"It's been my experience," Annja Creed said, "that the motives of private industry and those of the public don't usually make for good bedfellows." She reclined a bit farther back into the deep chocolate leather of her armchair and waited for the man sitting across from her to respond.
"That's a pretty narrow way to look at things." Derek Wainman took a sip from a steaming mug of coffee before setting it on the frosted-glass table. "After all, it's in our best interests to work with the public to make sure they don't feel slighted. These are, after all, potential customers."
Annja considered the map in front of her. This time of year, most of the Northwest Territories of Canada was frozen. The arctic tundra was a mass of brittle green amid the snows and winds. She shivered just thinking about how cold it was out there.
But it couldn't be worse than Antarctica, could it? She smiled at the memories of that adventure and then noticed Derek watching.
"The cold weather makes me reminisce about the other times I've been in the thick of it," she said.
Derek took another sip of his coffee. "That's been quite often, hasn't it?"
Annja looked at him. He smirked and waved his hand.
"Don't be so concerned. We take great pains to find out all we can about people we might be interested in working with. And there's never been anything that the right amount of money can't purchase. Information especially."
Annja smiled. She was one hundred percent positive there was at least one small nugget of intelligence that their money hadn't been able to procure—the presence of the sword that she always carried with her.
"That's a curious grin," Derek said.
Annja made her face expressionless. This guy didn't miss a thing. She'd have to remember that.
"How successful has the mining operation been at Ekati?"
"By all accounts, incredibly so," Derek said. "It's expected to yield five hundred million Canadian dollars a year for the next twenty-five years. Who would have thought that the earth could have such a repository of untapped wealth?"
"I might have," Annja said. "But then, I dig for a living. That kind of knowledge is my thing."
"You like getting dirty," Derek said.
Annja watched his face for any signs that he was already tossing innuendo around. But to his credit, he kept his expression firm and unyielding. No sign of mirth tinged it.
"Getting dirty comes with the territory," she said. "It can't be helped. And it's only when you're truly down in the thick of it that you find the most precious treasures. So yes, I like getting dirty."
"Where were you before this?"
Annja raised an eyebrow at him. "Now, why would you ask me such a question? After all, I thought you had a complete workup on my recent activities?"
"So, what, you want to see if I lie about my whereabouts?"
Derek held up his hand. "Calm down. It was just a friendly question."
Annja looked at the map again. Frozen lakes, frozen rivers, frozen everything. It would be a damned cold jaunt; she knew that.
"Why now?" she asked.
Annja glanced up. "Wouldn't it make more sense to start something like this in the spring?"
Derek smiled. "We're hoping that by the time you get to the site and extricate everything that needs extricating, it will be spring and just in time for us to start our real work."
"Ah, the real work."
Derek leaned forward. "Annja, please make no mistake—while we're committed to helping the Inuit preserve whatever sacred ground they have in this location, our primary emphasis is on profit. We're a private corporation and as such, driven by the ever-present bottom line."
"Hence my original statement about private and public interests not intersecting."
Derek leaned back. "We can help each other."
"By you agreeing to come on board and assist the Inuit elders with their research, we gain a certain degree of sympathy for our corporation. Our public image looks better than if we simply steamrolled in and took what we wanted from the land with little regard to its history."
"Even though that's exactly what you want to do anyway?"
"You don't strike me as being naive, Annja."
"So you understand the function of our meeting and your employment with us on this matter."
"I'm coming in as a contractor."
"But you work for us."
Annja smiled. "I gathered as much."
"For which you'll be paid quite handsomely. Far more than you make hosting that little show on television."
"Actually,Chasing History's Monstersdoes pretty well in the ratings."
Derek grinned. "Only when your cohost manages to have a well-timed wardrobe malfunction."
"I don't think we'd see such a thing from you, now, would we?"
Annja shot him a look. "I wouldn't hold out any hope."
Annja folded up the map. "How long has this land belonged to this tribe of Inuit?"
"Almost one thousand years."
"You were able to trace it back that far?"
Derek sighed. "It was part of what we had to do in order to make sure that the government was satisfied we did as much as possible to benefit the tribe instead of our own rather money-oriented motives."
"And what have you paid the Inuit?"
"Far more than the land is worth. But I'm not exactly at liberty to disclose the exact number we eventually settled upon."
"Still," Annja said. "You'll inevitably extract far more than that if your estimates are correct, right?"
"Of course. It wouldn't have been a good investment otherwise. And we most certainly are not in the business of throwing money away."
Annja nodded. "This dig site was a condition of the purchase?"
"The elders insisted on it. They claim a portion of the land—which happens to be exactly where our scientists tell us that the richest veins of kimberlite lie—is an ancient burial site. It has to be moved to a new area that has been consecrated through a variety of rituals and sacred events."
"Kimberlite indicates the presence of diamonds, right?"
Derek grinned. "Yes. It's a type of potassic volcanic rock. It occurs naturally in 'pipes,' or long vertical structures that have the potential to contain diamonds. Our scientists tell me that kimberlite is formed deep within the Earth's mantle, probably between ninety and three hundred miles deep."
