Excavation

20,024
04.03.2019

Leaning forward, he dashed two quick steps, then flung himself headfirst with all the strength in his legs. He flew across the rows of tiles and landed hard upon the stone floor, ducking enough to take the brunt of the collision on his left side. Something snapped in his shoulder as he rolled into the short passage and came to rest against the toppled stone door.

With a grimace, Gil shoved to his feet. He ignored the shooting pain in his neck. He had made it! Fingering his shoulder, he realized he had most likely broken his collarbone. Not a big deal. He had once taken three bullets in the chest. In comparison, this was nothing more than a scratch.

Gil pulled free the precious goblet. One of its lips was slightly bent from the weight of his fall. But, like Gil, it had sustained no real harm.

Stepping to the edge of the deadly pattern, Gil raised the chalice and spat toward the distant Incan king, the gold idol bright against the black stone. “I’ll come back and rape you yet!” he cursed.

With that promise, he turned on a heel and fled.

Maggie knelt by the top of the ladder that led down to the third level of the ruins. “Someone’s coming!” she whispered, pushing Sam back from her shoulder.

An instinct told her they needed to hide. Raised on the streets of Belfast, Maggie knew to listen to that inner voice of hers. Surviving among the constant gunfire and bombings between the warring Irish factions and the British military had taught Maggie O’Donnel the value of a good hiding place.

“C’mon,” Maggie urged, pulling Sam with her. Norman and Ralph followed.

Sam resisted, raising his rifle. “Maybe it’s looters. We should stop them.”

“And get us all killed, you stupid git? You don’t know how many are down there, or how well they’re armed. Now let’s go!”

Norman agreed. “She’s right. The leftist guerrillas around here, the Shining Path, are well equipped. Russian AK-47s and the like. We should leave any investigation to the security team.”

Sam stared back to the ladder, then shook his head and followed Maggie. She led the group to a side chamber. No sodium lamps lit the room. Darkness swallowed them.

“Stay low,” Maggie warned. “But be prepared to run on my signal.”

Sam muttered as he hunkered down beside her, “Maggie O’Donnel, combat archaeologist.”

Maggie could just make out Sam’s form as a darker shadow among the others, but she could imagine his sarcastic smile.

“You know,” Ralph added in a whisper, “it’s probably just Gil or one of his men.”

“And the scream?” Maggie said.

“I’m sure that—”

Maggie reached a hand to his knee to quiet the large man. She could hear the creaking wood as someone mounted the ladder from below. Whoever climbed was in a hurry. She could hear his panting breath and his scrambled flight. Lowering herself closer to the stone floor, Maggie watched the climber’s head rise from the shaft.

She recognized the lanky black hair and the spidery white scar on his bronze cheek. Guillermo Sala. The ex-policeman frantically crawled from the ladder, his feet almost slipping. Maggie allowed a breath of relief to escape her throat. Ralph was right. It was just the camp’s guard.

She started to stand when she spotted the large burn blistered on his cheek. It cracked and bled. Gil swiped a hand to his wounded face and smeared the blood across his shirt. His eyes were wide, the whites of which almost glowed in the lantern near the ladder. His lips were thin with hatred—but she also sensed fear and shock emanating from him.

Maggie knew that expression. A childhood friend, Patrick Dugan, had worn the same shocked face when caught by a stray bullet during a firefight back in Belfast. He had raised his head too soon from their shared hiding place in a roadside drainage ditch. Maggie had known better. Even as Patrick’s body collapsed atop her, she hadn’t moved. Danger lay in haste. Having learned her lesson, Maggie stayed hidden and kept the others back with a hand.

What had happened below? What could frighten a man as hard and tough as Gil?

As on that noon day in the streets of Belfast, Maggie knew safety still lay in the shadows. She peered from the room’s edge as Gil reached to his vest and fingered an object bulging in a pocket. It seemed to center the panicked man, as a crucifix would reassure an old woman.

Then, from another pocket, he pulled free what looked like a green apple with a handle. It took Maggie a heartbeat to recognize the armament, so out of place in an ancient Incan ruin.

Bloody hell! A grenade!

With a final glance at the shaft, Gil scrabbled to his feet and raced down the tunnel.

Listening to his fading footsteps, Maggie found she could not move. In her mind’s eye, the grenade still loomed large—a familiar weapon in the war on the streets of her home. Buried childhood panic swelled, threatening to choke her. Her hands trembled. She clenched her fists, refusing to succumb to the panic attack that verged. Her vision swam slightly as her breath became stilted.

Sam must have sensed her distress. “Maggie…?” He reached to her shoulder.

