The Bone Track

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Chapter One

Nine bodies. That’s how many were excavated three days ago on the coastal road near Wellington, New Zealand.

Alexa Glock stepped around someone’s outstretched legs in the airport waiting area and continued pacing. Nine times 206, the number of bones in a mature skeleton—more, if the remains included children. She hoped children weren’t involved.

She imagined the driver’s face as his bulldozer lifted the bones. “What the hell?” he probably said. He would have cut the engine, jumped from the cab, hoping and praying the bones weren’t human.

The skull, its large eye sockets leaking dirt, brought the road construction to a halt.

“Stared right at me,” he told the project’s archaeologist.

A loudspeaker announced the arrival of an Air China flight. Alexa was waiting for her younger brother, Charlie. His plane was an hour late. He had left North Carolina twenty-four hours earlier. He didn’t know that tomorrow morning, on the way to the hiking trip they were taking, they’d make a pit stop so Alexa could meet with the archaeologist who was keeping the location of the bones secret.

“We don’t want stalkers and gawkers,” she had said.

The bones would probably be historic remains of the country’s indigenous people, the Māori. They were being stored until she could get there. The local iwi, or tribe, would take guardianship if they were historic.

But what if they weren’t old bones? Alexa’s specialty—teeth—would tell the tale.

The loudspeaker made her slosh her coffee. Air New Zealand Flight 47 from Los Angeles had arrived. Her phoned pinged.

I’m here. What’s for dinner?

Alexa panicked. Buying the food for backpacking was enough, wasn’t it? She hadn’t prepared anything beyond that. And why was Charlie talking dinner? It was ten o’clock in the morning.

Weet-bix, she texted back. She had tried some of her Kiwi roommate’s cereal, doused it with milk. It had turned to mush.

She was apprehensive about seeing Charlie, who was four years younger than her thirty-seven, and married with two little boys. They weren’t close. She was apprehensive about the hiking, too. Except for running, she wasn’t outdoorsy. She preferred analyzing bite-marks or blood spatter to communing with family or nature.

She downed the last of the coffee and stood by the swinging doors. A gaggle of teenage girls tussled over who would hold a homemade poster that said “Kia Ora,” the official Kiwi greeting, like aloha in Hawaii.

Dazed passengers emerged. Charlie, in wrinkled khakis and a plaid flannel shirt, backpack over his shoulder and dragging a wheelie suitcase, was last. He stiffened when Alexa bear-hugged him.

She let go and stepped back. “You made it! How was the flight?”

“Long. I’m starved.”

“We can stop at McDonald’s on the way to my apartment.” She took the wheelie suitcase from him and started walking.

“McDonald’s? I didn’t fly halfway across the world to eat at McDonald’s.”

“They have different things on the menu. Georgie Pies.”

“I don’t want pie.”

God almighty, he was still a pouty kid. Alexa dodged a mother who had her toddler on a leash—was that legal?—and headed for the exit. “They’re meat pies.”

“Is Milford Track open?”

That was the hike they were taking—the Milford Track. “What do you mean?” Alexa waited for Charlie to evade the leashed tot and catch up. Crow’s-feet around his eyes startled her.

“They had a perfect storm—thirteen inches of rain in one day, more the next—and it closed down the track. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated by helicopter. Don’t you listen to the news?”

Auckland, where she lived, was on the North Island of New Zealand, and Milford Track was way down on the South Island. “When was the storm?”

“Two weeks ago. I’ve been following it. I can’t believe you haven’t heard.”

“I’ve been busy. I have to get to work today.”

“Work?” Charlie stopped walking. “I’ve only got two weeks. You’re working?”

“Just a bit.” Alexa kept walking. “I have reports to finish. I figured you’d want a shower and a nap,” she called over her shoulder.

The reports turned out to be routine, except for the final one. That’s where Alexa lost track of time. A woman claimed a man attacked and robbed her in a parking garage. In the struggle the attacker bit her arm. A close-up photo showed the bite-mark—a shallow puncture of the skin—above the woman’s left wrist. Alexa compared it with a photo of the victim, who had a noticeable gap between her top incisors. “It looks self-inflicted,” Alexa told her boss Dan Goddard at Forensic Service Center. “We’ll need her dental X-rays to confirm.”

They stared at the side-by-side photos. “Why would someone do that?” Dan asked.

“Could be a response to pain or to keep from screaming,” Alexa said. “Or she could have made up the attack.”

She didn’t get home until seven. She unlocked the door and found Charlie reading a Milford Track guidebook on the sofa.

“So much for ‘I won’t be long.’”

He had called twice, and each time she had begged for another hour.

“For your information,” he said. “the Milford Track reopened two days ago. We’re lucky.”

“That’s good.” She stepped around his bulging backpack. “What all do you have in there?”

Charlie ignored her. Alexa set her laptop and tote on a kitchen chair and scuffed out of her Keds. “Did you get a nap?” She could tell he had taken a shower but hadn’t shaved. His sandy-colored hair was short on the sides with a quiff on top. The trendy cut was probably his wife, Mel’s, idea.

“I went out for an early dinner with your cop roommate before she left for work.”

“You went out to eat with Natalie?” Alexa hadn’t ever done that. She rarely saw Natalie, who worked the six p.m. to six a.m. shift four days a week and spent her off time at her boyfriend’s. This made her a perfect roomie, or flatmate as Kiwis said,—for someone who didn’t want one. Housing prices in Auckland were double compared to Raleigh, and she was making half the money she had at her old job at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.

“We ate at a restaurant called Lord of the Fries.”

Alexa laughed. “Did Frodo serve you?”

“Did you know Natalie and Trevor split up?”

Alexa was stunned. She didn’t even know her roommate’s boyfriend’s name. “I suppose you know Natalie’s hopes and dreams too?”

Hazel eyes were the single physical characteristic the brother and sister shared. Charlie’s sharpened. “Some of them. She’s nice.”

Alexa bit her tongue and put leftovers in the microwave. While the electromagnetic waves zapped the Thai curry, she popped them each a Speight’s beer.

“Smells good,” Charlie said. “I’ll have some too.”

She laughed again. Charlie had a good appetite like she did. She dished up the curry and told him about the bones. “They’re storing them near the site. It’s probably a burial ground. We have an early flight to Wellington. An archaeologist is picking us up. I’ll examine the bones, and then we’ll fly to Queenstown.”

“So you’re working tomorrow, too?”

Charlie loved his job as a geotechnical engineer. He was a rock and soil geek. One of his main duties was analyzing sites to see if they were right for construction projects. “They’re building a road,” she placated. “Maybe you could dig around or talk with the site manager.”

He crumpled his beer can. “Maybe.”