The Café des Negociants in Macon had seating for about thirty, but at four in the afternoon, on a Thursday, Emily Marshall shared the space with only two others—a couple. They were seated far enough away that their conversation reached her only in mumbles and hushed giggles. Dishes clanked back in the kitchen; a young woman idly wiped tables and shuffled chairs as she moved about the sunlit room.
The café au lait was excellent, the taste of which Emily had been anticipating since awakening from her hotel nap at two o’clock. Its aroma thickened the air around her. Nothing could beat a late afternoon coffee experience in an otherwise unfamiliar town—except, of course, the arrival of familiar company. He was running fifteen minutes behind her, but Scott was Scott. Late was his specialty.
Her computer screen was a little difficult to read in the glare streaming through the expansive, street-side window. The screen displayed both of the obituaries she had compiled for Scott from the local online newspaper. She idly reviewed them while sipping her coffee and glancing at the time readout at the bottom of the screen.
Scott was driving all the way from Bordeaux that morning, so he would have to be forgiven for a late arrival. Forgiveness, she could manage, despite the bouts of resentment so common to their relationship. When he disappointed her, it could be crushing; when he didn’t, her heart swelled with gratitude and that odd form of love she had no name for. Romantic it was not. Closer to familial.
Finally, the shade cast by his familiar form crossing the window snared her attention. And there he was, reaching for the door. He took a deep breath as if he were fortifying himself, then came crashing in with that broad smile and eager eyes. She stood up to greet him with a hug.
“Oh, Scott. So great to see you.”
His Canadian intonation in full display, he charmingly quipped, “Likewise, my American beauty.” He gave her an extra squeeze before releasing her.
“Still wearing that Brut cologne, huh?” she said, pulling slightly away and giggling. “Had any luck with it lately?”
“Oh, sure. Never fails.” He held up a hand and counted on his fingers. “Let’s see, two last night, but three the night before.”
“In your dreams.”
He chuckled. “Exhausting dreams.” He kissed her on the forehead. “So, maybe you needn’t worry about my clumsy advances today.”
She took hold of his arms and gave him a little shake, then gestured to the table. “Sit down with me.”
“Well of course. If I’m going to spend time with my best girl, it won’t be on my feet.”
In mock irritation, Emily pushed his arm away before they sat. Grinning, Scott took the opposing chair.
The waitress arrived immediately. Emily ordered another café au lait, Scott a straight black coffee.
He pointed to her mug. “You haven’t finished your first yet.”
“Cold,” she said, pushing the mug away. “How are you, my best friend in France?”
“Same as ever. When will I change?”
“Oh, I see, then you really haven’t found her yet?”
“Nah, nah.” He waved a hand and laughed. “When I do find the right one, she won’t want to change me.”
Emily giggled joyfully at this old sport between them. “I’m really not sure I would want you any other way either, to be honest. It’s good to see you happy. At least, I assume you’re happy. You seem so.”
Scott nodded, although with an apparent mild lack of conviction.
“Reasonably happy?” she asked.
“Of course. Certainly happy to see you again. And damn eager to hear what you are up to this time. Something about that cave again?”
“Sorry I wasn’t super clear in my texts. I really wanted to meet with you face to face, to actually ask for your help here with something.”
Emily reached for her drink, then remembered it had cooled. She folded her hands. “You might think I’ve gone nuts, but then you haven’t forgotten the last time we were here and all that craziness. That was real enough to last a lifetime.”
“No shit. If it’s anything like that this time, I should run for the door.” He laughed.
“But we made it back okay. Eh?”
Scott flinched back from the table, feigning shock. “Okay? You think I’m okay?”
“Oops, poor choice of words on my part?”
He pitched forward, his face suddenly a foot from hers. “Not a choice of words, my dearest pal. Finally an admission. And no more Canada cheap shots from you. Eh?”
She smiled and put a hand on his boyish and lightly stubbled face and gently pushed it away. “Maybe one more, but I’ll save it for later.”
Scott’s warm smile called a truce. He looked away as if anticipating the waitress.
“But, about what I’m up to here.” Emily said, “This is…or maybe could be…kinda serious.”
The waitress placed their coffees on the table. They each took a drink.
“Well, throw it straight at me,” Scott said, “fastball or curve. I won’t abandon you. Unless you’re proposing going back there.”
“By ‘there,’ you mean to the Neanderthals and all that?”
“’All that’ hardly captures it. Christ, that scared the hell out of me. I don’t think about it, much. I don’t talk about it, ever.”
“You better not.”
