New York City, NY
National Museum of Natural History
Culture Halls, Division of Anthropology
“I’M SORRY, Mr. Ashton. I’m afraid your qualifications didn’t pass muster. Ms. Appleby has secured the position as my assistant.”
Logan’s humble—if biased—opinion was that Dr. Noah Peterson didn’t look sorry at all. In fact, the man looked as though he was barely suppressing a gloating grin. There had been a persistent rumor going around that Dr. Peterson had not wanted to take Logan on as an assistant for one simple reason, and it had nothing to do with Logan’s qualifications. That reason, at least according to the watercooler gossips, was Peterson’s disapproval of Logan’s alternate lifestyle choices.
In other words, Peterson was homophobic with a capital H, and Logan was as out as a fella could get short of having the word “gay” tattooed across his forehead.
Susan Appleby, on the other hand, was blonde, curvaceous, and possessed qualifications that included an ass that was nearly legendary among the straight male staff of the museum.
Logan sighed. To be fair, Susan also had a degree, had been in the top 10 percent in her graduating class, and had a ream of recommendations from her professors.
Peterson had been Logan’s last hope at a prestigious department’s assistant position, albeit a tissue-thin one. The only other spot left open in the museum’s fellowship program was as Lincoln Perry’s assistant, a career move that would have Logan buried up to his nose hairs in the deepest, darkest dungeons of the museum, from where neither Logan nor his career would ever again see the light of day.
But then again, even slaving away in the bowels of the museum beat starvation and eviction, which were Logan’s only other options.
Logan bit his tongue, swallowing the half-dozen clever and bitingly caustic accusations that had popped into his head but which would only have served to assure his future flipping burgers in the museum’s cafeteria. Turning his back on the pompous, arrogant curator of anthropology, he walked away, his dignity in shreds but his employment—such as it was—still intact.
Stopping off in Administration, Logan expressed his interest in becoming Dr. Perry’s assistant. Lord, he should have been an actor—not only had he managed to sound excited about becoming Second-In-Charge of Dusty Crates and Moldy Junk, he’d also successfully ignored the administration clerk’s look of incredulity. He could almost hear the question that must have teetered on the tip of her tongue—a live body volunteering to work for Perry? Logan had no doubts that the woman would run straight from work to the store to purchase the heaviest coat available, since all indications pointed to hell freezing over.
When the door of Administration clicked closed behind him, it sounded like the thunderclap of doom to Logan. His fate sealed, there was only one thing left to do—drown his sorrows in pitchers of draft beer while listening to the sympathetic commiserations and ill-conceived advice of his friends.
“Jase? Hey, it’s me,” Logan said, his voice a little breathless as he left the museum and hurried down the sidewalk, heading toward a bar favored by lesser human beings such as anthropology graduate students. “Let’s put it this way—it went about as well as expected. I’m heading over to The Bones now.”
The Bones was actually a small bar named Hogan’s, rechristened by the museum scholars who frequented it. Located two blocks from the museum, the bar was housed behind a nondescript red-brick façade. Dimly lit and famous for its five-dollar pitchers of beer, it was a favorite among students and museum assistants who had deep thirsts but shallow bank accounts.
Logan settled himself into a booth near the back of the bar and ordered a pitcher. If he had his way, it would be the first of many.
“You shouldn’t frown like that, Logan,” Wendy said, setting a frosty pitcher of Budweiser and a mug on the table. “When your eyebrows knit together, it makes you look like you have a unibrow. Plus, it’ll give you wrinkles.”
Wendy was well past sixty and had been a waitress at The Bones since it had first opened its door in 1968. She was practically a historical landmark, knew everybody and their business as well as she knew her own. Her hair, a steely gray that she refused to dye, was wrapped around the crown of her head in a thick braid. Her eyes could be either kind or frighteningly hard, depending on the circumstances, but at the moment they were softened with compassion.
She’d taken a liking to Logan and his small group of friends, which meant a few free pitchers now and then and a great deal of smothering mothering the rest of the time.
“I’ll try to keep that in mind, Wendy.”
“What’s wrong? C’mon, Logan. Spill,” Wendy said, sliding her substantial rear end into the booth next to Logan.
“Didn’t get the fellowship slot in anthropology,” Logan confessed. He should have known that Wendy wouldn’t give up until she had all the sorry details. In that way, she was worse than his mother. Then again, Logan’s mother didn’t usually serve her son pitchers of beer and tell him that he needed to get laid more often.
