A crime fifty million years in the making challenges Special Agent Alex Marks.
In the isolated town of Republic in rural Washington state fossil hunters uncover a barrel with a body inside and none of the clues make sense.
If you love science fiction mysteries, check out Dumping Ground.
The dry wind kicked up dust from the dig site as if to mock any attempt to contain the crime scene and maintain evidence. Alex Marks, FBI Special Agent Marks to the folks around here, snapped his fingers at a couple county sheriff deputies standing nearby.
“Howdy, think you could get us some tents or something to cover the crime scene with before the wind blows everything away?”
The two deputies looked at each other, shrugged and ambled away. Alex couldn’t decide if that meant they were actually going for the tents or not. At thirty-five he had seen all sorts of local law enforcement and some were pretty good. He hadn’t made up his mind about these guys yet. He knew that they only saw the suit. They didn’t see the guy that liked to kick back and watch the game with some buddies. That was expected and he was okay with that, so long as they did the job he needed them to do.
Right now he wanted to take in the crime scene. It was in a cut in the earth across the hill. A fossil dig site, with pine trees on the hill up above, and the town of Republic laid out below him, mostly along the highway 22. The site itself showed signs of lots of people having been back and forth through the area. The chance of getting anything useful was slim. More than anything what struck him was the quiet. He’d seen the briefing. Small population, minimal traffic, and a short distance to the Canadian border. But the fossil dig site was public. The killer wanted the body to be found. There were acres and acres of national forest just outside of the town where the killer could have stashed the body, not to mention all of the abandoned mines scattered throughout the county. Someone put the body here for it to be found.
Ten feet away the county sheriff, mid-fifties, runner-thin man with his hair buzzed short, was talking to a gray-haired old woman in a stained yellow t-shirt. Alex walked over to join them. The sheriff nodded and gestured at the woman.
“Special Agent Marks, this is Martha Brown. She volunteers down at the fossil museum. She’s the one that called me when the tourists uncovered what we’ve got over there.”
Over there was ten feet further, right in the side of the dig. A black barrel with a clear toxic warning symbol on the side sticking out of the hillside. Martha’s eyes were red and she wiped at her eyes.
“How could they do that? Dump it in our dig site? What’s going to happen, Roy? That’s what I want to know? Are they going to shut us down?”
The sheriff patted her arm. “Why don’t we let these folks do what they do and worry about that later. We don’t even know what we have here.”
She sniffled but nodded and started to move away. Alex spoke up. “Just a sec. You haven’t seen anything unusual up here lately, have you?”
“No, nothing, and I’m up here every day. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for someone to bury that up here. But the rock flaked away, and there it was. I don’t know how they got it in there. I removed a beautiful Alnus parvifolia from right above it yesterday. How could they have buried it without disturbing the fossils?”
“I don’t know about that,” Roy answered. “We’ll let the folks with bigger budgets figure that one out.”
“Thank you,” Alex said.
He walked toward the site. Roy stuck with him. They climbed up the slope and then Alex saw the barrel up close for the first time. It looked like any other barrel designed to hold toxic waste. Though corroded with time the toxic warning symbol was still visible on the side. The top of the barrel had been removed and inside he could see the curve of a skull. The bulk of the barrel was still stuck in the ground. Despite what Martha said he didn’t see what was so hard about digging a hole and dropping in the barrel, then covering it up. Doctor Marcus Hodgens stood beside the barrel brushing along the line where the barrel disappeared into the earth with a long bristle brush. He looked more like a surfer than a scientist, but Alex had worked with Marcus before and knew that there wasn’t anyone better to investigate the site. He looked up with his watery blue eyes when Alex and the sheriff walked up.
“We’ve got a mystery here, Alex.” Marcus grinned. “This is the sort of thing that hits headlines.”
“A dump site? How’s that news?” Alex asked.
Marcus shook his head. He pointed the brush at the barrel. “Look at this.”
Alex walked closer and looked at the place Marcus pointed to, where the barrel vanished into the earth. It took him a second but then he realized what Marcus was getting at. It wasn’t loose earth and broken rock around the barrel. It was stone. Unbroken stone that pressed right up against the barrel. He looked up and found Marcus grinning at him.
“Any idea how they cut the rock perfectly to fit this barrel?”
“Sounds like a lot of work to go to just to hide a body.”
“I’ve seen people do weirder things.”
“I’m sure you have,” Marcus said. “But that’s not the most important detail. Look at this.”
Marcus pointed to a ridge that ran around the exposed section of the barrel. Alex had seen things like it before.
