Thunderhead

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By Douglas Preston

By Lincoln Child

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Nora Kelly, a young archaeologist in Santa Fe, receives a letter written sixteen years ago, yet mysteriously mailed only recently. In it her father, long believed dead, hints at a fantastic discovery that will make him famous and rich—the lost city of an ancient civilization that suddenly vanished a thousand years ago. Now Nora is leading an expedition into a harsh, remote corner of Utah’s canyon country. Searching for her father and his glory, Nora begins t unravel the greatest riddle of American archeology. but what she unearths will be the newest of horrors…

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14


THREE HOURS LATER, THE LANDLOCKED Laura had left the chaos of Wahweap Marina fifty miles behind. The wide prow of the barge cut easily through the turquoise surface of Lake Powell, engines throbbing slightly, the water hissing along the pontoons. Gradually, the powerboats, the shrieking jetskis, the garish houseboats had all dropped away. The expedition had entered into a great mystical world of stone, and a cathedral silence closed around them. Now they were alone on the green expanse of lake, walled in by thousand-foot bluffs and slickrock desert. The sun hung low over the Grand Bench, with Neanderthal Cove appearing on the right, and the distant opening of Last Chance Bay to the left.

Thirty minutes before, Luigi Bonarotti had served a meal of cognac-braised, applewood-smoked quail with grapefruit and wilted arugula leaves. This remarkable accomplishment, achieved somehow on the shabby gas grill, had silenced even Black's undertone of complaints. They had dined around the aluminum table, toasting the meal with a crisp Orvieto. Now the group was arranged around the barge in lethargic contemplation of the meal, awaiting landfall at the trailhead.

Smithback, who had dined very well and consumed an alarming quantity of wine, was sitting with Black. Before dinner, the writer had made some cracks about camp cooking and varmint stew, but the arrival of the meal changed his tone to one approaching veneration.

"Didn't you also write that book on the museum murders in New York City?" Black was asking. Smithback's face broke into an immensely gratified smile.

"And that subway massacre a few years back?"

Smithback reached for an imaginary hat and doffed it with a grandiose flourish.

Black scratched his chin. "Don't get me wrong, I think it's great," he said. "It's just that . . . well, I've always understood that the Institute was a low-profile entity."

"Well, the fact is I'm no longer Bill Smithback, terror of the tabloids," Smithback replied. "I work for the buttoned-down, respectable New York Times now, occupying the position formerly held by a certain Bryce Harriman. Poor Bryce. He covered the subway massacre, too. Such a pity that my masterpiece of investigative reportage was his lost opportunity." He turned and grinned at Nora. "You see, I'm a paragon of journalistic respectability that even a place as stuffy as your Institute can't object to."

Nora caught herself as she was about to smile. There was nothing amusing in the journalist's braggadocio, even if it was tempered with a touch of self-deprecation. She looked away with a stab of irritation, wondering again at Goddard's idea of bringing a journalist along. She looked toward Holroyd, who was sitting on the metal floor of the barge, elbows on his knees, reading what to Nora's mind was a real book: a battered paperback copy of Coronado and the City of Gold. As she watched him, Holroyd looked up and smiled.

Aragon was standing at the bowrail, and Roscoe Swire was again by the horses, wad of tobacco fingered into his cheek, jotting in a battered journal and occasionally murmuring to the animals. Bonarotti was quietly smoking a postprandial cigarette, one leg thrown over the other, head tilted back, enjoying the air. Nora was surprised and grateful for the cook's efforts on this first day of the journey. Nothing like a good meal to bring people together, she thought, replaying in her mind the lively meal, the friendly arguments about the origins of the Clovis hunters, and the proper way to excavate a cave sequence. Even Black had relaxed and told an exceedingly foul joke involving a proctologist, a giant sequoia, and tree-ring dating. Only Aragon had remained silent—not aloof, exactly; just remote.