"Journey to the Center of the Earth."
"All for a girl's best friend, yes."
"So, why bring me in?"
"We need you to confirm when the land is free of relics and assorted Inuit history. If we didn't have you in there, the Inuit could hold things up indefinitely and claim there was still any number of items that had to be extracted or moved. It could delay our operations for years. And we are definitely in the realm of time is money."
"Your job is to get in there, get friendly with the Inuit elders and help them do what they need to do. Move their burial site. Make sure there aren't any relics that need to be dug up and preserved. Do whatever it takes, but within four weeks we want that land free of any Inuit association. Because at the first sign of a thaw—as much as we get up in these parts—we're coming in with the drills."
"And at that point there won't be any second chance for the Inuit."
"None. Once you give us the word or if the four weeks expire first, we're coming in. I don't think anyone could argue we haven't been more than patient."
"I'm sure someone could."
Derek sighed. "True. People are always able to complain when they're not spending one billion dollars of their own money."
"This is a billion-dollar operation?"
Derek smiled. "I never said that if anyone asks."
"All right, then."
Derek finished his coffee and set the empty mug back down on the table. "Do you have any other questions?"
He nodded. "We wired the first installment directly into your bank account this morning, prior to this meeting."
Annja smiled. "You're awfully confident that I'd take the assignment."
Derek shrugged. "We make a habit of knowing as much as possible about who we deal with ahead of time. I've read all of your files and information. I've watched you for a while on television even. I know you can't resist the pull of a new dig. It's too deeply ingrained in your spirit."
"You calling me an addict?"
Derek smiled. "Are you?"
Annja took a deep breath. "Sure feels that way sometimes."
"You say that with a degree of… sadness?"
Annja shook her head. "Not really. I tend to live a lot of my life locked in the past. Memories of what I've done overlapped with the memories I dig through on an almost daily basis. Sometimes it's impossible to see the future."
"Well," Derek said, "I guess I can understand that to some extent."
"I've never been on an archaeological excursion."
"Make some time," Annja said. "Come and join me on this one."
"I hate the cold," Derek said.
Annja smiled. "You're kidding."
"I wish. It's the one part of this job that I struggle with on a constant basis. If there was any way to do this from the warm beaches of Fiji, I'd be a much happier man."
"I guess not, though, huh?"
"The rest of my payment will be transferred in four weeks?"
"Or upon completion of the job, whichever comes first. If you finish in two weeks, you get a fifty percent bonus."
Annja leaned back. "Mighty generous of you."
"Not my decision, actually, but I'll pass it on. Remember what I told you, that we're in the time-is-money realm. My bosses want this thing to move ahead quickly. I hope we can count on you."
"If you had any doubts, I wouldn't be here, would I?'
Annja stood. "All right. I'm in."
"I'll need a week to get my stuff together and gather up what I'll need to make sure I've got the necessary tools—"
"We leave right now."
Derek smiled. "Whatever you need, we can pick up on the way. Inuvik has a number of good locations to pick up supplies."
"I wasn't planning on this happening so quickly."
"But I know for a fact that you always manage to land on your feet, even in the most surprising situations."
Annja frowned. "I don't like working this way."
"Consider it a show of good faith. You indulge us in this little matter and we'll make sure you have whatever it is that you need."
"Okay, but if I don't have my supplies, I walk away and keep the advance."
Annja looked at him for a long moment and then nodded. "All right."
Derek held out his hand. "Welcome aboard."
Annja hesitated and then shook his hand. "I hope I meet your expectations accordingly."
"I know you will."
He guided her out of the hotel lobby and toward the front door. Outside, amid the swirling snow, Annja could just make out the blackened windows of a big SUV. Exhaust issued from the tailpipe.
"Been waiting long?"
Derek shrugged. "Things tend to freeze a lot faster up here. We keep engines going when we can."
"How very environmentally friendly of you."
Derek let the barb roll off his back. "Look, Annja, I know you said you tend to live in the past."
"Keep the future in mind. Four weeks, to be exact. That's the maximum amount of time I can allot you in this assignment. Anything more and we come in. And then all of that history—whatever happens to be left—gets ground up under our drill bits."
The ride to Inuvik was spent with Annja praying that the heavy tires on the SUV didn't blow out as they drove over portions of highway, sections of hard gravel and even dirt road. She thanked the inventor of shock absorbers many times during the ride, but even still, when she finally arrived at the Inuvik Welcome Center, Annja found herself massaging her buttocks.
Derek didn't look as if he'd fared much better. "The last time I rode up here, it wasn't that bad," he said.
"Maybe you guys could chip in for a highway reconstruction project. Throw a few million at them to pave the entire expanse for the sake of butts everywhere."
Derek laughed. "I'll talk to my superiors about it."
Annja glanced around. Thick snow coated every exterior surface. Her breath seemed to stain the air in front of her face and then drop to the ground already frozen. "Just how cold is it?"