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Authors: Emmy Curtis

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BOOK: Pushing the Limit
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Chapter Thirteen

“Does this mean what I think it means? I mean… reading between the lines.” She cursed herself for the slight tremor she detected in her own voice.

He got to his knees in front of her and put his hands around hers, which were still clinging on to the phone. “I will keep you safe. Depend on it.” The warmth of his hands warded off the chill she felt even though it was sweltering out there. “People are coming. It’s time for you and Molly and Jason to go home. You don’t want to be standing between someone and that much money if you can help it.”

No way. No way in hell. “I’m not leaving. I’m not letting anyone take that money from the Iraqi people. It’s theirs. Also, if we go, who will tell Malcolm Rapson and his team? Do we leave them here and just hope that no one mistakes their site for ours? What about the people on the site to the north of us? I don’t even know those people. Would you go warn them?”

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry, but they’re not my responsibility.” He sat back on his heels, sliding his hands from hers.

“Matt. Listen to me. I’m not your responsibility, either. Those three poor men are your responsibility. We’ll keep using the GPR to see if we can find anything that may be human remains. Although this technology isn’t great for that, I confess.” She was part-infuriated with him and part… nope, she wasn’t going to touch that thought. Not now. Not when everything was going to hell in a handbasket.

He stood. “And what do you mean the money belongs to the Iraqi people? Last I checked the dollars were ours.”

“Did you read to the end of the article? That money didn’t belong to us. The U.S. froze all Iraqi bank accounts at the start of the war. They cashed them out and were delivering the money back to the Iraqi people to help rebuild after the war. Whatever happens, that money stays here,” she said in her sternest voice. “I mean it.”

“That decision’s above my pay grade, sweetheart.” The arrogant bastard was actually smiling at her. In a horrible, condescending way.

“And that’s why I’m staying. I won’t have you calmly obey orders to take the money back to the U.S. It stays here, and I can tell you this: that decision is not above my pay grade. You may have to fight me for it.”

He actually rolled his eyes as he changed the subject. “You just need to make sure that Molly doesn’t tell anyone the GPR found anything. Just keep going and make notes of where you find things.”

“The program does that. I’ll take charge of the laptop when we finish today.” They walked around the trailer together to find the laptop unattended. Molly was nowhere to be seen.

Harry’s heart sped up. “Where…?”

“She went to see the man, beyond the dune,” a voice said from above them. Mueen.

Matt slowly looked up to the roof of the trailer and opened his mouth to say something, but he stopped. Harry was glad he thought better of saying anything.

“Thank you,” she said, her beats per minute reducing. Molly needed to be told to keep her mouth shut, although, unfortunately, it was probably already too late to stop her telling Jason. She was right. As she breeched the dune, both Jason and Molly were staring down at the sand as if they could see through it to whatever the void was.

Harry whistled through her fingers. Both their heads shot up. “You don’t have X-ray vision. Let’s keep going,” she shouted. “Molly?” She waited as Molly left Jason and made her way to Harry’s side.

“It’s not much use if you disappear with the only other radio. We have to be more vigilant about each other’s whereabouts, okay?” As soon as the words were out, she knew that she sounded angry. There was no hiding that from Molly. She tried to defuse the situation. “Did you tell Jason about the void?”

“Of course I did. That little rat was whining this morning about not finding anything; I just wanted to rub his nose in it a little.”

Well, she couldn’t blame her for that. Harry wanted to do the same thing. “I need to tell you something. But I don’t know Jason well enough to share it with him yet. Will you promise to let me make that decision? No pillow talk or anything?”

“Pfft. He’ll be lucky if he ever sees my pillow again.”

Harry arched an eyebrow at her.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. He does have a sweet side. I think he’s just too young to be comfortable working with and for women. And that makes him insecure and… well, weird.”

Harry said nothing. She couldn’t leave Jason not knowing that there was a possibility that he was in danger. But she didn’t want to tell him anything she didn’t feel she could trust him with, either. She pulled out Danny’s wedding ring and rolled it between her fingers as she often did when she had problems. She looked down at the ring in the harsh sunlight. Maybe she
did
still live in the past. Maybe she was just compartmentalizing, thinking she was moving forward because she could have sex without thinking about him.

