The Seventh Stone – Look Inside

You shall make the Breastplate of judgment. Artistically woven according to the workmanship of the ephod you shall make it: of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen, you shall make it.  It shall be doubled into a square: a span shall be its length, and a span shall be its width.  And you shall put settings of stones in it, four rows of stones: The first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and an Emerald; this shall be the first row; the second row shall be a Turquoise, a sapphire, and a diamond; the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold settings…”

– Exodus 28:30

DAY  1


Navajo Reservation, Arizona


Christa Devlin slammed on the jeep’s brakes.  He appeared out of the darkness like an apparition.  With his wizened face, salt and pepper braid and colorful striped blanket wrapped around his shoulders, he had to be Joseph, the Navajo shaman whom her father had sent her to meet.  And she was going to run him down, in the middle of a moonless night about as far from civilization as possible in the lower forty-eight.  He stood still as she careened towards him, the tires slewing through the desert sand.  He held up his hand.  She rammed hers on the horn. The jeep stopped with a jolt, as if the old shaman had stared it down.

This was the man who was going to help her save the world, according to her father. Joseph knew the secret of the Turquoise.  The sacred Turquoise.  The one stolen from an artifact that had sent armies to war and men to the executioner, the most powerful artifact ever lost to humankind.  The ancient ones had squirreled away the Turquoise stone in this canyon five hundred years ago. Hardly bigger than an acorn, she had to find it.  In less than twenty-four hours.  Before the others who would kill to possess it.  She was glad Joseph was on her side.

She drew in a deep breath and shut off the engine.  The silence was unnerving.  She turned off the headlights.  The darkness was complete until her eyes adjusted.  Then she could make out objects a good ten feet into the pitch dark.  Great.  She opened the jeep door and climbed down, her hiking boots landing softly in the sand.  A river babbled nearby.  Insects chirped.  The hoot of a lone owl underscored the stillness.  She almost longed for the familiar annoyances of a barking dog or fighting lovers, until she looked up.  The night sky was alive with stars that most people could only take on faith, framed by the black silhouettes of the canyon walls.

Joseph nodded to her.  “It’s cold tonight,” he said.  “Come to the fire.”  He turned and walked towards a cottonwood grove.  He had to be one of Dad’s friends, all right, cloaked in mystery with a hint of danger.

She reached to the passenger seat and grabbed her new lucky pack, picked up at the local trading post.  When she had dragged her old lucky pack out of the closet for this trip, it stank of mildew. A bad omen.  She stretched the elastic band of her new headlamp over her forehead and flicked it on.

Joseph’s campfire was in a small clearing beyond the patch of cottonwood trees.  He crouched and stirred a log deeper into the coals.  Sparks spiraled up into the wisps of pungent smoke.  He sat down, tugging his blanket in tighter.

She sat opposite him.   “My father sounded desperate last night,” Christa said, “when he called from Morocco.” More than desperate, he had sounded scared.  Dad didn’t get scared.

“You’ve had a long journey,” Joseph said. “You should rest. We face a difficult climb in the morning, and we must rise with the sun.”

A long journey didn’t begin to describe what brought her to this remote corner of the desert on this dark December night. She had all but abandoned her cluttered office back at Princeton, the stacks of final essays to grade for her first History of Exploration class as an assistant professor, and probably any hope of a career at the university.  Just like she had abandoned Dad.  Not this time.  “If that turquoise is out there,” she said, “I’m damn well going to find it.”

“The future depends on it,” he said.

“You believe in the power of the Breastplate.”

“Not believe,” he squinted into the darkness beyond her, “I know.”

The Breastplate of Aaron.  It was a golden shield emblazoned with twelve sacred gemstones, including the Turquoise.  God designed the Breastplate, commanding man to create it, as written in the Book of Exodus, if you believed in that sort of thing.

Aaron, brother of Moses, was the first of the high priests to wear it.  He wore it in the Inner Sanctum, the Holy of Holies, as he stood alone in front of the Breastplate’s companion piece, the Ark of the Covenant.  The Breastplate’s gems would flash with brilliance and open a portal to Heaven. The one who wore it could speak directly with God.  He could actually hear God’s voice. Dad was obsessed with finding it and the seven gemstones which were stolen from it in the 16th century and concealed around the world.

A sudden flutter of wings and the alarm call of a quail disturbed the cottonwood grove behind her.  She twisted around, but couldn’t see further than the firelight’s dance on the tangle of tumbleweed.  Nobody could be out there.  Without Joseph’s local knowledge, they couldn’t possibly have honed in on this stretch of valley so fast.  “But both the Breastplate and the Ark of the Covenant haven’t been seen since 586 years before Christ was born,” she said, still trying to see into the shadows, “when the Babylonians sacked the Temple of Solomon.  How could the Turquoise stone from the Breastplate have ended up here in Arizona?”

This could be another of Dad’s crazy ideas spawned from his fixation on finding the Breastplate.  Those bastards who are racing after the stones will kill others, Dad had said last night before the phone line went dead, just like they killed Mom. It will kill me, Christa, if we let them win.  The Breastplate will prove that life exists beyond death.  Don’t you want to reach Mom?  Don’t you want to know that her love for us didn’t just end? 

Joseph flung away his blanket and stood, his eyes wide, peering into the cottonwoods.  Christa grabbed the nearest weapon, the burning log.

An old man stumbled into the clearing. His chest was shiny with blood.  His hand clenched a knife. He collapsed face first towards the red Sonoran dust, near the glowing coals of the campfire. Joseph caught him and eased him to the ground.  “Samuel,” Joseph said.

Joseph reached for his bedroll, then eased up the man’s head, and rested it on the makeshift pillow.  Samuel looked and smelled like he’d been wandering the desert for decades, and neither he, nor his matted white beard, had seen civilization, never mind running water, for weeks.  He might have appropriated his baggy, threadbare Levis from the skeleton of an unlucky forty-niner.  He had tied a prospector’s gold pan to his belt. The stink of his sweat and blood made her gag.  She stepped back and jammed the log back into the fire.  Flames flared up from the coals.

Joseph loosened Samuel’s grimy neckerchief and unbuttoned the ragged plaid shirt.  The wound in the chest was bad, near the heart.  It was circular, as if drilled with a bullet, not stabbed with a knife.

Samuel’s eyes snapped open.  The knife rolled from his hand. The blade wasn’t metal.  It was black, obsidian, its jagged edge a telltale sign of being sharpened with flint.  Its handle was carved into a crouching jaguar and decorated with turquoise mosaic.  She had researched knives like this.  It looked pre-Columbian.  Most likely Mayan.  Possibly sacrificial. What the hell was it doing on a Navajo Reservation?