She glanced over at him, standing motionless at the rail, gazing out into the fading light, his eyes hard. Three months on the Gallegos Divide, excavating the burned jacal site, had taught her that the human dynamic in an expedition of this sort was of crucial importance, and she didn't like his resolute silence. Something was not right with him. Casually, she strolled forward until she was standing at the rail beside him. He looked over, then nodded politely.

"Quite a dinner," she said.

"Astonishing," said Aragon, folding his brown hands over the railing. "Signore Bonarotti is to be complimented. What do you suppose is in that curio box of his?"

He was referring to an antique wooden chuckbox with innumerable tiny compartments the cook kept locked and under jealous guard.

"No idea," Nora said.

"I can't imagine how he managed it."

"You watch. It'll be salt pork and hardtack tomorrow."

They laughed together, an easy laugh, and once again Aragon gazed forward, toward the lake and its vast ramparts of stone.

"You've been here before?" Nora asked.

Something flitted across the hollow eyes: the shadow of a strong emotion, quickly concealed. "In a way."

"It's a beautiful lake," Nora went on, uncertain how to engage the man in conversation.

There was a silence. At last, Aragon turned toward her again. "Forgive me if I don't agree."

Nora looked at him more closely.

"Back in the early sixties I was an assistant on an expedition that tried to document sites here in Glen Canyon, before it was drowned by Lake Powell."

Suddenly, Nora understood. "Were there many?"

"We were able to document perhaps thirty-five, and partially excavate twelve, before the water engulfed them. But the estimate of total sites ran to about six thousand. I think my interest in ZST dates from that event. I remember shoveling out—shoveling out— a kiva, water lapping just three feet below. That was no way to treat a sacred site, but we had no choice. The water was about to destroy it."

"What's a kiva?" Smithback asked as he strolled over, his new cowboy boots creaking on the rubber deck. "And who were the Anasazi, anyway?"

"A kiva is the circular, sunken structure that was the center of Anasazi religious activity and secret ceremonies," Nora said. "It was usually entered through a hole in the roof. And the Anasazi were the Native Americans who peopled this region a thousand years ago. They built cities, shrines, irrigation systems, signaling stations. And then, around 1150 A.D. their civilization suddenly collapsed."

There was a silence. Black joined the group. "Were these sites you worked on important?" he asked, working a toothpick between two molars.

Aragon looked up. "Are there any unimportant sites?"

"Of course," Black sniffed. "Some sites have more to say than others. A few poor outcast Anasazi, scrabbling out a living in a cave for ten years, don't leave us as much information as, say, a thousand people living in a cliff dwelling for two centuries."

Aragon looked coolly at Black. "There's enough information in a single Anasazi pot to occupy a researcher for his entire career. Perhaps it's not a matter of unimportant sites, but unimportant archaeologists."

Black's face darkened.

"What sites did you work on?" Nora asked quickly.

Aragon nodded toward an open reach of water to starboard. "About a mile over there, maybe four hundred feet down, is the Music Temple."

"The Music Temple?" Smithback echoed.

"A great hollow in the canyon wall, where the winds and the waters of the Colorado River combined to make haunting, unearthly sounds. John Wesley Powell discovered and named it. We excavated the floor and found a rare Archaic site, along with many others in the vicinity." He pointed in another direction. "And over there was a site called the Wishing Well, a Pueblo III cliff dwelling of eight rooms, built around an unusually deep kiva. A small site, trivial, of no importance." He glanced pointedly at Black. "In that site, the Anasazi had buried with loving care two small girls, wrapped in woven textiles, with necklaces of flowers and seashells. But by then there was no time left. We couldn't save the burials; the water was already rising. Now the water has dissolved the burials, the adobe masonry that held the stones of the city in place, destroyed all the delicate artifacts."

Black snorted and shook his head. "Hand me a tissue, somebody."

The boat moved past the Grand Bench. Nora could see the dark prow of the Kaiparowits Plateau rising far behind it, wild, inaccessible, tinged dusky rose by the setting sun. As if in response, the boat began to turn, heading for a narrow opening in the sandstone walls: the foot of Serpentine Canyon.

