Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ghouls with Credentials

“Thank you for your hospitality Dr Cruz. You and your family have a lovely home.” I said as I stood on the threshold. A cool April breeze blew across the plain, and I was glad for my leather jacket.

“Please Dr. Nikos, I keep telling you it's Carlos. And it is I who should thank you. If it weren't for the Coleman Foundation's support for the project, we couldn't begin to dig for at least another five years.”

“All right... Carlos, but only if you call me Athena. And you're the one who deserves the credit. This lost Hohokam pueblo you've discovered should increase our understanding of the Hohokam culture, and perhaps shed some new lights on the histories here.”

“But by starting so soon,” he said, “and with the funding in place, we can afford the security to keep the site clear of the predators who would sacrifice my people's history for profit.”

I nodded. As I had driven west from Santa Fe, I had seen the roadside stands selling replicas and modern pueblo art. But I was also aware of an underground market in relics as well. Not to mention the occasional treasure hunters looking for the lost cities of Cibola.

I stifled a yawn, still not caught up on the time change since flying west, “I'm so sorry Carlos,” I said. “Can we meet tomorrow and finish the paperwork and permits?”

My host chuckled. “Of course, Athena. Sleep well,” He walked me to my rented car and saw me down the road. My head was light from the wine, and the most excellent meal served by Mrs Cruz.

I drove back to the hotel, thinking how fortunate it was to be working with Dr Cruz. A native expert on Pueblo culture, he'd left the university several years ago to develop a new museum in the Sky City pueblo. He was both the curator and historian in residence, but had operated too long on a shoestring budget. Fortunately I'd been able to convince both Virgil and Dr Chatterjee to support this project. As a result of this dig, the Queen City museum would have first access to the exhibits as well as a permanent loan.

I wheeled into the parking lot of the lodge, and picked the way to the cabin. I preferred to stay away from the main buildings when I could, feeling a need for privacy as both White Owl and Athena. And the odd hours I kept at all times made it much easier on other patrons if I didn't stay nearby. I pulled up and found my room key, then stepped into the clean room. I hung my jacket on the rod, then pulled the blinds and stepped into the bathroom. I kicked off my sensible shoes, and unzipped my skirt. I contemplated the shower and decided a shower might shake off my sluggishness from dinner.

I started the water and drew the curtain around me letting the hot water cascade down my shoulders and back. I set the shower head to massage and sagged as the needle like streams pounded my pack and shoulders. I noticed the steam from the shower was excessive, then began to cough.

“What the hell?” I asked, through the billowing steam. I shut the shower down , clawing for the curtain. I staggered to the bathroom door, clasping a towel around me. The steam continued to billow from the shower head, and I realized it was some sort of sleeping gas . I pulled at the bathroom door, desperate to escape, finally succeeding by pulling the door free from the strike plate.

I dropped to my knees and heard the sound of applause. Cocking my head to the left, I saw a man in a dark business suit and a black hood sitting at my desk. Two men, less nattily dressed but still hooded flanked him. They were bigger, muscled, and had their arms crossed in defiance.

“Congratulations, Dr Nikos, I see the stories I've heard of your exquisite beauty and your resourcefulness weren't exaggerated. Monty? You owe me five dollars, as she did make it out of the bathroom. The goon on the left handed the man a bill, then the two of them stepped to me, grabbed me by the arms and dragged my nude form across my room; holding me in front of the hooded man.

“What...what do you want?” I stammered.

“Your expertise in petroglyphs,” said the hooded man. “Your reputation preceded you.”

“There are less dramatic ways to contact me.”

“True, but we need your silence too.” He motioned and Monty pushed me to the floor. I felt a knee in the back and the other pair of hands pulled my hair back and my head up. I felt a thick silk cloth drawn tightly between my lips.

“Nnnph” I mumbled, struggling.

“Now I can't have any of that,” said the man, digging into a black case, next to him. I saw a large syringe and an ampoule of something being attached. “Hold her men!” he said.

I felt the swab, then the prick of the needle entering my thigh. “This is a standard dose, my dear. You'll sleep a while, then we'll need you in the daylight.” I struggled as the men tied my legs and ankles tightly, then crossed my wrists behind my back and bound them equally tight. The drug kicked in though, and while my healing factor would purge it from my system faster than normally, I still had to go through the experience. My eyes drooped, my head slumped and darkness swallowed me.

