He woke up, sweating. The fierce winds that had chilled him to the bone had stopped and the rain evaporated, leaving him panting for air and grateful for the stifling heat in his bedroom. Thank God it was only a dream, he thought. Winds that could throw debris around like that only happened in tornadoes and hurricanes. He’d never seen buildings fly apart like that before. The unreal quality of the images receded as he sat up on the bed and felt for his slippers on the floor. Lady, his dog, moaned softly as he got up to get dressed. Her footwarmer was gone now so she moved onto the warm spot where he’d slept, curled up, wriggled around to find the best position and immediately went back to sleep. He slogged on into the kitchen thinking that it was too early to have a beer, so he started to make a pot of coffee. What a dream, he thought. Good thing!
The knock on the door startled him out of his deep funk, codeword for hangover. Damn! 4:26AM! Who? How did they get through his chain link fence? Didn’t they know that he has a Pit Bull for a companion? Many questions raced through his head as Lady exploded into a fit of howling and growling at the gall of anyone who dared to disturb him and violate her territory, especially at 4 plus in the morning. She was still trying to claw through the door when he looked through the peephole to see who could be so stupid. To his surprise, it was Ken Porter, someone he hadn’t seen in three years. What the hell was he doing on my doorstep taking a chance with my dog at this time of the morning, he thought. He hushed the dog, opened the door and Ken pushed his way in and quickly shut the door. “Get dressed quick!”, he said.
“What? No kiss and a how’ve you been hug?”, he quipped. Ken scowled darkly and said intensely,“Hurry up. I mean it. Get dressed.” “Maybe if you explained what you”re doing here, I’d be inclined to listen,Ken," John said.
“John, there isn’t much time. Get dressed and hurry up!” Because Ken saved his life once, he believed him. He quieted his dog and went to get dressed, thinking Ken was serious about something and he’d humor him until he found out what it was. He threw on some Jeans and a sweatshirt and slipped into tennis shoes. As he dressed, the ringing in his ears started again.For the past few months, he had been hearing that and thought he was developing tinitis, that hearing disorder that causes a ringing in the ears. This time though, it was much louder than usual.
When he came out of his room, Ken handed him a cup of coffee and said,“I guess you’re wondering what this is all about? It’s serious, John, and I want you to listen up.Someone wants you dead and they will not stop until you are. Am I clear, John? Do you understand?” John assured him that he believed him. Ken wasn’t the kind of man to kid around about death. He had seen way too much in his time. When John asked why he was here at this time of morning, he started to answer but stopped, suddenly. “Are you feeling ok, John? You don’t look well!” John told him about the ringing in his ears and his face blanched. Ken had a partial hearing loss from shooting in the military. He couldn’t hear the high-pitched tone that plagued John. He got a frightened look on his face that John thought was out of place for a man who had been through combat in a dozen places, been wounded several times and had a chest full of medals to back it up.
He held up his hand for silence and John shut up. Looking around, he suddenly stopped at the bookcase and started to examine one of the bookends. He pulled out of his pocket a small device with a small antenna on it and pointed it at the bookend. A light lit up on the device and he nodded to himself. Silently, he looked at John. He picked up the bookend and dropped it on the floor. It shattered into shards. Immediately, the ringing in John’s ears stopped and he heard merciful silence for the first time in a good while. Stooping over the fragments, Ken pulled out a piece of metal and held it up for John to see. “Here is the ringing in your ears problem,” He said! Ken dropped the device and ground it under his heel. He started to speak, but Ken held up his hand and then put his finger to his lips. He grabbed a piece of paper from John’s desk and wrote with a pen:“Don’t talk. Pack a bag for several days of travel. Don’t worry! My people will take care of your dog. Please hurry!” John nodded his assent and went to throw some some things together.
When he emerged from his bedroom, Ken was speaking softly into what looked like a cell phone with a cup-like fitting around the mouthpiece. When he saw that John was packed and ready, he said a few more words and hung up. John wanted to speak but he once again signaled for silence and went to the door. He opened it a crack and looked out quickly. Two sounds that John swore sounded like a bee tore holes in his front door. Ken slammed it, turned to John and said,“Quick, out the back door.” Apparently the person he had been speaking to had driven around to the alley at the back of his house and was waiting with the engine running.
