Cover image for Return of the Spanish lady
Return of the Spanish lady
Davis, Val.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur, 2001.
Physical Description:
307 pages ; 22 cm
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Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Nicolette Scott, an archaeologist and old plane expert, is asked to join a search for a Japanese plane downed in Alaska during WWII. The mission is being funded by a pharmaceutical company in the interest of history. However, a much darker motive powers the search, one which Nick gradually becomes aware of. Knowing that the virus of the dreaded Spanish flu that killed millions around the world in 1918-9 will survive in corpses kept frozen, company executives hope to find the bodies of three First World War veterans who died of the flu while hunting for gold. Their plan is to callously unleash a similar epidemic and then ride in on a white horse with their antidote -- to enormous profit. Nick, horrified, determines to stop the plot even if she must lose her life in the process.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Archaeologist and antique-aircraft specialist Nicolette Scott has a new job at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. When asked to participate in an expedition to recover a Japanese plane that went down in Alaska during World War II, she jumps at the opportunity. Once she arrives, however, the true nature of the mission becomes clear. The drug company sponsoring the trip really wants to recover the bodies of gold miners who died during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918^-19. Since the virus can survive in frozen corpses, anyone handling them may contract the deadly disease. Nick is determined to stop the evil drug executives even if she dies in the process. Chapters describing the 1918 epidemic interspersed with the main story provide some historical perspective. Readers will keep turning pages to follow this engaging mixture of science, history, and action. --Barbara Bibel

Publisher's Weekly Review

The mad scientist/millionaire/megalomaniac conspiracy formula gets a thorough rehash in Davis's latest Nicolette Scott mystery, following Wake of the Hornet (2000). Archaeologist Scott joins an expedition to Alaska to find a valuable Japanese plane downed during WWII. Backing for the project comes from a "philanthropic" pharmaceutical company, whose real motive is to locate the frozen bodies of a group of gold miners who died from the Spanish influenza that killed millions worldwide in 1918-1919; their camp is near the plane wreck site. The plan is to extract the flu virus from the 80-year-old corpses, reintroduce the disease, then make a fortune with an antidote. Davis alternates this paranoid plot with the tale of the miners, who were infected in New York City and died in Alaska. Her research and recreation of 1918 Manhattan provide some depth to an otherwise flat story. The contemporary characters are cardboard creations with their hearts on their sleeves. The action involves countless treks along snow-covered escarpments by a number of unlikely hikers. The most interesting charactersÄand most realistic threatsÄare a female grizzly and her two cubs, searching for food before going into hibernation. The plot devicesÄgetting Scott to the locale of the airplane crash and then putting her in perilÄare clunky enough, but the idea that a venal drug company would go to such ridiculous lengths asks too much of the reader. (Mar. 19) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One WASHINGTON, D.C., 2000 Early each morning Nicolette Scott handed her ID card to the guard on the Jefferson Drive entrance. Each morning he tipped his hat and opened the door for her. And each morning she stepped inside the National Air and Space Museum and felt like a tourist.     This morning was no different. Gazing up at the Wright Brothers' Flyer suspended from the ceiling, Nick caught her breath just as she had done on her first day on the job. That had been two months ago, a stroke of luck she still found hard to believe. The job offer had been totally unexpected. One moment she was out of work, fired during one of Berkeley's tenure wars, and in the next the museum's director was on the phone, asking if she'd be interested in interviewing for an assistant curator's position.     He'd read about her work in the National Geographic , he said, and had been impressed by her recovery of a lost World War II bomber and the remains of its crew. Her find had finally ended the crews official status, missing in action. What the article hadn't said was that most archaeologists considered her a maverick. Worse yet, many viewed her field of historical archaeology, the study of the near past, as little better than trash picking. As for her specialty, historic aircraft, even her father thought it more of an obsession than a proper line of work.     