When the drug wore off, I was in a cramped position, I could feel canvas against my back and rubber against my chest. I could feel us moving too, so I deduced I was in a vehicle, and most likely in the trunk. I also realized I was still nude, a situation I hoped would be rectified soon.

The car came to a stop and I went into my act of being unconscious. I felt two sets of none-to-gentle hands pawing at me, lifting me out of the car and carrying me in tandem. I was placed on a cot, and with the sounds of the night, and the wind through canvas, I gathered we were in a campsite somewhere. As no one seemed interested in talking to me or removing my gag; I decided to listen.

“Guard her, don't let her out of sight. She's far more clever than she looks and could still get free. Ferd, you take the first shift,Monty the second. We'll get her up before dawn so we can hit the mesa as the sun rises.

Someone threw a blanket over me, so I was able to grab some sleep during the night. Obviously, they weren't planning on killing me--they would have done that back at the hotel. The boss' words sounded ominous. I hoped I wasn't in for a day of nude hiking. I made myself as comfortable as I could, fully aware I could break free; but I decided to unravel a bit more of this mystery.

I felt a rough hand on my shoulder after a few hours. The blindfold and the sleep had disoriented me even more, but I sat up. I felt something cold and sharp against my wrists, then a flick and the ropes fell away. I reached for my gag and blindfold, pulling them from my face.

Both of the goon squad were leering in front of me, though one of them held a shopping bag. He dropped it at my feet.

"Get dressed," I heard. "And be quick, the boss wants to see you before it gets too bright. We'll be right outside." He pulled at the other one's sleeve. "C'mon Marty," he added.

Curiously, I opened the bag and found some of my own clothes inside. I slipped into a bra and panties, then pulled on a pair of comfortable jeans. The blouse looked like it would have been more useful at the mall than the desert, but beggars can't be choosers my mother always said. I found some thick socks and my hiking boots though, and I laced them on carefully. At the bottom of the bag were my glasses, and while I don't need them, they're a useful device for keeping people from figuring out I'm White Owl. I slipped the wire frames over my ears and frowned.

"All right Athena, lets go face this," I said to myself.

I stepped to the flap of the tent, and smiled at Ferd. I couldn't see through his hood, but I saw him nod slightly and he pointed at another tent across from "mine." I could see a lantern glowing inside, so I crossed over and said, "Hello?"

"Come in Dr Nikos," I heard a muffled voice say. I stepped inside and noticed the well dressed man had changed to something more appropriate to the desert. He still had a hood over his head though, so I still couldn't make out his features.

"Please make yourself comfortable," he said, pointing at a camp table with two smaller chairs. "Coffee?" he held up a coffeepot and I nodded, deciding to be gracious.

"You have the better of me sir," I said. "How should I address you?"

He chuckled, as if remembering an old joke, and said, "You may call me el Conquistador. While it's not my name, my family earned that title a long time ago."

I shook my head, and took a sip of the bitter, percolated coffee he gave me. "It's not Starbucks," I said.

"No, but it will keep you awake and alert." He pulled a camp stool next to mine and said, "What do you know of Cibola?"

I struggled to keep from laughing. "The County?" I replied. "Not much. If you mean the legend, then I know we're allegedly in the wrong part of New Mexico. It's closer to the Zuni pueblo, I believe."

"It's not a legend, Dr Nikos, it's real!" he said.

"With all due respect, el Conquistador, Father Marcos de Niza very likely lied in order to protect his position with the viceroy. It wouldn't be the first time a priest made up a story. As a result, Coronado followed up on that lie and enslaved the Pueblo people when they couldn't produce the gold."

El Conquistador waved his hand dismissively. "Fah, I care nothing for the Spanish lies. And before you remind me about the Zuni never locating Cibola, let me remind you that many have died for smaller secrets and conspiracies. If Cibola was a sacred place, then it makes sense no one would have divulged that information. But there is another source."

He paused and then said, "Have you heard of Estabanico? He was a Moor, an educated man and a slave. He had gone with Father Marco, and disappeared on the journey--perhaps to find his freedom. But it was he who translated the legends first, with his gift for languages."

"But if he disappeared, how could he leave a record?" I asked.

"He didn't disappear. He escaped from the Spanish. He made his way to Alto California, where my family took him in. He left his writings sealed in a wall that weren't unsealed until we began remodeling in the eighties. But the dry walls kept the documents safe. "

El Conquistador pulled an ancient leather scroll case from under his bed and I cringed, realizing the age of the case. It was in battered, but useable condition, and the parchments he pulled from it were equally worn.