Samuel grabbed Joseph’s shoulder, snatching the flannel like a drowning man clutches a lifeline.  “I found it!” he said.  He shuddered and coughed.  He closed his free hand into a fist, fighting for a breath.  “I found the path to the lost cliff dwelling.”

Christa drew in closer.  The lost cliff dwelling.  So the cliff dwelling, at least, could be real.  Her father had told her that, five hundred years ago, a sandstorm had buried the remote village inhabited by a mysterious cult of Anasazi Indians.  Two days ago, a second once-in-a-millennium windstorm exposed it.

“Samuel, who did this to you?” Joseph asked. Samuel grasped at something tucked into his hip pocket.  Joseph eased it out.  A dented, stainless steel flask.  Joseph unscrewed the top and helped his friend take a sip. She switched on her headlamp and directed it at the cottonwood grove.  Nothing.

Samuel swallowed, wheezed and sputtered out a cough that intensified into an incapacitating spasm.  He stabbed the darkness from where he came, towards the babble of the river.  “All these years, I must of walked beneath it a thousand times.  Right above me.  I knew it was there, even if I couldn’t see it.  I knew it.” He coughed violently. Blood gurgled onto his beard.  “Damn double-crosser.  He hired me to guide him, then figured he was going to kill old Samuel, in my desert.”  Samuel narrowed his eyes at his chest and grimaced.  “Reckon he did kill me.”  He waved a finger at Joseph.  “But not before old Samuel done unto him what he done unto me. Stabbed him with this here knife the ancient ones left behind.  I watched him drop right over the edge of that cliff dwelling plateau. Heard him snap when he hit dirt.”

“We’ve got a jeep here, Samuel,” Christa said.  Whoever did this to him could still be out there, no matter what Samuel believed he’d done.  Years travelling with her father had taught her that bad guys were tenacious.  “We’ll get you to the hospital.”

Samuel yanked Joseph closer with surprising strength. “Like hell you will. The bastards are after it, Joseph. They’re as close as I am to kingdom come, maybe closer.” He sucked in a rattle of a breath. “You’re the only one who can beat them. When you get to the body of that scum who killed me, start climbing.”  He released his grip on Joseph’s shirt. “It’s an old toe and hand path up the cliff face.  It ain’t easy, but it’s there.” His burst of strength played out, Samuel sank back down.

Joseph closed up Samuel’s shirt and crossed his hands over his chest.  “Goodbye, old friend,” he said.  He stood and looked towards the river.  “We have little time.”

She pointed at Samuel. “He has even less, if we don’t help him.”

“We can only help him by doing what he asks.”

Blood oozed rhythmically from Samuel’s chest wound.  With a rattling cough, he battled every few seconds for a breath.  “Joseph, I want to get to that cliff dwelling more than you do,” she said, “but I am not leaving him here.  Help me get him into the jeep.”

“He won’t make it,” Joseph said. “It takes forty-five minutes to reach the nearest paved road.  Two hours from there to the hospital.”

“No damn hospital!” Samuel groaned. He raised his hand, as if grasping at the stars. “I am gonna die here, in my desert. And I don’t want my spirit to hang around here and haunt you, so you better not let them that killed me win. Now leave an old man alone.”

Joseph turned and headed into the cottonwood grove, out of the feeble circle of light cast by the dying campfire.

“Joseph, wait.” Damn it. It went against every fiber in her being to leave a man to die. What if it was Dad, lying hurt, with nobody to help him?  She grabbed her lucky pack.  She swooped up the Mayan knife, the blood on it repulsive and sticky.  “Hang on, Samuel,” she said. “I swear to you, I won’t let them win.” Samuel’s lips, oddly youthful beneath the white wilds of his beard, cracked into a smile.



Aboard the Treasure Hunter, Aquila

One hundred nautical miles off the coast of Morocco


Ahmed Battar did not sweat, until today.  He bore the blood of generations of Arab desert tribesmen, which flowed cool in the heat of the sun and true to the values of loyalty.  And yet again he had to wipe the perspiration from his brow.  He stood on the upper deck of the Aquila, anchored one hundred miles west of his homeland and a world away from his beloved wife and daughter. Beneath the surface, a school of silvery pilot fish gathered in the shadow cast by the hull of the Aquila.  Ahmed watched as their instinct, or a divine plan, guided them to the deception of shelter, just as it coaxed them to school together, in a mass, the weak with the strong.  A tiger shark swam into view, its eyes glassy, without emotion.  The shark’s jaws snapped up one, two, and then three fish as the school circled.  As a single mass, the fish darted into the sunlit waters.  Only escape, not a shadow of a shelter, could save them.  The school survived.  The shark, satisfied, slid back into the deep.

On the surface, men toiled in the heat, lashing crates and coiling lines. No breeze stirred the heat, as if Allah had lowered a bell jar over them, to watch and wait.  Today, the men were happy.  The Aquila was a treasure hunter, and they had found their treasure.

Ahmed slipped his hand through the slit in his djellaba, the traditional tunic of his people, and toyed with the tiny device in the pocket of his khakis.  He didn’t press the button, not yet.

With his other hand, he fingered the photo of his wife, Leila, and their daughter, Ambar.  The photo, snapped when Ambar proudly walked her first steps, was creased and faded from the salt air, heat and touch.  She was six years old now, could write her own name in flowing if hesitant Arabic, and insisted on the best of manners and sweets at her frequent tea parties.  But the photo was still his favorite.  He saw in it her innocence, her future, and, most importantly, hope.  They had not destroyed her innocence, had not stolen her life, not yet.  He had to press the button, but he couldn’t.

He eyed the men on the foredeck below him, the men whose lives he would soon put in grave danger.  They were securing the last crates under the disciplined but kind direction of Captain Bertoni.  Ahmed noticed that the captain’s trademark white cotton shirt with red epaulets was damp with sweat.  At this morning’s briefing, it had been, as always, pristine and starched.  The captain doffed his navy cap, looked up to Ahmed and saluted him.

“The captain likes you, kid.”  The voice startled Ahmed.  It was Stubb, the elder statesmen of their crew, with the mind and know-how of an historian and the physique of a longshoreman.  He had been with Bertoni for years.

“I admire the captain,” said Ahmed, “the way he keeps his ship and crew on an even keel, in calm, or stormy, times.”

“It’s because he chooses his crew wisely,” said Stubb.  He pulled out his trademark pipe from his pocket.  He no longer smoked it, just chewed on its black nib.  “Like when he hired you as translator six months ago.  I thought you were a bit too eager to get the job.  He said that you reminded him of himself, when he was your age.”

