Cover image for Death among the fossils
Death among the fossils
Durant, Isadore, 1945-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
259 pages ; 23 cm
Reading Level:
930 Lexile.

Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



When the renowned paleoanthropologist Bob Shafer disappears on the eve of his greatest discovery, foul play is suspected. Discovery of his ravaged skeleton a year later casts suspicion on his many academic rivals and enemies. This work of fiction, though written by someone familiar with prehistoric finds in Africa and North America, is full of wonderful descriptive prose, quirky characters and a plot full of intrigue and betrayal. Durant highlights some of the conflicts and perils associated with the search for our earliest ancestors.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Durant (the pseudonym of an anthropologist turned crime novelist) has ingrained her debut novel with several layers of scientific fact. Although the detail about bones and fossils seems daunting early on, it adds a level of authenticity to the story that ultimately helps hook the reader. In fact, the lessons learned about this intriguing field are more than enough to compensate for Durant's rather stilted writing style. The story, set in East Africa, concerns the murder of well-known (but definitely not well-liked) paleoanthropologist Bob Shafer. Among those investigating his murder are two college students: Balebe, a likable African, and Cynthia, a determined American. Predictably, a crush develops between the two, but luckily, Durant pays more attention to the fossils than to this unconvincing romance. Although not without its problems, this first effort makes good use of its setting and anthropological milieu. See Hamilton's The Moche Warrior, reviewed below, for another example of crime at the dig site. --Jenny McLarin

Publisher's Weekly Review

East Africa, the cradle of human evolution, turns out, in this elegant debut, to be a cauldron of professional and personal jealousies for the paleoanthropologists mining its fossil fields. In the remote and inhospitable reaches of the country of Asalia, a conference brings together an eccentric group of scientists and graduate students who compete for meager research funds and dream of making the ultimate hominid find. None is more cutthroat than American Bob Shafer, who has betrayed or undermined just about every other attendee. But Shafer, on the verge of announcing a major discovery, has disappeared. Among those possibly responsible for his vanishing are a spurned lover; a grand lady of anthropology and her nephew; an English expatriate; a Dutchman; a Belgian; and Schafer's former prot‚g‚, Balebe Thanatu. When Balebe's friend Cynthia Cavallo joins his dig a year later, and Shafer's body is finally found, the two graduate students are engulfed by the mystery, and by their growing affection for each other. Durant writes finely detailed descriptions of East Africa's arid terrain and of its emergence from colonialism. Though the novel's suspense is muted, her knowledge of field research and ability to portray credibly the odd characters who surround academia make the book an absorbing, as well as educational, read. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Barbore 1985: The Find The wind whipped up the gully in a hard gust, slashing him in the face with grit lifted from the alkaline exposures, driving sharp particles up under his wraparound sunglasses. He turned his back to the wind, blinked, wiped his eyes to clear them, and reached again for his canteen. Glancing at his watch, he forestalled the motion. Only ten-thirty ... this water's got to last till noon. He pulled a blue American handkerchief from his shorts pocket and wiped his face, set his hat at a steep angle down over his brow, and turned again into the wind. Walking down the rocky floor of the gully, he swept his eyes over both sides of the slopes. His pace was slow, attuned to the rhythm of his eyes as they searched through the scatter of lava cobbles, fragments of eroded calcrete, broken crusts of the recent land surface, looking for the telltale blue-black sheen of fossil bone.     It had been nearly four hours since Balebe had started walking alone down from the head of this winding gash in the ancient Batchilok Formation. The wind had then been a light breeze, cool and pleasant on his skin. The sun had just been rising, deceptively distant and gentle, over the eastern mountains. Now its radiation actually stung his skin, and as on other such mornings he was beginning to pant lightly under the pressure of its heat. First time in my life I've sunburned ... and I used to make fun of wazungu with their sunscreen lotions ... here I am borrowing Bob's. He's really had his fun out of that one, talking about making me an honorary white man!     A rock outcrop along a southerly twist of the gully offered a slim shadow, and he stopped there to check his bearings on the aerial photograph of the region. Crouching in the scanty shade, he removed the clipboard with the photo from his small backpack, found the curve of the gully in the picture, verified its orientation with his compass. Should be two kilometers more down to the Bir Kalichi drainage, hope to God Bob isn't late again.     