He held up a hand as if giving an oath. “I swore it before, and I swear it again.” His eyes went to the window for a second, then back to her. “What was it your dad said: ‘This has to be kept in the family?’ Nothing to do with our relationship, of course, but I know he was including me.”
“Of course, he was.”
Emily took another drink and cleared her throat. “Well, I think maybe someone has talked.”
On a face that rarely reflected true feelings, Emily thought she saw something close to genuine concern in Scott.
“Are you kidding?” Pointing, he said, “Not me, not you.” His brows lifted. “Not your dad, I’m sure.”
“No.” She cradled her hot mug in her hands. “Here is the crazy part, Scott. You remember Cecilia and Robert, the two cavers that went—”
“Sure, I do. One of them talked?”
Emily looked her friend straight in the eyes. “They’re dead, Scott. Both killed while exploring caves. Separately. Different caves. Only a few days between.”
She waited for that to sink in with him.
“Within three days of each other,” she repeated, leaning forward. “It’s fucking spooky. How could it be coincidence?”
Scott seemed lost for any kind of answer. He sipped his coffee, then swallowed hard. “I don’t know…but maybe it was.”
Emily leaned back and pivoted her computer to where Scott could see the screen.
He took a long look, his expression opening and closing in turns. His attention seemed to wander away for a moment, then he spun the screen around to her and sat back. “Fuck,” he said.
She turned off the computer and closed it, pushed it aside and drew her fresh mug in close to her chest. “Obits don’t lie. At least, not in the core message. Though I wish they did in this case.”
Silence hung in the air while Emily wondered how quickly she should get on with the rest of it.
“I don’t know,” Scott said. “Caving is a risky hobby. I wouldn’t do it. You remember what that was like?”
She felt a tightness in her throat. “Yes, I do.”
“Probably a lot of them get killed. I guess I would say coincidence is within the realm of possibility.”
“I checked with them—the spelunking club they belonged to, I mean. They said those are the only two people they’ve lost in over ten years.”
“Really? So, what are you thinking? That someone killed them on purpose, and it could be related to the time-travel cave somehow?”
Scott’s mood had darkened more than she had expected, which was a bit surprising to Emily. His normal was to try to appear light-spirited, even when such a thing was difficult.
“Something like that, I guess,” she said. “I went out there a couple of days ago, to poke around where the cave entrance had been. I saw a few things. Makes me wonder if they told somebody.”
“But who would get killed over that? I don’t see any connection.”
“Hard to believe, I know. I almost didn’t text you about it. I almost decided to just walk away from the whole thing.”
“Now that sounds sensible.”
“Yeah. You’re probably right. If I hadn’t seen something out there that was suspicious, I’m sure I would have dropped it by now.”
“What did you see?”
“Well, some big rocks that looked like they had been disturbed. Dirt patches on the rocks. Those would have been washed away by rain if they hadn’t been moved recently. A small backhoe out in the field, and an obvious trail leading from that backhoe through the grass to where the rocks had been moved.”
Scott chuckled half-heartedly and shook his head. “That keen eye of yours. A born archaeologist, for sure. My bet is an innocent explanation, though. That’s what backhoes do. They move shit around. Could be rocks have been moved all over that place. Maybe there’s a construction project about to happen out there.”
“That’s not a good thing, either. We should check into that.”
Scott just looked at her blankly and shrugged.
“What I didn’t see,” Emily said, “is evidence people had found anything. The entrance, I mean.”
“How could they? Half the hill came down on that entrance when your dad blew it up.
He leaned toward her. “Let’s go see a movie and have some dinner. We don’t need this other stuff. Let’s just enjoy life and move on.”
She squeezed his hand. “Now, there’s the Scott I remember. Your case is rock-solid, counselor, except for one big problem. I’m a stubborn bitch and I want one day of your time for a more thorough investigation.”
* * *
They reached the cave site shortly after ten the next morning. Emily pointed out the backhoe and its trail through the knee-high grass, and the spots on the lower slope where rocks appeared to have been repositioned or jostled aside.
“It’s all in this area, as you can see,” Emily said, demonstrating with a sweep of the arm. She pointed a short distance to their left. “Nothing like it there. And nothing there,” pointing to the right.
“No way we can move most these rocks,” Scott said. He tried to roll one aside but quickly gave it up. “There’s a hundred of them.”
“Yeah,” Emily answered, “but it occurred to me last night, if someone was getting into the cave, wouldn’t they just conceal the entrance with the lighter stuff, so they could easily get in and out? Let’s just look under some of the smaller rocks.”
“That’s still a lot of work.”
“C’mon. I promise I won’t work you to death.”
But heavy work it was. An hour later, Emily could feel it in her back, arms, and feet. Muscles like slack rubber bands, hands like sandpaper.
