If looks could kill, Scully's phone would be very, very dead.
She powered it down, waited the standard ten seconds, powered it up for the fourth time. No signal, it told her again. Obviously, all the time, money and research the Gunmen had put into what they assured her was the best satellite phone money couldn't legally buy, had been wasted. Frustrated, she tossed it on her bunk and started rummaging around in her pack for her regular phone, figuring it couldn't hurt to try.
"Hey," Monica said, entering quickly and re-zipping the bug flap. "Any luck?"
"Lots," she said as she powered up the phone. "So far, all bad." After a few seconds of staring at the screen, she got the message she'd expected. She sighed. "And my luck holds. No signal."
"Let me try." Monica said, retrieving her own phone. She turned it on and waited. "Crap. Dr. DuFour appears to be the only one the telecommunications gods are smiling on at the moment " She threw herself, very dramatically, backward onto her bunk. "Oh god! I'm doomed to wear size 9 steel-toes and three pairs of socks for all eternity! Doomed, I tell you! Doomed!"
Scully smiled as Monica's theatrics. "Well, you're off duty for the next eight hours or so. Go crazy. Take off a pair of socks or two."
"Can't." Monica sat up and took a long pull from the bottle of water she'd brought back to the tent with her. "Drew invited me for a walk."
"A walk?" Scully's brows arched. "Is that what you young people are calling it?"
Monica responded by tossing her pillow at her friend. "Oh please," she said. "Me? ME? If I am not mistaken, someone in this tent had a baby with her partner. Her work partner. Her work partner who was actually her superior officer during production of said baby."
Scully's brow's rose further. "And what's that got to do with your taking a walk with the very cute, very charming Dr. Ng?"
"Oh, nothing, nothing at all," Monica assured her with a big smile. "It's just nice to not be the baddest of the bad girls for a change."
Resisting the urge to stick out her tongue three-year-old style, Scully threw Monica's pillow back instead.
Monica easily caught it. "He is kinda cute, isn't he?"
"If you like them tall, dark, and exotic," Scully said.
"You think everyone is tall."
"Compared to me, everyone 'is' tall." Scully scowled at the phone and turned it off again. "You're right; you're doomed. Better learn to love those boots."
"This isn't bad, really," Monica said, looking around the tent as she squared the tossed pillow neatly away. "I expected something a bit more, I don't know, Girl Scout camp. Or Lord of the Flies."
Scully shifted on her own bunk, which was, in reality, a high-end self-inflating airbed on a sturdy, light-weight, collapsible metal frame. The tent itself was made of light waterproof fabric with a sewn-in floor intended to keep the damp and the slithering away. Each of the three solid 'walls' had a zip-down 'window' with mesh that allowed air and light in but kept the bugs and ever-present lizards out. The tent was furnished with three beds, three waterproof storage trunks topped with cushions that doubled as seating and/or bedside tables, and three hand-cranked lanterns that held a charge for quite a while with minimal elbow grease. It wasn't Lord of the Flies, Scully thought, but it wasn't home, either. "It could easily be worse," she said. "Much worse."
"It definitely could," Monica agreed. "So," she asked after a moment, "have you ever done this before?"
"Which this is that?"
"This 'this'," she said, waving her hand in an all-encompassing sort of gesture. "Mass graves, armed guards, piles and piles of bodies - this whole horror show."
Scully glared at her useless phone again, then shook her head. "Not on this scale. Mulder and I had to deal with a mass murderer or two, and I worked on a lot of victims of what turned out to be serial killers, but that never involved tents or lizards or this number of bodies. It was mostly lab work."
Her expression thoughtful, Monica nodded. "I know the FBI sent experts to Kosovo and Srebrenica. You weren't on those?"
Scully shook her head. She'd actually volunteered for the Kosovo expedition, but Skinner had already assigned her and Mulder to an undercover operation and didn't feel he could spare her at the time. Even though she wasn't required or even expected to tackle field work at this point, she'd been willing to take this particular assignment because it was, in many ways, exactly the what she'd joined the FBI to do -- answer questions, solve mysteries, see justice served, bring closure. Years ago, Addy Sparks's father had said missing was worse than dead because you never knew what happened, and Scully agreed. If she could give even one family incontrovertible proof of a loved one's fate, it was worth being away from Mulder and William for a few days. "It was probably just like this, only the weather was worse."
