Mesozoic Murder: An Ansel Phoenix Mystery #1

Mesozoic Murder: An Ansel Phoenix Mystery #1

Ansel Phoenix draws dinosaurs for magazines, books, and museum displays. But one morning, digging with students out in the field, she unearths the body of colleague and ex-lover Nick Capos. ...

About The Author

Christine Gentry

Christine Gentry lives in Florida and has been writing and working in the book world for 20 years, publishing magazine ...

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Chapter 1

“There is no death. Only a change of worlds.”

Seattle, Squamish Chief

Ansel sinks into the water, far down near the bottom of the pond where the black mud and darkness pull at her with deadly fingers. Light from the ice hole above funnels down like a spotlight. She thrashes harder. Murky water, peppered with rotting debris, swirls around her. So cold. The pain of not breathing hurts. She can’t hold her breath.

When she screams, a moaning sound and huge gurgling bubbles pour from her mouth. She inhales. The first swallow of frigid, foul-tasting water rushes over her tongue and into the back of her throat. Panic overwhelms her. She gulps madly for air that will never reach her tiny lungs. Then she begins to die. Slowly.

# # #

Ansel Phoenix jolted back to reality, gasping for breath. The crushing black water didn’t exist. She was sitting on a metal stool in front of her drawing table, safe and sound in her office. Except that her heart pounded in her chest like a galloping horse.

Ansel’s fingers clutched the edges of the drafting board, pressing crescent marks into the soft wood. Just a flashback, she reasoned. She could handle this. She’d been through these chronic anxiety attacks a hundred times.

Instinctively, Ansel reached her sweaty right hand toward the blue stone hanging from a leather cord around her neck. The cool, solid feel of the azurite pendant quelled her sense of panic. She caressed the natural star-shaped design on the sea urchin fossil with her fingertips. It had been her grandmother’s childhood Iniskim.

Her mother, Mary Two Spots, had given her the lucky stone when she was five. After the accident. That’s what they called the events of that winter day so long ago when she’d been clinically dead. But it wasn’t an accident. Eight-year-old Rusty Flynn had taunted her, and then pushed her through an ice hole on the pond behind her  house.

Ansel stared down at the large, colorful pen and ink drawing taped to the tabletop. A snaking thread of water was about to soak into the paper’s upper edge.


She grabbed an old rag and quickly blotted up the liquid. A paper cup filled with rinse water for her brushes was leaking, and light reflecting off the liquid-silver trickle had set off an alarm in her head. The telephone on the bookcase rang. Ansel’s arm jerked, nearly toppling the cup with her elbow. “Double damn.” Who would call her business line at six in the morning? She yanked up the receiver. “Phoenix Studios.” “Where is my Stegosaurus?”

Ansel flicked a strand of waist-long, black hair away from her still flushed face. “Dr. Andreasson?”

“Of course. I’m supposed to have your drawings by today.” Ansel swallowed. The editor of Science Quest Magazine had commissioned her to do five black and white renderings and one full-color cover spread for the December issue. Andreasson, a world-renowned paleontology scholar, needed to approve her drawings before they accompanied his dinosaur article.

“I’m finishing up the final color work. I’ll mail the portfolio by Express Mail. It should arrive by noon tomorrow.” “I can’t wait much longer. I have deadlines, my dear. You came highly recommended by Rodgers at Folsom Publishing.

Don’t disappoint me.” “I won’t.”

“I’ll call after I look them over. Good-bye, Ms. Phoenix.” Ansel dropped the remote into its stand and groaned. She glanced at her wristwatch. She was running out of time. She was teaching a field seminar at ten.

She spent another hour on the finishing touches and gazed at the cover art with satisfaction. A green-brown Steggie stood munching on the succulent shoots of a Cycad palm and eyed a large Jurassic butterfly perched on a frond above. Nearby, a puddle of rainwater mirrored the images of the reptile and the butterfly.