Scott, wiping sweat from his face with a shirt sleeve, sat down for a third time. “I’d say we’ve covered the most likely spots. Nothing under there but more rocks, and more rocks after that. Your dad did a helluva job burying this thing.”
Emily brushed the dust from her jeans and sat beside him. “Maybe we should have been looking higher on the pile. At the bottom here, the rocks just naturally roll down. They might cover any new entrance and trap people inside. Up on the top makes more sense.”
“I’m sorry, Em, but I’m done for.” Scott rubbed his chapped hands. “Hell, we didn’t even have the sense to bring work gloves with us. And there’s tons of this shit up there.” He glanced toward the top of the pile. “I’m really sorry, but I think your imagination went off the road this time.”
She looked down at her boots, covered with gray rock dust. She had a hard time getting the words out. “Okay. You’re right. I didn’t plan this very well. My hands can’t take any more either. Let’s call it a day.”
“Meaning you’re ready for lunch and a movie.”
“Yeah, sounds great to me.”
“And you’re not thinking of coming back here tomorrow?”
She had to deliberate with herself on how to answer. She looked at the expanse of rocks above them. “Not tomorrow. I need to heal first.”
Scott grimaced. “I really want you to give this up, Emily. I know I sound like a deserter, a nag, a real loser, but to be honest I think you might be fixated on what happened last summer. You’re an archaeologist; I understand your fascination with it. Hell, if I were you, I might want to go back there myself, to have another look. But the simple fact is: it’s dangerous as hell.”
“Some part of me does want to go back.” Emily chuckled. “But my eyes are wide open on this, Scott. Anyone going back to things as they were forty thousand years ago is a danger to the people there as much as they are a danger to himself, or herself. I still have nightmares about it.”
He touched her knee. “Scares me too. So, I put it out of my mind. It seems to work.”
* * *
The movie back in Macon was a bust, a low-budget drama with English subtitles that made no sense. Emily and Scott left halfway through and went for coffee at the same café they had visited the day before. Their pre-movie lunch of pike quenelle with frites sat heavily with Emily, so nothing but straight coffee for her. Scott indulged in a sweet pastry.
“It really is okay with me if you want to go back to Bordeaux,” she told him again. “According to my plane reservation, I’m more or less stuck here in France until the fourteenth.”
“No reason not to have fun, then. Why don’t we go down to Arles, or even Monaco, for a day or two.”
“Monaco? Do you see me having fun in Monaco?”
“Why not? Hob-nob with the upper class and hope some of it rubs off on us.”
“You’re the biologist. You know it’s just not in my genes.”
“Yeah, you’d rather scrape dirt from a ditch with a blunt trowel. Bet there’s not a single artifact anywhere in this country that hasn’t already been dug up and tagged in some museum.”
“Actually, I didn’t mention this before, but Bridgette Genet asked me to come. She has some Neanderthal tools from a site on the Mediterranean that she wants to present to American audiences, at my university specifically. She would like me to sort through the collection and pick out what would most likely interest them.”
“Oh, hey. Now that sounds like fun. But I thought she and your dad were…” he interlocked the fingers of his hands, “…a couple. Living together, I mean.”
Emily snickered. “Well, they tried that for a time. My father’s version of the story is that the modern world makes things more difficult for busy people to stay connected that tightly. They love each other, I’m sure of that. But occasional vacations together seem to work best.”
“So, he’s back in the States?”
“Yeah, tied to his position at the university, at least for the next few years. I think he would like to live closer to Bridgette someday.“
“And where is she?”
“Paris, now. At the National Archaeological Museum. Can’t wait to see it.”
Scott took her hands in his. “Then go. By any means. Get yourself wrapped in something meaningful and positive. Hell, I’ll drive you there myself.”
“No, no.” She squeezed his hand and stared quietly at his face for a moment. “I know you don’t want to hear it, but I’m set on staying here a few more days. You go home. I’ll bet the surfing is great there now.”
“You’re going to persist with this cave thing?”
“I guess so.”
“But how? Take a bulldozer out there or something?”
She laughed. “Maybe.”
A shadow crossed Scott’s face. He pulled his hands from hers and gazed down at his coffee mug for a moment, shook his head. “To be honest,” he said, “that almost makes me ill. You don’t want to open that thing up again. You said it yourself, that it’s a danger to everyone.”
“Hey, Scott. I’m not going back to the Neanderthals. I only want to satisfy myself that no one else is. I’ll poke around in a rock pile for a couple of days, then give it up.”
“And if you find a hole somewhere in there? You’ll want to crawl in.”
