for yourself. Meet the team, look at the evidence. The site is on Bureau of Land Management property. I’ve got all the federal permits, equipment, engineers, a couple of semidomesticated postdocs—everything necessary for a first-class excavation. All I need is a credentialed archaeologist. I’m offering a good salary.”

She shook her head.

“My chopper is waiting at Sunport Aviation. We can be at the site in just over an hour, and you’ll be home by six. Or if you decide to stay, you’ll have a custom Airstream to yourself for the night.”

She sighed. The “good salary” part, at least, was tempting. She and Skip shared a house, and they were always scrambling to pay the mortgage. Santa Fe was an expensive town, and the Institute was not exactly generous.

“I’m very sorry,” she said, opening the door and getting out. She turned to see Tappan looking back at her with surprise and dismay. He clearly wasn’t used to having people turn him down. “Thank you for the offer, but I’m afraid I have to decline.”

She closed the door and went back to her car, wondering as she did so if she’d just made the worst mistake of her life.


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