The wind died in the little curve of the gully, and immediately he felt the sweat plastering his shirt to his back, under his watchband, trickling down the backs of his legs. He rose from his crouch and moved the band up his arm, noting an even greater contrast between the skin under the band and the deep reddish-brown of the rest of his arm.     "Damn! If Mum could see me now! She always said I was too much of an Irish redhead for this equatorial sun," he muttered. He moved out of the shade and sighed as the sun hit him. "How the hell Shafer expects anyone to actually find anything after ten a.m. is beyond me. I wonder how many hominids have been missed by men walking by in a stupor."     He began to scan again, tracing the light tan streak of a volcanic ash bed across gaps caused by erosion. The cemented layer of ash formed the highly visible upper boundary of the Batchilok Formation. Potassium-argon dates on samples collected by the Belgians last year indicated that hundreds of square kilometers had been blanketed by a violent eruption of poison gas and incandescent ash nearly three million years ago. The gas was long gone, but the ash remained, now as a narrow band of easily crumbled rock, cropping out over the badlands of southwest Barbore. The fossil-rich deposits lying under the ash were even older, perhaps as much as another half million years. Chances of finding new hominid fossils of such great age had brought Dr. Bob Shafer to prospect these badlands, and had led Balebe to work with him.     A cluster of bone high on the southern slope of the wash caught his eye. He moved closer. Limb fragments, looks pretty good sized, bovid or primate? Balancing precariously on a ledge, he reached up to the scatter of mineralized fragments, pushing the top few away, revealing an articular end a bit down slope. Bovid, large gazelle size, shit ... oh Lord, I really am starting to speak American! I'd best mind my tongue around the Guvnor when I get home. Oh, please let me find something this last day!     A few meters ahead some stones slid down the wall of the gully, followed by finer sediments. He walked on, past a huge hippopotamus jaw lying exposed in the floor of the wash. All its teeth were perfectly preserved. The back ones were opalescent black, the tusks gray-streaked. The teeth were beginning to weather, breaking into splinters, How scandalized I was at first that they weren't collecting things like this, even when Laporteau explained that they'd fill the Barbore Museum's storage facilities in one season. It's we collectors who are swimming against the tide of time, pulling fossils out of their rightful course of self-destruc--     Then he saw it. There was no mistaking the arch of teeth exposed midway up the gentle slope on his right. "Hominid! Beautiful! It's not a robust Australopithecus , look at those incisors--it's Homo! "     He looked around, trying to calm himself. "My God, this is really happening! I found one!" His heart pounded as he edged nearer, scanning the surrounding slope, his gaze returning again and again to the palate with its curve of teeth.     "It's perfect!" he exclaimed. "The third molar's just erupting, died coming into full adulthood. God, I've never seen anything so beautiful! There's got to be more around here."     He raked the surrounding slope with his eyes, growing more systematic as his breathing began to slow. "Right, Thanatu, get a grip on yourself. Look up, check to see it's under the tuff. Thank heaven it's showing here. Yes, it looks okay, but it could have slid down the hill from above and then recemented itself on the slope. We'll only know if we excavate."     He glanced at his watch. "Christ, what's the time, eleven-thirteen. Must have found it about eight minutes after--let's look down slope, nothing showing, though it's all the same sediments, fine-grained, maybe that accounts for the preservation. God, it's beautiful! Look lower, nothing but lava ...     "Allah! It's the mandible, lying right under your feet, you fool! Oh, Lord, I'm famous! Balebe Thanatu is going to be famous! No more patronizing, `And isn't your father the attorney general of ...'"     He carefully backed away from the slope, taking it all in at once, the lower jaw lying between two lava cobbles at the bottom of the gully, the maxillary teeth arching out from their encasing sediments. He took his hat off and rubbed his hand over his springy reddish hair.     The first Asalian student of paleoanthropology finds a hominid! Of course Nane and his men had been finding fossils for years, but the rest of the world sees him as some extraordinarily talented human retriever dog that Pierce keeps in his kennel ... none of that here, Jack, You've got a Fulbright scholar, an African, who's going to describe this little beauty himself!     