Dragon Unearthed by Ishabelle Torry

 

Chapter 1

Dr. Jemma Flannigan

“What do you make of this symbol?” I ask the guy next to me…damn, what’s his name again? I feel slightly bad for forgetting, but in my defense, it’s only his second day on the job, and he’s definitely not one of the applicants I had accepted to be on my team. Way too young, too…untrained. But funds talked, and he’d been accepted thanks to a generous investor he had ties to.

“I’ve never seen such a thing before, Dr. Flannigan. It doesn’t look very Egyptian to me at all.”

I raise a brow and barely control the tick in my left eye. Yeah, he definitely wasn’t on my list. “Where do you think we are?”

“New Mexico, ma’am.”

“Exactly.” I wait a few seconds.

“Ahhh,” he finally draws out.

I shake my head as he just stands there, breathing over my shoulder like some creeper. He’s fresh out of school, I remind myself. I was once him. Young. New to the field and curious, and often wrong. I can’t take his breath battering my cheek anymore and step to the side. “Why don’t you go see if David needs some help in Section AG1? I know it’s an all hands-on-deck situation there with all the dusting and scraping of the artifacts found.”

“Anything you need, Dr. Flannigan,” he says and smiles wide. He turns to walk away, stopping to throw a wistful glance over his shoulder. “Sure you don’t want me to stay?”

“Nope. All good here. Just taking some notes and scribbling down a few of these symbols. Might brush some of the ick away, but doubt I’ll find much today. Go, have fun with the actual hands-on stuff.”

“Okay, but if you need—”

“All good here,” I interrupt and do my best to offer a friendly smile. “Just keep your radio on in case.” He looks ever so hopeful that I should call upon him. Not gonna happen today, buddy.

I sigh once he’s out of sight. It’s not that I don’t like people—okay, maybe I don’t like most people—but I much rather prefer to work alone. Archeology has been my passion since I was a small child digging up dead animal bones in the backyard to piece back together. My mother would get a kick out of the wild stories I came up with to explain their demise and current location.

My attention falls back to the dust and dirt covered mural in front of me. Its pigments are faded, but they definitely stand out enough against the orangish-yellow hues of the rock it’s painted on. It’s vast, spanning the entire length of the cave wall almost eighty feet. Using my paint brush to gently cleanse the layers of muck, I start smack in the middle and work my way outward. Excitement builds within me with each stroke. It’s like a giant ass birthday present I’m slowly unwrapping, peeling away layer after layer to reach my prize.

Little by little, pictures reveal themselves. What looks like wings peek out from beneath a gobbed spot of mud. I focus my energy clearing away that specific site as new pigments come into view. I’m impressed by the variance of color. Green, red, some brown…and scales? “Whoa…is that a dragon?” Several more brush strokes confirm it. “Well hot damn!” This may be the earliest pictograph of a dragon found yet! I reach for the walkie strapped to my belt at my side and raise it to my face to speak when I hear a familiar, and oh so unwanted voice echo behind me.

“Hello there! I know that hot damn anywhere.”

My hands start shaking as my pulse drums in my ears. I whirl around to see Eric standing in the entranceway of the cave. He’s standing there with that cocky grin I once adored, but now wish I could smack off his clean-shaven face. I snort as I notice his freshly dyed hair. Midlife crisis much? I rack my brain trying to come up with a reason other than stalking for his presence. “What are you doing here?” I blurt out.

“Just protecting my investment,” he replies with a smirk. Oh God, I want to punch him in the face so hard right now—but social rules and all that.

I can feel the breath leave my lungs on a loud whoosh. Resentment sours my stomach. The last time I saw Eric, we were standing on opposite sides in a courtroom during our divorce three years prior, when he won the rights to my research. Research I had spent seven years gathering and sharing with him as my husband, only to have him claim his organization funded the expeditions I used to collect the data, and therefore owned all intellectual property associated to every dig I had busted my ass off working. Paranoia chokes me as I realize exactly what he’s said. “Wait, what? Your investment? Last I heard, your company went under and was bought by some bigwig in New York.”

He chuckles as he thrusts his hands into his designer khaki pockets and begins to walk toward me. “Yeah, those were rough times. Luckily enough, the final meeting to sign over Diggin’ up the Past turned out to be the best day of my life. Now, I’m not stuck in the corporate world any longer and can follow all the new discoveries myself. Especially those concerning my biggest find.”

“That sounds interesting. Do tell,” I say, not meaning a word, though trying to be civil. Bitterness wins out, and I shake my head before he can reply. I’ve no reason to be civil to the asshat. “You know what? I really don’t care, actually. I’ve got work to do…unless you’re here to steal that, too?”

He frowns as he stares me down. “The judge said it wasn’t stealing, Jemma. Can we move past that already? Pick up where we left off, maybe?”

My whole body is shaking with pent-up rage, and I’m about two seconds from letting it out on his smarmy face. “Get past it? Pick up where we left off?” I mock him. “How about you give back all the years of work you stole from me and pretend we never met? Then maybe we can move past this. Where the hell do you get off even coming near me again? You worthless, two-timing—”

“Is that what this is about?” he interjects, a ridiculous self-satisfied grin spreading his lips. “Is this about Julie? I told you it meant nothing, baby girl.”