"They probably did more on-site, too," Scully added. "Closer to the raw material, so to speak."
"You know, I've been wondering about that." Monica's voice lowered. "Does this set-up make sense to you?"
"Honestly? No," Scully said. "The farther they have to transport the bodies, the more people who have to handle them, the longer the chain of custody - cross-contamination is bound to occur, evidence is bound to be lost, mistakes are bound to be made. So no, that part of it doesn't make sense."
"That's what I keep thinking." Monica frowned. "I was on a couple of digs in college - archeological, not exhumations - and even when we were scattered around at a couple of different related sites, we all slept and ate in a common spot. So why are they doing it this way?"
Scully didn't know, and was about to say as much, when Monica continued.
"I mean, if they don't want everyone at the site because it's unsafe or geologically unstable, fine, I can see that. But they must have had to set up cooking and washing and sleeping areas over there, too, run power, et cetera. Wouldn't it make more sense to at least have those workers sleep and eat here? You'd need fewer guards, there'd be less waste, less duplication, so if nothing else, it would keep those costs down. And as you said, less messing with the evidence, so less chance of contamination and mistakes."
Scully nodded. She could tell Monica had given this more than casual consideration. In truth, she'd thought it odd - and more than odd - herself. Part of her wondered if it was just years of Mulder-brand paranoia; the rest wondered if her investigative skills were just not a sharp as they had once been.
"And it's strange they won't let any one visit the site," Monica added. "Some of these people really are the top experts in their fields. You'd think they'd want them to check the site out. Especially if it might be Chataqalan."
"A legendary lost city, said to be the seat of great power."
Scully quirked a brow.
"Ley lines and harmonic energies and stuff."
Scully blinked once. "And Mulder's never mentioned it?"
Monica shrugged. "He can't know everything."
"Tell 'him' that," Scully muttered. She thought for a moment. "Maybe the danger is even greater than they've let on."
"How do you mean?" Monica asked.
"Maybe these Qetual separatists are a serious threat. What do you know about them?"
"That's another weird thing," Monica replied. "I've never heard of them. Ever."
"Neither have I," Scully said. "If, as Agent Castillo said this morning, this man Salinas and this group have been implicated in murders in the US and Canada as well as Mexico, and they've been in the drug trade for decades, the name should have come up, and come up regularly, back at the Bureau, wouldn't you think?"
"Exactly." Monica agreed. "I suppose it's possible they're known by another name or two, but usually our intel is not this far off, especially not on things so close to home. People serious enough about politics and/or drugs to murder dozens, maybe hundreds, of people don't fly below the radar very long."
Scully knew there'd been a few notable exceptions to that rule, but for the most part, it was true. "No," she said, "they don't. So either we're missing a big piece of this puzzle, or-"
"Or," Scully concluded, "there isn't a puzzle, and we both really, really need a hobby."
Monica chuckled. "Seriously, Dana. You've got good instincts when it comes to this stuff. Great instincts. So what's your Spidey-sense telling you?"
Scully tucked her useless back-up phone in her day pack and considered the question. What *was* it telling her? She'd been uneasy with the set-up of this entire enterprise from the start, and confused by some of the convoluted, seemingly pointless protocols she'd been instructed to follow. Then again, she'd never been part of a multinational operation of this scale before, and perhaps she was just out of step - maybe her Spidey- sense was telling her nothing more than that she was currently well and truly out of her depth.
"At the moment, it seems to be telling me to reserve judgment. But it's also telling me to keep my eyes peeled." She paused. "Or maybe it's telling me I should take up macrame - it's not one hundred percent clear."
"Sounds good to me," Monica said, snugly retying her borrowed boots. "I'm good at tangling things in knots -- macrame should come naturally. And really, you can't have too many hanging plant holders."
"No, you really ca--"
"Knock knock," came Drew's voice from beyond the tent flap. "Monica, you ready?"
Scully, closer to the door, unzipped it. "Come in, Dr. Ng."
Drew entered. "I thought we decided on Dana and Drew. Did I miss a memo?"