Remembering his rendezvous with Shafer, he glanced again at his watch--only twenty minutes until the time they'd set this morning. He whipped out a small notebook from the back pocket of his shorts and made some quick notes. He then scrambled up to the top of the gully opposite the fossils to check his bearings. Pulling out the aerial photograph he squinted at the surrounding terrain, lifting a clear plastic overlay that traced the outcroppings of the Batchilok Formation and repeatedly consulting the photo's detail. Finally he reached up and took a safety pin from his hat brim and with it made a pinprick directly on the photo to mark the find's location.     Weighing the photo down with a lava cobble, he unbuttoned the Brunton compass case on his belt and took bearings on the two most prominent peaks on the horizon. These figures jotted in his notebook, he slid back down to the gully floor. He reached again into his rucksack, removed a thin metal stake with a loop at the end and a roll of Day-Glo orange surveyor's tape. He tore off two strips of the tape and tied them through the loop. He then slowly shoved the stake into the ground near the jawbone.     Balebe quickly packed his gear back into the rucksack and then reached into an outside pocket of the pack, extracting a small camera. He adjusted the settings and took one close-up of each fossil. After a moment's hesitation, he turned and searched the opposite gully wall. Finding a niche, he placed the camera in it and set the time exposure lever. He hopped across the gully, pointed at the fossil in the slope and grinned back at the beeping camera. After the beeps had reached a crescendo and the shutter clicked, he hastily packed the camera away. He checked his watch and sighed. Giving the fossils one lingering look, he turned and began to trot down the gully toward the Bir Kalichi River. Betrayal The junction of the little gully with the Bir Kalichi was deserted when he arrived. Shafer was late again. Balebe grimaced. "Oh, come on! "     He walked across the broad sand bed of the dry river toward the shade of the huge trees lining the other side of the river course. The only green in a landscape of buff, brown, and black, their branches were heavy with the nests of birds. He sat down in a patch of shade on the sandy riverbed, listening to the falling tones of doves, the repetitious hoopoopoopoo of a hoopoe bird a few meters downstream. He was restless, impatient for Shafer's arrival.     Finally he discerned the whine of an engine laboring in the distance, gradually growing deeper, augmented by metallic clanks and crashes as Shafer cowboyed the battered Land Cruiser up the sand river. A moment later the vehicle slewed around the downstream curve. Near-empty water bags draped from the rear view-mirror strut swung wildly as the car rocked over the undulating floor of the watercourse. Balebe rose from his place in the shade and walked across the blazing sand to meet it.     The Land Cruiser jerked to a halt opposite him. Shafer had dust on his brows and his face bore lines of grime from his hatband and sunglasses. His sandy hair was stiff with dried perspiration, his aquiline nose sunburned and peeling. Shafer leaned out of the cab. "Well, how'd it go?"     Balebe's heart began pounding again, but he struggled to remain casual. He reached for a half-empty water bag, unscrewed the top, and tilted it by a corner, bending to catch the stream in his mouth, Stepping back, he wiped his mouth and smiled. "Found one," he said, looking Shafer straight in the eye.     "A hominid? You're kidding! You're not kidding! Where, for Christ's sake?"     "About two and a half kilometers up the drainage. A beautiful maxilla and mandible. It's definitely Homo ." He struggled to maintain a calm appearance.     Shafer jumped from the cab, grabbed Balebe's hand and pumped it. "Wonderful! Great! God, I knew they were here! Good job! Christ, you're a cool one, Thanatu!"     Balebe allowed himself a wide smile. "It was just below some long bones that looked suspicious but turned out to be bovid--it's beautifully preserved, pretty definitely below the tuff, M3's are just erupting, the maxilla is still in situ . There may be more in the hillside!"     "Now there's a little more enthusiasm , fella! You made my day. Let's go see it! How far up can we drive?"     "Oh, at least halfway."     They jumped into the Land Cruiser, and Shafer slewed the wheel sharply to the right to make the entrance to the little drainage. They bucked and rolled over the stream bed, slowing to a creep as they scraped over lava boulders. Finally Shafer said, "Okay, we go the rest of the way on foot." They set off at a jog up the wash.     Balebe kept checking his bearings as they went along, irrational fears that it had all been a hallucination passing through his mind. Within half a minute, both men were panting heavily from the searing heat. The sun blazed directly overhead. All shade had vanished.     "Around this bend, I think ..." They rounded the bend and saw the little flagged stake about sixty meters up the wash. Shafer quickened his pace to a run. Balebe matched it. Then, about two meters from the stake, Shafer stopped and glanced questioningly at the young man.     "There, between the stake and that big lava cobble, there's the mandible. The maxilla ..."     Shafer was already crouched over the mandible, staring. He then looked up and followed Balebe's pointing finger. His eyes fastened on the curved arcade of teeth glinting almost unbearably in the noonday glare. After a long moment, he expelled a heavy breath. He removed his hat and ran his hand through his sandy hair. Still on his haunches, he turned and grinned up at Balebe.     "I knew they were here, and how sweet it is to get one! What a beauty! Not like that scrappy shit poor old van de Hoven was finding at Lake Logo! Balebe, this is a real gem."     The student smiled back at Shafer mutely. His head swam, and he didn't know if it was the effects of the sun or the surge of pride and elation he felt. My father will have to come off his high horse now ... it's too good to be true! He waited expectantly for a signal from Shafer, for more conversation, but the older man seemed to have withdrawn into himself completely. After a long interval, Shafer rose, but instead of turning to Balebe, he backed away from the finds a bit and sat down on a lava boulder facing them. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, shook one out, and lit it with a gold butane lighter. Staring steadily ahead, he smoked for several minutes, without a glance at the younger man.     Balebe felt a ghost of unease rise up inside him. What's going on, shouldn't we be going back to camp?     At last, seeming to come to a decision, Shafer took a strong drag on his cigarette, rose, tossed the cigarette down, and ground it out under his heel. Uncasing his camera, he turned to Balebe and said, "Go back to the car, get a roll of toilet paper and a couple of collecting bags." He turned away abruptly and began to frame the fossils in his camera lens.     Balebe stood stunned. "But shouldn't we just leave them and come back with an excavation crew?" he blurted. "There may be ..."     "There'll be no excavation this time, Thanatu, just go get the bags!" Shafer barked.     "But you're not going to leave the hillside unexcavated!" Balebe cried. "Erosion could take whatever may be in that slope off by next season, and Jan's crew could easily ..."     "Precisely, Jan's crew could, and they're not going to see this site!" Sharer snapped.     Balebe was momentarily speechless. He means to deceive the Belgians! "You can't mean you're not going to tell them!" he asked in disbelief.     "Exactly, my friend, and if you want a Ph.D. in this lifetime you'd better get with the program." The older man whipped off his sunglasses and fixed Balebe with an icy glare in his gray eyes. "I've waited too damn long for a find like this to give it up to a stupid shit like van de Hoven. You've seen how they constantly screw around in the field. If it weren't for the money, I'd never have agreed to join up with that pompous creep. I had my fill of his conceitedness and airhead paleontology at Lake Logo. But beggars can't be choosers, right Thanatu?"     Balebe's skin had gone clammy, and he felt ill. I can't believe this ... " Look, Shafer, what do you propose to do? How could this possibly work?"     "`What do I propose to do?'" Shafer mimicked. "It's easy. We leave the field tomorrow. You and I take out the specimens now and hold on to them. The Belgians drive north to Andaba, as planned, we cut south across the Batchilok, as planned , via the Bir Kalichi, and we have ourselves a little discovery on the way across the border to Asalia. Surprise!     "Van de Hoven is heading straight back to Brussels, but we're already committed to a stop in Wangara, to compare our primates and pigs with the Ruba specimens in the Asalia National Museum. When we get to Wangara we announce that we found the fossils on the last day in the field, after the Belgians were already on route to Andaba, and in an area that jerk Jan thought was sterile! It'll be a news conference at the museum, just us two, okay?"     Balebe sighed and shook his head. "I must tell you that I feel very uneasy about this, Bob. Jan may not be a genius, but he and his institute did put up most of the money for the expedition, and without Michel we'd have been totally lost in this stratigraphy."     "Look, Thanatu, how many times do I have to say it? We found it. They didn't. Laporteau is a damn good stratigrapher, but he's not a paleontologist. This is the real world, man. This is a very, very big opportunity for both of us. With a find of Homo this early, the foundations will be falling all over each other trying to get in on next year's field season. So what if the Belgians are pissed? They can't disprove our story, and next year we won't need their money. Screw 'em!" Shafer turned back to the fossils and lit another cigarette.     