Once the boat was inside the narrow confines of the canyon, the water turned a deeper green. The sheer walls plunged straight down, so perfectly reflected it was hard to tell where stone stopped and water began. The captain had told Nora that almost nobody came up into that canyon: there were no camping sites or beaches, and the walls were so high and sheer that hiking was impossible.

Holroyd stretched. "I've been reading about Quivira," he said, indicating the book. "It's an amazing story. Listen to this:

The Cicuye Indians brought forward a slave to show the General, who they had captured in a distant land. The General questioned the slave through interpreters. The slave told him about a distant city, called Quivira. It is a holy city, he said, where the rain priests live, who guard the records of their history from the beginning of time. He said it was a city of great wealth. Common table service was of the purest smoothed gold, and the pitchers, dishes and bowls were also of gold, refined, polished and decorated. He said they despised all other materials."

"Aaah," Smithback said, rubbing his hands with an exaggerated air. "I like that: they despised all other materials. Gold. Such a pleasant word, don't you think?"

"There isn't a shred of evidence of any Anasazi Indians having gold," Nora said.

"Dinner plates made of gold?" Smithback said. "Excuse me, Madame Chairman, but that sounds pretty specific to me."

"Then prepare to be disappointed," said Nora. "The Indians were only telling Coronado what they knew he wanted to hear in order to keep him moving on."

"But listen," Holroyd said, "it goes on: 'The slave warned the General not to approach the city. The Rain and Sun Priests of Xochitl guard the city, he said, and call down the God of the Dust Devil on those who approach without their leave, and thereby destroy them.'"

"D-d-d-destroy them?" Smithback leered.

Nora shrugged. "Typical in these old reports. A hard kernel of truth at the center, embellished to increase dramatic effect."

Hicks stepped out of the cabin, his stringy form framed in the battered pilothouse light. "Sonar's giving me shoaling water here," he said. "The canyon bottom's coming up. We'll probably be hitting the end of the lake 'round another bend or two."

Now everyone came to the front rail, peering eagerly into the gloom. A searchlight snapped on above the pilothouse, illuminating the water ahead of them. It had changed color again to a dirty chocolate. The barge nosed its way past battered tree limbs, around dark curtains of stone that rose hundreds of feet.

They passed another sharp bend and dismay suddenly dragged at Nora's heart. Blocking the far end of the canyon was a huge mass of floating debris: scarred tree trunks, branches, and stinking mats of rotting pine needles. Some of the tree trunks were five feet in diameter, horribly gouged and ripped as if by supernatural force. Beyond the tangle, Nora could make out the end of the lake: a wedge of sand at the mouth of a creek, deep crimson in the gloom.

Hicks threw the engine into neutral and came out of the pilothouse, puffing silently and staring down the beam of the searchlight.

"Where did all those huge trees come from?" Nora asked. "I haven't seen a tree since we left Page."

"Flash floods," said Hicks, chewing on his corncob. "All that stuff gets washed down from the mountains, hundreds of miles sometimes. When the wall of water hits the lake, it just dumps everything here." He shook his head. "Never seen such a snarl."

"Can you get through it?"

"Nope," said Hicks. "Tear my propellers right up."

Shit. "How deep is the water?"

"Sonar says eight feet, with holes and channels down to fifteen." He gave her a curious look. "Might be a good time to think about turning around," he murmured.

Nora glanced at his placid face. "Now why would we want to do that?"

Hicks shrugged. "It ain't no business of mine, but I wouldn't head into that backcountry for all the money in the world."

"Thanks for the advice," Nora said. "You have a life raft, right?"

"Yup, inflatable. You sure can't load horses into it."

The expedition had gathered around, listening. Nora heard Black mutter something about knowing horses were a bad idea.

"We'll swim the horses in," Nora said. "Then we'll bring the gear on the raft."