Marcus ran his brush back along the ring until it disappeared into the stone at the back of the barrel. “See? The stone is formed around the barrel. There’s another ring further down on the barrel. The rings make it easier to lift the barrels. But if someone dug a hole so that they could put the barrel in the would have had to — “
“Cut it to the size of the rings,” Alex finished for Marcus.
Marcus nodded. Roy looked at them both, then focused on Alex. “So what does that mean?”
“It means that the stone had to form around the barrel,” Marcus said, grinning widening. “And this particular stone formed something like fifty million years ago.”
“Fifty million years ago?” Roy took off his hat and rubbed his jaw. “Come again?”
Alex felt that empty feeling in his gut that told him this case was trouble. He looked into the barrel where the skeleton of a man sat with just the top of his skull visible. The wind blew dust that tickled Alex’s nose, but other than the sound of the wind and the murmurs of people gathered the whole place seemed quiet. Like they were all holding their breath.
“You’re telling me that this barrel and the man inside have been buried here for fifty million years?”
Marcus tapped the rock with the handle of his brush. “We’ve got lots of tests to run, but my initial observations suggest that this rock hasn’t been disturbed until our fossil hunters cleared away the layer right above the barrel.”
Alex walked into the Spokane lab hoping that Marcus had better answers for him now than he had forty-eight hours ago. Marcus had called him to the lab to go over the evidence. Before Alex filed anything he wanted some answers that explained how a barrel for toxic waste ended up in a hillside, embedded in rocks fifty million years old.
Marcus was wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt and khaki shorts beneath his lab coat. His feet were bare. That was normal for him, something about humans didn’t evolve wearing shoes so why should he wear them in climate controlled labs? He was at a long examination table bent over the skeleton from the barrel. When Alex walked in he looked up, brushing back his blond hair.
“Agent Marks, thanks for coming. This is really, really amazing!”
Alex stopped beside the table containing the skeleton. It didn’t look normal, he bent closer and looked at the bones. The color seemed wrong to him and the texture. It reminded him of something.
“You see it, don’t you?”
“Why don’t you tell me what I’m seeing?”
Marcus took a big breath. “He’s fossilized. This is a fossilized human.”
“Fossilized, in a toxic waste barrel? Did someone try hide a theft? Take him out of some exhibit?”
Marcus shook his head. He turned around and picked up a stainless steel tray. He held it out to Alex. Alex didn’t take the tray or touch the items on the tray, each labeled with numbers. It looked like bits of glass or rock, some metals. Nothing that he recognized.
“What are those?”
“Those are pieces of what I believe was an iPhone, or maybe an android, something like a Galaxy. We’ll have to do more analysis before we really know. The components have mostly broken down. Do you have any idea how long that would take?”
“Let me guess, fifty million years?”
“Not that long, but a long time. It doesn’t give us an exact age. But there’s more. This skeleton, he’s a modern human. There’s even a collar bone repair that used a new technique. Instead of plates screwed to the broken bones it uses a variant of a Chinese finger puzzle to hold the bones together. There are a couple very small screws to help make sure it stays in place but it does a much better job of holding the bones together while allowing some flex without breaking the way plates break. That allows patients —”
“Marcus. What are you trying to tell me?”
Marcus took a deep breath. His broad face split into a goofy grin. “Well, we’ve got a paradox. A modern day man that was fossilized in a barrel found in fifty million year old rocks.”
“Then it must be a hoax.”
“What? What’s so funny? Obviously it can’t really be a man from fifty million years ago, can it? You said yourself, the medical procedure was current.”
“I don’t think you get it. To fake something like this? I can’t even begin to figure out how that could be done. The details, the barrel, the way the rock had formed around it — did you see what we had to do to get it out? And that was being careful.”
“But it could be done.”
Marcus shook his head. “I don’t see how.”
“Maybe not, but it’s the only possibility. And if it is a hoax, is this even a murder? You said this is a fossilized body. Couldn’t it be a fake?”
“It isn’t fake. You’re still not getting it Alex.”
Alex shoved aside his irritation. “Look, I just need to know what we’re dealing with right now. Do we have a murder or a hoax? Let’s focus on that right now.”
Marcus turned and picked up a folder. He handed it across the skeleton to Alex. “Oh, we’ve got a murder alright.”
“A murder, and the body is fossilized?”
Marcus pointed at the report. “Take a look.”
Alex opened the folder. “Nathan Tolliver, forty-three, married.” Alex looked at the fossilized remains on the table. “Are you telling me that these fossilized remains belong to Tolliver?”