Scully shook her head. "Force of habit, Drew. Sorry."
"Don't be," he said, removing his hat. "Love what you've done with the place. Decor is very chic."
"Thanks." Monica rose and fished her sunglasses out of her bag. "We like to think of it as Martha Stewart meets MASH." She tucked her phone into an outside pocket.
"Had any luck with the phones?" Drew wondered. "I couldn't get a signal."
"Me neither," Monica replied. "Neither could Dana."
"Bring your phone along," Drew suggested. "Maybe we'll find a spot more conducive to communication."
"Speaking of which. . ." Scully said.
Monica turned. "Yes?" she challenged.
"We're going after ferns," Drew said.
"We are?" Monica asked. "You said no pollen. I distinctly remember you said no pollen."
"No pollen," he said, raising his hand as if taking an oath. "Ferns have spores."
"He's got you there," Scully said. "Don't you two crazy kids be out too late, now. I hear there are jaguars and psychos with chainsaws and men with hooks for hands lurking out there in the jungle."
Monica obligingly rolled her eyes. "Yes, Mom."
"And no-" Scully began, but she was interrupted by the sounds of her satellite phone buzzing on her bunk.
All three turned to it and stared.
"Huh," Monica said, retrieving her own phone. She powered it up, then frowned. "I've still got no signal."
Drew retrieved his own phone. "Same."
"Scully, it's me."
Scully felt herself smile at the sound of Mulder's familiar greeting and wondered vaguely when she'd turned into such a sap. "Hi, um, just a minute." She put her hand over the mouthpiece and turned to Drew and Monica. "I'll go outside and-"
"No no." Monica waved her off. "We'll get going. Ferns, apparently, await. Oh!" She turned back. "Ask Mulder to get John to send my boots. They're in the front hall closet. Probably. Maybe."
"And ask him to water the aloe, but not too much."
"And to bring in the mail."
Drew grabbed Monica by the wrist. "We're leaving now, Dana. Ta."
"Yes, ta," Monica agreed with a good-natured shrug and a little wave as she followed Drew out.
"Who was that?" Mulder asked.
"Reyes? What's she doing there?"
"No one is quite sure," Scully said, settling herself on the bunk. "Least of all her."
There was a brief pause. "Excuse me?"
"She asked if you could call John about her boots."
Another pause, this one a little longer. "I'm supposed to make a booty-call to John Doggett? Scully, you haven't been gone two whole days yet - I've got a long way to go before I'm that desperate."
"Oh ha ha, you're so funny," she deadpanned. "William, whomp daddy for me."
"I am safe from whomping," Mulder answered. "William is at your mom's."
"Oh?" Scully said. A million thoughts raced through her mind -- everything from her mother stomping in and demanding that Mulder unhand that poor, filthy, malnourished baby, to Mulder needing to clear the place out before the strippers arrived. All of which thoughts were idiotic, Scully knew, but - "Why is he at my mom's? "
"I had some stuff to do this afternoon, and it was easier for her if I took him over there."
"Stuff?" Scully asked.
"Stuff," Mulder replied. "You know, things. Junk. Crap."
She was not going to panic. She was not going to let her imagination get the better of her. No, she most definitely was not. "Oh, I see."
Mulder waited before continuing. "Stuff I might not want to discuss over an open line, for example," Mulder said pointedly. "'That' kind of stuff."
"Ah," Scully said. "Of course."
Mulder sighed. "Scully. . ."
"No," she began, "it's fine, it's - I was trying to call you for almost half an hour, but I couldn't get a signal," she said at last. "Did you have much trouble getting through?"
"That's weird," Mulder answered. "I got it on the first try."
"That is weird," she agreed. "Everyone's been having trouble getting through from what I've seen."
"That's very helpful when you're in the middle of nowhere."
Very," she agreed. "It's been a pain not being able to get online. It would make some of this work a lot easier."
"You little techno-slave, you," he teased. "So how bad is it? The work, I mean."
Scully gave a weary sigh as she curled her shoulders forward and stretched her spine. "Bad enough. But at least the facilities are good, considering we're in a clearing in the jungle. All the people are top-notch. Food's good. Everyone's been friendly-"
"But not too friendly, I hope."