"Now, hold on—" began Swire.

Nora turned to him. "All we need is a good horse to lead and the others will follow. Roscoe, I'll bet you've got a good swimmer in that bunch."

"Sure, Mestizo, but—"

"Good. You swim him in yourself, and we'll push the others in afterward. They can swim through one of those gaps between the logs."

Swire stared at the blockage before them, a crazy dark tangle in the ghostly illumination of the searchlight. "Those gaps are pretty small. A horse could get snagged on brush, or maybe gut himself on an underwater limb."

"Do you have another idea?"

Swire looked out over the water. "Nope," he said. "Guess I don't."

Hicks opened a large deck locker and, with the help of Holroyd, pulled a heavy, shapeless rubber mass out of its depths. Swire led a large horse out of one of the trailers, then threw a saddle over his back. Nora noticed he did not put on a halter or bridle. Aragon and Bonarotti began to move the gear toward the raft, readying it for transport. Black was standing near the trailers, watching the proceedings with a doubtful expression. Swire handed him a quirt.

"What's this for?" Black asked, holding it at arm's length.

"I'm going to swim this horse in to shore first," Swire replied. "Nora will lead the rest out one by one. Your job is to make them jump into the water after me."

"Oh, really? And just how do I do that?"

"You quirt 'em."

"Quirt them?"

"Whip their asses. Don't let them stop to think."

"That's insane. I'll be kicked."

"None of these horses are kickers, but be ready to dodge anyway. And make a sound like this." Swire made a loud, unpleasant kissing sound with his lips.

"Maybe flowers and a box of chocolates would be easier," Smithback cracked.

"I don't know anything about horses," Black protested.

"'Course you don't. But it don't take a professional waddy to whack a horse's ass."

"Won't it hurt the horses?"

"It'll sting some," Swire replied. "But we don't got all night to sweet-talk 'em."

Black continued to stare at the quirt with a frown. Watching him, Nora wasn't sure what the scientist was more upset by: quirting the horses or being ordered about by a cowboy.

Swire vaulted into the saddle. "Keep 'em coming one at a time, but let the water clear so they ain't jumping on each other's backs."

He turned and shoved the spurs to his horse. The animal obeyed instantly and leaped into the water, momentarily disappearing and then surfacing again, blowing hard, nose up to the air. Expertly dismounting in midair, Swire had landed beside the horse, hand on the saddlehorn. Now he began urging the animal forward in a low voice.

The rest of the horses pranced restlessly in the trailers, snorting through dilated nostrils and rolling their eyes with apprehension.

"Let's go," Nora said, easing the second horse forward. It stepped toward the edge of the barge, then balked. "Quirt him!" she cried to Black. To her relief, Black stepped forward with a determined look and smacked the horse across the rump. The horse paused, then leaped, landing with another roar of water and struggling after Swire's horse.

Smithback was watching the proceedings with amusement. "Nicely done!" he cried. "Come on, Aaron, don't tell me that's the first time you've handled a whip. I'm sure I've seen you hanging around the West Village leather bars."

"Smithback, go help Holroyd with the raft," Nora snapped.

"Yassuh." Smithback turned away.

One at a time, they coaxed the rest of the horses into the water until they formed a ragged, struggling line, nose to tail, threading their way through a gap in the tangle of trees and heading for the beach. Nora locked down the trailers, then turned to watch Swire clamber out of the water at the far end, bedraggled and dripping in the yellow glow of the searchlight. Securing his horse, he waded back into the water with yips and shouts, herding the rest onto dry land. Soon he had gathered them into a disconsolate mass and pushed them upcanyon, clearing the landing site.

Nora watched a moment longer, then turned to Black. "That was very well done, Aaron."

The geochronologist blushed with pride.

Nora looked at the rest of the group. "Let's get this gear offloaded. Captain, many thanks for your help. We'll make sure the raft is well hidden while we're upcanyon. See you in a couple of weeks."

