A murder of crows.
Three large crows dropped to the roof of the potting shed. How many crows does it take to make a murder? Cheryl Lanier wondered, stopping at the birdhouse outside the kitchen door and peeking through the hole. The five jelly bean-size eggs hadn't hatched yet.
She plodded back to the potting shed muttering a curse on whoever had called the house phone and hung up. Now, she couldn't remember how many spoonfuls of plant food she had added to the watering can before the call interrupted her. Returning to the can she had left on the workbench, she picked up the box of Miracle-Gro and felt a stab in her left thigh just below the hem of her Bermuda shorts.
A sharp intake of breath, a quick turn, and she glimpsed a dark form scrambling out the open door. A white shoe, a Nike swoosh. She screamed.
The door slammed shut.
Cheryl threw her body against the door, but it didn't budge. "Hey!" She snatched up a weed eater and rammed it into the knob side of the door. "Hey!"
The shed had no windows and only one door. Cheryl glanced around, now starting to panic, and grabbed a one-gallon can of deck stain. She swung it into the door. Once. Twice. The door shuddered, gave a little, but refused to open. The third swing of the can popped the lid off and dumped deck stain over her arms and the floor of the shed.
If only she could see out. She put one eye to a crack in the wall, but couldn't see a thing. She yanked a cord, snapping off the overhead light, peeked out again. Someone, she knew, was standing outside that door, making sure it stayed shut.
A sharp pain in her neck, and Cheryl's head jerked backward. Her chest muscles froze. She grabbed for the workbench, toppled sideways to the floor. That she was about to die, she had no doubt. No doubt at all. An overwhelming sense of doom flooded her acutely conscious brain. Her body jack-knifed backward, then forward.
After three minutes of agony her exhausted body relaxed, completely spent. She could breathe again. One minute of easy breathing, it couldn't have been more, and then a loud clatter that sounded as if their metal trash can was banging against the flagstone walk outside set off the spasms again.
Exhausted once more, she gasped for air.
The clanging outside started up again.
On its fifth trip through hell, her body gave up.
* * *
The door to the shed creaked open and the white Nikes stepped in and over Cheryl Lanier's body. Gloved hands placed a mug of coffee on the workbench and stirred in a heaping tablespoon of powder from a rusty can of mole poison.
Dr. Lacy Glass, face up on the greenhouse floor, felt tiny feet skitter across her legs. She sat up, banging her head against the saltwater tank above her, then scooted her body out more cautiously, raising her head only when it cleared the tank. Rubbing the banged spot on her forehead, she looked through her fingers and glimpsed a pair of large loafer-clad feet near her own running shoes.
"Got a minute?" the owner of the loafers said. The visitor was Joel Friedman.
"I thought you'd be at home, packing."
Friedman's weather-beaten face and big, floppy mouth grinned down at her. To Lacy this face was like the feel of a chenille bathrobe. In less than twenty-four hours, the two of them plus three other colleagues would be off to Egypt for a three-month project while the rest of Wythe University would start its winter break. Friedman had been fretting for weeks, anticipating everything that could possibly go wrong.
"I remembered a couple of last-minute things." Friedman studied Lacy's row of six saltwater aquaria, connected in tandem by tubes and pumps. Over each tank a bulb rained down a specific color of light. "Did you deliberately arrange the lights to make it look like a rainbow?"
"I deliberately arranged the lights in order of increasing wave length." Lacy picked up a jar of phosphate-removing granules, slid it onto a nearby shelf and smiled. "But that's what a rainbow is, isn't it?"
Friedman consulted a sheet of paper in the manila folder he'd brought with him. "Don't forget to print out a boarding pass for yourself. It'll save time," he said as if he was reading from a "to do" list. Lacy was getting tired of Friedman's clucking about like a mother hen over this trip, as if the others had never flown before. "And please, don't forget your passport."
Lacy muttered a promise and turned back to her saltwater tanks. Squatting, she peered into a tangle of polyethylene tubes and searched for the one that was leaking. She had to find it before she left Virginia. Her mind flashed on an image of her entire row of tanks, empty but for dried-out strips of brown, red and green seaweeds stuck to the walls of the tanks, dead and unfit for anything but fertilizer. A year's work down the drain. Literally. She looked at the puddle near the wall again and hoped Friedman wouldn't take too long.
"The five of us will be arriving at JFK on three different flights." Friedman looked at Lacy as if for confirmation this wasn't news to her. "You and Dr. Donohue are going to drive to Dulles Airport in the morning and fly to New York from there. Am I right?"
Lacy nodded. A rivulet of saltwater trickled out of her blonde hair and down her forehead. She swiped at it with the back of her hand.
"Graham and Shelley Clark will be flying from Richmond, and I'm leaving from Reagan. I'll allow myself plenty of time because of the traffic in downtown Alexandria." Friedman pulled a downloaded map of JFK airport from his folder and pointed to a spot. "I suggest we meet at the entrance to the AirTrain at five."
"Why is Shelley going? Just because Graham is?" Lacy had met Shelley Clark, Graham's wife, only once. In their meetings over the past few months, they had been a group of four. Shelley was a last-minute addition.
"No-no. She's an authority on textiles. They've found a lot of linen in the tomb. Some dyed, some painted."
