Friday, September 5, 2008

In Ruins by Amanda Jean Kelly

Raul Ignacio stepped into a copse of dense, emerald foliage and removed his wide-brimmed hat to wipe the sweat from his forehead. This morning proved more excruciating than most. The end of the dig loomed; he could feel it. Roque let it slip over a bottle of low-grade tequila that funding now ran low. That was a week ago, and Raul could sense the man's frustration growing every day. The team worked double-time since then, trying to find the big prize.

Yeccijil's Staff.

Sure, they'd all unearthed some pretty decent shit: clay bowls, tools, even a necklace. All would fetch a price, but not the big one he couldn't leave without. The artifact on which he staked all his hopes, continued to elude him. Historically, its "supernatural powers" were not to be trifled with, but even more humbling was the price Raul's buyer seemed willing to pay.

Upwards of a million dollars. A million...

He still found it difficult to comprehend, but that incentive moved him to do the very unexpected. Raul anonymously invested almost every penny of his own money into the dig. This move created several problems. Archaeologists were not typically the suits behind a dig, and for good reason. The more personally invested, the more it affected your work, and Raul could already feel those effects.

He'd always prided himself on taking his successes and failures on the job very personally. However, when every hour he and his men labored meant his own dime, the whole experience took on a new flavor. Beyond that, archaeology was a risky business. Only those who could afford to lose a lot should spend a lot, and Raul was not one of those people. He meticulously saved everything he'd ever earned throughout his career, living a Spartan existence in the hopes that just such an opportunity might knock.

And then the big break came. One casual conversation with a man in a cantina somewhere east of San Ignacio had transformed Raul from digger to investor. An entrepreneurial fat cat with the money to blow on a big stick, Bernard Crousseau showed interest in a remote stretch of Belizean forest when he caught wind of the discovery of the Luchitak Ruins. A lumberman named Musa Pai stumbled upon the partially buried temple of Yeccijil in his search for mahogany in the virgin forests existing high up in the mountains dividing Belize. Due to a loophole in the laws of Belize, Crousseau told Raul, artifacts found in the area would immediately transfer ownership from the Mayans who left them behind to the finders who excavated them. He finagled the man's business card and ran a thorough check of his credentials. Bernard Crousseau turned out to be everything he said and more.

A king and purported god, Yeccijil led his nation of Mayans into believing his staff could resurrect them all when their version of Armageddon arrived, supposedly in the year 2015. In the meantime, he ruled with an iron fist of brutality, sacrificing women and children to his bizarre rituals atop the very ruins Raul and his diggers now excavated. Eventually, Yeccijil's own advisors conspired to murder him in a coup d'etat to rival Caesar's Senate. Now, the old bastard lay somewhere in the belly of the Luchitak temple not forty yards away from Raul, probably clutching that staff like there was no tomorrow.

Raul sat back on his haunches beneath the shade of a cohune palm and took a swig from his cracked leather canteen. A recipient of only moderate amounts of yearly rainfall, the fertile clay soil of the tropical forest permeated heat and humidity on any given day, but the burning hell of impending failure made temperatures climb a few degrees.

Damn it! He needed to cool his jets.

Raul slid up against the tree trunk into a standing position. He jammed his hat on and headed off in the direction of the fresh spring, about ten minutes into the jungle. He knew braving the jungle wilds without a partner didn't exactly constitute intelligence, but the heat got to him and he just couldn't stand to have any of the guys around right now. Besides, he could let his machete do the talking if any enemies crossed his path, animal or human.

Raul rid himself of his shirt as he approached the spring, ready to slip into its relatively cool waters. The greenery around him thinned and just as he was about to break through to the clearing around the waters edge, a sound stopped him in his tracks.

A splash?

Probably just a keel-billed toucan stopping for some much-needed refreshment. On the other hand, it could always be a predator. Although Raul might have taken a chance with his money, he knew he could rely on his investment more than he could rely on the feeding habits of unpredictable jungle fauna.

He stepped closer to the clearing with machete unsheathed, prepared to return for a dip another time, if an angry puma showed up with the same idea. What he saw when he peered through the thick shrubbery pissed him off more than he could say.

Theresa Tustin, his favorite verbal jousting partner and dissenter, nodded to the music of her iPod with her eyes closed, completely oblivious to her surroundings. Wearing her trademark white ribbed undershirt with bra straps exposed, she floated contentedly, her head resting on the outcropping of rock at the northern corner of the spring.

Raul took a step forward, snapping a twig beneath his work boots. Theresa turned instantly, poised for action with a pistol in hand. Her fierce expression turned to one of annoyance the moment their eyes met and it enflamed him into baiting her.

"That would have been a bit late, if I was a jaguarondi," he remarked.