Of course this thought would occur to her when she had no time to think about it. Of course it would.

* * *

Of course that freaking security guard heard everything. It was his own damn fault. He’d forgotten that he watched from way up there like a gargoyle. And that look he’d given him, when he’d told Harry where Molly had gone. The biggest shit-eating grin was reflected in his eyes. Not his mouth, just his eyes. Matt clenched his fists around the anger at himself. He was better than this. Harry was such a damn distraction.

He found himself pacing as he thought. A quick glance upward affirmed that he was still being watched by the grinning bastard. He must have heard everything: the call to his commander, his discussion with Harry. Even down to her conviction that the money belonged to the Iraqi people.

Dammit.

“Can you come down?” he asked Mueen evenly. He hoped it was evenly.

Mueen looked for Molly and Harry who were already coming back toward the trailer, and nodded. He slipped down, to the roof of his van, and then jumped from there. He was a freaking ninja.

“I know you heard… well, everything. It’s all just conjecture at the moment, but can I rely on you to say nothing for now, until I can get everyone to safety?”

Mueen looked at the ground, then back up at Matt. He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “My only job is the protection of these people.” He gestured to everyone on the site, locals and visitors alike. “I will do nothing to endanger them.”

Not really good enough. “You understand what will happen if word gets out that there could be money here, right?”

“I understand perfectly what will happen if
our
money is found,” he said.

Matt sighed. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it. “So I can rely on you…?”

“To help keep everyone safe? Yes.” Mueen bowed to him, and he was sure he virtually clicked his heels. With an energy Matt couldn’t imagine having in this heat, he vaulted back up to the top of the trailer.
Let’s hope he is as good with a weapon as he is climbing stuff.

Well, that little chat hadn’t exactly inspired a lot of confidence. He sat on a sand-blasted lawn chair and watched everyone come and go. Some of the young kid workers gave him shy smiles as they passed him, carrying equipment around the site. He couldn’t believe the heaviness of guilt that settled around him. Pressing his body inward to somewhere he didn’t want to go. He felt guilty that he’d fought here, especially given that all the locals seemed so friendly, and even the damned security guy had opened his house to him. He was guilty that his focus had slipped from the dead troops to the money, and he was guilty, still, about Harry. In some respects, he felt he had defiled sacred ground.

Man, he needed a drink or ten. Maybe spilling his guts to Nitro would be cathartic. No way was he going to drink more than a couple of beers, though. Last thing he needed was to be incapacitated when the shit hit the fan, as it invariably would.

Goddamn Harry and her stubbornness. Maybe he should talk to Molly about going home. Maybe she would be scared enough to persuade Harry to leave, too. It felt pretty manipulative, but all is fair in love and war—although he hoped this was neither of those things.

As the workday drew to a close with no mishaps, he relaxed a little, tension leaving the guilt all alone in his body. He puffed out his cheeks with relief as everyone got safely into their vehicles and started heading off.

Harry stuck the laptop into her backpack and stowed it in Mueen’s truck. He was going to keep a close eye on that bag until Harry had time to see what else was under the sands of hell.

Everyone was unusually quiet on the way back to the hotel, even Jason, who in the short time Matt’d known him had shown himself to be a bit of a smart-ass, always ready with a quip or a mild put-down. Wonder what happened.

They pulled into the driveway just after the other group, led by Harry’s date that night. Rapping? Rapson. Yeah that was it. He wondered if he should ask if they’d found anything, but he doubted they’d tell him. Maybe he could ask Harry to probe later. Matt was beginning to see that this whole thing was bigger than just Harry and her dig. He needed a plan, and he needed Nitro to help him with it. Even if he wasn’t military anymore, David would lay down his life for Danny’s wife. It was a code that you just didn’t break.

Thank God he was here.

Chapter Fourteen

Harry had seen Professor Rapson as soon as they got back to the hotel. They were unloading their truck, too.