“Yes!” Marcus leaned on the table for a second and then pushed back. “Alex, we’ve matched the dental records along with the details of the surgical procedure. And what’s even more interesting? Elena Tolliver, his wife, reported him missing three days ago.”
Alex looked at the summary in the folder. Nathan Tolliver, reported missing three days ago, but that was after he had already been missing for two days. The local police wouldn’t take the case until then but Elena had reported him after he didn’t come home from work.
“Alex, there’s evidence that he was shot. Close range, from a .45. I found the slug in the bottom of the barrel. We’re running ballistics now. Also, from looking at the bones it seems he was dumped into a vat of toxic waste. There are high levels of lead and other contaminants in the barrel and on the bones.”
“In three days?” Alex closed the folder and looked down at the bare skull. “So how did our Mr. Tolliver end up fossilized in a toxic waste barrel after three days? What did he do?”
“This is awesome. He worked for a company called TachWorks that bills itself as green waste disposal company.”
Marcus grinned. “Tach, as in Tachyons? As in time travel theories?”
“No.” Alex picked up the folder. “There’s a better explanation.”
“For how a man disappears in Chicago and three days later is uncovered by fossil hunters in a remote dig in Washington state?” Marcus crossed his arms. “Dude, I’m all ears for this one.”
Alex shook his head. “I don’t have the answer yet, but I will. It looks like I’m going to Chicago.”
Alex didn’t like how the meeting with TachWorks was going. Or not going. After being greeted in the lobby he had been led to this glass-walled conference room over-looking an atrium in the center of the building and left. The table was glass and the chairs black mesh. The whole thing suggested transparency but he didn’t think that was what he was going to get from the people working here.
After ten minutes of waiting, right before his patience ended, he saw several people walking to the conference room. Two men, and a woman. One of the men looked like the man in charge. Tall, thin with a runner’s build, mid-fifties, he walked quickly and the others looked strained to keep up the pace. The woman had her hair back in a complicated French braid, young and carrying too many files. An assistant, maybe. The other man was late thirties, all sharp angles and cold eyes. Lawyer. Alex could smell him.
Alex spun his chair around to face the door. The delegation came into the conference room and the thin man went immediately to the head of the table. The other two took chairs across the table from Alex.
“Special Agent Alex Marks,” the young woman said to her boss.
The lawyer leaned forward, interlaced his hands and smiled. “Agent Marks. I’m Saxton Thompson, representing the legal interests of TachWorks. What can we do for you today?”
Their boss hadn’t said anything yet. He leaned back in his chair with his fingers steepled together.
Alex ignored the lawyer. “Jonathan Hanson, I’m here about the disappearance of one of your researchers. Nathan Tolliver.”
Saxton spoke up. “Mr. Hanson has no knowledge of Mr. Tolliver’s whereabouts. When he failed to report to work for three days in a row without contacting TachWorks his employment was terminated.”
Still talking directly to Hanson, Alex continued. “I’d like to take a look at Mr. Tolliver’s workplace and interview his co-workers.”
“Mr. Tolliver’s workplace has already been cleaned out and reassigned,” Saxton said. “And any investigation will require a —”
Alex stood up and leaned toward Hanson. “You’re being awfully quiet, Mr. Hanson. While your flunky over there wastes my time. We’ve found Mr. Tolliver, murdered. This is a murder investigation and I can make it as minimally disruptive as possible or I can shut down this whole operation and bring in teams to look into everything. It’d be much better if you cooperate.”
Hanson rose to his feet as well. After a second both the young woman and Saxton also stood. Saxton opened his mouth but Hanson held up a hand and the lawyer closed his mouth.
Hanson’s eyes were hazel shot through with flex’s of green. They studied Alex’s face. “Murdered? How?”
“Shot, put in a barrel of toxic waste and buried. Not well, obviously, or he wouldn’t have surfaced so soon.”
Hanson’s eyes narrowed for a moment. “And you think that his death is connect to the company. Why?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out.”
“Mr. Hanson?” Saxton sounded concerned.
Hanson held up a hand and Saxton fell silent. “What do you know about the work we do here?”
“Only what is public knowledge. You run a waste-disposal company that has consistently underbid your competition and you are aggressive in seeking out new customers. We’ve already identified the barrel as being consistent with those that are used by your company.”
“And many other companies.” Hanson held up a hand. “But I can see why, in your position, that it looks suspicious. Come. I’ll show you around myself to make sure you get full cooperation.”
The young woman spoke up. “Mr. Hanson, your afternoon —”
“Cancel everything April. Reschedule. Agent Marks?” Hanson gestured for him to go first.