"Oh, really, Mulder, it's shocking. Would-be suitors are all but breaking down my door."
"Oh really." She leaned down and began trying, one-handedly, to loosen the lace on her work boot. "Or they would be, if I had a door." She paused. "I guess they're breaking down my bug-flap."
"That sounds vaguely obscene, Scully."
"Only vaguely? I guess I'm not trying hard enough."
"Oooh," Mulder said, his voice suddenly low and liquid, "you said 'hard.'"
He wasn't there to appreciate the gesture, but Scully rolled her eyes just the same. "Has anyone told you that you are a sick, sick man lately, Mulder?"
Scully was about to when the line filled with hissing and popping. She and Mulder went through half a minute or so of the usual 'Hello-hello-canyouhearme-areyoustillthere' routine they'd perfected over much of the previous decade before the line cleared.
"I see what you mean about the connection."
"Yeah," she said. "Before we get cut off, can you please call Doggett and ask him to FedEx Monica's hiking boots asap? She thinks they're in the front hall closet. He can get the details of where to ship them from the Bureau."
"Sure," Mulder agreed. "So who do they think is behind this?"
Scully massaged first one foot, then the other. She wiggled her toes, savoring the unequaled joy of socklessness. "Officially, no suspects; unofficially, they're blaming Qetual Separatists, who may or may not be in the drug trade."
"That was my question. Monica's never heard of them either. And I can't get online-"
"I can have a look around, see what I can come up with for you."
"Mulder, you don't have-"
"I know I don't," he said. "But you'd do it for me, wouldn't you?"
"All that," she assured him in her flirtiest tone, "and so very, very much more."
"Yes!" Mulder exclaimed. "Finally, the phone sex part of this phone call. So tell me, Scully, what 'are' you wearing?"
She looked down and did a quick inventory: bare feet, hiking shorts, tank top, necklace. Not sexy. "Bug repellent, mostly."
"Awww, Scully," Mulder whined, "way to ruin the mood."
"Sorry, Mulder, but this call has been rated G for your listening pleasure."
"Pleasure? Ha. You're no fun," Mulder said.
"None," she agreed. "Mulder, what do you know about Chataqalan?"
"Chataqalan," he repeated. "Lost Olmec city, supposedly a seat of ancient power and protection. Ancient capital of the Eastern Olmec alliance. Or not, depending on your sources."
Geez, Scully thought, maybe he did know everything. "Where is it?"
"Well, it's 'lost', see-"
"Ha again," she said. "Is it supposed to be around here?"
"Generally, yeah. Why?"
"I overheard someone at dinner asking the Under-Secretary if the kill site was really Chataqalan."
"Huh. Why would he think it was?"
Scully shrugged. "I don't know. They won't let anyone near the site, anyway. Safety concerns."
"So how are you-?"
"They bring the bodies in by truck," she explained.
"Doesn't sound very efficient," he said. "So how do you spell Qetual?"
"With a Q," she answered. "After that, you're on your own."
"Gracias. I'll see what I can find."
"Hopefully they'll work the connectivity problems out before too long."
"But if they don't, I'll be your able and eager research assistant. Oh, and you can be the naughty professor, see, and I'll be-"
"Mulder," she warned.
"Yeah yeah, G-rating. Got it," he said. "Anything else I can research for you?"
"I'm good," she answered. She paused a millisecond. "I miss you guys."
"I miss you, too, Scully. We both miss you. Will doesn't like the way I cut up bananas. And he was so unamused to discover I was the one on lullaby duty last night. Imagine someone preferring your singing voice to mine."
"Imagine," she answered. In truth, it was like preferring nails on a chalkboard to the whir of a dentist's drill. If William ended up being able to do more than carry a tune in a bucket, it was no thanks to either of them. "You'll be pulling that duty tonight, too?"
"Soon as I get off the phone, I'm heading to your mom's. She's asked me to -"
His words were lost in a burst of static. Scully frowned, wondering if they'd been cut off for good this time, but after a few more seconds the line cleared.
"Still there?" Mulder said.
"Still here," she replied. "But we better wrap this up before we lose the signal altogether. Oh, Mulder, before I forget, do you know a Doctor Irina Vetkova?"
