make his calls, get the body embalmed and on a plane back to the States, and wash his hands of the whole mess.

'Mr. Monahan,' the receptionist called in a thick Spanish accent as he strode into the lobby. She pronounced it Meester Monahan.

He pretended not to hear her and started up the staircase beside her desk. The middle-aged Peruvian national climbed out from behind her post with the clatter of high heels.

'Mr. Monahan!'

With a frustrated sigh, he turned to face the frumpy woman and raised the question with his eyebrows.

'There's a man waiting for you outside your office.'

'I assume he's been properly cleared?'

'Yes, Mr. Monahan.'

'Thank you, Mrs. Arguedas.'

He ascended to the top floor and headed toward his office at the end of the corridor. A man with shaggy chestnut hair and pale blue eyes sat in one of the chairs outside his office, a filthy backpack clutched to his chest. The armed soldier beside him snapped to attention when he saw Eldon, while the other man rose almost casually from his seat. His discomfort was apparent, yet he seemed less than intimidated by his surroundings. He had broad shoulders and a solid build that suggested he had been shaped more by physical exertion in the real world than by countless hours in the gym.

Eldon extended his hand and introduced himself as he approached. 'Consulate-general Monahan.'

'Wes Merritt,' the man said. He offered his own hand, but retracted it when he noticed how dirty it was.

Eldon was silently grateful. He lowered his hand, gave a polite smile, and gestured for the man to follow him into his inner sanctum. The soldier fell in behind them and took his place beside the closing door.

'How can I be of assistance, Mr. Merritt?' Eldon seated himself in the high-backed leather chair behind his mahogany and brass Royal Louis XV Boulle desk, and made a show of checking his watch.

'Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Monahan. Especially with no notice.'

Eldon waved him off, but he would definitely have to discuss such improprieties with Mrs. Arguedas.

Merritt opened the flap of the rucksack and set it on the edge of the pristine desk.

'I wanted to give this to you in person. You know how the authorities are down here...'

Eldon nodded and fought the urge to shove the vile bag off of his eighteenth century antique desk.

'I found this with the body you just visited at the morgue. I need to make sure it reaches the right people back home.' Merritt shrugged and rose as if to leave. 'You'll make sure it does, Mr. Monahan?'

'Of course. Thank you, Mr. Merritt. I'm sure the decedent's family appreciates your integrity.'

Merritt gave a single nod in parting and exited through the polished oak door.

His curiosity piqued, Eldon plucked a handful of tissues from the box on the corner of the desk and walked around to inspect the bag. He gingerly moved aside a tangled nest of dried vines and appraised the contents. His eyes widened in surprise.

He leaned across the desk and pressed the 'Speaker' button on his phone.

'Yes, Mr. Monahan?' Mrs. Arguedas answered.

'Please hold my calls.'

'Yes, sir.'

He disconnected and returned his attention to the rucksack.

Now he really needed to figure out to whom the body in the morgue belonged.


Advanced Exploration Associates International, Inc.

Houston, Texas

October 15th

8:47 p.m. CDT

Leonard Gearhardt stood before the wall of windows on the fiftieth floor of Heritage Plaza, hands clasped behind his back, staring out over the sparkling constellations of downtown, the Toyota Center, the theater district, and the distant suburbs beyond. Smoke from the Montecristo No.4 Reserva swirled around his head in much the same manner as the thoughts within. His gray eyes settled somewhere between the reflection of the aging man he had become and the cold black sky. He wore a hand-tailored Italian suit that cost more than most new domestic cars and polished leather shoes crafted from the suffering of some young animal or other. His ghost-white hair was slicked back to perfection and his eyebrows tweezed. Only his callused hands and the wrinkles in his sun-leathered features, which most considered distinguished, marred the illusion of grandeur he paid a fortune to perpetuate. But none of that mattered now. He was already sixty years-old, and felt as though he had aged a lifetime in the last hour alone.

He had been expecting the call for so long that it had almost been a relief when it finally came.

Leo turned away from the window and surveyed his domain through the Cuban haze. He was surrounded by the fruits of his professional labors: a sextant salvaged from the wreckage of the Neustra Senora de Atocha; a golden idol of the Mayan god Chac; various coins from the nefarious pirate frigate Queen Anne's Revenge; the gilded horn of a narwhal; the porous skull of an ankylosaurus; and paintings and sculptures from myriad expeditions, all encased in Lucite and stationed precisely around the luxuriously appointed office. There were Medieval and Renaissance texts, monographs from centuries past, and handwritten diaries on alarmed shelves. A lifetime of amassed history and riches, but only a single framed picture of the son who had died in pursuit of his father's favor.

Leo had built his empire from his own sweat and blood, from his adventurous spirit and refusal to be cowed by fear. What had begun as a simple salvage operation on the Gulf coast had blossomed into a forward-thinking, diverse corporation with varied interests from exploration and artifact discovery and recovery to management of high-risk extraction sites and implementation of high-tech mining solutions. He had raised entire battalions of sunken warships thousands of feet from oceanic trenches, discovered indigenous ruins on every continent, mined ore and shale from the steepest slopes, and found and named more extinct animals and dinosaurs through fossilized evidence than any other single individual.

The way Leo saw it, he had conquered the world.

And now here he stood amid the trappings of wealth, and all of it was for naught. In just under twenty-four hours, his son's remains would arrive at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, sealed in plastic wrap and boxed in a crate, where the body would be immediately sequestered by the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine under the watchful eye of the CDC. The Consul-general in Lima had been aghast at his insistence that his son's body not be embalmed, that he'd rather delay interment by potentially several days to weeks. There was no way he was going to let some foreign doctor with marginal medical training butcher what was left of his only child. Hunter Gearhardt's body would be autopsied by a real medical examiner and then prepared by a mortician, regardless of the cost.

The image of his son's features pressed beneath cellophane rose unbidden and he slammed his fists down on his desk. Ashes flew and the cigar rolled onto the lacquered wood. He watched the clear coating melt away from the glowing cherry before snubbing it in the ashtray.

Never in his life had he felt so helpless. There was no problem to solve or challenge to overcome. He couldn't step back and brainstorm solutions. His Hunter was dead, and what were his first words? Not an outpouring of remorse or a curse upon the gods who would rob him of the only thing in his life that should have mattered, but 'What did he have in his possession?'

He removed a bottle of Macallan 1939 from the bottom desk drawer, poured two-fingers into a glass, and hurled the bottle across the room. A rich amber river ran down the wall to join the shards of forty year-old glass, assailing him with the scents of vanilla toffee, peat and wood smoke, and time.

This small man with his big title, this Eldon Monahan, had listed off his son's belongings like he'd been checking off a grocery list. One Black Diamond Sphynx rucksack; one four-liter MSR Dromedary hydration bladder;

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