The Steggie drawings incorporated three months of research and multitudes of rough anatomical sketches of Stegosaurus bones, ligaments, and skin into vibrant, three-dimensional creations. She had achieved a national reputation as an innovative paleoartist because of her ruthless attention to scientific detail coupled with dashes of artistic flair that filled in gaps of paleontological  knowledge.

Ansel sealed the mailing package, addressed it, and left the renovated airplane hangar which now provided a roomy space for her commercial art business. She walked toward the trailer porch through an Alpine-like meadow burgeoning with colorful Indian paintbrush, beargrass, astors, columbines, and dogtooth violets. At one time the area had been a grass runway where the former owner, Marlin Valentine, had taxied his Bonanza six-seater.

“Okay. Everybody out.”

Ansel balanced Andreasson’s package on one arm and shooed two honeybees out the screen door. The Langstroth hive in the field adjacent to the hangar was a legacy from Valentine that vexed her to no end. All year long she tried to avoid confrontations with the fifty thousand insects that buzzed and dive-bombed across forty acres of  property.

By eight thirty Ansel was driving along Highway 13 toward town and savoring her view of the slightly rolling terrain. This time of the year, the land ran riot with perennial plants, shelterbelt trees, and fragrant flowering bushes. Willows and cottonwoods towered over dense strands of service berries, Oregon grape, and kinnikinnick. The sky overhead was brilliant blue without a cloud in sight. Northeastern Montana was called the Big Open for a very good  reason.

Grinning, Ansel drove past the huge billboard proclaiming “Welcome to Big Toe. The Dinosaur Capital of the World.” The sign sported the cartoon caricature of an overweight, brown and green, three-horned dinosaur wearing a cowboy hat and six guns. Seeing the town mascot, Tilly the Torosaur, always made her day.

The town of Big Toe owed its existence to this little oasis growing amidst the monotony of the prairie. During the early eighteen hundreds, Sioux Indians had traveled here in search of curing plants and discovered the large, three-toed tracks etched into rocks along the Missouri River waterways.

The Indians had called the area Sipa Tanka, which meant “Big Toe,” and so the town had acquired its name from a Mesozoic dinosaur wandering through the flood plains in search of aquatic plants. Today Big Toe was a tiny, but relatively prosperous community with a population of more than eight hundred merchants, cattle ranchers, wheat farmers, and a few native peoples.

Ansel parked the truck in a spot next to Dino-Mite Drugs and lugged Andreasson’s package up to the pharmacy counter that doubled as a postal station.

“Hi, Mr. Tudor.” Ever since she remembered, Wilson Tudor, a tall and distinguished-looking gentleman with gray hair and liquid-brown eyes, had manned this counter.

“I see you’ve been drawing again.” Tudor smiled warmly as he grabbed label stampers and postal stickers from a counter also cluttered with prescription bottles and insurance printouts.

Ansel slid the box and prepared forms toward him. “This has to go Express Mail.” She reached for her  wallet.

Tudor worked quickly at tagging the box. “Your mother would be very proud of you, Ansel.” She smiled her thanks as she paid. As he made change, Tudor asked, “Your family getting ready for the buffet?”

“Yes. It’s going to be bigger and better then  ever.”

“That Road Kill Chili last year was the best I’ve ever eaten.” He winked. “Don’t tell Mrs. Tudor I said that.”

“She won’t hear it from me. See you  there.”

Relieved to be finished with the drawings, Ansel hoped Andreasson would be satisfied, and she’d get paid the second half of her contractual advance. She glanced at her watch. Nine thirty already.

Ansel jumped into the pickup and sped out of the parking lot, heading south on State Highway 200. If she pushed it, she could talk to Pitt and still reach the seminar site on time. When she finally gunned the pickup off the main highway and onto an eroded, gravel road leading to the farmhouse, she feared the axles would never survive the trip.