"Irina Vetkova?" Mulder repeated. "Doesn't sound famil- oh. Oh. Okay, I know a Doctor Viktor Vetkov, sort of. They could be related. His wife, maybe."
"Daughter, maybe. She's young," Scully answered. "Tall, ash blonde, pale blue eyes. Legs up to her earlobes. What do you mean you know him sort of?"
"Viktor and I had adjoining suites at that conference I attended with our friend Alex a few years back."
"What?" she asked, thoroughly confused.
"Alex found it a disarming experience, you'll recall."
"Oh." A chill ran through her. Tunguska. Another half-opened can of oily black worms she'd be just as happy to shut the lid on.
"Why do you ask?"
"She knows a lot about - about a lot," she said finally, not wanting to give too much away if, in fact, the call was being closely monitored, but wanting him to get the point. "And she asked after your health. Hoped you were well."
"Did she now/"
"Yes she did," Scully answered. "I bet her work is fascinating."
"Given Viktor's interests, I bet it is," he answered. "I'll try to call about the same time tom-"
Static filled the line again. Scully waited, then waited some more, but the hiss and pop persisted, then turned into a low, flat hum. Scully powered the unit down, then up again, but got the familiar 'no signal' for her trouble. Clearly, this was the universe's way of telling her to head for the showers.
She sighed as she dug through her pack, looking for soap, shampoo, flip-flops and towels. 'Disrupted phone lines, mysterious suspects, shifty associates, personnel mix-ups, earth tremors, and sore feet,' she thought as she made her way across the compound.
She was almost afraid to wonder what she'd get hit with next.
If she had had any doubts, they were soon laid to rest: when Drew said he wanted to look for ferns, he actually 'meant' that he wanted to look for ferns. Well, Monica mentally amended as they ducked into yet another lush, overgrown, prickly thicket, he wanted to look for ferns and more-or-less obsessively play with his cell phone. She wasn't sure if she was glad for this excursion's lack of subtext or not.
"What sort of ferns are we looking for?" Monica asked after an hour of investigating the camp's perimeter.
"Dryopteris pseudo-filix-mas," Drew responded, aiming his phone at yet another frond. "A.K.A. the Mexican Male Fern. They're tiny this time of year, and tend to be difficult to find, especially at this altitude."
"I see," she said, just to have something to say.
"The site where they're conducting the exhumations," he said, "is more suitable for their growth, so I'd love to get up there and have a look. I may have to sneak out. Finding one around these parts would be quite the coup."
"No doubt." She paused, trying to think of something either charming or brilliant to say. All she came up with was, "And the phone helps how?"
Drew straightened. "Excuse me?"
"The phone," she said. "You keep waving your phone at the plants."
"Oh, this," he said. He flipped the phone open again. "Camera phone. See?"
Monica blinked. On the tiny screen was a tiny but very clear black and white LCD picture of the plant Drew had just been harassing. "Cool," she said. She didn't know a lot about electronics, but she'd never seen anything like it outside of a spy movie. "So who are you, James Bond?"
Drew chuckled. "Nah, just a guy with a childless uncle in the Hong Kong electronics trade. I get all the new toys before the other kids."
"That's quite a toy."
"It is. It'd cost a packet retail," Drew said, heading for the next patch of undergrowth. "This is about one step away from a prototype. My uncle's been in the business forever. He says they'll be common as dirt in five year's time. One-fifth the price, twice the resolution, probably take and store dozens, maybe hundreds, of color photos, too." He took another shot, squinted at it, hit a button to make it go away. "The technology's not quite there yet."
Monica nodded, mostly to herself. "So what do you do with the pictures once you've taken them?"
"If the uplink was working, I could send them, via satellite, directly to my home computer. As it is, I can only take a few at a time and erase them to make room for more. Or save them and download them to my laptop later, which is a complete pain in the arse," he explained. "Here, have a look at this shot."
Monica obliged. "Nice. Is that the dry-psuedo whatever?"
"Nah," Drew said as he hit a button and the image disappeared. "That's just an Athyris filix-femina. They're all over the place."
"So - what? You just keep taking pictures of what you aren't looking for and then erasing them?" she asked.