The words, meant as a compliment, stung Ahmed like the bitterest insult.  He had thought himself clever to secure a position that would allow him to fulfill his vow to Thaddeus Devlin.  Now the manipulations needed to retain this job shamed him, but he had no choice.  “I knew Captain Bertoni would succeed,” he said.

“He had to,” said Stubb.  “This treasure will buy back his father.”

Ahmed couldn’t hide his surprise.  “The captain has never spoken of this.”  He thought of his wife, his child.  Had the pirates also threatened Bertoni’s father?

Stubb clenched his pipe.  “His father disowned him,” he said.  “Dear old Papa got tired of ticking off the years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Told the captain that a delusional fool could be no son of Antonio Bertoni.”

“Then the captain is hunting for more than treasure,” Ahmed said, his voice soft.

Stubb pointed his pipe at him.  “He is seeking redemption.”

“The most elusive quarry,” said Ahmed.

“Spoken like someone who seeks it.”

Stubb was fishing.  Ahmed couldn’t take the bait.

“Captain Bertoni almost gave up hope,” said Stubb.  “I’d watch him, in the wee hours of the morning, his long, vacant stares across the open sea.  I thought he might step over the side.  Be one with his treasure like Ahab with his whale.  He thinks he has found what he was seeking, but I don’t believe he has.”

“Without belief,” Ahmed said, “redemption is hollow.”

Stubb slapped Ahmed on the back.  “Enough of that.  We found the bloody ship, the San Salvador, sunk in a storm in this very spot 429 years ago.  We’ve got the conquistador’s treasure now.  After all these centuries, it will be Captain Bertoni who returns in triumph to Europe with the New World’s bounty.”

Ahmed could almost believe it.  He could almost picture Captain Bertoni returning to his father, opening wide the strongbox brimming with gold, silver, emeralds and turquoise.  But he knew Mishad and his bloodthirsty pirates were out there, just beyond sight, waiting greedily to rip his captain’s dream from his grasp.

Ahmed couldn’t fathom how Mishad had learned the secret of the Emerald.  When Ahmed was deep inside the medina on their last supply run, he had been pulled aside by the pirate.  The cat’s eye Emerald, Mishad had said in his hiss of a voice, was of special interest to his “patron.”  When the Emerald had been recovered, Ahmed was to press this button, signaling them to attack.  Mishad, with his dirty hand, shook Ambar’s favorite doll.  It was so easy to get it, he had hissed, just as it would be to get her if you don’t do as I command.

Stubb bounded down the stairs to the deck, jovially greeting the men.  He tightened the lashing on one of the crates.

Ahmed had devised a plan.  He had pictured himself saving his family, the men of the Aquila, and, most daring of all, the Tear of the Moon Emerald.  But now that it was time to take action, an almost incapacitating dread crept over him.  The risks were great.  His plan could save them, or lead them all into a bloody, painful death.  All this, like a poison vine sprouting from a single seed, a gemstone which was better left nascent on the bottom of the Atlantic.

Time had run out.  Ahmed saw in his mind’s eye little Ambar’s smile when she invited him to tea.  He felt the silk of Leila’s black hair, smelled her lavender perfume.  Ahmed fingered the device in his pocket.  He flipped it open.  He pressed the button.



Navajo Reservation, Arizona


Christa pawed around for the next notch that the ancient ones carved out of this vertical slab of a sandstone cliff 1,000 years ago.  They called this a toe and hand trail; each notch was only big enough to fit the toe of her hiking boot and the tips of her fingers.  Back in their heyday, the Anasazi, or ancient ones, had climbed down to the river valley every morning to hunt and gather.  Every evening, they had climbed back up so they wouldn’t be hunted and gathered.

After centuries of erosion, the notches were more like dares.  Climbing in the middle of the night was crazy.  She and Joseph had no choice.  Using only the feeble beams of their two headlamps, Joseph had followed Samuel’s blood trail from their camp to the river, and then picked it up again after they forded the frigid waters.  At the base of the cliff, they didn’t find a body, only the crushed creosote bush where Samuel’s assailant had fallen.  A trail of blood and broken branches led upriver, most likely to his back-up.  The tenacious bastard wouldn’t be coming back to haunt them.  He’d be coming back to kill them.  She and Joseph had to reach that cliff dwelling first or all would be lost.

Every loose rock looked like a notch in the shadows cast by her headlamp.  She relied more on touch than sight.  They had to be about ninety feet above the valley floor, but it was so dark below that it looked bottomless.  About ten feet above her, she could just make out the lip of the plateau.

The bang of a rifle split the night. The bullet drilled into the rock three feet above and to the right of her.  She snapped back her hand.  Slipped.  Scrabbled to regain a foothold.  Oh God, she was going to fall.  She pancaked herself against the cliff.  Her heart hammered.

“Headlights,” Joseph said.  “Opposite rim of the canyon.  Quarter mile.” He turned off his headlamp.

Her hands shook.  She fumbled with trembling fingers for her headlamp switch and turned it off.

“Hurry,” he said.  As if being shot at wasn’t motivation enough.  Joseph scrambled upwards, as sure-footed as a mountain goat.

Christa was no mountain goat.  The only time her footing was sure was on the fencing strip with a foil in hand.  She had fenced blindfolded once, a coaching strategy.  It hadn’t gone well.  She looked back.  Alongside the headlights, a glow rimmed the high canyon wall.  The moon was rising.  She and Joseph wouldn’t have the cover of dark for long.  The headlights swung around, towards the dirt road that zigzagged down into the valley.

“He’s coming into closer range,” Joseph said.

“He can’t get a bead on us in the dark,” she said, based more on desperate hope than experience.  The barking howl of a coyote punctuated the drone of a car engine.  She felt for the next notch, clamped on and heaved herself up.

Joseph’s moccasin disappeared over the rim.

She clambered up behind him, rolling onto the flat, dusty plateau.  The moon breached the horizon.  It was full and bright.  Its light flooded the cave in a timeless silver.  She crouched, too stunned to be sensible and run for the nearest cover.  The cliff dwelling was magnificent.  It wasn’t in ruins.  Its architecture had been perfectly preserved from being buried in sand for five hundred years.

Joseph grabbed her hand. Keeping low, they ran away from the edge of the plateau and deeper into the eyebrow-shaped cave.  The cave had to be at least seventy feet wide and thirty feet high, eroded out of the sandstone cliff eons ago.  The pueblos clawed into the recesses of the cave, crammed into its shelter like a child’s jumble of building blocks, crafted from crude stone bricks and plastered together with adobe clay.  Many didn’t have doorways, and only a few had windows; the ancient ones accessed their pueblos via ladders through the ceiling.

