Story by Anthony Diesso
Illustration by Bradley K. McDevitt
Somewhere in South America; sometime in the 1930s
“Aw, please, just a nice, little, boring story with a nice, little, boring ending. That’s all—no close escapes, no bullets all around us. Nope. We’re here for a quiet, uneventful day—a happy butterfly day— a happy, happy butterfly—Oh, now what the hell is that?”
Sitting on a crude log raft, Vicky stopped whispering to herself. She leaned forward, squinted to see a figure struggle out of the murky vegetation. Recognizing the puffy sprint, the beat-up Panama hat, she sighed. Her husband was running for his life, as usual, clutching a raggedy sack to his chest. There were vines strung around his limbs and wildflowers in his hair. Reaching the bank, he slipped forward into the mud, the sack knocking into his belly. “Err,drmittehll!” He straightened up in spite of the blow and leapt across rocks and tangles to reach the raft. He flopped down on the deck, though his shoes plunged into the water, soaking him up to the ankles. “Ugh!” He recovered quickly, drew his feet onto the raft, and struggled to his knees. One of his palms slipped out from under him, and he fell on his face. “Arrgh!”
“Do you need a little help, Don?”
“Here, hold this,” he gasped, then struggled to add, “please.” Giving Vicky the sack, he picked up a heavy pole, and with a shove, pushed off from the muddy bank, almost losing his balance and toppling backward as he did. Glancing back into the jungle, he noticed the vegetation wiggling unnaturally.
“Friends of yours?” she asked.
“Yup,” he gulped. “They’ve come to wave me off.” Struggling to wield the oar with one hand, he drew out his revolver with the other, the click of the buttoning and unbuttoning of the holster causing Vicky to brace herself. He handed her the weapon. “Do me a favor, dear?”
“What’s that, lover?”
“Take this and let fly over the head of anything coming out of the weeds.”
“Con mucho gusto,” she smiled while cocking the revolver. Aiming it at the steamy, quivering jungle, she whistled with a cha-cha-cha rhythm.
“Thanks again.” Don pushed the raft from the bank toward the roaring whitewater.
Several men in white shirts made gray with perspiration soon emerged carrying machetes. The rusty blades flashed chestnut brown as their owners flailed them angrily. One of them threw his knife toward Don, though it fell wide and dropped into the river. Another sailed his machete onto the raft, where it landed without inflicting any damage. His associates were searching the bank for stones, which they launched with more anger than precision. Vicky aimed above their heads and fired. “Aim revolver—pa, pa, pa,” she sang, firing in time to the music. Reacting to the noise, the men sank instinctively into a crouch. They looked at each other, shrugged, then plunged back into the jungle.
“That’s fine,” Don nodded. “You’re the best wife a man could ask for.”
“Thanks. Why’d they give up so easily?” she asked while handing him back the weapon; he slipped it carefully back into the holster.
“Figured the river’d finish us off.” Don gestured with his thumb as they drifted into the furious waters.
“Is that likely?”
“Dear, you’re an intelligent, well-educated person. You must know it’s a helluva lot more than likely.”
“Oh? Is there anything we can do about it?”
“Try not to swallow—hold on!”
The raft—The—The raft boun—bounced—bounced a—along the bo—
“This is making me sick!” Vicky shouted to be heard above the roar.
“What?” Don shouted back.
“This is making me sick!”
–bounced along the boiling—the boiling rapids splashed, spit spray. Above, as if bobbing on the—bobbing on the sheer rock cliffs, appeared a ruined wall. Don pointed it out.
“So what about it?” Vicky hollered.
“What?” Don hollered back.
Don nodded with a half-smile before shifting his attention back to the maniacal waters. The river narrowed, and overhanging hedges and trees reached out to slap at them. Sunlight sharpened the leaf blades, blurred their vision. And bounced along, they crouched beneath the boughs, trying to dodge the assault-and-battery foliage.
A man leapt from the shore toward the raft; he missed, fell into the rapids and was swept away. Don hardly had the time to wipe his forehead with relief before another man leapt from the forest, this time landing on the raft. The sudden weight pushed Don and Vicky forward, sending them to their knees and almost over the side. The man staggered to his feet, grabbed Vicky by the wrist to secure the treasure bag. Vicky fought to escape his grip, pulling in the opposite direction. Machete in hand, Don sliced the blade through the assailant’s wrist. The man fell backward into the water, while with a sweep of his shoe, Don sent the dropped appendage into the river as if dealing with an irksome crab. Still holding the sack, Vicky stared in a daze, not quite sure she’d seen what she thought she’d seen.
“Did I just see what I thought I saw?”
“What?” he shouted back. His look, his cheek, and mouth tightened with anger, Don tapped Vicky’s wrist and shook his head. “Are you alright?”