This land was radically different from Big Toe. Treeless, rolling shortgrass prairie mottled with green mudstone and red sandstone, underlaid with shale, surrounded her. Pockets of prickly pear, range grass, and honeysuckle eked out an existence in temporary dirt pockets accumulated by the wind. An intermittent breeze carried a pungent odor through the pickup’s air conditioning vents and her nose wrinkled. Pitt operated a pig farm, and the air reeked of dung and  urine.

Ansel passed through another barbed-wire fence and parked the truck. As she hopped from the cab, the sun beat down on her head with griddle-hot ultraviolet rays. On either side of her, huge pens filled with obese, black Montana pigs snorted and sprayed muck in all directions. A few porkers farted. The smell was horrendous, a methane factory on the hoof.

“Hey, Ma’am,” called Feltus Pitt from beneath the visor of a dirt-laden cap brim that read Pro-Plan.

Ansel smiled as the welcome scent of spicy aftershave filled the air. “Hi, Mr. Pitt. I stopped by to tell you I’ll be teaching a seminar near Cottonwood Creek this morning. Thanks for letting my field class explore for fossils. We don’t often meet private landowners like you who will let freelance diggers excavate on their land. The Pangaea Society really appreciates your generosity.”

Feltus let loose with a phlegm-popping chuckle and grinned from ear to ear. “No problem, Ma’am. Any old bones in my fields would just dry up and blow away if you don’t take ’em. Can’t see the sense of that. It’s just hard for me to believe that one of those dinosaur critters could eat a pig whole. Now that would be something to see.”

“Most of the bones we find come from vegetarian dinosaurs.” “You don’t say.” Feltus’ sunburned face turned pensive, skin shifting into a wrinkled likeness of the eastern Badlands. “Hey, Ma’am. Have you done the spring inspection of your hive?”

Ansel moved toward the pickup. “Not yet.”

“Not good to let the hive overwinter and go sour in the spring. Those bees will swarm. I’ll check your hive any time.” “I’ll think about it, Mr.  Pitt. I’ve  got to meet the kids.

Talk to you later.”

A short drive beyond the house, Ansel spotted Cottonwood Creek. The tools in the flatbed shifted forward with a scraping thump when she halted the truck near a rocky knoll. Outside the cab, she reached in and grabbed her black Stetson just as something fell across her right arm with a sinewy tickle. Her necklace cord lay in the dirt. How odd that the leather string had unknotted itself. The second she grabbed it, Ansel realized that the Iniskim was missing.

Alarmed, she frantically searched the ground for several minutes. When that yielded nothing, she looked inside the cab in case the amulet had fallen there. The charm was nowhere to be found. Tears of frustration flooded Ansel’s eyes. She couldn’t bear to lose it. A cold shiver skittered up her spine despite the prairie heat. Losing her lucky rock was a very bad omen.

The sound of grinding gears yanked Ansel’s attention away. No time to fret over it. A van, a station wagon, and a compact car headed her way.

# # #

“I can’t wait to begin,” said Lydia Hodges. She was padded in khakis from head to foot and looked ready to single-handedly bag a live dinosaur while on safari. “I’ve wanted to hunt fossils ever since our last seminar.”

Biology student Shane Roco looked down at his shirt, shorts, and white leather running shoes and scowled. “Well, nobody told me that we were going to be out in a rocky pig field. Why do they call this place Cottonwood Creek? There’s no creek. And there aren’t any  trees.”

“The creek dried up in the eighties,” said Tim Shanks, pulling off his straw cowboy hat with feathered hatband and running one hand through his shaggy blond hair. “The cottonwoods just died.” He replaced the headgear and flashed Ansel a smile, green eyes accenting the neon colors of his Hawaiian shirt. An expensive-looking 35mm camera hung from a strap around his neck.

Ansel watched the three familiar graduate students before her, silently assessing their behaviors in terms of dinosaurian characteristics. This mind game had amused her since her college days. As she studied toward her geology degree, she’d taken some elective classes in the Department of Fine Arts just for fun. She could always draw well, even as a child, and had spent many adolescent years sitting in her room doing pen and ink landscapes, nature studies, or portraits.