They left the house and crossed the back yard. After hopping the fence he put up to contain his dog, they hurried to a dark van and got in when someone inside opened the door. The van pulled out and started to drive away without lights. “He’s going to run into someone’s building, Ken!,” John exclaimed. “Don’t worry about it, John. She has night-vision goggles.” He looked up front to see a slim woman with dark hair and night-vision goggles on her head . When they cleared the houses to the left and right of them, she gunned the engine and took off with a rush. As they came to the stop sign at the corner, she ran the stop sign and kept accelerating. As they cleared the intersection, a loud thunk hit the back of the van. John didn’t need Ken to tell him what that was. What he didn’t know was who was shooting at them and why.
As they drove on, Ken began to explain a few things, like why John had been hearing a ringing in his ears lately, why they were shooting at them and where they were going. Turns out that someone had come into John’s house and installed a maser sound amplifier in one of the bookends on his bookshelf with the idea of slowely deafening him or killing him with sound if necessary. He didn’t understand, but Ken went on anyway. He said that when they realized that the jig was up, they had to kill John in the old fashioned way, to shoot him. Either way, they wanted him dead. Now for the big one, John thought. “Who is trying to kill me and why do they want me dead?” Ken looked at him for a moment as if he was measuring just how much to tell him when he said:"The ones who want you dead are the people you angered with that last extraction you did. John was really interested now, but didn’t interupt and Ken went on for a few more minutes. Maybe it was just him but he thought that he saw a familiar-looking set of blue headlights swing onto the road a quarter mile or so back. John didn’t say anything because his friends were very aware also.
John looked up front to see that the slim woman driving had taken off the night-vision equipment and was driving with the headlights on. Smart, he thought. The early-birds will be starting their trek to work soon. His head was spinning with all the facts and guesses that Ken had told him, but at least the adrenaline was starting to wear off. Was the secret of yet another archaeological find in Venezuela important enough to kill to keep it secret?
It was just another beautiful morning, and the birds at the edge of the clearing were noisy, as usual. The man looked around the cleared-out area and once again bet to himself that the jungle would take it back in less than three months if the workers don’t come back soon. The large pile of rocks in the middle looked out of place on the flat ground. It had taken a month of hard work to clear them of overgrowth and now, after only a week, there was a thick carpet of vines and brush fighting to reclaim the clearing.
He walked over to the shaded area used for eating, keeping a sharp eye out for snakes. A man has to be careful, he thought. The two locals were talking rapidly to one another and looking at him. Ever so often they would snicker quietly and look at him. Oh well, he thought. When the truck arrives in an hour or so, this part of his job would be over and he would ride back to the airport. His plane was scheduled to leave later this afternoon and he was ready to leave right now. But no, he thought, I’ve waited this long. Another couple of hours and I can start making plans on starting to spend all that money. Greta will just have to get used to having a new golf bag in their tiny apartment. He wondered how his wife would spend her part of the money, but the more he thought about it, the more nervous he became. I’d better buy the bag first and bring it home with me, he thought to himself, just to be sure.
He was slowly becoming aware that something was wrong. The birds had stopped their clacking and squawking and disappeared into the jungle, and the snakes that hung around the pile of rocks were nowhere to be seen. A slight flash of light caught his attention and as his mind was forming the thought, a snipers bullet splattered his brains, bits of skull and hair in an uneven pattern on the tent fly wall behind him. Two other shots rang out and the two laborers were also dispatched. After a moment, a small piece of the jungle stood up and quickly picked up the three spent cartridge casings. The figure slowly and carefully approached the three dead men and made certain they were dead. Satisfied, the figure took out a small radio, said a few words and slowly faded back into the jungle erasing all traces of his tracks as he went. After a few minutes, the birds and snakes returned to their normal behaviors again. The only serious difference was the splattered blood and the flies and other bugs who were starting to gather on the bodies.
Within ten minutes, two trucks pulled up to the tent area. With a lot of noise, three men got out of the first truck and picked up the bodies, one at a time, and dumped them unceremoniously in the back of their truck. The fat one was apparently in charge because he hollered to the other two to throw a canvas over the bodies. Once they were covered up, the fat one ordered the other two back into the truck. He looked nervously at the other truck. The tall thin man inside was wearing a wide-brim tan hat and very dark sunglasses. He nodded impatiently to the fat one. The fat one cranked up the beat-up old truck and drove around the other truck. He steered the old truck back onto the deeply rutted dirt road and drove away. Curiously, none of the three looked at the tall man in the hat as they left. They looked straight ahead or down as if they were afraid of noticing what the man looked like. Very smart, the tall man thought. That’s three more I won’t have to kill.