Joseph pulled her behind the ruin of the outermost wall.  He was breathing hard.  Sweat beaded around the faded red bandana tied around his forehead beneath his headlamp.  He corralled his salt and pepper braid back over his shoulder.  “This place is not right,” he said.

“I agree.  No potsherds.  Not even the charred remains of a cooking fire.” She fished the Mayan knife out of her pack.  “But Samuel said he found this knife here.  Did you ever know Samuel to carry a knife like this?”

“As he told us, the ancient ones, the Anasazi, left it for him, here in this cliff dwelling.”

“Samuel was dying, possibly delirious.  How could the ancient ones foresee a catastrophic sandstorm burying the dwelling in their time, and then, in the future, another windstorm revealing their dwelling, but choose to leave behind only one mysterious knife?”

He turned his dark eyes on her.  “It is a useful perspective, to see what waits beyond that which is visible.”

“If you’re alluding to the Breastplate, that’s not why I’m here,” she said.  “I’m no longer a believer, like my father.”

“You will be.”

“I don’t need the Breastplate to know trouble’s coming.” She peered over the wall.  The headlights bounced jaggedly, halfway down the opposite side of the canyon.  “The Breastplate is Dad’s Holy Grail, not mine.  Or, as I like to think of it, his Moby Dick.”

“We seek a piece of the Breastplate, once worn by Aaron, brother of Moses,” he said.  “Its power destroyed entire villages. It is not to be taken lightly.”

“And it’s dragging my father to his death,” she said. “Throughout history, people have sacrificed their lives for quests for religious artifacts, thinking some divine power will create a happy ending, when it only leads to disaster and ruin.” Like in her recurring dream.  In it, she held the sacred Breastplate, its gold heavy and warm, sparkling with twelve precious gemstones.  The diamond, ruby, Emerald, and sapphire engulfed her in a prism of brilliant, seductive light. But the more she tightened her grasp, the faster the Breastplate disintegrated, falling to her feet as black ash.  Somehow, that black ash was Dad.

She pointed to a round building, the size of a large silo. “That could be the kiva,” she said.  Like the ones she’d studied at other cliff dwellings, a kind of temple, a place for men to sweat and pray.  Early kivas were dug out of the ground, a dark respite to the desert sun.  Later, the Anasazi built them on the surface, which was less atmospheric, but more elaborate; some were even keyhole shaped.  “Let’s go.”

“That is not the kiva,” Joseph said.  He scrutinized the dwelling, his eyes squinting with eager fear. “Keep low.”  He crept along the wall.  His moccasin clad feet barely made a whisper as he approached the circular structure.  Christa followed, each footfall of her heavy tread hiking boot sounding like thunder awaking echoes in the dead, muted air of the cave.  He traced his fingers across the lintel topping the T-shaped portal.  Sweat trickled down the back of his neck to the collar of his plaid flannel shirt.  His hands trembled.  “The ancients who lived here practiced the witchery way,” he said.

Cursed.  Dad’s kind of place.  “You really think the Turquoise is hidden inside?”  She peered inside the circular chamber.  It was dark, and felt like a trap.

“The Turquoise is close.  I can sense it,” said Joseph. “One of the seven gemstones taken from the Breastplate.”

“Right,” she said, “by a priest in the sixteenth century, Dad’s favorite bedtime story.”

“A conquistador found the Breastplate.  He brought it to the new world to begin a new empire with its divine power.”  Joseph gestured to the night sky, as if recounting the tale around the campfire.  “A priest saw that the conquistador had used its power for evil.  The priest ripped away seven of the twelve sacred stones from the Breastplate and scattered them around the world.  No man could ever again use its power for evil.”

“And the gems and Breastplate were lost to history and humankind,” she said, trying to tame her skepticism.  “Listen, I’ve searched for years for historical evidence to support this story.  Didn’t find anything.”  We will find it, Christa, Dad would say.  We will write the ending to this story.  She should know by now.  There are no happy endings.  Only last chances.

An eerie call wafted up to them from below.  It began softly, almost like a hungry infant’s pitiful keen.  It quickly intensified in pitch and volume.  A monstrous, primeval howl pierced the night air.  Christa peered over the wall towards the plateau rim.  A sudden breeze sliced through the stubborn scrub that crept between the rocks and scratched cool fingers down the back of her neck.  “What the hell is that?” she whispered.  The yowl spiraled around them.  It was close, very close.  And it wasn’t a lone coyote.

Joseph fingered the cowhide pouch strung around his neck, his medicine bag.  “The yee naaldlooshii,” he said.  “Protectors of what we seek.  We have awoken them. They will not sleep again until they kill.”



Viscillus ruins, southern coast of Morocco


Thaddeus Devlin twisted off his neckerchief and rubbed the fine red sand from his Sig Sauer pistol.  It had been a long, cold night, waiting, hidden behind the ruins of the Roman wall.  He had watched the full moon rise and set while he listened to the waves beat relentlessly against the shore.  His back ached, pressed against the rough granite block.  He could feel it, like the damp sea air, seeping into his bones.  They were coming for the letter.  He might have to kill them.  He might be damned either way.

“I tell you, Professor Thaddeus,” Muktar whispered, “no bad men come.  Nothing is here.  Nothing for them.”  Muktar’s stomach growled.  He tossed the long tail of his turban over his shoulder.  Muktar was a good head digger, but too trusting.

“That worker who deserted last night,” said Thaddeus, “he overheard my phone call to my daughter about the ancient cliff dwelling revealed in America.”  The connection had been terrible.  The entire nearby village could have heard him shout over the static through the still desert air.  “He was a spy.”

“Not a spy.  Lazy.”  Muktar spat with disgust.

“Nobody quits a dig as remote as this one in the middle of the night,” Thaddeus said, “unless he has a very good reason.”  Like a lot more money than an archeologist could pay.  The location wasn’t just isolated.  It was forgotten, a rocky patch of Atlantic coastline in southernmost Morocco.  Even the locals abandoned it, only leaving behind foundation stones too cumbersome to steal, a ragged reminder of arrogant Roman city planning.

He stretched his right leg to pre-empt the threatening cramp.  He couldn’t abide these tedious aches and pains.  His dimming eyesight was the worst of it.  It might affect his aim, especially in low light.  He wasn’t ready to be old.

Three long years had passed since he had explored this isolated coast, dragging Christa along with him, hoping to mend their father-daughter bond.  Christa was so much like Angeline, beautiful, smart and feisty.  God, he missed her.  He had conducted a cursory search, and found nothing.  It wasn’t the time.  But the events of the past two days couldn’t be coincidence.  In Arizona, a windstorm revealed the lost cliff dwelling that he was sure concealed the Turquoise.  One hundred miles west in the Atlantic, they had found the wreck of the San Salvador.  By now, they may even have salvaged the Tear of the Moon Emerald.  These two of the seven sacred stones stolen from the Breastplate of Aaron had resurfaced against seemingly impossible odds.