During the art classes she had realized that she liked to draw humongous, snaggle-toothed reptiles with attitude rather than petite human models with great orthodontia and stunted personalities. From that moment on her desire to be a paleoartist had bloomed into a full-blown  passion.

In her mind’s eye, Lydia was like a Panoplosaurus dinosaur: stout, non-threatening, social. Ansel likened Shane to Ornitholestes: a bird-like loner and hunter with a tendency to snap. She smiled as she gazed at Tim. He was the Deinonychus of the group: attractive-looking and social, quick, strong, and very good with his hands.

“We’re standing at the southeast tip of a geological area known as the Hell Creek Formation, one of two Montana sites containing Cretaceous Period dinosaur fossils,” Ansel began. “At one time all of Montana was an inland sea. Over millions of years, this sea retreated eastward, allowing sediments to accumulate in the shallow sea basins offshore. The bedrock here is mostly shale with a sandstone or mudstone covering, and it’s perfect for finding fossilized dinosaur bones.”

Ansel pointed behind her. “During the late Cretaceous, this field looked almost the same except there were streams running through it. These stream banks existed as heavily forested woodlands, but huge herds of Hadrosaurs roamed the open areas just like the buffalo herds of the eighteen hundreds. Carnivorous dinosaurs such as Allosaurus also hunted here.”

Ansel pulled a pen and a battered red notebook from her rear pants pocket. “Today I want you to take your field notebooks and picks and survey the area looking for fossils. Remember, fossil hunting requires a keen power of observation. Focus your senses on detecting unnatural symmetries or characteristic fossil shapes and noticing differences in ground color and texture.”

Shane sighed. “How are we supposed to do that?”   “Look in  a  systematic manner. Work  the base of slopes and study the natural exposures. Examine the side light striking them. Turn over rock fragments. Get on your hands and knees if you have to. Use back lighting to prevent fossils from becoming translucent so you don’t miss them altogether. And if you find something, let me know. All of us should see the fossil as you first found it.”

Ansel glanced at each student. “Before I let you go, I want to tell you about the Beastly Buffet at my father’s ranch. It’s next Saturday. You’re all invited.”

“Isn’t that where everyone brings a food dish made from a weird animal?” Lydia asked.

“That’s right. The food is made from exotic animals, birds, fish, or other creatures. The weirder the better as long as it’s not made from an endangered species.”

“How do we get there?” asked Tim.

Ansel pulled small paper sheets from the back of her field book. “The driving directions are on these.” She handed a flier to each student. “Now let’s go fossil  hunting.”

Lydia and Shane wandered off in different directions, but Tim remained. “Miss Phoenix, I was wondering if I could talk to you sometime about the Montana State University. I know you went there. I just got my Master’s in zoology, and I want to go there for my doctorate.”

“That’s wonderful, Tim. Sure, I’d be glad to discuss the university with you. We could meet at my art studio. I’m  free Monday afternoon.”

“Great. What time?” “How about two o’clock?” “Perfect.”

“Give me your flier, and I’ll write my  address.”

Tim passed the paper, and Ansel scribbled across it. “I’ll see you then. You’d better get hunting or those two will find something first,” she said with a grin.

Tim nodded and walked off. Ansel took a moment to write site information in her battered field notebook. Thoughts of her missing Iniskim invaded her mind. She’d have to go back to Pitt’s homestead and search the ground.

Moments later Ansel closed the notebook and looked around. Lydia was staring into a gully. Shane probed the edge of an interesting rock outcropping, kicking at shale chips littering the prairie. Tim halted on the open grassland and snapped pictures of the terrain and of his fellow searchers.

Ansel loved fieldwork despite its demands as an exacting science, and she really wanted to convey the same sense of excitement and adventure to her students. It appeared that Shane and Tim didn’t quite grasp the concept of making fascinating paleontological discoveries. Only Lydia was enjoying this excursion. The geology student had hopped into the gully and was examining the ground with fierce concentration.