He waited until he was sure that the other truck had left the area, then got out of his truck. This man was no stranger to the jungle and he didn’t even have to think about watching for snakes. He had been doing that almost all of his life. Stepping carefully, he walked up to the pile of rocks in the middle of the clearing. He carefully examined the biggest rock of the pile. Large and wide but only about thirteen or fourteen centimeters thick. After examining it, he walked back to the truck and pulled out a shovel and a long steel bar that weighed a lot. Digging was difficult because of the vines and brush but he kept to it and within a few minutes had the base of the large stone clear of dirt. Using the long steel bar, he moved the stone over about a half-meter. As he waited , the dust cleared and he could clearly see a set of stone stairs going down into the ground farther than he could see in the morning sun.
He once again walked back to his truck and brought out a heavy bag and a large krypton searchlight. Working quickly around the opening he had exposed, he placed many small packages of an explosive down inside the stairway and pushed a detonator connected to a piece of explosive cord into each one. These he connected to another lump of explosive that had a timing device attached. He set a short time on the device and gathered up his tools and threw them in the back of the truck. He went back and picked up the bag and carefully placed it in the cab of the truck. Wasting no time, he drove the truck around and drove onto the rutted dirt road until he thought he was a safe distance away. He shut off the engine and waited. Shortly after, a loud explosion, a great flame and big cloud of smoke told him the opening was now closed to all but the most determined of men. Just to be thorough, he drove back and checked the site. His explosives had collapsed the walls around the opening and filled the hole with rocks. Satisfied, he drove away.
John was tired. He had been traveling for six hours in Ken’s van and had only made two stops. Once for breakfast at a highway restaurant and once for a restroom break while Ken had refueled his van. He was angry at the people who had forced him to leave his home. They had tried to kill him, for crying out loud! He was deeply curious about why and why right now. He was tired of riding in the van and he wondered why the discovery outside of Brocada was so important.
His mind drifted back to the jungle and the recovery he had to make. The three men’s bodies he had been sent to recover were burned beyond recognition. Their charred remains were quickly loaded into body bags and cooled down to keep the stench of death at a minimum. He wondered what they were looking for East of the oil fields of Venezuela. He suspected that their chopper had been shot down by local terroristas but that was an avenue of thought he had been told to forget by the State Dept. He was just there to recover the bodies for the families of the men. He wondered about the curious pile of stones he encountered as he trekked through the jungle on his way to the crash site. The State Dept. had told him to forget about that too. It would be handled as an archaeological dig, they told him.He thought about the curious stone tablet he picked up at the site but had neglected to mention to the rude State Dept. official who had rubbed him so badly the wrong way. They’ll never find it, he thought. Who would think of digging under a doghouse? His thoughts returned to the present when the van began to slow down and the slim woman driver took the exit from the highway.
“Time for lunch”, Ken said. He had been very quiet for the last hour. He had finally concluded his session with the laptop computer he pulled from his bag after their little chat. He had that look of purpose he got every time he received new and important orders. Ken knew he would have to wait for the right moment before he told John and the woman what was up. As the woman pulled in to the parking lot of the restaurant and parked, Ken shot John a look that said,“don’t talk about this in the restaurant.” John clammed up and followed them in. As he went up to the door, a car pulled in to the parking lot. It seemed to be a familiar car but John knew that must have been a coincidence. He put it in the back of his mind and went in.
Ken and the woman had already taken a seat at one of the tables by the door. He pulled out a chair and sat. Ken finally introduced the woman to him as Sarah, one of his new associates. they talked for a minute and then the door opened. A couple came in and looked for a table. When the man’s eyes saw Ken, they widened. He quickly recovered but it was too late. Ken had noticed but said nothing and acted normally.
The waitress arrived and Ken ordered some sandwiches and coffee to go. He offered her a large tip if she could make it quick. That must have been the magic word. She placed their order with the cook and then went over to the new couple who had just arrived. By the time she took their order, the cook had rung the bell by the pick-up window. She placed the new order and brought Ken’s order over with a tray of coffee to go. Ken threw a couple of twenties on the table, grabbed the bag and tray and headed for the door. John and Sarah were close behind.