Balebe's mind was reeling. I'd always thought the stories about Shafer were sour grapes on the part of less lucky or successful people, but now, Christ! There's Melanie Baine's being thrown out of Barbore, and the rumor that Bob was behind the allegation that she was a CIA spy. That set her career back years, nearly finished her. And the grad students' talk, about Bill Hudson's aborted dissertation, and that woman, what was her name, the one who flunked her comprehensives after confronting Shafer? It's all true, he has ruined people. He could do it to me ... This is as bad as my father's bloody politics! I need time to think this through, to find some way out ... He stared unblinkingly at Shafer, casting about for a response.     "All right, Thanatu, we're playing hardball now. You're either on the bus or off it. If you make trouble for me, I can get that Fulbright taken away. Too much partying and not enough nose to the grindstone, a typical African student story--they've heard it before--and you'd be on your way home in no time. You managed to get yourself into one of the three best fossil hominid programs in the world, bro, and if you cross me, I'll see to it that you won't qualify for janitorial service in any major university, much less a degree. You know I can do it. You don't really want to throw all that away, do you?"     Balebe shook with a surge of desperate rage at the man's arrogance, and he nearly leapt at him. He struggled to control himself. I've got to bargain for some time to think! He calmed his breathing enough to speak. "Right, Shafer, you're a devious, exploitative bastard, but you're holding all the cards. It's as you say."     "Good, I knew you'd see reason, Balebe! Besides, you're still gonna get credit for this, along with your professor, right? Now go get those bags and the TP, okay?"     Balebe returned from the car to find Shafer already scraping away at the earth around the maxilla with his knife.     "Get that mandible and wrap it, Thanatu. Wrap it up good, but don't make a football out of it, okay? I'm going to want you to keep the bones in your bag, since nobody'd figure a nice guy like you would have anything to hide."     Balebe complied, watching Shafer gingerly tunnel around the other piece, exposing more of the bone above the teeth. He kept working around the fossil with his knife, enlarging a little moat all around the piece. "Nice piece of zygomatic in the left side. Other side's snapped right at the base, though ... wait a minute, here we go, it's loosening up ... that's right, baby, slow and easy now ... aha!" The piece suddenly slumped down a few centimeters, into the paleontologist's waiting palm.     Shafer turned toward Balebe, cradling the fossil in his hand. "This little beauty is gonna make a couple of people very unhappy," he grinned. "That old bitch Anthea Pierce is going to have to eat it on this one, and her wonderful nephew David is not going to like it either. There goes his whole model for hominid evolution! Oh, my, my! Just let's see them try to get the foundations to go for that West Ruba project now!"     A new wave of nausea hit the young man. It was all very well for Shafer to plan a frontal attack on the Pierces. He wasn't an Asalian, with everything to lose from antagonizing such prominent compatriots. Even with his powerful father, Balebe knew the Pierce family could present formidable obstacles to his career, and he had taken such great care to cultivate at least David as a friend and sponsor. With Anthea's attitude toward Africans, he wasn't sure he'd ever earn anything more than neutrality from her, but at least he had achieved that. Perhaps being half European redeemed him in her eyes. But it had actually been David Pierce who'd suggested that he study with Shafer after completing his bachelor's degree at the University of Wangara.     He now recalled in vivid detail that conversation in Pierce's museum office. "I rather hate to say it, Thanatu, but I suppose the best thing you can do at this point in your career is to go to America and work with Shafer. As you know, Dr. Shafer and I have our differences regarding the pattern of human evolution, but he's undeniably bright. You'll get good training with him, make some good connections--and American money is what we'll ultimately need to really open up this country's fossil resources."     Pierce had paused and swiveled his chair to stare at a photograph of Mount Ruba on the wall behind his desk. Still facing away from the young man, he continued in a sardonic tone. "Moreover, in the short term, it will be a politic move for you, since Shafer will be working in Barbore rather than here for the next few years. That will keep him, and you, out of Anthea's orbit. I may be able to take my problems with Bob philosophically, but Anthea really has a pathological hatred of him. So you mustn't get too close to Asalia while in Shafer's company. Anthea isn't getting any younger, but she could still make a lot of mischief for a young person such as you over the next few years."     Pierce swung back around to stare Balebe in the eye, pointing at him with the stem of his pipe. "But mind that you don't let him put you at a disadvantage. He's a deeply ambitious man."     