“I heard,” Sam said. “But the margin of error on dating still leaves this result questionable.”
“Maybe… but wait ‘til you see the etchings!”
“Are they Incan imagery?” Sam called down.
“It’s too soon to say. When we uncovered the door, I rushed up to fetch you two. Maggie is still down there trying to clean up the door. I figured we should all be present.”
Sam continued to climb down. Lamplight bloomed from below, casting his shadow up the wall of the shaft. He could imagine Maggie bent with her nose an inch from the door, meticulous with brush and tweezers as she freed the history of these people from centuries of mud and clay. He could also picture her auburn hair pulled back in a long ponytail as she worked, the way her nose crinkled when deep in concentration, the small noises of pleasure she made when she discovered something new. If only he could attract a tenth of the attention the stones of the ruins earned from her.
Sam stumbled on a rung of the ladder and had to catch himself with a quick grab.
After three more steps, his feet touched rock. He stepped from the ladder into the cramped cavern of the first level. The sodium lamps stung his eyes with their brightness while the heavy odor of turned soil and moist clay filled his nostrils. This was not a dusty, dry tomb of Egypt. The continual mist and frequent jungle storms of the high Andes saturated the soil. Rather than sand, the archaeologists battled moldy roots and wet clay to release the trapped secrets of the underground structure. Around Sam, the handiwork of ancient engineers glowed in the light, bricks and stones so skillfully fitted together that not even a knife blade could slide between them. But even such design could not fully withstand the ravages of time. Many areas of the subterranean structure had been weakened by winding roots and centuries of accumulated clay and soil.
Around Sam, the ruins groaned. It was a frequent noise, stressed stones settling after the team had cleared the clay and dirt from the rooms and halls, hollowing them out. The local Quechan workers had installed a latticework of wooden support beams, bolstering the ancient, root-damaged bulwarks and ceilings. But still the underground structure moaned with the weight of earth piled atop it.
“This way,” Ralph said, guiding them toward the wooden ladder that descended to the second level of tunnels and rooms. However, that was not their final destination. After climbing down two more ladders, they reached the deepest level, almost fifty feet underground. This section had not been fully cleared or cataloged. Among the honeycomb of narrow excavated tunnels and rooms bolstered by wooden frames, shirtless workers hauled sacks of mud and debris. Normally, the tunnels echoed with the workers’ native songs, but now the halls were quiet. Even the workers suspected the importance of this discovery.
Silence hung like a wool blanket across the ruins. The garrulous Ralph had finally halted his discourse on the discovery of the sealed chamber. The three proceeded in silence through the last of the tunnels to the deepest room. Once in the wider chamber, the trio, who had been squeezing through the passage single file, spread out. Sam could finally see more than just the bowed back of Norman Fields.
The chamber was no larger than a cramped single-car garage. Yet, in this small room buried fifty feet underground, Sam sensed that history was about to be revealed. The chamber’s far side was a wall of quarried stone, again so artfully constructed that the granite pieces fit together like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. Though still covered in many places with layers of clay and mud, the workmanship had obviously withstood the ages and the elements. Yet as amazing as the architecture was, what stood in the center of the wall drew all their eyes: a crude stone arch blocked by a carefully fitted slab of rock. Three horizontal bands of a dull metal, each a handspan wide, crossed the doorway and were bolted to both door and frame.
No one had been through this portal since the ancients had sealed it.
Sam forced himself to breathe. Whatever lay past the locked door was more than just a passage to a subbasement. Whoever had sealed it had intended to protect and preserve something of enormous value to their society. Beyond this portal lay secrets hidden for centuries.
Ralph finally broke the silence. “Damn thing’s sealed tighter than Fort Knox!”
His words broke the door’s spell on Sam. He finally noticed Maggie seated cross-legged before the portal. She leaned an elbow on one knee and rested a cheek in her palm. Her eyes were fixed on the door, studying it. She did not even acknowledge their presence.
Only Denal, the thirteen-year-old Quechan boy who served as camp translator, greeted them with a small nod as they entered. The youth had been hired off the streets of Cuzco by Sam’s uncle. Raised in a Catholic missionary orphanage, Denal was fairly fluent in English. He was also respectful. Slouching against a wooden support to the right, Denal held a cigarette, unlit, between his lips. Smoking had been outlawed in the dig for the sake of preserving what was uncovered and protecting the air quality in the tunnels.
Sam glanced around and noticed someone was missing. “Where’s Philip?” he asked. When the professor had left for the States, Philip Sykes, the senior grad student, had been assigned to oversee the dig. He should have been there, too.