“Your loyal friend, Ahmed Battar.”  Muktar pointed to the vast Atlantic, its eternal waves clawing the gravelly sand down the slope from their perch.  “He is close to treasure.  Out there, from the wreck of the ship.  Not here.  No gold and Emerald from across the ocean is here.  If this deserter was a spy, then what secret does he know?”

“That it is all happening now,” Thaddeus said.  “It took me years, Muktar, and miles of searching, but I finally found the clue to Salvatierra’s fate buried deep in the Vatican archives.  It was nothing more than a soldier’s log entry, filed away since the sixteenth century.  I could have overlooked it, but the page fell to the floor, as if it is destiny.”  He was certainly no prophet, but these signs didn’t take a prophet to interpret.

Salvatierra had known the enormity of his responsibility, that the power of the Breastplate spanned time.  In 1586, Pope Sixtus V sent Salvatierra to the new world to recover the Breastplate of Aaron and stop the conquistador who brought it there to create a new empire with its power.  Even then, Salvatierra knew that the Vatican’s command was not his destiny, but his story had been lost to time, unless he recorded it in his letter. “That soldier’s log entry leads to this place, Muktar.  Salvatierra died here, in these ruins.  He must have left something behind.  I must find the letter he had hoped would reach his brother in the Vatican.”

Shouts pierced the silence. Thaddeus yanked Muktar down.  The marauders attacked from the east, the rising sun at their backs.  “Stealth clearly isn’t their strong suit.”  Thaddeus kept his voice low. “Which means they’re ready to kill.”  He glanced around the side of the wall. They were hungry and lean in faded sweatshirts and dirty cutoffs,.  They headed straight for the huddle of three tents in the old Roman plaza.  He leaned in close to Muktar.  “Only three of them.  One machete.  Two with pistols.”

They ran into the tents, weapons first, shouting.  A camp stool flew out of Thaddeus’s tent.  A prayer rug was tossed out of Muktar’s.  They came out again, wide-eyed, scanning the ruins.  They had clearly expected to have the advantage of surprise, attacking a presumably sleeping camp at sunrise.  They thought it was going to be easy.

Thaddeus put his fingers to his lips and blew.  His sharp whistle was the signal.  The diggers revealed themselves from their hiding places behind the Roman ruins.  Thaddeus and Muktar were positioned on one side of the plaza.  The four diggers stood opposite them.  Thaddeus had given pistols to four of them, including Muktar, along with a quick lesson in how to shoot them.  They had flanked their attackers, but left them a way to retreat.  With any luck, the outgunned attackers would simply turn back the way they came.  This was a strictly pay for hire operation.  This attack was supposed to secure the camp until the trained operatives had time to get here.

The guy in the sunbleached University of Southern California sweatshirt strafed the diggers with his gaze, not bullets.  But Thaddeus knew his type.  He was calculating odds, forming a plan, figuring out how many diggers he could take down and which of his men it would cost him.

The ruins took on a sudden, unnatural stillness.  Above the clawing of the waves, Thaddeus could just make out the soft singing.  He picked up the scent of the fresh baked bread.  Damn it, it was Ambar, Ahmed’s mother.  He hadn’t warned her.  He had been too obsessed with protecting the letter, the letter he hadn’t even found yet.  She came every morning from the village with fresh baked bread for the camp.  She came for any news about Ahmed and to scowl at him for sending her son to work on a boat instead of at home with his wife and her granddaughter.

The guy in the USC shirt swiveled to target her.  He’d found his advantage.

Thaddeus swung himself over the Roman wall, landing hard on his stiff legs.  Ambar clutched her bundle of loaves closer to her flowing kaftan.  He raced towards her.  She dropped the loaves to the ground, raised her hands to her mouth in fear.  She screamed.

Thaddeus leapt towards her.  He spread his arms to create as large a human shield as possible.  A force struck him from behind, propelling him forward.  A burning pain seared into his shoulder.  He reached towards her, shoving her behind the toppled discs of a Roman column.

He toppled to the packed earth, his cheek smacking a Roman paving stone.  The air exploded with bangs, screams and guttural shouts.  Then silence and the smell of gunpowder blanketed the ruins.  A hand pressed against his uninjured shoulder.  Then more hands eased him around, onto his back.  He peered up to the cloudless sky, vibrant in the sunrise.

“Professor Thaddeus.”  It was Muktar, leaning over him.  “The bad men, they are dead.  My diggers killed them.  We will dump their worthless bodies into the sea.” He spoke with a tinge of pride, but his eyes were wide with fear, and his voice breathless.

“Ambar?” Thaddeus asked.  Even the exertion of saying that one word hurt.

“I am here.” She was kneeling next to him, her face wizened from years in the sun, but her expression no longer as hard as the cracked earth.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I almost got you killed.”

“You save me,” she said. She frowned at his wound.  “Now, I save you.”

But he knew, just as Salvatierra knew when he was dying in these very ruins five hundred years ago, only one thing could save him now.  The letter.



Viceroyalty of New Granada, South America,

February 1586


Juan de Salvatierra saw this Godforsaken jungle for what it was, not the genesis of a new world, but the end of the old one.  He held a sprig of mint leaves to his nose.  The stench of death permeated the air even here, a full day’s march from the last village of the dead.  The sun’s heat held no mercy.  Neither could Salvatierra’s heart.  Like the jungle with its impenetrable canopy, he cloaked himself in the perpetual twilight of despair.   He had come here to retrieve the most powerful artifact known to mankind, the Breastplate of Aaron, thought lost for thousands of years.  But he had to destroy it, even if it cost his life, even if it risked his immortal soul.

“You must not destroy the Breastplate, Padre,” young Elias pleaded with him. The captain and thirteen soldiers behind him glowered in agreement.  Their swords and long-shafted halberds clanked as they marched.  “The pope commanded you to return it to Rome.”

“God has commanded me to destroy it,” Salvatierra said.  He refused to reveal his doubt that this command could have come from a fevered delirium, not a divine dream.  He swiped at a mosquito sucking the blood from the back of his neck.  His sandaled foot tripped on a root, stabbing pain into his many sores, rending another tear through his tattered brown robe.  He had been a young, hopeful missionary when he left Spain three months ago on the trade wind of hope for the new world.  Now his skin was pallid and wrinkled with the relentless damp, aging him to his very core.  “I must right what is wrong.”