It had all seemed so feasible at the time. A few years with Shafer, then back to Asalia with a joint position in the university and the museum, connections with American and Belgian colleagues bringing in money for collaborative efforts, a rising career with David's blessing and at least grudging consent from Anthea Pierce. Now, it all is thrown into jeopardy with this fraud, combined with Shafer's urge to lord it over the Pierces. Christ!     "Snap out of it, Thanatu! We're already an hour late for lunch, and they'll come looking for us if we don't get moving!" Shafer had finished wrapping the maxilla and was stuffing both in a collecting bag. "Put this in your pack and keep it with you at all times. And for God's sake, act casual!"     They walked back to the vehicle in silence. Shafer took charge of the delicate task of backing it down the gully to the first small feeder channel that allowed them sufficient room to turn around. Shadows were beginning to show on the eastern side of the gully as the sun moved west. They made the junction quickly, and Shafer turned the vehicle upstream toward camp. But before they plunged down into the sand of the main channel, he stopped on the firmer delta of the feeder channel.     "We've got one more thing to do," he said, looking up at Thanatu as he set the emergency brake and killed the engine. He reached behind the back of the seat and drew out a panga , testing the edge of the bushknife while smiling at the youth.     A shiver of fear hit the young man. Jesus, what's he going ...     Shafer heaved himself down from the Land Cruiser. "We've got to have a flat tire and fix it. That's why we're so late for lunch, hey, bwana?" Deception Balebe turned on his side as quietly as possible and stared into the dark. Less than a meter away Laporteau's breathing was fuzzing into a light snore. After a totally miserable evening in camp, the young man wanted to keep the Belgian from developing any more suspicions than he might already have. He sighed softly.     He had been unbearably tense as they entered the camp well after three in the afternoon, the artfully slashed tire bouncing in the bed of the Land Cruiser. As van de Hoven and Laporteau rose from their canvas seats under the awning and came to meet them, Balebe was sure that he would somehow give away their find, in his eyes, his movements, his speech. He struggled to picture his other entries into camp, greetings to the Belgians and the Barboro workmen, exhausted trudges to his tent to drop his gear, the washings-up behind his tent, some semblance of the camp routines, a past now irrevocably sundered. But his mind remained fixed on the two fragments wrapped in cloth collecting bags at the bottom of his rucksack.     Shafer had heightened the agony by insisting that he pull out and show the baboon mandible he'd found earlier in the day. Christ! What if I pull out the wrong one? Despite a rehearsal and marking the bag containing the find with an ink blot, he still was barely able to suppress his trembling as he reached into his pack and handed the specimen bag to Shafer.     "Good, Balebe, it's a very nice one, indeed," van de Hoven said, adding, "I know we are all disappointed that we have not found the hominids, but your Theropithecus will make a nice little paper in Nature --how small it is! Bob--you must let the boy publish this as senior author, ja? "     Shafer leaned back against the hood of the Rover and grinned at van de Hoven in unfeigned delight. "That's a great idea, Jan, he deserves it!" He turned and looked Balebe straight in the eye, continuing to smile broadly.     Balebe stared back, unable to believe the gall of the man. Yes, we have a little private joke, you swine. You're even more cold-blooded than I'd thought! He turned abruptly and went through the motions of unpacking the vehicle as Shafer glibly explained their flat tire and asked van de Hoven how their day had gone. Shafer's chitchat was so casual, so open, believable. If this is how he lies, I'll never believe a thing he says ever again!     Shafer turned again to Balebe and caught his eyes for a second. "Say, you'd better go on and get those Darvons from my first aid kit. Try lying down for a while, okay?" Turning back to the others, he said, "Balebe here has a really bad headache--too much sun, and a little too much excitement, maybe. I've convinced him to lie down for a while before dinner."     Christ, he's a smooth bastard! Balebe thought, but lowered his eyes and nodded. "Sorry to be a bother," he muttered as he slung his pack over one shoulder and took the two empty water bags from the door of the car. As he turned to walk toward the cook fire, he saw Laporteau gazing at him, a Gauloise cigarette dangling from his lip, a speculative expression on his face. Oh, God, he knows something's wrong! He lowered his eyes and strode on to the kitchen area.     