“Why the hell not? You’ve got a freakin’ four point oh, made the dean’s list all four years running, and have a ton of internship hours under your belt. Who could beat that?” Wendy was nothing if not loyal, taking any setback Logan or his friends experienced as a personal affront.
“Somebody who has two things I don’t have. Tits.” Logan smirked, pouring himself a beer. He downed half of it, mopping up the foam that dripped down his chin with his sleeve.
“These are napkins,” Wendy said sarcastically, pulling a handful out of the dispenser and handing them to Logan. “Useful new invention. Try some. Besides, tits are overrated. They’re fine when you’re twenty, but when gravity hits it’s like having a couple of millstones hanging around your neck.”
Logan chuckled despite himself. “Thanks.”
“Seriously, that sounds like discrimination to me. Isn’t there anything you can do? Somebody you can complain to? File a grievance or something?”
“Sure. I could file a formal complaint with the museum board. Demand an investigation, call for a hearing. Of course, that would be the one surefire way to lose any chance I might ever have at a full professorship. I’d be lucky if I could get a job selling postcards in the gift shop after that,” Logan answered, polishing off his mug. He poured another, intent on becoming as drunk as possible in as little time as necessary. “Besides, she really does have better qualifications for the position.”
“That sucks,” Wendy said, shaking her head. “So what are you going to do now?”
“Take a fellowship with Dr. Perry. He’s the curator of—”
“You know him? I didn’t think he ever came up from the museum’s basement long enough to make friends. For that matter, I didn’t think he was capable of making friends. Antisocial—”
Wendy’s hand shot out, smacking Logan upside the back of his head.
“You keep a civil tongue in your head when you’re talking about Lincoln Perry, Logan,” she growled, waggling a finger at him. “He’s a fucking dinosaur, and he’s got a really big bite. He’s got more friends in high places than the museum director. If you’re going to work for Perry, you’d better mind your p’s and q’s.”
“How do you know Dr. Perry?” Logan asked, rubbing the back of his head. This was taking mothering a bit too far, but he was too curious to say anything to Wendy and risk insulting her.
“I’ve been here a long time, Logan. I know lots of people. But Lincoln Perry has been here even longer than I have. He’s been working in that museum since Hector was a pup, knows everybody and everything in it.”
“He’s curator of relics, Wendy, which means he’s a glorified stock boy who keeps track of junk accumulated by the museum but unworthy of display. Donations that meant a lot to benefactors but little to the scientific world.”
“Just you wait and see if I’m not right,” Wendy huffed, sliding out from the booth just as Logan’s friends showed up. “This can be a great opportunity for you, if you keep your nose clean and your lips glued to the old boy’s ass.”
“Okay, Wendy. Whatever you say,” Logan sighed. He knew better, but there was no sense in arguing the fact anymore. All he wanted right then was to plunge face-first into a barrel of suds.
Jason, Leo, and Chris stood by, patiently waiting for Wendy to extract herself from the booth. All three were self-described SSOLs—Serious Students of Life, although Logan’s definition was Seriously Shit Out of Luck. Whichever meaning of the acronym you subscribed to, it meant the same thing—that they were young academics with brand-new sheepskins and empty bank accounts. Although Jason had landed an internship at Sloan Kettering, he was living off his rapidly dwindling trust fund, and the other two didn’t have a single job prospect between them. Still, they were supportive and had helped keep Logan’s head above the black waters of despair on more than one occasion. Logan considered himself lucky to have their friendship, and loved them all like brothers.
Each gave Wendy a brief, dutiful peck on the cheek, assuring them of at least one free pitcher that night, then slid into the booth.
“So, it’s a no-go in anthropology, huh?” Jason said as he scooted onto the bench seat next to Logan. Logan had known Jason the longest of the three, having been assigned to the same dorm room his first day in college. The two of them had been as thick as thieves for years. Sometimes Logan thought Jason knew him better than Logan knew himself. “Peterson is such an asshole.”
“Please don’t associate that man with my favorite part of the human anatomy,” Leo said, smiling as Wendy set a full pitcher and three more mugs on the table. His blue eyes twinkled mischievously, dimples deepening, making him look like an overgrown platinum-blond pixie. “He gives assholes everywhere a bad name.”
“What are you going to do now, Logan?” Chris asked. His brown eyes peered at Jason from behind the thick lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses. The most reserved of the trio, Chris had the looks of a supermodel and the personality of a wet sponge. Still, he was intelligent and kind and had been Logan’s friend since his first year of college.
“Well, I put in for the assistant slot with the curator of relics—”
“Perry? Are you kidding?” Leo protested. “That’s a fucking death sentence, Logan. I can hear the bells tolling for your career now.”