The man and his woman accomplice showed a distressed look on their faces but made no move to leave until Ken and company had left the parking lot. This time Ken was driving. He took the ramp for the highway but crossed over it and pulled behind a gas station on the other side. Shortly after, the following car pulled onto the highway and accelerated, trying to make up the distance lost. Ken said that because the highway curved quite a bit, they wouldn’t be able to see that we weren’t on the highway until they went for a while. By then they would be long gone. He chuckled quietly and drove off. Ken headed back across the highway and took a side road. Apparently he knew where he was going because in about two minutes, he turned off the main road and drove down a dirt road to a small private airport. As he approached a small hangar, a helicopter was running and he pulled up next to it. The pilot was waiting for them and they got in. As they left the ground, John noticed that two men and a woman got into the van and drove away. That’s when he figured out that the restaurant thing was just a ruse to lose their followers. As the chopper turned to leave the area, John looked down with regret to see the van with their lunch turning back onto the main road.
The local Police Chief was winding up his investigation of the three murders when the archaeologist and his assistant arrived at the clearing. After a hour of driving on that bumpy dirt road he was glad to get out of the jeep and walk around. There had been no great danger of getting lost because there was only one road heading in this direction. It was the road that was bulldozed so that the search team could get to the crash site. A road of death, the Police chief thought. First, the crash of the helicopter with the three Americans, then this murder of the American who stayed here with the two men from town. They still could not find the bodies but the Chief knew they were dead. There were tracks from two vehicles there. One had blood trails and drag marks leading to it. He had seen plenty of shootings when he had worked in Colombia. Plenty of shootings there. Too many! Nothing like that ever happened around here. These Americans are nothing but trouble, he thought.
The area of the clearing was not particularly interesting but for the pile of rocks and stones in the middle. As the Chief walked around them, mindful of snakes, he didn’t see anything unusual about their positions. However, someone had recently set off a large explosion. He could tell by the smell and the scorch marks around the stones. He thought that someone had maybe destroyed an old stone monument or temple or the like. Hardly worth killing three men for, he thought. Still, why hide the bodies? Some things he would never understand about these Americans. He walked over to the American and said that his investigation was over and he could have the site. He told him what he thought and that he believed this was a robbery and the thieves killed the men to keep them quiet about the theft. People around here were poor and the American had a lot of things that were of great value to poor people. The Police Chief didn’t mention that apparently nothing was taken, but he thought that was a detail that needn’t be mentioned here and now. He asked the two men to let him know of any new developments. He said his goodbye and left.
The archeologist waited until the policeman was gone. He asked the assistant to take down the bloodied tent fly and burn it. While the man went about his task, the archeologist unloaded his tents and equipment from the Jeep. In an hour he had a campsite set-up and a fire going. Darkness came quickly in this strange place, he thought. He also was leary of snakes, both here by the tents and by the pile of stones. His assistant had gathered a pile of firewood. Enough there, he thought, to last out the night. He made sure that the fire was adequate and then went into his tent to sleep off the jet lag he had acquired. Plenty of time tomorrow to make his own investigation of the site and the murders.
John worried about his dog, Lady, as he tried to get comfortable in the airplane seat. She would miss him severely, he knew. He could see her now, curled up in the corner of a kennel somewhere, pining away the hours until his return. If he had only known that she was happily running and playing with the two children of the man assigned to caring for her, he might even have been a little jealous.
His thoughts drifted back to the seat as he adjusted it again. Another hour and he would be in Maracaibo. Too many people, he thought. All that beautiful jungle and everyone wants to live in the city. That’s what’s wrong here. Seems like everyone has forgotten they lived there once, in the wild. He closed his eyes and thought once again about what his friend Ken had told him. They wanted him back at the site he had encountered where he had recovered the bodies of the three men. Seems that someone blew up the big flat stone and shifted things around on the pile. What the big secret was, only time would tell. What he did know was that when the stone had been blasted, a part of it was exposed that wasn’t before. There was some kind of writing on it that was unlike anything seen before. Some new, or probably more correctly, very old script had been chiseled into the back of the large flat stone. It had been blasted out of position and parts of it were scattered on and off the pile.
This recent discovery had been kept secret because of the rash of looting of archeological sites lately. Some private collectors were suspected of funding their own explorations and they had little or no respect for the sanctity of dig sites. That wasn’t going to happen here. A special Archeologist had been summoned and was already on site. John would talk to him about his experience when he arrived. The man was curious about how the rock was placed and why it was blown to pieces. Also, why was the stone turned around backwards so that the script couldn’t be seen?