Drew stopped walking. "Keenly observant, Agent Reyes. I can see why the FBI hired you." He grinned. "Actually, why did the FBI hire you?"
"Or more to the point," he said, snapping another picture, scowling, erasing it, and snapping another, "why did you hire on at the FBI?"
Monica gave a little shrug. Some days she wondered that herself, and this was rapidly turning into one of them. "Recruiter came to my school, said they were looking for a few good men who were women. Genetically, I fit the bill. The rest is history."
Drew raised a skeptical brow. "I sincerely doubt you were an affirmative action hire, Agent Reyes."
Another shrug. "Well, the 3.95 GPA probably helped."
"I'll take your word on that," Drew said, "since I've no idea what you're talking about." He took another picture of a small fern that looked, to Monica's untrained eye, like all the ones they'd already seen. "Do you like it, then? The FBI, I mean."
"Most days, I love it," she answered. "Some, not so much. Drew-"
"You work with Dana?"
"Not directly, no," she explained. "Drew-"
"Really? You seem to get on well. I would have thought you were partners. Would you please hold this?" He handed her a small zip- lock bag as he slid down into another gully and snapped more fern photos. "You've known her a while?"
"Um," Monica began. No one had ever asked her, oddly enough, and she'd never thought about how she'd go about telling such an unusual story. Where to begin? "Well, my current partner was her partner for about a year. That was while her former partner of about like, seven years, was, well, underground, let's say. Her new partner and I had worked on some cases before he was her partner and her old partner and I worked a case and then her new partner, who is now her old partner and her old old partner - "
Drew blinked at her. "What?"
She stopped. "I first met her the day I delivered her baby."
"It's a long story-"
"It would bloody have to be, wouldn't it?" he replied. "Oh, look at that!" He pointed deep into the forest, where daylight barely breached the canopy. "I bet that's-"
Drew disappeared into the greenery, mumbling to himself. Something about fungi, she thought. Reminded her of an old joke - Why does Mr. Mushroom get invited to all the best parties? Because he's such a fun guy! She wondered how many parties of the non-garden variety Mr. Tall, Dark, and Obsessed with Plants got invited to.
"Beauty," he said when he emerged moments later. He held up the view screen to her. "Look at this."
"Nah, that's another Athyris."
"Drew, why do you keep taking pictures of the same ferns over and over and erasing them?"
"What?" he asked, climbing back onto the path and leveling a heart-stopping grin her way. "You've never had a new toy?"
Monica blinked, momentarily dazzled. "Um, not lately, no."
"Oh really?" Drew took a step closer. "Well, maybe we can fix that."
Well, well, Monica thought as she moved forward herself. .
"Excuse me," a sonorous voice came from behind her, nearly startling her out of her skin. "The area is restricted. Please return to the camp."
"Crickey!" Drew jumped, landing hard on Monica's foot. "You scared the crap out of me, mate. Monica, sorry. You okay?"
"Yeah, fine," she replied, her heart racing. Thank god for steel toes, she thought as she turned. The guard, who stood not a foot behind her, looked more like a camouflage-covered side of beef than a man. A heavily armed side of beef, at that, in the blue beret of the UN peacekeepers. Judging by his size and demeanor, Monica thought he was probably better suited to raising hell than keeping any sort of peace.
"We're just out enjoying the evening air, collecting fern spores," Drew explained as he held up an empty baggie.
The guard squinted at the proffered bag. "That bag is empty."
"Well, we haven't had much luck yet." Drew tucked the bag back into his hip pocket. "You wouldn't happen to know if there are any Dryopteris pseudo-filix-mas laying about?"
The guard's stony expression did not change. "It is not safe for civilians to be this far from the camp. I will escort you back -"
"S'all right," Drew replied. "We just want to look around a bit more-"
"I cannot allow that," the guard replied.
Drew slung an arm around Monica's shoulders, surprising her as much with the strength and insistence of this grip as the action itself. He tugged her close. "The camp's a bit cramped," he said as if sharing a great confidence. "We just wanted to get some fresh air, right, get far away from the madding crowd, eh, Monica?"
"Um, right," she said, mostly confused.