His touch ignited her. She sprang to her feet. “Och, we need to get out of here,” she said, her words rushed. “Now!”

Sam pulled his Stetson firmer on his head. “Why? It’s only Guillermo.”

Her face fierce, Maggie swung toward Sam. The Texan had not seen the grenade. Sam backed a step from whatever he saw in her eyes. She did not have time to explain her fears. “Go, you bloody wanker!” she hollered, the panic thickening the Irish brogue on her tongue. She shoved Sam toward the tunnel and waved the others after him.

Sam’s long legs ate up the distance. Maggie followed, keeping one eye on their back trail. Ahead, Ralph kept up with Sam, but Norman, burdened with his cameras, had slipped behind.

“Hurry,” she urged the journalist.

Norman glanced back. His face was stark white in the glow of the lamps. But he fought for more speed and closed the distance as the two quicker men reached the ladder to the next level of the dig.

Ahead, Sam flew up the wooden rungs with Ralph at his heels. Norman went next. Maggie stood at the foot of the ladder, her ears straining for any danger behind them. Far away, echoing up from below, she thought she could just make out a deep ticking, like a large watch winding down.

“Maggie, c’mon!” Sam whispered urgently to her from above.

Maggie turned to find the ladder clear. For a moment, time had slipped away from her. It was one of the signs of a pending attack. Not now! She flew up the ladder. Sam helped her off the last rung, hauling her up with his arms. The ladder to the surface lay only a handful of meters away. On her feet, Maggie led the way.

She followed the zigzagging line of lanterns, lights flickering past as she ran. As she spotted the ladder’s base, she heard a low grunting coming from the shaft to the surface. It was Gil. It sounded like he had almost reached the plaza above.

With her goal in sight and a freshening breeze from above encouraging her, Maggie sped faster.

Suddenly, words echoed down to her: “Swallow this, you hijo de puta!”

Maggie froze as a hard object pinged and bounced down the shaft to land at the foot of the ladder. She stared in disbelief at the green metallic cylinder. It rested in the mud beside the wooden beam that acted as the main shaft support. The grenade!

Maggie cartwheeled back toward Sam. He grunted as she fell against his chest. “Back… back… back…” she chanted.

The group tumbled, tangled in each other’s arms, away from the ladder.

“What—?” Sam said in her ear.

With adrenaline fierce in her veins, she shoved Sam and the others into a side chamber.

The blast caught them at the entrance. The concussion and explosion of air propelled them all across the room. They struck the far wall and fell to the stone floor in a pile of limbs.

With the lamps flickering around them, Maggie rolled up to her knees. Past her ringing ears, she heard Ralph groan beside her. Maggie took stock of her own injuries. She seemed to be unscathed, but as she viewed the damage done by the grenade through the settling dust, a moan escaped her throat, too.

They were trapped!

The passage that led to the last ladder was now a tumble of rock and dirt. The grenade had collapsed the tunnel to the surface, taking out a good section of the first level’s ceiling. Stones lay in a jumble from the triggered landslide.

Around her, the remainder of the ruins grumbled and groaned with the shift in stresses. Thirty feet of earth pushed to collapse more of the subterranean ruin.

What were they going to do?

Then the lights flickered a final time and died. Blackness swallowed them up.

“Everyone okay?” Sam asked numbly, his voice exaggerated by his deafened ears.

Norman answered, “Fine. I’m buried thirty feet underground… in a tomb. But otherwise, I’m fine.”

“Okay here, too, Sam,” Ralph added, his usual bravado dimmed.

Sam coughed on the thick dust in the air. “Maggie?”

She could no longer answer. She felt her limbs stiffen and begin the first of the characteristic tremors. She fell back upon the stone floor as the seizure grabbed her body and dragged her consciousness away.

The last she heard was Norman’s strangled cry. “Sam, something’s wrong with Maggie!”

Gil fled from the blast in the pit, the roar ripping through the quiet jungle. Smoke and debris, sweeping up into the night, chased him down the slope to the floor of the camp. Though the loose stones cut his bare feet, he scrambled down the stairs, cursing himself for abandoning his boots below. Why hadn’t he tossed his footwear and rifle free of the booby trap before he jumped? But he knew the answer. He had panicked.

Overhead, a flock of frightened parrots scattered across the beam of one of the nearby spotlights. The blaze of blue-and-red plumage across the black night startled him. As the single explosion echoed away, the jungle answered the grenade’s challenge with bird screeches and monkey calls.

The jungle had awakened—as had the camp below.

Lights swelled within several of the workers’ cheap tents. Shadows already moved inside as the sleepers awakened. Even one of the students’ tents blossomed with the warm glow.