"Lest I see you first," Hicks replied dryly as he disappeared into the pilothouse.

Around eleven, in the intense silence of the desert night, Nora took a last tour of the somnolent camp, then threw her bedroll some distance from the others, carefully sculpting the sand underneath for her hips and shoulders. To minimize the panicky, last-minute adjustments that always seemed to accompany packtrips, she had seen to it that the gear was already weighed and stowed in the panniers, ready for loading in the morning. The horses were hobbled some distance away, contentedly chewing the last of their alfalfa. The rest of the group was either asleep in their tents or quickly nodding off in their sleeping bags by the dying light of the fire. And the Landlocked Laura was well on her way back to the marina. The expedition had begun in earnest.

She eased into the bedroll, breathing easily. So far, so good. Black was a pain in the ass, but his expertise outweighed his querulous personality. Smithback was an annoying surprise, but with that strong back and arms he'd make a good digger, and she'd make sure he was well occupied with the shovel, whether he liked it or not. Before going to bed, he had insisted on pressing a copy of his book into her hands; she'd dumped it unceremoniously into a duffel.

On the other hand, Peter Holroyd was proving to be a real trouper. She'd caught him giving her several furtive glances during the ride up Lake Powell, and Nora wondered if he wasn't a little bit infatuated. Perhaps she'd inadvertently played on that in persuading him to steal the data from JPL. She felt a momentary twinge of guilt. But then again, she'd kept her promise. He was on the expedition. The boy's probably mistaking gratitude for puppy love, she thought, moving on. Bonarotti was one of those unflappable people who never seemed put out by anything, as well as being a fabulous camp cook. And Aragon would probably open up once they got away from his hated Lake Powell.

She stretched out comfortably. It was shaping up to be a good group. Best of all, there was no Sloane Goddard to deal with. Among Black, Aragon, and herself, there was more than enough expertise to go around. Dr. Goddard had nothing but his own daughter's tardiness to blame.

Starlight glowed faintly from the distant bluffs and turrets of Navajo sandstone. A chill had crept into the air: in the high desert, night came on fast and sure. She heard a low murmuring, the drifting smell of Bonarotti's cigarette. Into the silence the faint calls of the canyon wrens echoed back and forth, tinkling like bells, mingling with the faint lapping of water on the shoreline just below the camp. Already they were many miles from the nearest outpost of humanity. And the distant, hidden canyon they were headed to was much farther still.

At the thought of Quivira, Nora felt the weight of responsibility return again. There was a potential for failure here, too, she knew: a tremendous potential. They might not find the city. The expedition might break up over personality conflicts. Worst of all, her father's Quivira might turn out to be some ordinary five-room cliff dwelling. That was what worried her the most. Goddard might forgive her for leaving without his daughter. But despite all the fine words, he and the Institute would not forgive her if she returned with a superb site report on a tiny Pueblo III cliff dwelling. And God only knew what kind of withering article Smithback might write if he felt his precious time had been wasted.

There was the distant yipping of a coyote, and she wrapped the bedroll more tightly around her. Unbidden, her thoughts returned to Santa Fe, to that night in the deserted ranch house. She'd been very careful to keep the maps and radar images under her control at all times. She'd impressed everyone with the need for discretion, citing pothunters and looters as her concern. And then into the midst of her careful plans blundered Smithback. . . .

Still, she knew it was unlikely that Smithback's comments would filter back to Santa Fe, and beyond the mention of her name nothing he'd said was specific enough to give away the purpose of the expedition. And most likely, the bizarre figures who had attacked her had given up by now. Where she was going, it would take a determined, even desperate person to follow, someone who knew the craft of desert travel far better than even Swire did. Certainly no boats had followed them up the lake. The fear and annoyance subsided, and in their absence came sleep, and dreams of dusty ruins, and nodding columns of sunlight cutting through the murk of an ancient cave, and two dead children draped in flowers.


