The Dead Room


Page 2


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Alive? Then Matt…


"Please, you've got to help Matt. He's alive. I was just talking to him. You've got to help him!"


She saw the distress in the medic's eyes.


"I'm so sorry…"


She was in the midst of hell on earth, she realized.


Matt…


She was vaguely aware of a needle in her arm.


Then there was only darkness.


1


One year later


L eslie paused for a minute, looking skyward. What a beautiful evening it was. The sky couldn't have been a lovelier shade of violet. But then, the countryside in northern Virginia was some of the most beautiful in the world.


More so than ever before, at least to her.


In the past year, she had come to appreciate such simple thing as the colors of life. It had been such a strange year, filled with vividly conflicting emotions. The touch of the sun, the color of a dawn, seemed more intense than ever. The anguish of learning to live alone still interrupted the newfound beauty. Life had become doubly precious, except that she felt it was such an incredible gift that it should be shared…yet she was alive and Matt was dead.


The setting sun was beautiful, and the night breeze sweet and soft. With that thought in mind, she closed her eyes and felt the waning brush of day against her cheeks. The warmth was wonderful.


She sighed, then returned to work. She needed to hurry. The light would be gone soon.


Painstakingly, bit by bit, she brushed away the dust covering the recently revealed area. She removed the last few specks, and then…


Yes!


She continued to brush away the dirt from the skull fragment in the crevice, feeling a sense of jubilation. She couldn't be certain, of course, not absolutely, but it looked like they had discovered the old St. Mathias graveyard that Professor David Laymon had been certain was here. She eyed the skull for size and shape. Bones weren't her specialty. She knew objects, fabrics, even architecture, all the things that made up life, backward and forward. She knew bones only because she had come across them in her work so often.


The fragments of calico by the skull hinted at a type of hair decoration that fit perfectly with Laymon's belief that this section of the graveyard had been reserved for indentured servants, slaves and those who were simply too poor to pay for anything better.


"Brad!"


"Yeah?"


Brad Verdun, her good friend and colleague, was busy working a few yards away. As she waited for his attention, she took her tweezers and carefully collected the bits of fabric she had discovered; a lab analysis would verify her thoughts, she was certain, but every little shred needed to be preserved.


"Brad!"


"Yeah, yeah." At last he dusted his hands and rose, then walked to where she was working. He swore softly, shaking his head. "You were right. Again." He stared at her a little skeptically. "If I didn't know you so well, I just might agree with everyone else that you're psychic."


She smiled a little uneasily. "You would have chosen the same spot yourself," she assured him.


"Yeah, eventually." He looked across the work site, staring at the professor, who was down on his hands and knees about fifty yards away. "Well, princess of the past, announce your discovery. Give the old boy his thrill for the night."


"You tell him."


"You found the bones."


"We work together," she said modestly. "You were just a few feet away."


"You made the discovery."


"We came as a team, a package deal," she reminded him stubbornly.


"I won't take your credit."


"I want you to take the credit! Please?"


He sighed deeply. "All right, all right. I'll bring him over. But I won't lie."


"You're not lying if you say we found it as a team," she insisted.


He stared at her for a moment, then touched the top of her head with gentle affection. "Okay. You want to stay out of the limelight, kiddo, I'll do my best to help you. For a while, anyway." Like a brother, he stroked her cheek, giving her an encouraging smile.


"Thanks," she murmured softly.


"You're going to be okay. You're coming along just great," he said.


She nodded, looking down.


Was she? A year had gone by. She functioned, yes, but she continued to hurt every day. Work was good. Friends were good.


Nights were torture.


And life itself…


Was definitely different. That difference had become clear while she'd still been in the hospital after the explosion. If she hadn't happened to pick up a magazine and seen the article on Adam Harrison and Harrison Investigations…


Well, she would probably either be dead now-having scared herself into an early grave-or in a mental hospital. Adam Harrison and his team, especially Nikki Blackhawk, had undoubtedly saved both her life and her sanity. But that was information she shared with no one. Not Brad, and certainly not Professor Laymon.