He unrolled the parchment, then placed weights on the corners to hold it flat on the table. I could make out markings in Spanish and a flowing Arabic script as well.

"It certainly is old." I remarked. "The age looks about 16th century. And here, in this corner, I see a signature in Arabic that says Estabanico."

"Excellent Dr Nikos! I knew I was right in selecting you."

"Selecting me for what?" I asked.

"You'll see in about four hours," said El Conquistador. "But you may gain a clue, if you look here." He pointed to a mesa on the map. The words beneath it said, "Point the way to Cibola."

I adjusted my glasses, and scowled. The maps of the sixteenth century weren't noted for cartographic accuracy, so aside from being in New Mexico, I had no real knowledge of where we were.

"Why should I help you?" I asked.

"Because if you don't I will kill you here, and no one will ever find you. But if you do, you'll go down with Howard Carter and Henry Jones as one of the premiere archaeologists of all time. Think of it Dr Nikos--a chance to prove the legend accurate!"

I considered my options and nodded. "All right, I'm in. It seems I have no choice."

As soon as I said I was in, I held my hand out to agree to the arrangement. To my surprise El Conquistador took my hand in his, then I felt the cold metal of a handcuff tightening around my wrist.

“What's this?” I said. “I agreed to work with you.”

The second cuff snapped tight against my wrist and I jerked at it. El Conquistador had used a standard police issue handcuff, similar to the ones in Queen City. I knew I had a cuff key in my purse and also in my tool belt; neither of which was with me. Still, with my enhanced strength, I knew I could shatter the chain holding the bracelets together with a minimum of effort.

“You're still far too resourceful Dr Nikos,” said El Conquistador. I've read Randal Courtney's account of your escape from the slave traders while you were in Egypt. And your own account of the ruined temple of Thoth from two years earlier. You may be a phenomenal archaeologist, but your a pretty cunning little tomb raider as well,

I cringed at that apt description. Despite all the hard science and historical data we were able to uncover, it appeared that Lady Lara Croft was still the golden ideal for women in archeology.

“Look,” I said. “I'm not going to be much use to you with handcuffs. How can I climb? I can't even carry a canteen or a backpack.”

“There won't be any need for that, yet,”said El Conquistador. “Its just an easy hike to where we're going first. He helped me to my feet, and with a hand on my shoulder, steered me from his tent to the center of the camp.

“Is everything ready?” he asked Ferd.

“Yes el Conquistador, he replied. I noticed both the men were carrying packs and lanterns, even though the sun was just coming up. I looked around, then felt myself being turned. To the north el Conquistador pointed out a large mesa.

“That is Walker's Table,” he replied, offhandedly. Its reputed to be haunted, but its also marked on Estebanico's map. That's where I made my discovery, and you'll soon see the reason I needed you.

Ferd led the way, I followed in the second spot, and El Conquistador and Marty brought up the rear. I sensed the nervousness and excitement as we trudged down an old and long discarded trail. The path wound through scrub, and desert, and I sensed the gentle rise as we drew near to Walker's Table.

The base of the mesa was long, with several crevasses, some shallow, some very deep. We stopped in front of one of them long enough for the fluorescent lanterns to be lit. El Conquistador took the point, and with his hiking staff, he grabbed my cuffed wrists and dragged me into the cavern behind him.

Unerringly, he led the way deep into the mesa; and I followed, putting my feet where his had stepped.

“Stay close, Dr Nikos,” he said. “The Hohokam weren't as devious as some, but they protected their secrets well.” The path narrowed, then came to point where we had to crawl on hands and knees to squeeze through a small opening.
But it opened onto a vast gallery, free of any stalactites. I could see smoke smudges on the walls, but also a shaft of sunlight from high above. This room alone was an archaeological treasure and I drank it in with a heady feeling.

“This isn't Cibola, is it?” I asked in a hushed tone.

“No, this was a hiding place; a fortress where many hid during the conquests. But much of the gold WAS hidden here at one point, I have no doubt,” said el Conquistador. “Your job is to find out where it went.” He aimed a lantern at a point on the wall and I saw several petroglyphs carved there.

“You know, glyphs aren't writing,” I said tentatively.

“No, you're right,” said El Conquistador. “But they are communications. A record of some sort. For instance, that one tells of a successful buffalo hunt. And there...a raid on another pueblo, where many were killed. But those,” he said, returning the light to the wall in front of me, “show Spaniards, and the quest for gold. Those are relevant.”