“Still on for dinner, my dear?” he asked as she shifted her backpack across one shoulder.

“Wouldn’t miss it!” she said, looking at her watch. “Twenty minutes? Down here?”

“I’ve been investigating a bit”—he tapped the side of his nose—“I think you’ll be interested in what I’ve found out about the Megellin Foundation.”

She stopped. Oh, shit. Did she want to hear it? “I hope you’re not going to get us fired!” She smiled at the older man.

“No, no, no. Nothing like that. I’ll see you in a little bit.” He lifted his ancient-looking leather satchel and left toward the ground-floor rooms.

She hustled up the stairs and shivered a little as she unlocked the door. Knowing a bug was in the room made her feel like some unknown person was in the room with her. A ghost. Maybe, if she had the chance, she’d buy a cheap transistor in the market and set it up right next to the chair leg. But that probably still wouldn’t ease the feeling that she was being… Her Blackberry rang. She looked at the caller ID. Dammit, it was the foundation.

“This is Henrietta Markowitz.” She winced in anticipation of the response. She wasn’t wrong.

“This is Mr. Randolph. You may remember that I’m the one who signs your expenses.” Wince indeed.

“Of course, Mr. Randolph. How are you today?”

“Why haven’t you filed your reports on your site findings?”

Ummm. “It’s usual protocol to file a report at the end of the survey. We still have at least five workdays left.”

“And yet I asked you for your initial findings yesterday.”

Silence.
Make nice. He’s paying everyone’s wages.
“I apologize. I will get them to you tonight. May I ask what kind of things you’re looking for? So I can put them up front in the report?”

“You may not. I’ll expect your report before tomorrow, then,” the abrupt voice continued. “An e-mail, Ms. Markowitz. I’ll be waiting for it.”

“Yessir.” She saluted as she rolled her eyes.

He hung up.

“You absolute idiot. You don’t know anything about archaeology. You want a fast and incomplete report? Well, I’ll give you one.” She hesitated, suddenly scared that maybe he hadn’t hung up. But her phone definitely showed that she wasn’t talking to anyone. Then she turned slowly to the desk chair.
Oh, shit.
She wasn’t talking to anyone except the person listening in over the bug.

What the hell had happened to this easy, fast, lucrative job? She just wanted to get the hell out of here now. Too many pressures, too many uncertainties. This wasn’t how she liked to live her life. She liked uncomplicated. She liked certainty. After Danny died she’d almost lost her ability to function, a normal symptom of grief, she now knew. But then it had seemed as if the world had stopped. The only way she managed to function was to take one step at a time, do one thing at a time. That’s why she worked for herself.

She grabbed her notebook and started scribbling bullet points to include in the extremely interim report. Surface features. The sandstorm. She tapped the end of her pencil on the paper… the void, and the money, and the artifact. How much could she write? She’d have to try to figure that out with Matt at some stage that night.

Hmmm.
She lay back on her bed for a second. Maybe after dinner she’d go to his room; maybe they could work on the report together, so it fit both their needs.
Their needs.
He was such a monumental jackass about the whole sex thing. She badly needed the mindless release of casual sex.
Urgh
. How many times could she say that to herself before it actually came true? Maybe she didn’t need the release of sex. Maybe that wasn’t why she wanted Matt. Maybe she wanted something different.

She put her notes in her black foundation file, got changed, and headed on down to meet Malcolm. Maybe they could compare contracts to see if they were actually doing the same work. She could also ask him if he’d been harassed for an early report.

He was waiting for her outside the restaurant, dressed pretty much as he’d been earlier except with a bow tie this time. God, she loved old English men. So proper. She smiled as he proffered his arm for her to take. She grinned as she slipped her hand around his arm.

Once they’d been seated, he took out a bunch of files from his briefcase.

“Wow. You seem to have much more information than I do.” She waved her own thin file containing only her contract with the Megellin Foundation and various printouts and maps of the site.

“I’m an old, old man. I have nothing left to do except glean information.” He smiled and winked. “No one takes me seriously because I’m so old. No one pays any attention to me.”