She felt a momentary pang of doubt. She had to admit to herself that she'd made a mess of things at Berkeley. Her father had studied there under the great John Buettner-Janusch and she'd always dreamed that someday people would speak her name with the same respect that they mentioned Buettner-Janusch's or even her father's. It all seemed out of reach now. She just hadn't learned to play the political games so necessary to survive in academia.     She laughed. You'll just have to be satisfied with all this, she told herself.     Nick shifted her gaze to the Spirit of St. Louis. As always she felt awestruck, imagining Lindbergh alone in that small, vulnerable plane trying to cross the vast Atlantic.     And you, Nick reminded herself, got airsick the last time you flew one of those twenty-passenger, short-hop commuter jets.     She took a deep breath, savoring the smell of the museum. Floor wax and history, she decided. There was no other way to describe it. History was all around her, the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the rocket-powered X-15, and the Apollo 11 Command Module. But the feeling of silent reverence would end the moment the doors opened and the tourists flooded in. Then the smell would dissipate, and the noise would drive off the spirits of so many great pilots.     For the moment, not a soul was in sight, though she suspected there were people waiting for her upstairs. She'd been called in early to attend a special session of the museum's collections committee. Her summons had come from Curator Donald Alcott, the museum's number-two man.     "Nick," he'd said on the phone last night, startling her because she thought he was only vaguely aware of her existence, "I need your help and your expertise on a special project."     She'd broken out in a Cheshire grin, she remembered, delighted that he'd called on her, the museum's junior staff member.     "As you know, Nick, I chair the Collections Committee, which oversees all new museum acquisitions. I've called a special meeting for seven A.M. tomorrow morning, and I'd like you to be there."     Why so early? she'd wanted to ask but kept the question to herself. All she managed was, "I'm looking forward to it, sir."     "Splendid. By the way, we'll be meeting in Gallery 203. I thought it would be much more appropriate than one of our stodgy conference rooms."     The comment caught her by surprise, since she'd always thought of him as stodgy, with his dark suits, dark ties, and rimless bifocals.     "Will I need to bring anything?"     "Just yourself," he'd said. "And your brains," he added after a pause.     Just thinking about the compliment made her grin. She took another wistful look at the Spirit and checked her lapel watch. She had ten minutes to spare. Not enough time to sightsee, so she headed for the stairs.     Gallery 203 was devoted to Sea-Air operations and featured a simulated aircraft carrier, aptly named the USS Smithsonian. A cluster of metal folding chairs had been set up on the replica hangar deck. The chairs faced a small, portable podium, behind which stood a World War II Douglas Dauntless dive bomber.     Margaret, Alcott's matronly administrative assistant, intercepted Nick beneath the suspended Boeing F 4B-4, a carrier-based fighter from the 1930s.     "You're the first one to arrive," Margaret announced, eyeing Nick critically.     For a moment, Nick had the feeling that Margaret was about to send her home to change. But instead she got a nod of approval for her calf-length tailored skirt, silk blouse, and Navajo-patterned vest. The coolness in Margaret's eyes made it plain, however, that approval stopped at Nick's red hair, which she'd recently cut short rather than go through a daily fight with her unruly curls.     Behind her Nick heard footsteps on the stairs, and she turned to see Dr. Alcott and Paul Evans, the museum's director, stepping onto the landing. Behind them straggled half a dozen members of the committee, both civil service and political appointees.     Evans greeted her with an outstretched hand. "Nick, it's good to see you again. This ought to be right up your alley."     Nick felt tongue-tied. She'd spoken to the man just twice, once on the phone months ago and once during her job interview. After that, she'd been turned over to Alcott.     "Thank you, sir," was all she could manage.     "This will be your first collections meeting, won't it?"     She nodded.     "Well, I'm depending on you, and so is Alcott here. I know he looks like a fusty old professor, but don't let him intimidate you."     Nick smiled despite herself. Evans, whose dress and demeanor was as regal as British royalty, was far more intimidating.     "That's the spirit," Evans said, nodding toward the elevator, whose lights indicated it was on the way up. "I believe our guests have arrived, so I'll leave you in Alcott's hands. The committee's his bailiwick."     Without another word, Evans turned and wandered off in the direction of the Einstein Planetarium.     "Don't let him fool you," Alcott whispered. "He'll probably be watching our every move on closed-circuit. Now have a seat while I fetch our guests."     The guests, two men, stepped out of the elevator looking as awestruck as Nick had on her first trip to Sea-Air Ops. AR that was needed was the thundering crash of a catapult and the roar of high-performance engines to make the aircraft carrier illusion complete.     