Hanging the water bags over a branch by the fire, he greeted Hamid, the Barboro cook, and the other field assistants in rudimentary Barboro, thanking God that his shaky grasp of the language precluded a full account of the day's events. Pushing into the tent Shafer and van de Hoven shared, Balebe found the metal first aid box under Shafer's bed. He sat on the bed and opened it. I wonder whether to just go through the motions or to actually take a couple of capsules. May as well act out the charade to the fullest. Perhaps they'll relax me a bit. He rose and went to the water bag and cup hanging by the door. He stared at the backpack on the floor of the tent as he washed down the capsules. Christ, I can't go through with this! Why am I so afraid of the exploitative bastard?     The odor of Laporteau's cigarette wafted into the tent. He turned to find the stocky Belgian gazing at him with a slightly quizzical expression. His heart began to pound.     " Bon , Balebe, is there something besides the headache wrong?" he said softly.     Balebe took a deep, shaky breath. "As a matter of fact, Michel, I ..."     "Hey, kid, I thought I told you to lie down for a while," Shafer stepped into the tent and tossed his pack on the floor. "You really don't look too good, does he, Michel? Go get some rest while I ask Michel here about the sedimentary environment of the little Theropithecus ."     Balebe's nerve failed him. He nodded and grabbed his pack, leaving without another look at Michel. He trudged on to the tent he shared with Laporteau, slid his rucksack under his bed, and began unlacing his dusty boots, stripping off his clothes.     Sitting on the bed in his undershorts, he was overcome by a sense of unreality. He wanted terribly to look at the specimens to make sure they were there. His habitual fastidiousness forced him to his feet again, to slide on his sandals and go outside to wash with the basin of water provided by Hamid.     He gazed out over the badlands to the east of the promontory on which their camp lay and shivered as he sponged himself. Where will this end? ... There is still time to unmask this swindle ... Do I really prize my precious career so much? How the hell will I get through the night sharing the tent with Michel?     Dinner was a nightmare. He used the excuse of the headache to cover his abstraction and lack of appetite. Shafer continued to shock and amaze Balebe with his ability to lie. Over the simple stew and the red wine van de Hoven had produced for their last night in camp, Shafer broached the subject of a change in departure plans.     Taking a sip of wine, Shafer said, "You know, Jan, I've really got an urge to have another look at some of those beds along the Bir Kalichi on our way out. I really think they've got more potential than you believe."     Van de Hoven shrugged. "As you wish, Bob. I don't agree concerning their potential, but it will do no harm. I am only concerned that you don't have problems with the car if you go overland instead of using the Demitchi-Wangara Road. Look at what happened today."     "Don't worry, Jan, the Toyota's in great shape, and Balebe knows how to change a tire real well by this time!"     Balebe managed a small smile at Shafer's joke, wondering at the man's gall. Laporteau, as usual, had said little at dinner, restricting himself to a few wry comments in the face of van de Hoven's volubility. To Balebe's surprise, Laporteau had not pressed him later in the evening. In fact, he'd sat up with Bob over their last bottle of brandy late into the night, coming to bed well after one o'clock. Balebe was able to pretend to be asleep.     Now, as this last night in camp was half over, he listened to Laporteau's gentle snore and the incessant sound of the wind blowing through the tent ropes, the branches of the trees. Every minute took him further away from the point of revealing the find, into closer comradeship with the man today's events had taught him to despise.     He again recalled David Pierce's words last year: "He's a deeply ambitious man." "Mind you don't let him put you at a disadvantage ..." He sighed again, rolling onto his back with a faint squeaking of the canvas cot, and stared into the darkness. Departure Daybreak brought unaccustomed noise and activity to the camp. Shafer and Laporteau directed the Barbore workmen in striking the tents, rolling them up, and stowing them in their storage bags. Hamid was noisily boxing up all the cooking gear except his huge sooty teakettle, all the while arguing in Barboro with the youth helping him.     Van de Hoven was sitting at the one remaining table, double-checking that the American and Belgian teams each had documentation for every collected specimen, sorting through the originals and carbons of the field catalogues, muttering under his breath in Flemish as he recapitulated the field season. Balebe checked the wrappings on the fossils and packed them into cartons now emptied of their tinned food. Fine irony, this! Shafer's putting me on to jobs that set the hook deeper.     