“Sykes?” Maggie frowned. A hint of her Irish brogue shone through the tightness in her voice. “He took a break. Left over an hour ago an’ hasn’t been back.”
“His loss,” Sam mumbled. No one argued about fetching the Harvard graduate student for the moment. After assuming the title of team leader, Philip’s haughty attitude had rubbed everyone raw, even the stoic Quechans. Sam approached the door. “Maggie, Ralph mentioned writing on the doorway. Is it legible?”
“Not yet. I’ve cleared the mud, but I’ve been afraid to scrape at the surface and risk damaging the engraving. Denal sent one of the workers to fetch an alcohol wash kit for the final cleaning.”
Sam leaned closer to the archway. “I think it’s polished hematite,” he said as he rubbed the edge of one of the bands. “Notice the lack of rust.” He backed away so Norman could take a few photos of the untouched door.
“Hematite?” Norman asked as he measured the room’s light.
Ralph answered while the journalist snapped his pictures. “The Incas never discovered the art of smelting iron, but the mountains around here were rich with hematite, a metallic ore from old asteroid impacts. All the Incan tools found to date were either made of plain stone or hematite, which makes the construction of their sophisticated cities all the more amazing.”
After Norman had taken his photos, Maggie reached a finger out to the top band of metal, her finger hovering over its surface, as if she feared touching it. With her fingertip, she traced the band where it was fastened to the stone arch. Each bolt was as thick around as a man’s thumb. “Whoever built this meant to keep whatever is inside from ever seeing the light of day.”
Before anyone could respond, a black-haired worker pushed into the chamber. He bore vials of alcohol and distilled water along with a handful of brushes.
“Maybe the etchings will reveal a clue to what lies within,” Sam said.
Sam, Maggie, and Ralph each took brushes and began painting the diluted alcohol solution across the bands. Norman looked on as the students labored. Working on the center band, Sam’s nose and eyes burned from the fumes as the alcohol worked upon the dirt caught in the metal’s inscriptions. A final dousing with distilled water rinsed the alcohol away, and clean rags were passed to the three students so they could wipe away the loosened debris.
Sam gently rubbed the center of his band in small buffing circles.
Maggie worked on the seal above him, Ralph on the band below. He heard a slight gasp from Ralph. Maggie soon echoed his surprise. “Sweet Mary, it’s Latin,” she said. “But that… that’s impossible!”
Sam was the only one to remain quiet. Not because his band was blank, but because what he had uncovered shocked him. He stepped away from his half-cleaned band. All he could do was point to its center.
Norman bent closer to where Sam had been working. He, too, didn’t say a word, just straightened, his jaw hanging open.
Sam continued to stare at what he had uncovered. In the center of the band was a deeply etched cross on which was mounted the tiny figure of a crucified man.
“Jesus Christ,” Sam swore.
Guillermo Sala sat on a stump at the jungle’s edge, a rifle leaning against his knee. As the sun crept closer to the horizon behind him, young saplings growing at the ruin’s edge spread their thin shadows across the ground, stretching toward the square pit fifteen meters away. From the hole’s opening, lamplight glowed out into the twilight, swallowing the shadows as they reached toward the shaft. Even the hungry shadows knew what lay below, Gil thought. Gold.
“We could slit their throats now,” Juan said at his elbow. He nodded toward the circle of tents where the scientists had retreated to study the engravings on the tomb’s door. “Blame it on grave robbers.”
“No. The murder of gringo s always draws too much fire,” Gil said. “We stick to the plan. Wait for night. While they sleep.” He sat patiently as Juan fidgeted beside him. Four years in a Chilean prison had taught Gil much about the price of haste.
Juan swore under his breath, while Gil merely listened to the awakening rain forest around him. At night, the jungle came alive in the moonlight. Each evening, games of predator and prey played out among the black shadows. Gil loved this time of the evening, when the forest first awoke, shedding its green innocence, revealing its black heart.
Yes, he could wait, like the jungle, for the night and the moon. He had already waited almost a year. First, by ensuring that he was assigned as security for this team, then putting the right men together. He came to guard the tomb and did so dutifully—not for the sake of preserving the past for these Yankee scientists, but to safeguard the treasures for himself.
These maricon Americans galled him with their stupidity and blindness to the poverty around them. To raid a country’s tombs for the sake of history when the smallest trinket below could feed a family for years. Gil remembered the treasures discovered in 1988 at Pampa Grande, in an unmolested Moche tomb. A flow of gold and jewels. Peasants, trying to snatch a crumb from the harvest of wealth, had died at the hands of guards just so the treasures could languish in foreign museums.