Baby girl…as if he has the right…Frustration provokes a scream from deep in my throat. “Are you fucking kidding me right now? You think this is about the young intern you screwed during our marriage? She was the least offensive thing you did! Just get out, Eric. Leave me alone. Go slide back under whatever rock you crawled out of.”

What’s-his-face appears in the cave’s entranceway. His concerned gaze sweeps over me before he looks to Eric. “Dr. Flannigan? Are you all right? I heard a woman scream…” He pauses a moment. “Dr. Flannigan…hey! You’re both Flannigans.” His brow wrinkles, and his eyes brighten, as if a lightbulb went off in his head. “Are you two married?”

“No!” I quickly deny. The thought that I had ever been with Eric, had fallen for his lies and promises, tastes like a hot turd on my tongue.

“We were,” Eric acknowledges. “Did you need something, Finn?”

Finn! That’s his name!“You don’t worry about Finn,” I snap at Eric. “He’s with me today, and you’re interrupting our work.” Finn opens his mouth, no doubt to remind me that I sent him away, but I quickly nod, and he shuts it again. “Now if you’ll excuse us, please. We are very busy, and the sun will be setting soon.” Eric purses his lips as he gives Finn a good look over. I get the feeling he thinks I’m shagging the intern. I smile innocently when our eyes meet, and then wink for good effect. Why the hell not? Without another word, my ex-husband turns and walks away, and much to my delight, with a lot less pep in his step than he had when he arrived.

“I can’t believe the nerve of that man!” I shout as I throw my arms above my head dramatically.

“Sooo, you and Dr. Flannigan, huh?” Finn draws out, grinning like a fool. “Did you know him before he got famous? Like, you know he found one of the most completed human remains ever. What’s her name, Matilda! Yeah, then he was able to prove she was from that one tribe, the Clovis People.” His eyes got real big. “Dude…he found her in New Mexico! Maybe that’s why he’s here.”

I’ve never been one to hold my temper well. My mother often blamed it on my red hair, said it was just one of those life mysteries about redheads. And right now, I was feeling every bit of that red. From the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. “Listen, surfer boy. Dr. Eric Flannigan didn’t find a goddamn thing on his own, nor did he do anything remotely resembling the research that proved anything about Matilda. He’s a fucking liar and a thief!” Breathing is difficult all of a sudden. I inhale several times and exhale slowly from my mouth. “You know what? Just forget it. Don’t listen to a word I said. I’m just…over it.” I point toward the exit. “Go on. You’re excused if you want to go join the Doctor Eric Flannigan fan club. I’m fine in here alone.” I snag the brush off the floor and turn my attention back to the mural of dust. “Just me and my dragon.”

Finn moves to my left, and from the corner of my eye, I see him retrieve another brush from the tool bucket. There’s a softness in his eyes, one that says he knows I’m upset. “Figure I can get the top parts much easier.”

Damn.You know what else happens when you have the infamous redheaded temper? Guilt. Sighing loudly, I give him a nod to proceed and flash him an apologetic smile. “Thanks…dude.”

The sound of brush stroking rock permeates the cave moments later as we work beside each other, softly echoing across the granite walls. It sounds like a lullaby to me—gentle, comforting. I let the silent serenity consume me as my thoughts wander to more pleasant memories… If only the growling would stop, then I could forget where I am and daydream the rest of the night away.

…Growling?

I stop mid-stroke and close my eyes, concentrating. “Do you hear that?” I ask Finn, who also has stopped working.

“Sounds like my dog, Cooter, when he sees cranky old Mr. Martin walking down the street.”

“Okay…we’ll go with that for now, I guess. But where the hell is it coming from? Why would there be a dog growling in some old caves in the middle of New Mexico? I haven’t come across anything resembling a den? Have you or any of the others?”

He shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders. “Not that I know of. Want me to go get David and his group?”

“For what? I am sure we can handle one little dog.” The growling becomes louder, more intense, and I step back from the cave wall. “Hmm, maybe it’s a much bigger dog than I thought.” I glance at my wrist watch, noting it’s nearing 7p.m. “You know what? How ‘bout we call it quits for the night. Give whatever critter it is the chance to vamoose on its own accord. It’s no doubt hiding deeper inside the cave in the shadows. I imagine it will run out of here the minute we’re gone, and we can come back and pick up where we left off tomorrow.”

“Sounds like a plan, boss,” Finn says with a final nod. He’s ogling the wall as if he expects the dragon beneath the mud to come to life at any second. “Want me to gather the supplies?”

I toss my brush into the bucket and reach into my back jean pocket to retrieve my knife, but decide against leaving it behind. I touch it and feel slightly better that I have it on my person. I don’t know why, but the urge to have some sort of weapon I can use for defense feels right. Pfft, get ahold of yourself, Jemma. It’s probably just a stray dog, not a serial killer. “Come on, Finn. Let’s get back to the camping site and scrounge some food.”

He nods eagerly, grinning like a fool. “It’s a date, Dr. Flannigan.”

“No it’s—” The words fall off as my ex-husband pops into my head, and I recall the dejected expression on his face when he wondered if Finn and I were an item. While sleeping with the interns was his M-O, not mine, I found the ruse most enjoyable, especially since it seemed to ruffle his feathers, er, make that slimy scales. I motion to Finn to lead the way. “Why not, call it what you want. A date it is, my young intern.”