Alcott guided the men, one elderly, the other young enough to be his grandson, to their chairs.     "Oh, dear," Alcott said, patting one of the hard metal seats, "we should have thought to provide cushions."     "I'll fetch some," Margaret said.     "Give Nick the agendas, then," Alcott said. "She can hand them out while you're doing that."     One glance told Nick there was only a single item printed on the page beneath the Museum's letterhead. She didn't read it until everyone had a copy and she was sitting down beside the older man, whose hands trembled slightly as he studied the page.     The agenda item read: Aichi D3A1, proposed recovery.     Nick caught her breath. An Aichi D3A1 was a Japanese dive bomber. Squadrons of them had led the sneak attack against Pearl Harbor. To have one on display at the museum would be a living symbol of that "day of infamy," as President Roosevelt had called it.     Alcott stepped to the podium and gestured expansively. "Look around you, gentlemen"--he paused to acknowledge Nick--"and lady. I can think of no place more fitting for our discussion today. December seventh, 1941, was a turning point in history for our country. Until then we had been a sleeping giant. Then planes like the Aichi, or the Val as our forces nicknamed them, awoke that giant. Until now"--he held up the agenda sheet--"we thought no Vals had survived the war. It wasn't so much good shooting on our part, as Japanese policy. They didn't rotate their pilots and planes. They flew them to death. And that brings us to our guests. First, Mr. Wes Erickson.     The elderly man stood.     "Mister Erickson shot down the plane we're here to talk about."     For a moment Nick saw only a stoop-shouldered, white-haired man. Then he turned to recognize the committee and she caught sight of his clear blue, fighter pilot's eyes. Nick caught her breath. She'd known another man with piercing blue eyes, pilot's eyes, but that had been a long time ago.     "Some of you will recognize the man with him," Alcott went on. "Fred Ivins."     As soon as Ivins stood beside Erickson, Alcott continued. "Fred and his firm have been good friends to the museum for years. I dare say our present collection would be a good deal smaller without his dedication to our cause on behalf of the Ellsworth Group. Or E-Group as we call them affectionately."     Nick had never heard of E-group, though any company with the resources Alcott implied had to be rich and powerful. As for Ivins, he looked too young to head such an operation. His age, she guessed, couldn't have been more than forty, ten years her senior.     "Fred, how would you like to do this?" Alcott asked, the deference in his voice confirming that E-Group had to be very important indeed.     Ivins laid a hand on Erickson's arm. "Wes, why don't you relax for a moment, while I start the ball rolling."     With a nod, Alcott left the podium to Ivins and sat beside Nick.     "Thank you, Donald, and my thanks to the committee," Ivins began. "I know you've been called here on short notice, but if you'll be patient with us, I think you'll find it worthwhile. First let me say that E-Group feels honored to be able to help the museum. In fact, the museum was foremost in our chairman's mind when he heard Wes Erickson's story. I remember how excited Jon McKenna was when he called me into his office to show me the Army Air Corps newsletter that reported it. `This is something for the museum,' Jon McKenna told me. `And, for the American people.'"     Beside Nick, Alcott nodded appreciatively.     "You see, our Mister Erickson fought in one of America's forgotten battles, the Aleutian campaign in World War Two."     It was Nick's turn to nod. The war in the Aleutians had been spin-doctoring at its worst, though it was called propaganda in those days. Soon after this country had been struck a near-fatal blow at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands. Pearl Harbor was one thing the politicians Thought--an ocean separated America from Hawaii. But the Aleutians were part of continental America, and that meant Americans weren't as safe behind their oceans as they thought. So the government played the Aleutian campaign as nothing more than a skirmish. The West Coast bombings were hushed up altogether.     "Men like Wes stopped the Japanese before they could come any closer to home," Ivins went on as if reading Nick's thoughts. "He shot down enough enemy planes to make him an ace. One of those planes has brought us here today. The Val. With that said, I'll turn you over to our fighter pilot, Wes Erickson."     While the two men exchanged places at the podium, Nick leaned close to Alcott and ventured a whispered question. "Who's E-Group?"     "Pharmaceuticals," he whispered back. "Very big."     