“Shut up, Leo. What else could he do?” Chris growled. Logan couldn’t help but smile when Leo jumped as Chris’s sharp elbow connected with his ribs. “Not everybody is content to live off love, you know.”
“You’re going to meet a man.”
“What?” Logan looked at Jason, whose eyes were wide and unfocussed, his expression gone blank. He seemed to stare through Logan, seeing something beyond him that no one else could see, and it was giving Logan a severe case of the creeps. He hated when Jason went Twilight Zone on them.
“Shit. Here we go—step right up and see Jason the Magnificent predict the future while juggling beer nuts and cocktail napkins,” Leo said, rolling his eyes.
“A man with no heart.”
“Oh, great. Let me guess—he’s an out-of-work actor whose last gig was the Tin Man in a rotary club presentation of The Wiz, right? Just what I fucking need,” Logan groaned, rolling his eyes. “C’mon, Jase. You know I hate it when you start with this psychic bullshit.”
“You will give him what he needs most.” Jason’s voice was a flat monotone, without the slightest trace of inflection. Logan suppressed a shudder.
“It’s more like psychic diarrhea. When he gets like this, he’s got more shit coming out of his mouth than a sewer line,” Chris said, waving his hand in front of Jason’s face. “C’mon, man, snap out of it!”
“Earth to Jason, come in, Jason,” Leo snorted. “A heartless man. Sounds like a fun date. Well, it could be worse, Logan. He could have said you were going to meet a woman and hop the fence.”
“I’m not going to meet anybody, unless you mean Dr. Perry,” Logan said. He drained the last of his beer and then refilled his mug. White foam sloshed over the side of the mug, pooling on the table. “Right now, I couldn’t afford to go on a date, and I certainly don’t need anybody complicating my life. It’s fucked up enough as it is.” He gave Jason a shove. “Knock it off, Jason,” he growled.
Jason blinked. “What happened?”
“You know damn well what happened. Why do you insist on playing these Psychic Hotline parlor games?” Chris asked, frowning. “It’s getting old, Jason.”
“Honest to God, I didn’t even know I was doing it,” Jason protested. He looked pale to Logan, and there were beads of sweat on his forehead, even though it was chilly in the bar. “One minute I was looking at Logan, and the next…. Did I say something?”
“Yeah. You said I was going to meet a heartless man. What exactly did you see, Jase?” Logan prompted. There was something about Jason’s expression that sent a shiver down Logan’s spine, sobering him.
“I don’t know. It was dark and hot. Windy. There was a lot of sand.”
“Like on the beach?” Leo asked.
“No, more like the desert,” Jason said. He lifted a mug to his mouth, his hand shaking so badly that beer slopped over the side onto his shirt.
“What else?” Logan prompted.
“There was a man. He was huge, like a fucking giant, and he had the head of an alligator,” Jason said, sliding the back of his hand across his mouth. “I didn’t understand what he was saying, but he was sorely pissed off about something.”
“Sounds like Setekh, the Egyptian god of chaos. That would probably make it a crocodile head, not an alligator, although no one’s really sure what animal he was associated with. Why the hell would you channel him?” Chris asked. “He was the bad boy of the Egyptian pantheon.”
“Hell, boys! Deserts, giants, and heartless crocodile men? Sounds like a party to me.” Leo grinned.
Logan forced his lips to curl in a smile, but inside he was still feeling discomforted. Jason’s “prophecies” were usually vague, easily interpreted to fit neatly into anyone’s life. Not this time. This time there had been something ominous in his voice, and it had chilled Logan right to the bone.
Lifting his mug, he drank deeply. The night was young, and he was well into his second pitcher, but try as he might, he couldn’t get his buzz back.
“DR. PERRY?” Logan called, edging his way past a gigantic wooden drum, chipped and pitted and layered with a half inch of dust. It looked to be of Eastern origin, perhaps Japanese. The basement consisted of several dozen rows of ceiling-to-floor metal shelves, each one choked with boxes and crates. The mess spilled over into every corner of the large room, filling it completely and leaving very little room to walk.
Clearing his throat, Logan tried again, louder this time. “Dr. Perry?”
“Back here. Mind your step, boy, and don’t touch anything!”
The voice was steady and firm, carrying none of the tremble usually associated with advanced age. However, the years had not been as kind to Lincoln Perry’s body as they had to his voice. Stooped and slight, he was completely bald except for a monk’s fringe of white hair that fell in thin wisps over the collar of the lab coat. One might be tempted to think he had more hair growing in his eyebrows than he did on the rest of his head. Bushy and blindingly white, his brows were wild and unkempt, shadowing eyes set deeply in a heavily wrinkled face.