"I cannot allow-"
"I promise, mate," Drew interrupted, turning his gaze on Monica, "I'll have her in by ten, good as new, chrome polished, fenders shiny." He winked at the guard. "What'dya say?"
The guard tightened his grip on his machine gun. "Please follow me back to the camp."
Drew gave a resigned shrug. "Bloke with the biggest gun wins, I reckon. Sorry," he said pulling her into a hug. "Rain check?"
Monica was trying to decide if she should knee Drew, deliver a quick shot to his solar plexis, or call for the men with the butterfly nets and the closed-sleeved jackets to come haul him off to the Loony Botanists' Bin. Before she could decide, Drew whispered "shhh" in her ear.
She blinked up at him in surprise as he pulled back.
He was gazing down at her, silently asking for her trust. He was asking her to co-operate, to go along with his plan. Until that moment, she hadn't even realized there 'was' a plan.
She glanced at the guard, an unsmiling wall of muscle and menace.
She glanced back at Drew.
She could be wrong - god knew she'd been wrong about men before. But something niggled at her brain, telling her Drew could be trusted. Should be trusted.
She nodded. "Sure."
"There's my girl." He winked at her. "Alright, sir, we'll - Oh, hang on a tick. I left my calipers back there." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and, before anyone could object, took off into the thicket again.
"Sir-" the guard began.
"He needs that," Monica said, stepping into the space between the guard and Drew's disappearing back. "Those, I mean. His calipers. They're essential to his work."
"I cannot allow-"
"He'll be right back," Monica assured him, using the flirty tone she'd added to her arsenal over the years. "It'll only take him second."
The guard's stony expression held. Monica wondered if she'd lost her touch.
"Got 'em," Drew said as he emerged from the undergrowth. He made a show of tucking the instrument into his back pocket, then very deliberately took Monica's hand.
"Oh good," Monica said, trying to appear unfazed by Drew's sudden inexplicable displays of affection. She turned to the guard again. "A man should never be without his tool, should he?"
The guard blinked at her, once, twice. "No, he should not," he said flatly. "Please move forward."
The trip back to the camp was shorter than the trip out had been, and tenser by far. Drew tried to draw the guard out with questions and quips, but the guard wasn't biting. "Please stay within the perimeter of the camp," the guard said when they reached the mess tent. "It is neither safe nor wise to wander away from this area without an escort."
"How do we get an escort, then?" Drew asked.
The guard simply nodded. "Good evening."
"Well, that was different," Monica offered. "Feel free to start explaining."
"Explaining?" Drew asked, feigning innocence. "Explaining what?"
"Oh, any of what just went on." Monica kept her voice low and even, her tone casual and conversational, but it was all she could do not to grab him by the lapels and shake a few answers loose.
"We looked for ferns. I showed you my phone. I dropped my calipers." Drew said. "Then you saved my arse."
She smiled as if he'd just said something incredibly witty. "Is there something going on I should know about?"
Drew shrugged. "Did you notice his insignia?" Drew asked.
She shook her head.
"Tunisia. He look or sound Tunisian to you?"
Again, she shook her head. "Not especially. And he had no sense of humor at all."
"And he didn't respond to your flirting in the slightest."
Monica considered protesting that no, she hadn't flirted at all, but hell, she thought, what was the point? "No, he didn't."
"And yet, he doesn't look dead." Drew grinned. "And he'd sure as hell have to be not to appreciate you."
Monica hoped she wasn't blushing. "Drew, what's going on?"
"I don't know," he answered. "And frankly, I have no desire whatsoever to find out."
"What?" she said, taken aback.
"Whatever it is, I don't want any part of it," he said decisively.
"No buts about it, Monica," he said. "I wasn't kidding. First thing I learned was that the bloke with the biggest gun usually does win. Whatever it is, I'm staying out of it. And I suggest you do the same."
Monica opened her mouth to say something, but she had no idea what. She felt like she'd just spent an hour or so riding the BizarroWorld roller coaster and she wasn't sure which station she'd been let out at. "Drew, I-"
"I'm hellaciously jet lagged," he said. "I'm gonna hit my bunk. Night."
Monica stood staring after him. "Night," she finally managed long after he was gone.