Alex took him up on the offer and went to the door. For a man like Hanson to take a personal interest in this case was very fascinating. He obviously wanted Alex to believe that the company had nothing to do with Tolliver’s death. But why go to such efforts? Why not just tell his people to cooperate and then get back to his job? It suggested there was something else going on here.
They left the conference room and, at Hanson’s suggestion, went directly to the lab where Tolliver had worked. It was located on the third floor of the building, taking up a large corner of prime space. When they walked in they were immediately greeted by loud music being played over speakers. Two men in lab coats were arguing in front of them but broke it off when they saw Hanson come through the doors with Alex. The air smelled of ozone but Alex also smelled rotting vegetation and something sulfuric in the air. The men were both young and wore lab coats over street clothes. Hanson introduced them.
“Dr. Varen Patel.” Alex shook his hand. Good grip, but Patel looked like he could be early twenties, but a doctor already, so he might be older.
“Dr. Clarence Ford.”
Wide, wide smile from Clarence and he offered his fingers instead of a hand-shake. Alex took his hand and brought it up for a quick kiss across the knuckles. Clarence laughed happily. “Oh, boy, this is one dishy FBI agent. Call me Charley.”
Alex noted the twitch of Patel’s lip. He looked disgusted. Hanson kept his face better controlled but he too looked uncomfortable. All of which told him that Charley must be pretty good at his job if they put up with his flamboyant act. And it was just a feeling but he didn’t think that Charley behaved like that when he was comfortable.
“Dr. Patel and Dr. Ford worked with Dr. Tolliver,” Hanson said. He turned to look at the two men. “I want you to cooperate with Agent Marks’ investigation. Answer his questions and let me know when you are finished. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Dr. Patel said.
“Right.” Charley took Alex’s arm. “Sorry about that little tiff you saw when you came in. We just were having a difference of opinion about how to run a stress test on the barrels.”
Hanson nodded. “If there’s nothing else you need, Agent Marks?”
“Not right now, thanks. I’ll let you know.”
“Of course.” Hanson nodded and left the lab.
Alex stepped away from Charley. “Okay. Let’s talk about Tolliver.”
After his many years on the FBI, Alex trusted his gut when it came to talking to people, and it seemed to him that Charley, the flamboyant researcher, was using that to cover up for what was really going on in the lab. He probably thought that if he was really over the top it would make Alex uncomfortable. Which meant that he had something to hide.
Alex pointed to the chairs at the nearby workstation counters. “Please, both of you, have a seat.”
Dr. Patel took a seat first. Charley flounced dramatically over to the chair and threw himself into it. “You do know that we didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Nathan, don’t you?”
“How would I know that, Charley? We haven’t even talked about it yet.”
“Because we’re scientists. The last thing we’re likely to do is kill someone.”
Patel’s eyes widened. “Wait a second, Nathan is dead?”
Alex nodded but he kept looking at Charley. “How is it that you knew he was dead and Patel here didn’t?”
“Maybe,” Charley waved his finger in the air. “Because I’m in touch with the grapevine around here? April, Mr. Hanson’s assistant, told her friend Beth on the fourth floor, who called me to find out if it was true. Of course I don’t know anything about how he ended up dead, but obviously it wasn’t us.”
“I did not kill Nathan,” Patel said. “I respected him as a scientist.”
“And of course I couldn’t kill anyone. Not even a fly. So you’re wasting time here, but hey, I don’t mind.”
“Who has access to the waste barrels that your company uses to store toxic waste?”
Charley whistled. “That’d be a big list. I mean there’s all of the research staff, that’s us and all of the other teams. We’ve each got our thing that we work on. And of course all of the shippers and movers that have to collect the stuff, and take it to storage. Plus anyone in management, I mean it isn’t like they aren’t going to have access to it.”
“Fine. What about his last day here? Did anything unusual happen? Anyone around that shouldn’t be? Did he act unusual at all?”
“Yes,” Dr. Patel said. “Nathan seemed very nervous. I remember because I asked him what was wrong. He didn’t want to talk about it. But we didn’t really see much of him.”
“No, because he was always working on his special project. He’d disappear for hours at a time,” Charley added.
“Special project? What was that?”
Dr. Patel shook his head. “He said it was secret. Something he wasn’t able to talk about, he had signed an NDA.”
“Non-disclosure agreements? Is that standard?”
Charley shrugged. “Sure, for some of the things we do. Especially if there are patents or regulatory hurdles to get through. They don’t want anyone talking about that stuff. I figured they had him on something like that.”