Harry laughed. “You wily old man, you!” Suddenly she wanted to know everything he knew, to put him in her pocket and always have him around. “So tell me everything,” she whispered.

He looked around them melodramatically. “Well, we’re not alone, for starters.”

“You mean in an
X-Files
way or…?”

“Megellin. They have more people here than just us.”

Harry relaxed into her chair and took a sip of Diet Coke. “Well that’s not entirely a surprise, since I saw you here. So where are the other teams working?”

“I don’t know, but the lovely young lady who processed my visa said that they processed twenty-four visas together. All to come here. At least this town. Now, three were for you and your grad students, and four were for me and mine. That leaves seventeen unaccounted for.”

Harry frowned trying to remember if she’d seen any other archaeologists around. “Well, there is some kind of excavation going to the north of our two sites, but I haven’t seen anyone at this hotel. I just assumed they were staying in a town closer to their dig.”

A waiter arrived to take their orders. There was very little meat available in Iraq outside of the huge cities, so she opted for a vegetarian lentil dish. Malcolm went for fish.

“I don’t think that dig is a Megellin one. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so.”

Harry shrugged. “So what other business is Megellin in?”

“And that, my dear, is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.”

Harry laughed. “Why are you so interested in Megellin anyway? I just want to do the work and then leave as soon as I can. Have they been badgering you for a report?”

“Hmm? No. Why? Isn’t it early for a survey report?” He peered over his glasses at her.

“Mr. Randolph was adamant that I submit an interim report tonight.”

“How very strange. Have you found anything?” he asked.

Harry took a moment to take a bite of her lentil stew that had arrived. She valued his opinion, and she really wanted to talk to someone external to this whole mess.

“Kind of. Nothing old.” She slumped a little, knowing she was going to tell him about the aircraft part, at least, and knowing that Matt would kill her later. This time she looked around. When her eyes met his again they were sparkling behind his glasses. “You’re loving this, aren’t you?”

“I’m an old man; this is as exciting as it gets.”

“You’re not that old,” she protested.

“I know. But I get treated much better as an old doddery buffoon.”

She shook her head. “Incorrigible. Anyway. We found a piece of military aircraft. The military thinks it might be a downed American plane from the war.”

“Fascinating. Although… what do you think was on the plane?” he said, leaning forward.

What the…? “I have no idea,” she choked, grabbing her soda.

“I mean, probably missiles right? Maybe guns? Other ammunition? I’m sure there are people who would like to get their hands on it. Maybe that’s it?”

She hadn’t thought about the weaponry that might have been on it. “I have no idea.” She must remember to ask Matt what might have been aboard the plane other than the money. “Anyway, the military have asked me to keep it quiet, so I don’t know what to put in my report. I mean, you know as well as anyone, if I’m caught being less than truthful on a report, I’ll never find work again in this field.”

“That is perfectly true. It sounds like both hands are being forced, and it’s up to you which one you give in to. Your business or your patriotism.” He gave her a sympathetic look.

“Ironically, I wouldn’t have my business if it wasn’t for the military.” She took another sip and motioned to the waiter and asked for a glass of red wine.

“My husband was in the military. The air force. He died here in Iraq.” She took a breath and met Malcolm’s eyes.

“Oh, my dear.” He patted her hand.

“It was the compensation they paid me that allowed me to go to school and set up my own business. That allowed me to come here.”

“Don’t be conflicted about that. That was them repaying a debt. Their debt. Not yours. You have to move past that. You don’t owe them anything.”

“You’re English. I’m sure it’s different there, but in the U.S., the military is everything. We do anything we can to help; we bend over backward for them.” The image of her bent over for Matt in front of the mirror made her flush and take a hurried sip of soda. Jesus, he was never more than a rogue sentence away from her thoughts. She had to get that man out of her system.

“I’m sure you’ll make the right decision for you. And if it helps, I’d hire you.”

“You’re very kind.” She changed the subject. “So what did your phone calls reveal about Megellin?” she asked.

“That survey you said you did last year. Where did you say it was?”

“Kurdistan.”