“Forgive me, Padre, but that village back there.”  Elias nearly jogged to keep up with Salvatierra’s long strides.  “You saw the evil.  That old man had bashed in the heads of six women,” he swallowed, “with a rock.”  The boy looked at his hand with a perplexed expression as if trying to imagine what could drive a man to do such a thing.  Salvatierra slowed as the boy leaned in closer.  “That young mother,” he said, his voice quiet. Salvatierra understood the boy’s fear that such words might beckon the devil. “Her fingers were still clutching the throat of her dead infant.”

The innocent killed by the hands of his mother, a young, lithe woman whose own face was beaten beyond recognition until death.  That was the image which had galvanized Salvatierra’s terrifying decision.  She had gone mad, like the others, and murdered the child or, even more heartrending, she had killed her baby to save him from a worse brutality.  As Salvatierra and the men followed the muddy river deeper into the jungle, their hearts darkened seeing village after village of savages who had gone mad, then murdered each other brutally before dying themselves.  “Do you want to see that in our own country, Elias?” he spat back.  “In our own families?  That is what the almighty power of the Breastplate can do in the hands of evil men.  I must stop it.”

He bristled at the muttered curses of the men tramping behind him, a discontented cadence to the spiteful chatter of birds, the menacing growl of a jaguar, the endless buzz of millions of insects.  These were feared, ruthless men, but the taste for the fight that lay ahead had soured in their mouths.  They knew it would be a fight to the death, with fellow countrymen this time, not savages.

Captain Diaz was a battle-hardened leader and fortune seeker, but it was clear from his expression that he saw their trepidation.  He straightened his shoulders and spoke loudly over the howl of a red monkey.  “Our reward is nearly within our grasp,” he said, clenching the air with his fist.  “Isn’t that right, Padre Salvatierra?”

“I seek no earthly reward,” he said.  The men laughed.  He was a constant amusement to them, a means for them to bolster their bravado.

“And we will be victorious,” said the captain, “for God is on our side.”

“If He is not,” Salvatierra said, “then we are doomed.”  This time, the men did not laugh.

“You have your mission, Salvatierra.   I have mine.  Our Majesty, the King, assigned me this task,” the captain boasted.  “Return the traitor, Alvaro Contreras, to Spain in chains.  Kill his men and leave them to rot in unconsecrated ground.  Contreras did not seek El Dorado.  He had the savages bring their gold to him.  And we will get a conqueror’s share of his treasure.  Gold, Emeralds, it waits there, men, just ahead of us.  Do what you will with your Breastplate, Padre.”  He pointed into the dark, dense jungle and breathed in deeply.  “I can smell a traitor’s blood.”

The men penetrated deeper into the heart of darkness.  The volcano on the horizon shuddered and rumbled, belching out a hellish, sulfuric smoke. Only young Elias’s eyes were still wide with wonder.  “The Breastplate, Padre,” Elias said. “The others in our Circle of Seven believe it is a weapon of unmatched power.”

His inquisitiveness was insatiable, but that’s what drew Salvatierra to the boy. Elias was one of five sailors Salvatierra had taught to read using the Bible during their ocean crossing.  A sixth man joined their group to teach science and astronomy.  He was an aristocrat, hardly more than a boy, who was sent by his father so he would grow iron in his hand and take over the family’s business rather than flit about with intellectuals.  They named themselves the Circle of Seven.  The others in the Circle waited back on their ship, guarding her.  Salvatierra now understood the Lord’s hand in this.  Without the loyalty of the Circle of Seven, his plan would never work.

“Its power is unmatched, as it is the Lord’s,” Salvatierra said, “but it was never meant to be a weapon, of that I am sure.  You have read the passage in Exodus. God commanded man to create the Breastplate.  He commanded Aaron, brother of Moses, to wear this very Breastplate to determine God’s will for His people, not to destroy them.”

“Is it true that the Breastplate allows the wearer to talk to God?” asked Elias.  He looked to the heavens with an expression of fright and awe.  “That the inquisitors can use it to decide the guilt of a man?”

The inquisitors need no device to condemn, thought Salvatierra, and their thirst is not slaked by burnings at the stake.  He shuddered to think what they would do to him.  “In ancient times, the high priest donned the Breastplate to judge the guilt of the accused,” he said.

“And we must bring the savages to understand the power of God,” said Elias, “but they are terrified of the twelve stones of the Breastplate.  This savage told you.”  He gestured towards the shaman guiding them.  “They fear especially the Emerald, the Tear of the Moon.”  The brown-skinned shaman was wrinkled and thin, wearing only a loincloth and a necklace strung with a finely wrought, golden pendant.  It was an eagle clutching a figurine of a man in its talons.  Nobody dared steal it.  He carried a blowgun and, incredibly, wore no coverings on his feet.  Though his stature was short, Salvatierra sensed that his heart held more courage than all of the thirteen soldiers who tramped behind him combined.

“I have learned much in this new world,” he said.  “Most importantly, to believe what is true to your soul.”

“With the Breastplate, the Vatican will have the power,” said Elias, “and the divine right, to save and rule over all the souls.  Imagine, Padre,” he pressed.  “With this Breastplate, we can talk with God.  We will hear His voice, as in the time of Moses.”

The words clutched at Salvatierra’s heart.  His whole life, he had sought to be closer to the Lord.  Now he might destroy his only chance to be one with Him while still on His Earth.  He could be wrong.  Perhaps he should don the Breastplate, just once.  The ground beneath them trembled.

“Silence,” Captain Diaz hissed.  The men halted.  They clutched their weapons tighter.  The heat was stifling, heavy with silence.  Salvatierra listened.  A low, keening wail wafted through the forest ahead of them.

The shaman spoke in his melodic, staccato language.  Salvatierra translated.  “He says that wailing we hear is the men from the tribe.  They wait for us ahead.  They grieve.  He says the man we hunt is very near.”

“And the temple?” Diaz asked, his hand on the hilt of his sword, his expression a fight between dread and lust.  “The treasure?  He shoved aside the shaman and quickened his pace.  The men pushed by to stay on the captain’s heels.  Salvatierra hurried to keep up.  He followed as they burst into a clearing.  The men stopped, their bravado sucked out of them like water through a reed straw.  Salvatierra could only see above them, to a giant rock outcropping that towered above the trees.

He stretched onto his toes to peer over the soldiers.  Savages crowded the perimeter of the circular clearing.  Red markings on their naked brown skin mimicked bloodied skeletons.  Their posture was unyielding, their eyes black with hate.  Three of them gripped Spanish swords, red with blood, at their side.  A preternatural silence enveloped the clearing.  God had silenced and stilled even the birds and insects.  The only movement was the drip of Spanish blood from the tip of a Spaniard’s sword.