“Anything else unusual that you’ve noticed?”
Patel and Charley looked at each other. Alex waited while they figured out their non-verbal cues. Patel finally looked back at Alex. “I don’t know if it means anything at all, but I noticed a change in the out-going shipping manifests.”
“What does that mean?”
“The same amounts of waste were being collected,” Patel said. “Only the amounts going to our storage facility dropped by almost twenty percent. I asked Nathan about it because he had been doing some work on routing plans. When he saw that he got upset.”
“When was that?”
“The day before he disappeared,” Patel said. “After he disappeared I wondered if it had any connection but I don’t see how it could.”
“I need to see what Nathan was working on. Where did he do his secret project work?”
Patel shook his head. “You’d have to talk to Mr. Hanson about that, we don’t know and don’t have access.”
Alex got up. He shook his finger at the researcher. “And see? I thought we were getting along so well. But then you go and do that. Now you’re going to show me where Nathan was working when he disappeared.”
“I don’t have access!” Patel held his hands out. “Please, you must ask Mr. Hanson.”
Through it all Charley sat still, any flamboyance gone. Alex looked at him. Smiled. “Charley. How about you? You’ve got access, don’t you?”
Charley jumped up off the chair and bolted for the door. But before he got there the door opened. Mr. Hanson walked in trailed by Saxton and April. Charley froze. He looked around but it had to be clear that he didn’t have anywhere to go. Alex grabbed his arm and propelled him back to the chair.
Alex crossed his arms and waited for Charley to say something.
“Clarence?” Mr. Hanson said, his tone cold. “What’s going on here?”
Charley looked around at everyone watching him. No one looked like they wanted to help him out. Finally he sagged in the chair. He put his hands on his knees as if to brace himself. “All he had to do was keep quiet. I mean, it isn’t like it even matters, you know?” He looked over at Mr. Hanson. “He insisted on coming to you with his results. We argued. I told him that he needed to do more tests. He wouldn’t listen. Mr. Hanson, he was going to shut down the entire program. I needed the bonuses you had promised.”
Mr. Hanson stepped closer. He towered over Charley. “What did he find out?”
“It sounded crazy, you know? But that’s what we’ve been dealing with here.”
“Cut to the chase,” Alex said. “What happened?”
“He wouldn’t listen. We were out in the parking lot and I begged him not to report his results until later, just hold off a few months —”
“Until you were paid your bonus?” Mr. Hanson asked.
Charley nodded. “He refused. I keep the gun in my glove box. I just snapped and grabbed the gun. I shot him. I couldn’t believe it had happened so fast. He just went down. I got him up into the car and then I went around to the docks. I off loaded him into a barrel and then slapped a test label on it so that it would go through to the lab. Those are full of toxic waste. No one was going to touch it. I put it through the phase shift and just like that he was gone.”
“You murdered him?” Patel jumped up off his chair as if he thought Charley was contagious. He moved over to stand next to April.
“Phase shift?” Alex asked.
Charley had covered his face. His shoulders shook. Mr. Hanson answered. “That’s TachWorks new discovery. We’ve found a way to shift the toxic waste out of phase with the planet, gravity doesn’t hold them and the planet’s own motion leaves them behind. They can’t interact with normal matter and they’re left behind in space.”
A laugh escaped from behind Charley’s hands. He uncovered his face. “That’s what we thought was happening. Nathan figured out that we had it all wrong. We were shifting the barrels in time, and they could interact with normal matter. He found an article about a die-off discovered in the fossil record. The researchers couldn’t figure out what caused this patch of ocean to have a die-off. Turns out it was caused by barrels we sent through. We caused that dead spot.”
“Through time?” Mr. Hanson asked.
Alex felt chilled. “So he really did go through to fifty million years ago? You sent him.”
Charley took a deep shuddering breath. “Yes. But don’t you see? It doesn’t matter. How can it matter? If we send the waste that far in the past it can’t possibly harm us.”
Patel spoke up. “And if the toxic waste we send prevents some species from evolving?” Patel’s voice rose. “You could wipe out the human race without even meaning too!”
Alex shook his head. He moved forward and took Charley’s arm. “I don’t know about that, but I do know you confessed to murdering Nathan Tolliver.”
As Alex led Charley out of the building in cuffs he thought about the barrels of toxic waste poisoning the past, jeopardizing the future. If they really wanted to deal with it they should find a better answer than burying it and crossing their fingers that it wouldn’t cause a problem later.
But that was a job for someone else.
This story is the 47th weekly short story release, written in November 2010. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Headless Server.