She watched as Brad walked over to talk to Laymon. Brad was definitely a good guy, the best. If she'd had a brother, he couldn't have been better to her. Years ago, when they had first started working together, she'd known that he wanted more of a relationship, but no one was ever going to stand a chance against Matt. And in fact, he'd liked Matt so much himself that they'd all fallen into a great friendship. She hesitated, watching Brad, glad that nothing had changed, that he had kept a brotherly distance from her and given his full support without any indication that his affections could turn sexual. She knew she would never feel any differently about him; there came a point in life where someone was a friend and that would never change. Brad was tall, well muscled, patient, intelligent and fun. The perfect guy-for someone else. The great thing about their friendship was that they shared their love of what they did. Some of the first enjoyment she had felt since the explosion that had killed Matt had been because of Brad, because of the excitement in his dark and arresting eyes when they made a discovery.


In large part thanks to him, sometimes, she could even have fun these days, going for drinks or dinner after work. His presence kept other guys away, but if he wanted to start something up with someone else, she didn't get in the way.


They had worked well together before the accident.


Now she relied on him more than ever-even if she was the one who usually "saw" the past more clearly and homed in on a location with eerily perfect accuracy. Sometimes he eyed her almost warily, but when she shrugged, he let it alone.


She watched as Laymon listened to Brad. His face lit up as if the sun had risen again purely to shine down on him. He was up in a flash, hurrying to Leslie's side, shouting excitedly and bringing the rest of the team-teachers, students and volunteers-in his wake. "Watch where you walk," he cautioned. "We don't want all this work trampled." Hopping over one of the plastic lines set out to protect the dig and provide the grid that allowed them to map their finds, he seemed like a little kid, he was so happy.


He stared at Leslie, eyebrows raised questioningly, then looked down at the skull she'd uncovered before turning back to her again. A broad smile lit his worn features. He pushed his Ben Franklin bifocals up the bridge of his nose and scratched his white-bearded chin. If anyone had ever looked the part of a professor, it was David Laymon. "You've done it," he said.


"We've done it," she murmured.


"We'll uncover the rest of the skeleton in the morning, then get it to the folks at the Smithsonian…right away, right away. It's too late to work anymore tonight, but we need to secure this area before we go, then get back to work first thing in the morning. From now on we'll need speed-and real care. Leslie, I could hug you. I will hug you!" He drew her to her feet, hugged her, then kissed her on the cheek. She was suffused with color, a blush staining her cheeks, as a burst of applause sounded from all around them.


"Hey, please," she protested. "We're all in on this, and Brad was the one to cordon off this particular area."


"Still, what a find," Professor Laymon murmured. "You'll need to speak to the press. This is big excitement for this area…for historians everywhere."


"Please," she said softly, firmly, "let Brad speak to the press. Better yet, the two of you can speak as a team."


Laymon frowned, looking mildly annoyed.


"Please," Leslie repeated firmly.


Laymon sighed deeply, looking at her with sorrow in his gray eyes. "You never used to be so shy," he said. "Okay, sorry, I understand. It's just that…" He shook his head. "I understand. Whatever you want. All right, I'll get the ball rolling for the press conference, and you stay here-grab some students to give you a hand-and make sure that the site is protected until we get back to it in the morning. I'm going to see to it that we get some police out here to keep an eye on things, too."


Leslie wasn't sure why anyone would want to disturb a paupers' cemetery, but she knew that plenty of digs had been compromised, even ruined, by intruders in the past. She assured Laymon that she would stand guard until they were battened down for the night.


He stared at her, letting out a sigh and shaking his head again as he walked away. Brad walked behind him. One of the grad students, a shapely redhead, hurried up alongside Brad, slipping an arm through his. Leslie decided that she would have to tease him about her later.


For a moment, she wondered what Brad said about her when he decided to get close to a woman. Oh, my friend Leslie? Completely platonic. She was engaged, but there was a terrible accident. She almost died, and her fiancé was killed. Since then she's been having kind of a hard time, so I try to be there for her. But it wasn't that long ago, just a year….


Just a year.


She wondered if she would ever again feel that there was a perfect guy out there for. Right now, all she felt was…


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