To try to cheer him up, she reached across the table and gave him a fake poke on the arm. “No one knows me better.”
She settled back in her seat and folded her arms across her chest. She had to be more serious here. “Yes, I will want to check it out. But only to see if it links up with the main tunnel. No way I would go in there alone, or even with others. I don’t want others going in there.”
“What would you do, then? Seal it back up and walk away?”
“Leave it the way I found it, I guess.”
“Later? Contact dad? The police?”
“I really don’t know what I would do. I don’t expect to find anything. I just want to reassure myself. How about I just call you?”
“Yes. Do that. Only that.” He meant it.
Emily was ready to get off the subject but wasn’t sure where to take the conversation next. They were both quiet for a moment.
“Anyway,” Scott said. “That was forty thousand years ago. Whatever happened to them, to those primitives, happened. Nothing could possibly change it.”
“Well, I know I’m not thinking it through. I guess it just feels to me like the right thing to do. I promise I will give it more thought before I do anything.” She held up two fingers. “Promise.”
* * *
Her hand abrasions showed no signs of a quick twenty-four-hour cure, or even a forty-eight-hour cure, but her impatience meter registered off the scale. So, by midafternoon of the next day, work gloves tucked into the back pockets of her jeans, Emily was back at the site, pulling her rental car into the make-do parking area just off the narrow backroad. To her surprise, her vehicle had company, a large trailer hitched to a Daimler truck. Dressed in greasy work overalls, the driver stood at the back of the trailer, freeing the bulldozer there from its chains.
He must have heard her car approach, and the door slam when she got out, but he didn’t acknowledge her presence until she drew close and asked, “Excusez-moi, parlez-vous anglais?”
He turned his head only for a second as he continued to work with the chains. “Oui, little,” he said.
“Are you going to use that here?” she asked, trying to keep her language as simple as possible and pointing to the dozer.
“What kind of work?”
He shrugged. “Well, uhm, I dig.” He still didn’t turn to face her.
“Dig for what?”
“Eh, I dig place for…eh…barn to go. Barn place.”
He pulled the clattering chain from its ties and straightened up. “Oui.”
He finally looked at her and pointed to a flat area well away from the location of the old cave entrance and closer to the road. “There. You say, eh, beton…concret, fondation?”
“Concrete? Foundation, for the barn?”
He shimmied up the side of the trailer and began working on another chain. “Oui. Yes.”
“Who is building a barn?”
“Man is to pay me.”
“Who pays you?”
He shrugged, waved a hand at her. “I dig. That all I do.”
She had the feeling she wasn’t going to get much more information from the driver, so she walked a short distance up the lower slope of the hill. From there she saw the ground stakes with little orange flags marking the outlines of the barn. She wandered back to the truck and driver, eyeing the area for any more signs but seeing nothing of note.
“Can you tell me who owns this property?” she asked the man.
“I am busy, pardon. You ask man who pay me.”
“But who is that?”
The driver raised his hands in a sign of frustration with her. He mounted the dozer and started it up, its roar too much for further conversation, if that was what that had been.
* * *
A little time and some tricky translation by Scott at the local government offices in Macon got them the property owner’s name. A few more admonishments from Scott to give up on the whole idea followed.
“Just this last favor,” Emily told him, “then you can go home.”
His reluctance was plain to see, but he pushed through it. “I don’t want to abandon you, Em. Why do I feel guilty about it?”
She took his arm in hers as they headed for the car and gave him a little shoulder bump. “’Cause you know I’m always right?”
“Only ninety-nine percent of the time. But this is the one-percent, I’m pretty sure.”
After dropping Scott off at his hotel, she stopped at a café for food and to do the internet search. “Rural Enterprises” was the English translation for the name of the company that had recently purchased the property. It was located right in Macon. She had no luck with a website for the company or any other details, so she made it a quick lunch and returned to her car.
As she drove down the town’s main street, she saw what looked like Scott’s car going the other way. She thought to turn around to catch him, in case he was trying to sneak out of town without saying good-bye. But, no. In his Scott way, he was likely looking for a more fun way to spend his time than hanging with her. Perhaps still some hard feelings lingered from her ongoing refusals to sleep with him. How much of that can a man take before getting tired of your face?
Several blocks along, she spotted the cross-street on which Entreprise Rurale Macon was located. She turned and picked up a number from the corner sign, drove six blocks west into an industrial area and caught sight of the name on a fence gate. A small stone office building just inside the gate had the company name in big white letters on its modern glass door. Giving herself no time to start some sort of inner debate, she parked directly across the street and with a careless glance for traffic hurried to the door.