As she walked toward Lydia, Ansel slid the journal into her pocket and pulled out a fossil hammer hanging from the tool belt around her waist. She reached the gully’s edge and looked down. “Find anything interesting?”

Lydia brushed a curly lock of brown hair away from her perspiring brow. “I see something in this hole. I think it’s a piece of gold, Ms. Phoenix.”

“Let me take a look.”

Ansel jumped into the three-foot-wide wash, then kneeled beside the opening. Natural erosion had loosened the dirt beneath a six-inch-long shale overhang. She could see the flash of gold metal a foot away. An unpleasantly sweet odor wafted outward.

“I see it, Lydia. Stand back.” Ansel got to her feet. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to open up the hole with my pick. This is wild prairie. I know people who’ve been bitten by poisonous snakes, badgers, and even black widow spiders because they weren’t careful.”

Ansel excavated the cavity, loose dirt falling easily away. She took several strikes at the rock overhang. Working the pick deeper into the gully wall, she finally exposed the mysterious object.

Lydia grimaced. “Shoot. It’s just a pair of dirty, old glasses.”

Ansel picked them up. The plastic lenses were scratched and dirt-smeared. The left lens had a spiderweb crack radiating from its center. Shane and Tim appeared above  them.

“What’s going on?” Shane demanded.

Ansel glanced up. “Nothing much. We’ve uncovered some eyeglasses.”

Shane’s face twisted into a  smirk. “Great going,   Lydia.

Which dinosaur wore those?”

“Let’s get back to fossil hunting,” Ansel said, trying to avoid any conflict.

Tim  started to walk away and then stopped. “Geesh.

What’s that smell?”

“Pigs,” Shane shot back. “What do you think?”

The rancid odor Ansel smelled earlier had returned full bore. She noticed Lydia’s straining effort to walk up the gully side. Her feet kept sinking deep into the loose soil. Curious, Ansel thought.

The wash had been dry since the March thaws, and it hadn’t rained in months. The rest of the gully was bone dry and hard-packed. Despite the arid conditions, the flora around the gully flourished in the late June weather. A verdant growth of range grass and prickly pear had claimed most of the wash. Except for the area surrounding the hole. It formed a dead patch.

Ansel stared at the broken glasses. New glasses. And that foul odor of decay. Her head snapped upward.

“Lydia, get off that wall right now.”

Lydia stopped abruptly. Loose dirt shifted beneath her. She began to slide as chert and rock debris gave way in an avalanche of loose ground. Ansel loped to her aid, reaching up a hand so the girl could grab it. She hauled Lydia onto firmer ground at the bottom of the  gully.

“You all right?” “Yeah, Ms. Phoenix.”

“Well, he’s not,” said Shane. He stared down at the new depression above Ansel and Lydia.

The dust-laden head of a man had emerged in the center of the collapsed gully wall. His swollen, pitted, and hideously mottled blue-green face protruded through the sandstone grit and gave the disconcerting illusion of being cut from marbled stone. Two angry, feasting sand scorpions scuttled out from the dirt around his chin. The three-inch-long, yellow and black arachnids snapped their pincers and twirled in a dis- jointed dance of death.

“Oh, my God.” Lydia threw her hands up to her face, shielding her senses from the sight and smell of the  corpse.

Tim Shanks lifted his camera and clicked off a rapid succession of shots.

Ansel was too shocked to berate him. Her lungs sucked in rancid air while her mind tried to make sense of the hideous scene. The gold wire glasses. That face. Despite the disfiguring ravages of decay, she knew the man.

The glasses slipped from her fingers and fell with a thud next to the grave of her ex-lover.

Reviews of

Mesozoic Murder: An Ansel Phoenix Mystery #1

“Gentry’s appealing heroine, who gets ample opportunity to display her resourcefulness and fortitude, and the intriguing milieu in which she operates, should ensure both a warm reception and a speedy encore.”

Publishers Weekly