Erickson leaned on the podium to steady himself. "I was with the Fifty-fourth Fighter Squadron, flying P-38 Lightnings out of Umnak. The Lightning was a damn good plane for its time, with enough armor and speed to give its pilot an edge in a dogfight. It might not have been as nimble as a Zero, but it was hell against anything as slow as a dive bomber like the Val. No contest at all. The Lightning was well over a hundred miles an hour faster, with tremendous firepower, four machine guns and a cannon."     He paused to take a deep breath. "I was on patrol just off the Alaskan coast when I spotted the Val. When I saw that it was alone, I remember saying to myself, `This is your lucky day.' One on one, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. I was whooping like an Indian as I dove after him."     Erickson's face flushed as he gestured with his hands, the way pilots do when explaining their maneuvers. "The Val was a two-man job, pilot and rear gunner. So when he turned tail and headed for land, I figured the gunner must have spotted me right off. Why the pilot headed for land, I don't know, since he was carrier-based and had to have come from somewhere out at sea."     He shrugged, a self-deprecating gesture that Nick had often seen her father use when Nick's mother was in one of her moods.     "Thinking back on it," Erickson continued, "the pilot had to know it was all over but the shooting. Maybe that's why he decided to get some land under him. You don't bail out over water cold enough to kill you in minutes if you don't have to.     "Whatever his reasons, that pilot was good. He hopscotched that plane all over the sky, playing tag with me. But like I said, it was only a matter of time. When I got my shot, I didn't miss. My first burst blew away part of the rear canopy. Probably his gunner was killed outright. A second later, the Val started to go down. He wasn't burning or anything. Maybe I hit an oil line, or maybe the engine seized up. Who knows?"     He smiled wanly. "Maybe I should have gone in again for the kill, but I didn't. Instead, I circled, watching him try to land that crippled bird. He was one hell of a pilot, I'll say that for him. He set her down in the snow nice and easy. You know what he did then?"     Erickson grabbed hold of the podium and closed his eyes, swaying slightly. "I can see him now. I've been seeing him for years, like a ghost haunting me. He slides back the canopy, climbs out of the cockpit, and comes to attention. Then he looks up at me flying over, and snaps me a salute. A regular highball. It was like something out of that old movie, Beau Geste . There he was, in the middle of all that snow, knowing he was going to freeze to death within hours. It was the bravest damn thing I ever saw."     When the old man opened his eyes, they glistened with tears. "There was nothing I could do for him. Chances were he'd be dead by the time I landed back at base. Besides, there was a war on. We couldn't waste gas and equipment rescuing Japs."     He shook his head. "I was young then. I didn't give it much thought. Now, I know better. Now, I want to see his remains properly buried and his memory honored."     "And what better way to do that," Ivin's interjected, "than to restore the Val and put it on display here at the Smithsonian. That's where E-Group comes in. Our chairman, Jon McKenna, is offering to fund the entire expedition, including recovery and all restoration costs."     Alcott leapt to his feet. "Certainly, an Aichi would be a wonderful addition to our museum, but recovery after so many years might not be possible."     "You're the one with the expert." Ivins nodded at Nick.     "Yes, of course," Alcott agreed. "Ms. Scott, do you think the Aichi could be salvageable?"     Nick had once tracked down a B-24 in the jungles of New Guinea. But there was nothing left to salvage but pieces of metal, bone fragments, and the dog tags from the crew. Heat and rain did that. Snow could be just as bad, depending on the situation.     She stood. "Mr. Erickson, are you sure there was no fire after the Val landed?"    "Not a hint of it."     "What was the landscape like?"     Erickson closed his eyes once again. "A flat snowfield at the base of a mountain peak." His eyes popped open. "I think I'd know it if I saw it again. The trouble is, in those days we didn't have any good maps of the area. If you can believe it, we were flying using Rand McNally road maps. I've been checking maps ever since and I think I've narrowed it to a five-mile section of the Hammersmith Mountain range. It's at the base of one of five or six peaks."     Nick thought about avalanches. They could be helpful in providing a permanent covering for the artifact in question. But they could also tear an airplane to pieces.     "And there was no other damage that you could see, is that correct?"     "His landing gear buckled when he landed," Erickson answered. "But that was it, apart from the rear canopy I shot away."     That meant the interior would have been immediately exposed to the elements, Nick thought.     "Well, Nick?" Alcott prompted.     "There are no easy answers in archaeology."     "I seem to remember scientists finding a mammoth perfectly preserved in the ice," Ivins put in.     "It's melting ice I'm worried about, Mister Ivins," Nick told him. "Water can be very corrosive. But several World War Two aircraft have been successfully recovered from arctic sites. Have you thought of doing a flyover to check the condition of the site in question?"     "That's a problem. The Hammersmith Mountains are right in the center of the Szczesiak National Wildlife Refuge. All entry is strictly prohibited, including low-level flights. It's the last known habitat of Hammersmith's bear, a nearly extinct variant of Ursus arcto horribilis . A kind of grizzly," Ivins added.     "I'm sure an exception could be made for the Smithsonian," Alcott said eagerly. "What about it, Nick? Would you like to have a go at recovering that airplane?"     "If Ms. Scores willing," Ivins said, "I'll arrange for an aerial reconnaissance of the area the moment we have permission to overfly the refuge."     Erickson asked, "Do you think we might actually see the plane after all this time?"     "It's late summer," Nick said. "By now whatever snow is going to melt will have done so. Something could be exposed. But then if that's been happening year after year, the corrosion problem could be catastrophic to a metal artifact. The best we can hope for, is a benign site, one that's geologically stable and on the shady side of the mountain where there's likely to be less melting and runoff."     "Good enough," Ivins said. "Say the word and I'll start things moving."     Alcott nodded zealously. "For something this important, I'll go along on the expedition as well."     Ivins coughed discreetly. "E-Group's chairman does have a couple of favors to ask. First, he'd like me to accompany Mister Erickson on the expedition."     "Mister Erickson!" Alcott exclaimed.     The stunned look on the curator's face prompted Erickson to say, "I may look as old as Methuselah, but I still walk three miles every day. So don't worry about me. I'll hold my own. Besides, I'm the only one who knows where to look."     "There are other considerations," Alcott said, shaking his head.     "Just hear us out," Ivins responded. "E-Group will assume full responsibility for Mister Erickson's well-being. We'll put that in writing too, and provide full insurance coverage. If you'd like, we'll even hire a doctor to accompany us on the expedition. We'll also provide a documentary camera crew to film the recovery. When it's done, E-Group will sponsor it on PBS as a Smithsonian special."     Alcott, rubbing his hands together eagerly, turned to Nick and said, "Unless you see any other problems we haven't covered, I say we give it a try."     Nick was about to mention the possibility of bad weather in Alaska late in September, then thought better of it. A fully funded, well-equipped expedition ought to be in and out quickly enough.     "I'm ready," she said. "It's a chance of a lifetime."     "That's the spirit. I can see the Aichi now." He peered toward the gallery's high ceiling. "We can suspend her in midair as if she were attacking Pearl Harbor all over again."     His voice dropped to a whisper intended for Nick's ears only. "Wait for me in my office, while I escort the committee members to their cars." Outside the museum, Ivins held Erickson's arm as they walked toward Independence Avenue. When they'd arrived at the museum, the old man had seemed vibrant and full of life. Now he moved listlessly and his bony arm felt fragile as Ivins clutched it.     "That took a lot out of me," Erickson admitted. "I didn't sleep much last might, thinking about this meeting."     "I know how you feel. I was up half the night myself."     Erickson nodded at him. "I know you're just being kind, Mister Ivins, but don't worry. I'll be fine once we get going. It's just that I've been dreaming about this day for so long, and now you and E-Group have made an old man's last wish come true."     Ivins smiled. "Let me put you in a cab. The sooner you get back to the hotel, the sooner you can start resting up for the trip."     "You're a kind man."     The moment Erickson's cab drew away from the curb, Ivins fished a slim cell phone from his pocket and pushed the redial button. He let it ring once, alerting his limousine driver, then disconnected.     Damn, it was good to be rid of the old fart. What a pain in the ass he was, constantly telling those war stories of his. Worse yet was pretending to enjoy them. He snorted. What the hell! Let the old fart enjoy himself for a while. After all, he was going to make Ivins rich, and E-Group even richer.     It could have been so damn easy if it weren't for those bears. Without them and their goddamned wildlife refuge, E-Group could have walked right in and taken what it wanted. There'd have been no need to play games with Erickson or the museum.     Ivins clenched his teeth. He'd have to go along with the charade. Erickson and his maudlin war stories were needed for the moment, as was the Scott woman and the museum's backing. Once they weren't needed though ...     Ivins smiled to himself as his limo, pulled up to the curb. Once inside, he used the car's encrypted phone to contact E-Group's chairman.     "Well?" McKenna demanded without preamble. "Did they buy it?"     "Hook, line, and sinker."