“That’s right. Amersham College, right?” he said, shuffling through some papers in his folder.

“That’s right.” She remembered because Amersham was a town in the UK that she’d visited once.

“Doesn’t exist. Not in the United Kingdom, Australia, Europe, Canada, or the United States. Or any English-speaking country that I’ve found. Do you find that odd?”

Impossible. Surely. “Of course I find that odd. I… I’ll have to check my records when I get back to the room, see if I remember it right. I may have made a mistake.” She didn’t think so, though.

“You don’t strike me as someone who makes mistakes like that. Don’t get me wrong. Amersham College has a lovely website, with a very worthy mission statement. But no faculty, no campus, no tuition fee information. Nothing.”

“That doesn’t sound like a mistake; that sounds like subterfuge, doesn’t it?” Hell, was her whole contract compromised? Who the hell was she working for? Instinctively, she looked around for Matt. She wanted to tell him what she’d found out.

“Anyway, I have someone digging into their financials, and she’s very good at finding things like this. The money trail is the yellow brick road, she says. You’ve just got to follow it to find the wizard.”

“Nice analogy.” Harry smiled. “When will you hear? I’m suddenly a bit worried about who we’re working for and what exactly we’re doing here.” It occurred to her suddenly that maybe the only reason they were here was to find something Megellin was after. She squeezed her eyes shut. Could that be true?

“I should hear anytime soon. Probably tonight, our time. I’ll let you know first thing in the morning.” He dug into his fish and rice, making appreciative noises, only looking up when the waiter came with their drinks.

“You don’t sound too worried,” Harry said, having lost her appetite quite quickly.

“Not much worries me these days, dear. I’ve got to the age where I relish adventures and intrigue. After all, I spent my formative years excavating muddy fields in the rain in England. All this is quite exotic to me.”

She nodded and sipped her wine. She thought she was like that, but now she wasn’t so sure. After Danny had died, she’d been maybe a little reckless, not caring too much one way or the other whether she was alive or dead. She took risks that others found unpalatable, and always embraced the adventure. But here and now, she was becoming scared. Not for her life, just scared that this situation was disorientating her status quo. Nothing felt like it would ever be the same again.

* * *

David Church was late, and it made Matt smile broadly. When they served together, he was always having to cover for his tardiness. He would run in late for briefings, uniform buttoned up all wrong, and a bed head making his short haircut look asymmetrical. Matt would shove the briefing notes into his hand and he’d pretend he’d been there all along. It gave Matt a degree of comfort that some things never changed.

He slowly drank his beer and waited at the bar, watching the people come and go, pinning notices on the board he’d clocked before, and smuggling alcohol up to their rooms. He checked the time and wondered how Harry’s evening was going. Probably better than his.

He finished his beer and ordered some soup at the bar. While he waited, he went to read the posts on the bulletin board again. He didn’t know why he was drawn to it. Maybe because of the sense of community it gave him. The feeling that people were visiting this country after the devastation of war and looking for travel companions to enjoy it with. It was as if normality had returned here. Someone came into the quiet lobby, and he watched as the man spoke to the man behind the small reception desk.

He looked back at the bulletin board, but just as he was reading about a weekend bus trip to Basra, the man walked back through the lobby toward the rooms. It was Mueen. Instinctively, Matt stepped forward toward the wall, to avoid being seen, and he wondered why he had. Maybe the security guard checked in with the hotel in the evening?

He checked that his soup hadn’t arrived—it hadn’t—and went out into the lobby. He looked in at the restaurant and saw Harry sitting alone. The whole place was virtually empty, so he wandered in casually. She did a double take when she saw him, but smiled nonetheless. Warmth rose in him. Her smile was one worth coming home to.
Shit, where had that come from?

“Where’s your date?” he asked as he surveyed the table. It was just empty glasses and papers. “Was it a working date?”

“Kind of. Malcolm just went to his room to fetch some papers that he’d forgotten to bring. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.” She looked at her watch. “He’s been gone awhile, though.” She sighed, and he pointed at a chair, asking silently if he could sit.

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