Navajo Reservation, Arizona


Christa spun around as the bloodcurdling yelps and howls shrieked through the haunted walls of the cliff dwelling.  The recent drought made prey scarce and predators more aggressive, more territorial.  But these howls sounded more vicious than those of ordinary predators.  “Those wolves sound crazed, bloodthirsty,” she said.  Oh God, those animals could have found Samuel.

“They are not wolves,” he said.  “The Skinwalkers are hunting us.”

“Skinwalkers.”  She couldn’t hide the skepticism in her tone. “You mean Navajos who have trained in the witchery way,” she said.  A homicide by Skinwalker monopolized this morning’s local headlines.  Investigators had found a stick across the victim’s throat and a clump of grave grass near her pickup.  Skinwalkers had been a part of Navajo culture for years, but the history of these paranormal beasts was scanty.  Skinwalker stories might have originated to scare off the white man’s western expansion or evolved from when men wore animal pelts for the buffalo hunt.  But whatever was howling out there definitely was not human.

“Evil men,” said Joseph.  “They have the power to shift shapes and the soul of a killer.”

“Wolves don’t need to shift shapes,” she said.  “They are born killers.”  Her only weapon was the Mayan knife.  Their only defense might be their position.  The ancient ones had built these cliff dwellings in inaccessible caves for protection from predators.  The fact that the Anasazi had all mysteriously disappeared centuries ago was not reassuring.

Joseph’s expression of dread inspired even less optimism.  “You try to understand what you do not believe,” said Joseph.  “You must believe to understand.”

“I believe any creature who howls like that won’t settle for a jackrabbit.”

“It is human prey they stalk,” he said.  “Skinwalkers are shapeshifters.  They can become a crow, an owl, a wolf.”  He fingered his medicine pouch like a hunter might judge his load for his shotgun.

“So you’re saying they could fly to this cliff dwelling as crows, and attack us as wolves,” she said.

“They were human once.  Yee naaldlooshii are evil men who have embraced the witchery way.  To fully realize the power of Skinwalker, a witch must kill a member of his immediate family.”

“Gives a whole new meaning to sibling rivalry.”

“They are on the scent of the potential power of evil,” he said, “of the sacred stone we seek.  They are gathering in the dark.  We must leave here.  Now.”

Joseph was a brave man.  That’s what frightened her.  “I can’t leave,” she said, “not without that Turquoise.”

“Now you believe.”

“Not believe, I know.  I made a promise to Samuel, and to my father. If there is any chance the Turquoise is here, I’m taking the risk.”  She stretched on tiptoes to peer down into the canyon.  The headlights were barely visible, weaving through the cottonwoods at the foot of the cliff across the river.  “Those men chasing us, they won’t let wild animals stop them from finding the Turquoise.”  Dad would never give up, not when that pride of lions stalked their campsite in the Serengeti.  Not now.  She still had nightmares about it, but had survived.  She’d survive this.  If only she could stop her fingers from shaking.  “This may be our only chance.”  Slipping sideways through the narrow portal, she crossed the threshold into the circular structure of the cliff dwelling.

It was pitch black.  She switched on her headlamp. The room was round, about twelve feet in diameter.  Ragged blood stains splotched the pounded earth floor. Samuel must have been shot here, and stabbed his killer.

The howls pierced through the portal, swirling around her like a whirlwind.  A scuffling at the doorway.  Joseph.  He didn’t abandon her.  She wanted to hug him.  Instead, she crouched, looked up.  The stone ceiling formed a stepped pyramid, twenty feet above their heads.  “A pyramid?” she said, her whisper of a voice like thunder in the small room.  “Not exactly typical Anasazi architecture.”

Joseph flicked on his headlamp.  “This was not a typical Anasazi village.”  His beam and hers joined in a macabre waltz, twisting and weaving across the stone walls.

“The walls are more Incan than Anasazi,” she said.  “The sandstone blocks are precisely hewn and fitted together, without mortar.”  The beasts’ howls grew more strident, a bone-chilling chorus of yelps and wails.  All she needed was one speck of evidence, one clue to the location of the Turquoise, to know that this was worth the risk, to take that last leap of faith.  The chamber was eerily beautiful, and utterly empty.

Dad would have found it, an archaeological anomaly, an unnaturally shaped stone, a bump in the wall.  Her beam tripped over it, on the stone abutting the entrance, no more than a flicker of a shadow.  She drew closer and ran her fingertips over a rough brick of stone.  It was eye level, a perfect, 15-inch square.  In its center, it had an indentation nearly obscured by centuries of dust.  She directed her light and blew on the stone.  A billow of fine, silvery sand danced in the beam of her light.  This was no stonecutter’s slip.  It was a symbol.  Joseph came beside her.  The symbol had four cardinal points, like a compass, each point marked with four lines, like rays.

“The Navajo symbol for sun,” said Joseph.  He wiped his sleeve across his sweaty upper lip. “For life, growth, and all that is good.”

“Of course, I recognize it now.”  She brushed off the stone’s squared edges with the flat of her hand.  “This stone with the symbol isn’t flush like the others.  It sticks out a little.  It could hide a secret niche.  The Turquoise could be right here, behind this stone.”  The beasts yowled.  “Come on, help me get it out.”  She hooked her fingertips on the edge of the stone and shimmied it.  Dust and gravel rained down on them from the pyramid roof above them.  The whole chamber shook and trembled.  A massive brick cracked out of the ceiling.  It slammed to the floor so close that its concussion puffed away the dust at her feet.  Stupid.  She knew better. It wasn’t the first trap that had almost killed her.  “A booby trap,” she said.  “Remove the wrong brick, the ceiling collapses on top of us.”

“Jenga,” said Joseph.

“Navajo for we’re screwed?”

“My grandson’s favorite game as a boy,” he said.  “Small, rectangular wooden blocks, assembled criss-crossed on top of one another to make a tower.  The trick is to remove a block low down on the tower without knocking over the whole thing.  It’s all about balance, and choosing the right brick.”

“My father and I played a game like that, with river rocks at the digs.”  They were too busy traipsing over the world to buy her any mass manufactured toys.  “Of course, it didn’t involve being crushed to death, most of the time.”

“The tribe that lived here centered their lives on protecting the Turquoise.  When the Spaniard brought it to them, they picked this cliff because of its inaccessibility.  They built this chamber before the cataclysmic sandstorm hit, to hide the clue to the Turquoise so that no outsider could attain it.”

“Until us,” she said.  “I haven’t seen a single potsherd.  People that meticulous had a reason for carving this symbol and leaving it behind.  Maybe they thought their descendants would return, and retrieve the Turquoise.  They wouldn’t want them killed for their trouble.  So they left them a sign.”