I felt a clipboard with a sketchbook and a pencil being shoved into my hands. Breathlessly I began sketching, my brain trying to make sense of the story being told. I soon found that I could read the glyphs, almost like writing; and I attributed this to the wisdom of Athena.

"You're right about one thing, el Conquistador," I said, hesitatingly. "This was a hiding place. According to these records, many women and children were hidden here while their men went to become slaves or to die. But many warriors also were here. "

I pointed to one cluster of glyphs. "Here is a meeting with Estebanico," I said.

"How can you tell that?" asked el Conquistador.

"He's carved out of rock, but they've taken pains to darken his body with soot. He's not like the other figures, do you see?"

El Conquistador nodded. I continued. "If you watch, Estebanico begins to change in the next set. He becomes hunchbacked, feathers shooting out of his head and he dances. In short, the Hohokam see him as Kokopelli, the Trickster. In some regards they were right because he tricked the Spanish. Cibola wasn't the original Zuni pueblo, that was a false lead!"

"I knew that my lovely doctor," said el Conquistador. I felt a pair of powerful hands on my shoulders and a whisper of cold steel caressed my throat. "But if you don't come up with something more substantial, then I'm afraid you'll join the skeletons in the next cavern.

"There are skeletons?" I asked, excitedly.

"Yes, why?"

"Because the glyphs end here--but they indicate people with their mouths shut permanently. Apparently these people had the secret shut up with them. But we need to see. Take me please?" I raised my cuffed hands toward him and I think I surprised him. Instead of anger, I could sense el Conquistador softening. He helped me to my feet, then with reverential silence, led me to the ossuary.

Because that's what it was. A room full of bones in tidy order, with the skulls lined up along one wall. "This is incredible," I began, eager to sketch the room.

"Not now, Doctor," said my captor. "We have a mission."

I sighed heavily, knowing several years work still wouldn't reveal all the secrets of Walker's Table. Still there were glyphs on the walls here too.

I scrutinized them closely, and found the clues I was looking for. "Cibola is west of here. I'd guess Arizona. According to these glyphs its 3 days journey to the west."

"But that would be by foot," said el Conquistador. "We have a Tahoe." He brought me to my feet again, and we began retracing the way out of the cavern.

I stopped at a cranny in the walls--something was reflecting the lantern. Reaching deep, I pulled a soft gold chain free.
I hadn't been noticed, as el Conquistador was talking with his men. I shoved the chain into my pocket for study later and caught up.

The men led me back down the path but the gentle slope was deceiving, and I slipped on loose scree, tumbling down the side of a bluff. I struggled to get to my feet and heard the rattling of a sidewinder. Looking slowly to my left, I saw the serpent three feet away, perched on a loose boulder.

"Snakes," I said. "Why did it have to be snakes?" I tried to stand slowly, but felt my ankle swelling.

"Are you all right, Doctor?" I heard from above.

"NO!" I shouted. "There's a rattlesnake next to me and he doesn't want to be friends!"

"Stay perfectly still Doctor!" I heard....

Obeying the order not to move, I kept my eye on the swaying rattlesnake. The snake managed to look back and the staring contest seemed interminable. I was tempted to use a bit of my super strength to throw rocks, but just as that thought completed in my mind, I jumped at the report of a high powered pistol.

The snake's head exploded and the body flopped. Instinct took over and I screamed, covering my head and dropping face down into the rubble. A moment later, I saw a pair of desert boots at my feet.

"Can you stand, Dr Nikos?" I heard a voice say.

"I think so," I said, pushing against the rocks and coming to my feet. I winced slightly and el Conquistador knelt at my side.

"Hmmm, there's a little swelling, but I think that's stress and not a sprain. Still better safe...." Ferd and Monty came to either side.

"Support her--but let her walk it off. She'll be fine soon."

By the time we reached the Tahoe, I was fine. My healing factor wasn't called into question, though I did act a little stiff as we climbed into the truck. Monty took the wheel, and el Conquistador insisted I sit in the passenger seat.

"You know the route, it makes sense to have you navigate." I nodded and we pulled out on a flat, dirt road heading west. The desert was vast, but not flat and I studied the mesas, saguaro and scrub; wondering how anyone could eke out a living in such a place. Yet there had been a high civilization here. Art flourished, legends and tales, a whole culture. That is wasn't European in orientation didn't make it any less civilized.

"Every civilization falls to someone, Dr Nikos," I heard from behind me. I turned and saw el Conquistador leaning back.