There was something new with unknown language deciphering, a new piece of software that was not even available on the market yet, that the Archeologist was going to use on this unknown language.
All this stuff bored the dickins out of John, though. He was a body recovery specialist and the technical side of things were best left to those who gave a damn. In fact, he was thinking about getting into some other line of work. He knew that handling dead people for a living was beginning to make him callous and uncaring about the feelings of others. He only had respect for his friends and those people in authority who he came into contact with to do his job. The pay was great but, sadly, he had to admit that money isn’t everything. When he was a younger man, he would have been surprised to hear these words from his own lips. My, my, how people change, he thought.
A bell and a short message from the intercom brought him back to the cabin of the airliner, instructing him to return to his seat, buckle his seat belt, and raise his seat back in preparation for landing. As he looked out the window, he saw the lights of Maracaibo in the distance. All cities look alike at night when landing, he thought.
Brian Porter had slept fitfully in the heat of the night. He had never really been comfortable or at ease in a jungle environment. Still, the promise of a new and really big discovery in his field kept him full of anticipation. Several questions about why this site was so special began to surface in his mind. Why the secrecy? Why were the three men who were here at the site killed? What did the crash of the helicopter have to do with any of this? Who blew up the pile of stones and why? Well, these and other questions would have to wait until after breakfast. The smell of fresh Colombian coffee and ham and eggs drove him from his tent to the cooking area where his assistant waited.
He was smiling and cheerful, but Brian could see that there was a hint of caution in his eyes, and a slight bulge under his shirt that told him the man was armed.The man’s name was Raul Phillipe Castillo. His curt manner and efficient movements told the archeologist that Raul had served in someone’s military and fairly recently, he guessed. Good to know, he thought. He went over to the fire and helped himself to a large cup of the deliciously steaming coffee and scraped half of the food onto a plate. He took the food back to his chair and began to eat quickly.
Raul was still smiling but his eyes kept shifting out to the remote sensors he had installed the night before. They were a new kind of proximity sensor that made no sound but if anyone or anything tripped the alarm, a device in his pocket would begin to vibrate quietly, but noticably. Still, he did not entirely trust the new devices, so he had strung up some tin cans on a string together in a few key spots. Very thorough, the archeologist thought.
As he was eating, Raul told him that the team coming from the airport would be here in an hour or so after they cleared customs at La Chinita International Airport. They were going to chopper in instead of driving and save four or more hours travel time. Brian wished that he could get the company that funded this operation to fund some other archeological sites. Then the world would see some real discoveries. But that probably wasn’t going to happen, he knew. Still, they spared little expense on this site. Wonder why?
He finished his breakfast and poured out another cup of that wonderful coffee and took the cup with him over to the pile of rocks. After checking carefully for snakes, he began an examination of the layout of the stones. He tripped on one piece of stone that had apparently rolled away from the main group. As he kicked the piece of stone, it rolled over to reveal several lines of letters in an unknown language. Because the symbols were so brightly lit in the morning sun, he took a picture of the stone with his digital camera. Then he stood up to examine other bits of stone in the pile of rubble.
After about fifteen minutes, he had done a swift but fairly thorough search of the pile. He had found about seven more pieces of the gray-looking stone with the curious lettering on it. He photographed each piece separately and when his initial examination was complete, he brought his camera over to the folding field desk and chair that had been his breakfast table, earlier. The small laptop computer he used had already been loaded with the new software program which the company had somehow managed to procure from the manufacturer. It wasn’t even on the market yet, but here it was. He plugged his chip from the camera into the laptop and downloaded the pictures.
The software in his laptop had been selected and set-up to take the images on the stones in the photos and present them on a background for comparison.Using the shape of the background stone as a clue, he found that all eight of the pieces were assembled into a background that showed about 40% of the original sheet of stone. That was just speculation at this point, but it was a start. Brian reasoned that if he could get most of the pieces of the stone slab, there was a good chance that the new program could start making the comparisons that a general translation required. There were no guarantees but this is why he was here, now, in this place. He came to a decision that the whole stone pile should be taken apart a piece at a time until all of the pieces of the big slab were found.
Just then, Raul’s radio crackled a message to the two of them. The team coming from the airport would be on scene in about five minutes. Brian went over to the pot and poured out the last of the coffee and waited. Raul went over to the cleared-off portion of the clearing with a smoke grenade to indicate the wind direction on the ground for the chopper pilot. Yup, Brian thought, Raul had definitely done this kind of thing before.