But those eyes sparkled with intelligence as they turned to meet Logan’s. “You’re my new ass?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“My new assistant. But until you’ve proven yourself to be brighter than the average lump of oatmeal, you’re an ass.” Cackling at his own wit, Perry turned back to the task he’d been working on—labeling what Logan could see was a large gray human bone of indeterminate age. “Make yourself useful and help me wrap this thing.”
Logan moved, anxious to prove himself smarter than a bowl of Quaker Oats. He’d be damned if he’d spend the rest of the year labeled as Perry’s ass. Carefully, he rolled out the thin gauze. He helped Perry wrap the bone securely, before placing it in a box. Perry sealed it, and then wrote Homo sapiens, thighbone, circa 1920 on the cover with a black Sharpie.
“Why are we keeping a human leg bone from the twentieth century? It’s not exactly an antiquity,” Logan said, lifting the crate as Perry instructed, carrying it. “There are graveyards full of bones like these everywhere.”
“Why don’t they ever send me someone with half a brain?” Perry sniffed, shooting Logan a haughty look as he led him between the rows. “It’s not an antiquity now, but what about three thousand years from now? There were graveyards full of bones in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome too, you know. Ever heard of the catacombs? But you wouldn’t question my storing one of those bones.”
Okay, so Perry was a nutcase, Logan decided. He must have spent too many years down in the dungeons breathing in the dust and mold. Logan sighed. If the last five minutes were any indication, it was going to be a long, long year.
“Put it up there, third shelf down from the top,” Perry ordered, pointing to a spot on a shelf well above Logan’s head.
Logan tucked the box under his arm and manhandled a ladder over to where Perry stood, waiting impatiently, tapping his foot. He climbed up and then wedged the box between another labeled Branding iron, Wyoming, circa 1800, and one that read Jawbone, Canis lupus familiaris, circa 1994.
There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason in the storing of items. No alphabetical order, no grouping according to genus, nada. Just stuff, most of it worthless, randomly stuck into whatever space could be found to accommodate it.
“How do you find anything?” Logan asked. He almost cringed, knowing that Perry would see the question as yet another indication of what he perceived to be Logan’s sadly below-average intelligence quotient. “I don’t understand your system. Is it computerized?”
Perry mumbled something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like moron. He turned away, obviously expecting Logan to follow. “I keep all that information right here, boy,” he said, tapping the side of his shiny pate. “I don’t need any fancy computer programs.”
“But… there must be thousands of artifacts down here!”
“Hundreds of thousands. Most of which have been down here so long that they’ve been forgotten by everyone but me,” Perry said. Logan could swear he detected a sorrowful note in Perry’s voice but decided he must have been imagining things. No pernicious old goat like Perry could possibly be sentimental about anything.
Up and down the rows they wandered, Perry grumbling to himself every step of the way while Logan followed behind. Eventually they came to the far side of the basement. Perry stopped, pointing to an unmarked door. “See this door?” he asked, as if Logan were not standing two feet in front of it.
“Don’t ever open it. Ever. Opening this door means instant termination. Understand?”
“Do you understand?” Perry snarled, jabbing a bony finger into Logan’s chest.
“Yes, sir. I understand.” Good God, the man was a raving lunatic! Logan was seriously beginning to doubt the wisdom in taking the position as Perry’s assistant. No wonder it had still been available. No one else, besides Logan, was stupid enough to want it.
Perry turned away in a huff, heading toward another door.
“Dr. Perry, what will my responsibilities be?” Logan asked, half expecting Perry to tell him that he was to be Chief Idiot and Ass-kisser.
Perry sighed, as if Logan’s question was a huge imposition. “You’ll fetch new acquisitions from upstairs, bring ’em down here. You’ll make my coffee, which I take black. You’ll dust. And most of all, you’ll stay the hell out of my way,” Perry answered. He walked into his office, a small, dark cubby that was marked by a dull brass plate engraved with Perry’s name, and then slammed the door shut in Logan’s face.
Staring at the scarred oak door, Logan blinked. He wrapped his fingers around the doorknob, ready to burst in and tell Perry exactly what he could do with his assistant’s position, but hesitated. He couldn’t just quit. He had bills to pay—the rent, the utilities—and it would be nice if he could eat something besides ramen noodles once in a while. Logan’s hand fell to his side, his shoulders slumping dejectedly. Like it or not, he was stuck being Perry’s assistant, at least until a better opportunity came along.
Picking up a feather duster, Logan reluctantly began his new job.