By half past eight, when they stopped for biscuits and milky tea brewed in Hamid's kettle, the campsite was utterly transformed. They stood sipping the sweet, smoky liquid amidst stacks of folded cots, tables, chairs, piled-up boxes, and the low mounds of the bagged tents. This was not the first field camp Balebe had ever seen taken down, but despite his anger and worry he was struck by the transformation of the place back into its former state. Only the well-trampled earth and a few branches lopped from the thorn trees were testimony to their four-week stay. Straining the dregs of his unstrained tea through his teeth, he handed the cup to Hamid and walked off to stand on the headland where he'd bathed every night for these weeks. Well, you're certainly not the kid you were when you arrived , he thought bitterly.     Laporteau cried, " Allons-y! Let's go!" and began directing the loading of the vehicles. Empty gasoline barrels were lashed in the back of the Belgians' Land Rover pickup, followed by tents and furniture, all covered by a flysheet tethered firmly with rope. Van de Hoven and Laporteau shoved their personal gear behind the seats of the other Rover. Shafer and Balebe stowed their luggage, sleeping bags, the boxes of fossils, and the field documents in the back of the Toyota. Finishing their loading, Hamid and the five workmen watched expectantly as Laporteau divided up the remaining tinned food and dry goods into five heaps and gestured for them to each take one. They then piled their own meager baggage into the back of the second Belgian Rover.     Van de Hoven seated himself on the stone at Hamid's cooking place and opened his paybook, gesturing for the Barbore to come near.     "Oh Jesus, here we go," fumed Shafer, tapping a cigarette out of his pack and lighting it. "This'll probably take a coupla hours."     Laporteau reached over and pulled a cigarette from Shafer's Benson and Hedges before Bob could return it to his pocket. He lit it and shrugged. "Have patience, mon ami , there are only six today. Remember when he played this game with twenty-seven at Lake Logo!"     Turning to Balebe with a dry smile, Laporteau explained. "My colleague has an involved formula to calculate the pay, which depends on the actual hours worked. Because it is not a flat rate, everyone tries to get a good deal from him, and we get a lot of lost time in the process. But he must satisfy himself that no one is getting too much. Flamand typique, eh? "     Balebe managed to smile and then turned to walk down the track a little way, as much to get away from the presence of Shafer and the personable sedimentologist as to avoid the increasingly loud haggling by the dead fire. A few meters down the powdery track, two sand grouse landed, tensed at his approach, and took off again into the bush. The weight of the backpack slung over his shoulder was a constant reminder of his duplicity, and he longed for the moment when the Belgians would leave.     After some time, one of the horns blasted, and he heard engines starting up. He turned and quickly walked back. Laporteau and Hamid were in the cab of the Rover pickup, and Warrmarra, the youngest of the field workers, had wedged himself between two tent bags. Van de Hoven and the other workmen were in the other.     Shafer leaned against the Toyota and shouted to the Belgians, "We'll cable you when we get to Wangara. Take it easy on the escarpment!"     Van de Hoven raised his hand and nodded. "Good, Bob, have a safe journey--maybe better luck next year with the hominids!" Laporteau gestured to his partner to head out first, and the vehicle rolled slowly down the track. Laporteau put his vehicle in gear and drew level with Shafer and Balebe. "Say hello to those lovely ladies of Wangara for me, Bob. I wish I had your opportunities. Ah well, next summer, at the paleoanthropological congress! Bonne chance , Balebe, you will make a fine anthropologist, and very soon!"     Balebe's eyes locked for just a moment with the Belgian's hazel ones. He nodded mutely and raised his hand in farewell.     Laporteau released the clutch and rolled off. Warrmarra grinned and waved to Balebe as the Rover rocked down the uneven track. The cars rattled over the rutted track, lost to sight long before their sounds faded. Shafer turned toward Balebe and said, "Better relax, Thanatu, this'll be a long, slow ride until we get to the border." Turning away and looking straight ahead he added, "Not a bad job of acting, kid, you had them snowed. Go take the bones and put them in my flight bag now."     For a moment Balebe stared at the distant mountains, immobile. Then he turned without a word and headed for the Land Cruiser. The thought of two days' journey alone with Shafer filled him with loathing. But at least he was heading home. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 University of New Mexico Press. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

barbore 1985: the Findp. 1
Deceptionp. 6
Departurep. 16
Another Betrayalp. 27
Confrontationp. 31
Missingp. 35
Twilightp. 40
Wangara, 1987: Arrivalp. 43
Welcomep. 52
Ezekielp. 72
Dinnerp. 78
Journey to Rubap. 84
Antheap. 101
Field Campp. 108
Michelp. 117
Farewellp. 122
Memlolop. 126
Another Findp. 131
Excavationp. 155
Aftermathp. 177
Wangara, 1987: Evidencep. 194
San Felipe, 1987: the Callp. 199
Wangara, 1987: Motivep. 217
Tidingap. 222
The End of the Gamep. 238