Joseph directed his headlamp around the room, landing on another eye level stone that protruded from the west wall.  He hurried to it, blew away the dust.  “The morning star,” he said.  The carving looked like a blend between a cross and a diamond, “honored by the people of the Plains as a symbol for courage and purity of spirit.”

“So it’s a pattern.”  She crossed to the wall opposite him.  Brushed it off.  “A circular symbol,” she said.  “A complex maze, with a stick man above it.”

“The man in the maze,” said Joseph, “signifying life and choice.  Choose wisely, and you will find harmony with all things, although the road may be long and difficult.”

“Choice is highly over-rated,” she said, “especially with malicious beasts breathing down our necks, not to mention whatever is howling all the way to hell out there.”

They moved to the north side of the round chamber, opposite the entrance.  A fourth protruding stone.  A fourth symbol.  Joseph blew off the dust.

He frowned.   “Square with rounded edges, border of zigzag patterns surrounding a simple face with closed eyes,” he said.  “I do not recognize it.”

Outside, the howls intensified.  At least three large animals shrieked like demons in a chorus of murderous intent.  “It’s Mayan,” she said.  “It is Pakal, the glyph for shield.”

She recognized it, all right, but hadn’t seen a carving like this since her research trip to the Yucatan for her doctoral thesis on the conquistadors.   “A Mayan glyph, hundreds of miles from Mexico,” she said.  “The conquistadors searched this area for Cibola, the legendary lost city of gold, but they didn’t give a rat’s ass about Mayan culture.  I think our odds of finding the actual Breastplate Turquoise just went up.” She fished the Mayan knife out of her pack. “The Spaniard who brought the Turquoise here, he must have brought this knife along, too. It’s Mayan. I’m sure of that now.”

Joseph played his fingers over the shield glyph.  “The clue to the Turquoise is hidden behind one of these symbols.  Four possibilities, one answer.”

“And three potential death traps, if removing the wrong one makes that ceiling collapse.”

The howling stopped with the unexpected abruptness of a trap door slamming shut.  She listened for the stealthy pad of clawed paws.  She sniffed to detect a musky smell through the lingering wisps of fine sand.  Joseph unsheathed his hunting knife, its blade glinting in the beam of his headlamp.  “The predator grows silent when it smells its prey,” he said.

“I don’t suppose that means those animals are closing in on the bad guys with guns.”

“The beasts awoke to protect the Turquoise.  They are very close.”

“This Mayan knife was used for sacrifices, not defense.” She frowned at the pathetic blade.

“Only a bullet dipped in white ash will kill a Skinwalker,” said Joseph.  He wasn’t joking.  He faced her.  “Which symbol do we look behind?”

She stepped back.  “How would I know?”

“You know.”

And the weird thing was, she did know.  She could almost feel it, a tingling coming from behind one of the four symbols.  “The Pakal,” she said.  “We have to look behind the Mayan Pakal symbol.”

Joseph stabbed the blade into the seam around the carved block, wedging it into the crevice.  The ceiling peppered them with dust and grit.

“Wait,” she said, “I’ll do this.  You stand guard at the portal.  Keep watch for those beasts.”  This was absurd.  Her “tingling” could crush them both.

Joseph’s blade scraped against the rock, clawing at the silence.  It was more unnerving than the howls.  But at least the ceiling wasn’t collapsing, yet.  He jimmied the stone outwards, striving for every millimeter.  “The Turquoise stone is called the Yikaisidahi.  It is Navajo for It Waits for Dawn, the name of a constellation.  And, truly, the Yikaisidahi is of the heavens.”

“I had a hunch, not divine guidance, in choosing the Pakal block,” she said.  And she was headed to hell, not heaven, if her hunch killed this kind, old man.  “I’m doing this for my father.  You don’t owe him.  I do.”

He wedged his knife deeper into the seam, levered it back and forth.  “I am the guardian, my destiny inherited from my father, and his father before him.  Since my son was killed in the war, my grandson was to become the next guardian.  I have sworn my life to protect it.”  The chamber trembled.  “I cannot let the Yikaisidahi Turquoise fall into the hands of the evil ones.  The Yikaisidahi can destroy,” he said.  “Or it can heal.”

Now he was sounding like her father.  “The destroying part I get,” she said.  “The jury is still out on the healing.”

He grunted with exertion and pulled his knife back.  “It isn’t moving.”

“The stones are meticulously fitted together.  Maybe it’s locked in place somehow, with a mechanism.” She looked closer and rubbed the dust from the face of Pakal.  “Pakal’s mouth,” she said. “It’s not just a carving. It goes deeper than that.”  She held the Mayan knife close to it. “Looks like the blade is a perfect fit.  But that can’t be right, not if it means defacing Pakal. The Mayan chief would behead me for sacrilege, after he sliced out my beating heart with this knife.  It might trigger the ceiling to collapse.”

“You know what you must do,” Joseph said.  “You are not here by accident, Christa.  You are the chosen one.”

“You mean the sucker,” she said.

His eyes turned to hers.  “Are you ready to cross that line, between reality and faith?”

She wiped the sweat stinging her eye and looked away.  Joseph couldn’t possibly know.  Her father never spoke of it, not even with his closest friends.  She had reached the brink before, but was too frightened to step over that precipice between reality and faith.  Even to reach Mom.  “I’m here to find an historical artifact,” she said, “not religion.”

Joseph slipped his knife back into its sheath.  “You must find one to find the other.”

She wasn’t going to find anything but a shallow grave if she didn’t hurry up.  She drew in a deep breath and plunged the Mayan knife into the stone.  The tip of the blade hit something solid, hesitated, and plunged in deeper. A clunking sound.  The chamber trembled. She was wrong.  The chamber was collapsing. “Get out of here,” she yelled. “I’ll pull out the knife.  Try to reset the mechanism.” She yanked.  It didn’t budge. The knife was stuck.  Pakal scowled.  She pulled again.  The sandstone block shifted.  The crack exhaled a cold draft, emitting the dry breath of an ancient time.

She pressed her foot against the wall for leverage and yanked back the Mayan knife.  It worked.  The full weight of the stone block slid out.  They sprang back as it fell with a thud to the ground and cleaved in two.  The Mayan knife dropped to the floor.  The chamber quaked.  Christa grabbed Joseph’s hand as they fought to stay balanced.  Then the chamber became utterly still.

A chorus of howls rent the air.  She spun around, throwing up her arm in defense.  They sounded that close.  She directed her headlamp beam through the narrow opening into the night.  The dark was alive with guttural, savage voices.  A black shadow skulked across the open portal, then another.  The beasts cut off their only escape.

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