"Paint and dye are two entirely different things, you know." Lacy realized that, as the project's pigment expert, she'd be working with Shelley on the linen. She sighed and looked back down at the saltwater puddle that had now overflowed its little dip in the floor and begun trickling across the concrete toward Dr. Jones's banana trees.
"Do I detect a note of impatience, Dr. Glass?"
"No, of course not. I'll see you at the entrance to the AirTrain at five."
"What's wrong, Lacy?"
Lacy paused several beats before she answered. Friedman could tell something was wrong and he deserved an answer. "I hate to leave my work here, Joel." The name Joel still didn't come easily for her, since Friedman was a full generation ahead of Lacy, a father-figure, a mentor, and, in Lacy's own mind, her superior.
Her gaze swept across the row of tanks again. Lacy had fought her way back from a major research set-back when the test tube containing the blue pigment she'd managed to extract after a frustrating year-long effort shattered on the cold room floor. Her quest for tenure was threatened. Publish or perish. But without experimental results she had nothing to publish. "I've spent the last six months getting the nutrients and the lights right. I need to finish this project."
Friedman walked down the aisle between Lacy's tanks and a bench crowded with spiky sedges and stood at the end, his body silhouetted against the slanted glass roof. His hands clutching the folder behind his back, he lowered his head.
After a minute he turned and said, "I understand. But young Luke has promised to faithfully check these tanks twice a day and he's a very reliable kid. He'll email us if there's ever a problem. We need you in that tomb."
"You might be better off with an artist on the paints and dyes."
"No way. We need a physiologist with your chemistry background to identify the pigments structurally and tell us where they came from."
"Joel, I know absolutely nothing about archaeology." Lacy paused, her sealant-smudged hands hanging awkwardly, not quite touching her jeans. They had hashed this out a dozen times. She opened her eyes wide and raised her eyebrows. "I don't like the desert! I like water." Lacy heard her own voice and realized her attempt at humor had come out sounding petulant.
"Listen." Friedman stepped forward until his face was a foot away from Lacy's. His brows knitted, his voice low, he stared into her eyes. "Last week, I sat for a doctoral dissertation defense. The young man's topic was the relationship between bud production and internode length in rhododendrons. This poor kid sat in various rhododendron thickets for hundreds of hours counting forty-three thousand buds and measuring forty-three thousand internodes. The wonder is he didn't die of boredom! And what did he prove?" Friedman whacked his folder against the bench full of sedges. "What did he prove? I've forgotten already!"
Friedman's point was well-taken. Lacy got it. "It doesn't matter, does it?"
"No. It doesn't. But this tomb project matters. Wait 'til you meet Horace Lanier. He's onto something big."
Those last four words brought back to Lacy's mind something Friedman had told her years ago. He had said, "The difference between two-bit scientists like me and the big guys who win Nobel Prizes isn't that they know how to find answers. We all know how to find answers-but they know what the questions are."
Lacy looked past Friedman's shoulder, then darted around him and down the aisle.
Otto, the biology department's resident cat, was named for the famous physiologist Otto Warburg. He had come to them some four years ago as a stray and had been hired on as greenhouse ratter. But right now he was chomping on deadly toxic Johnsongrass. Lacy yanked the black cat out of a cluster of five-gallon pots on one of the slatted benches and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck tightly enough to keep Otto from swallowing.
A green blade stuck out of the cat's mouth at a rakish angle.
Lacy twisted the animal around, tucked it under her arm and jabbed the forefinger of her free hand into its mouth behind the fang teeth. Otto did not like this. He yowled, scratched and bit, twisting his little body into a blur of teeth, fur and claws. Jackknifing his head in an attempt to escape the invading finger, he engaged all four feet, claws unsheathed, and attacked Lacy's arms like a wood chipper.
Adjusting her grip, Lacy pried Otto's mouth open, ran her finger around inside and pulled out several bits of grass. She held the cat up by the scruff of its neck, turning the body so the wind-milling legs pointed away from her and took advantage of the next yowl to check the mouth again. It looked empty.
She set the furious Otto on the floor and looked at her arms. Both were bleeding. They looked as if they'd been plowed. "What moron put the Johnsongrass down here where Otto could get to it?"
Otto flew up the aisle and leaped onto a cart. The cart rolled forward and the cat, in one of those maneuvers only a cat can pull off, flew upward to the shelf where Lacy had placed the jar of phosphate-removing granules, pushed away from the wall with its back feet and knocked the jar off.
The jar tipped sideways. The lid flew away and sprayed scores of granules into the air above the tanks.
Friedman lunged forward and plucked the jar out of tank number one.
"Never mind. It's too late now." Lacy watched as nutrient-destroying pellets sank through the water of several tanks.
"Can you clean it up before tomorrow?"
She shook her head, fighting back the tears.
"A years' work down the drain?"
"Yeah, pretty much." Lacy tapped the red switches on two power strips with the toe of her shoe. The pumps fell silent. "I'm starting to get the message. I'm in the wrong line of work."
Friedman made a small move toward her, then stopped. His expression said I wish I knew what to say. He backed out through the swinging door that led to the rest of the biology building. "Your little friend is out here."
Lacy joined him.
Otto sat in an alcove a few feet down the hall, his paws placed precisely side-by-side, his ears down and back.
"Hey, Fur-face." Lacy said. "You forgive me?"
Otto glared at her through narrowed green eyes.
Order now for Kindle