15


TERESA GONZALES SAT UP SUDDENLY, LISTENING in the dark. Teddy Bear, her giant Rhodesian Ridgeback, who generally slept outside in the summer, was whining at the back door. Ridgebacks had been bred to hunt and kill lions in Africa. He was a very gentle dog, but he was also extremely protective. She had never heard him whine before. He was just back from the vet's, where he'd been languishing for two weeks, recovering from a nasty infection; maybe the poor thing was still traumatized.

She got out of bed and went through the dark house to the door. The dog came slinking in, whimpering, its tail clamped between its legs.

"Teddy," she whispered, "what's wrong? You all right?"

The dog licked her hand and retreated across the kitchen, sliding his huge bulk under the kitchen table. Teresa looked out the kitchen door, down into the sea of darkness toward the old Las Cabrillas ranch house. There were no lights in the draw, and without a moon Teresa couldn't see the outlines of the abandoned house. Something out there had scared him half to death. She listened, and thought she heard a faint sound of breaking glass and the distant howl of an animal. Definitely too low-pitched and hoarse to be a coyote, but it didn't sound like any dog Teresa had heard, either. It sounded like a wolf, if you got right down to it. But Teddy would never have retreated like that from a lone wolf, or even a cougar. Perhaps it was a whole pack of wolves.

The muttered low howl was answered by another, a little closer. The dog whined again, louder, and pressed itself back into the darkness under the table. There was a dribbling sound, and Teresa saw he was urinating in his fright.

She paused, hand on the doorframe. Until two years ago, there had been no wolves in New Mexico. Then the Game and Fish Department introduced some into the Pecos Wilderness. Guess a few have wandered down from the mountains, she thought.

Teresa went back to her room, peeled off her nightgown, slid on her jeans, shirt, and boots, then walked across the room and opened the gun locker. The weapons gleamed dully against the darkness. She reached for her current favorite, a Winchester Defender, with its 18½-inch barrel and extended magazine tube. It was a good, light gun, billed as a defensive weapon with unparalleled stopping power. Just another way of saying it was very good at killing people. Or wolves, for that matter.

Genre:

On Sale
Jul 1, 2001
Page Count
496 pages
ISBN-13
9780759525290

Douglas Preston

About the Author

Douglas Preston is the author of thirty-six books, both fiction and nonfiction, twenty-nine of which have been New York Times bestsellers, with several reaching the number 1 position. He has worked as an editor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and taught nonfiction writing at Princeton University. His first novel, RELIC, co-authored with Lincoln Child, was made into a movie by Paramount Pictures, which launched the famed Pendergast series of novels. His recent nonfiction book, THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE, is also in production as a film. His latest book, THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD, tells the true story of the discovery of a prehistoric city in an unexplored valley deep in the Honduran jungle. In addition to books, Preston writes about archaeology and paleontology for the New Yorker, National Geographic, and Smithsonian. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards in the US and Europe, including an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Pomona College. He currently serves as president of the Authors Guild, the nation’s oldest and largest association of authors and journalists.

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Lincoln Child

About the Author

The thrillers of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child “stand head and shoulders above their rivals” (Publishers Weekly). Preston and Child’s Relic and The Cabinet of Curiosities were chosen by readers in a National Public Radio poll as being among the one hundred greatest thrillers ever written, and Relic was made into a number-one box office hit movie. They are coauthors of the famed Pendergast series and their recent novels include Crooked River, Old Bones, Verses for the Dead, and City of Endless Night.

In addition to his novels, Douglas Preston writes about archaeology for The New Yorker and National Geographic magazines. Lincoln Child is a Florida resident and former book editor who has published seven novels of his own, including bestsellers such as Full Wolf Moon and Deep Storm.
Readers can sign up for The Pendergast File, a monthly “strangely entertaining note” from the authors, at their website, http://www.PrestonChild.com. The authors welcome visitors to their alarmingly active Facebook page, where they post regularly.

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