"Its true, Doctor, every civilization falls to a stronger one at some point. And archaeologists sift through the rubble, ghouls with credentials."

I opened my mouth to protest and he held up his hand. "Spare me the platitudes about preserving history for future generations. We're both seekers after treasure. I just happen to desire wealth, while you desire notoriety." I felt there was little I could say to that.

About two hours later, a large mesa arose in front of us and I asked Monty to pull over. "This is it," I said.

"Are you sure?"


"But there's no way into the wall. Where's Cibola?"

I scanned the area and found the washout I was looking for. I lead up to the mesa wall and pushed aside thick brush. "In here," I said.

Monty and Ferd cut away the brush, exposing a tight crevice in the wall. I squeezed in and was relieved when it opened wider about fifteen feet in. I asked for a flashlight, and waited for the rest of them to catch up.

Once again, El Conquistador took the point, pushing through the narrow arroyo, with little regard for the glyphs on either side. But the canyon widened and opened into an open cliff dwelling, I looked up, seeing the sunlight dimming overhead. But in the sunlight, the canyon gleamed with the luster of gold.

"We found it! We found it!!" El Conquistador could scarcely contain his enthusiasm. "Break out the tools boys, we're going to start digging." Ferd opened his pack and produced two picks. Similarly, Mort had two trenching tools in his. Surprisingly, El Conquistador had dynamite in his pack.

"You can't!" I wailed. "This is a national treasure! We have to preserve it, study it..." I heard the cocking of a pistol.

"Your usefulness is about at an end Doctor," said El Conquistador. You can either help us, or you can die."

"How old do you think this is?" asked Mort, holding up a golden goblet.

I looked at it, then said, "Seven hundred years at least."

El Conquistador nodded. "All right then, Dr Nikos. You dig, here. And you can answer questions. But any funny business, and you die. Now I want you to dig right here...your section is six by four and about six feet deep, understood?"

I nodded, grimly; and fully aware I was digging my own grave.

About two hours into our arrival I heard "Fire in the hole!" I dove into my foxhole/grave and covered my head.

"Aw crap," I heard Monty say. "It didn't work."

The cavern walls where we came in began crumbling. Because of the explosion I couldn't hear anything but when the dust cleared, I found the bodies of Monty and Ferd, both very dead.

El Conquistador lay nearby, slowly moving. His legs were bent in ways no legs should move and I could see blood oozing from his waist.

I knew I had to act. Standing up, I pulled, snapping the chains linking my bonds. I knelt next to El Conquistador, tying his legs tightly with tourniquets, then unmasking him.

I was not surprised to find Dr Cruz, my host, under the mask. I rigged and wrapped him, to keep him relatively immobile, then flew him out of the blind canyon and back to the Tahoe. Monty had left the keys, and I started the truck, then headed further west, knowing that we'd passed no hospitals coming in. We were fortunate, for within 10 minutes, I found a small regional hospital.

Dr Cruz was rushed into emergency surgery and I sat and fretted. I was able to call my hotel and let them know I needed an extra day or two. They gladly extended my time.

Sitting in the small chapel at the hospital, Dr Chandrakoury came to me and said, "He's asking for you,"

I found Dr Cruz in the recovery room, but Dr Chandrakoury said, "He doesn't have long. Be gentle."

I sat next to the bed, looking into the old man's face. So many questions...and all I could ask was "Why?"

"I am an old man, Doctor. And heavily in debt. I have a gambling problem at the casinos and my income is in jeopardy for the next year. The museum had evidence and was about to fire me. I faced a bitter future with no pension, and this was my way to retire successfully."

"But your wife?"

"She left me four years ago. She wasn't there when I fed you. It was another ruse." Cruz began coughing and I leaned closer.

"You flew," he whispered. "You flew me out."

"Did I?" I asked. "Or were you dreaming."

Cruz shook his head. "No you flew. You are more than an archaeologist I think. You are an arbiter of order, a keeper of the peace. Are you Mongwa?"

"Lets just say I'm an Owl."

Dr Cruz nodded then gasped. The EKG began to flatline and alarms began ringing throughout the ICU.

"Out!" said Dr Chandrakoury. So out I went. And waited.
Thirty minutes later, Dr Chandrakoury came out, a grim look on his face.

"We did everything we could," he said. "But his years, and his injuries...I...I'm sorry."

I shook the doctor's hand. "I'm sure you did. And I'll notify the next of kin, Doctor. Thank you for all you've done."

I walked out of the hospital, and cried as I sat in the Tahoe.

The end...