“Good! I’d rather die than see you treated rough—look out!” He yanked her by the shoulder. Struck a—the raft dip—dipping, tossed the couple off their feet. And almost sliding into the river, Don grabbed the edge of the raft. His fingers trembled at the weight while Vicky held him by the leg. As if doing a horizontal chin-up, Don jerked himself forward until Vicky was squarely back onboard again.
From the cliffs above them came a boom. “Not guns!” Don shouted. “They’re blowing up the trees, trying to block our way! No good—we need to get off here!”
Ahead, he noticed what appeared to be a slender, tangled rope, but which rapidly became a makeshift bridge about two feet above the churning water. The construction looked spindly: thin tree trunks tied together with jungle vine. It crossed the river and was stabilized by a rock at the center of the rushing water. Don and Vicky’s speeding toward it made it appear even more flimsy.
“Don’t jump at it!” Don shouted. “Wait for it to come to you! As the raft goes under, wrap your arms around the trunk!”
The raft—The—The raft bounce—
“Hug it—don’t try to grab it!”
“Fine! Anything else?”
—bounced along the riv—river—
“Don’t swim 30 minutes after eating!”
“Is that all?”
—dipping, lift—lifting, dip—
“Yeah, that’s about it!”
The wood of the bridge gave with the impact; the vines stretched, near to breaking, and lashed boughs began to warp. The speed at which he struck the bridge caused Don to roll almost over and past it, though he held on, wrapped both arms and legs around the wood. Vicky latched herself to it and shimmied across. Don followed blindly, his hat flopped down over his eyes.
They both arrived panting and coughing on the other side. As soon as she had the breath, Vicky groaned, “Don, all this ‘roughing it’ isn’t good for either of us.”
“Sure it is.” He adjusted his hat, doubled over, and inhaled deeply. “Just the thing to make you light on your toes—it’s—now what the hell!” He looked down to see a snake slide over his pant leg. It was a little garden variety with stripes. Don glared at Vicky while struggling to remain motionless. “You know more about music than I do, right?”
“I suppose I have a better singing voice, but what does that have to do with any—”
“Fine. So how does that jingle go? –‘Red next to yellow, something, something—red next to black, something, something’.”
“That’s not a song—it’s some sort of Boy Scout rhyme.”
“Fine—but it tells you which snake is poisonous, and which isn’t, right? ‘Red next to yellow…smooth and mellow’—wait no, that’s a beer ad. ‘Red next to yellow, kill…yes, kill a fellow. Red next to black’s a friend of Jack.’” Letting out a sigh, he plucked up the serpent and flung it into the bushes. He reflected for a moment. “Or was it the other way around?” He stuck out his tongue, braced it between his teeth, brought his head back and let out a massive sneeze. He then looked down and waddled like a penguin. “Nuts. My socks are soaked: I feel like I’m stepping on sponges.” The sun was shadowed over, and the smell and feel of coming rain alerted him. “When it comes down, it comes down in a hurry. We’d better head for those ruins.”
“Won’t they follow?”
“Hardly, with all the vermin, vines, and ghosts—look here.” Pulling apart an ivy cluster, Don revealed a massive stone head, like a block with features. Insects scurried across the face, the eyes, the nose, and lips. He studied it for a moment, then turned his attention back to the climb. “Let’s go.”
Vicky shrugged. “Alright, captain—on to the next chapter.”
After an uphill mile of jungle chaos, an image of more structured and less natural geometry appeared. Veined with ivy, blocks formed a hulking step pyramid, once an imposing monument, but left abandoned for centuries. The stone, where it was visible through the overgrowth, was spattered with white and green fungus, and rusty, blood-like stains. Winds against the vegetation appeared to change the building’s shape, warping the overall design. “There you go,” Don said with a panoramic wave of the hand. “The hanging gardens of…wherever we are.”
“Is there an elevator?” she asked while inspecting the staircase, steep and worn by half a millennium of jungle-rot
“Nah. We’ll enter through the lobby.” He held out a hand before a narrow opening at the base. “After you, sweetie.”
She felt rain begin to sprinkle against her forehead. “Oh, no—you first, by all means.”
Don nodded and went in. Vicky paused before entering to inspect the ancient structure, the scarred and unstable-looking lintel overhead. Rain began to fall harder, and Don extended a hand to pull her through the entryway.
Inside, the ceiling gaps allowed the rain and cloudy day to enter in. Enclosed, but vast and airy, it was a waterless aquarium of plants, blocks, and soggy light. Vicky’s previous anxiety over entering became a sense of wonder. She stretched her head looking up, nearly making herself dizzy. The vertebrae-like plates of the interior, beginning at each corner and corresponding to the outer steps, converged above their heads. Following them down with her line of sight, she admired the artwork. The walls featured reliefs carved thickly as if formed from rolls of dough. Out of these lumps could be discovered humanoid features, heads and hands, and squatting thighs, all broad and flattened as if pressed against glass. Higher up, a carved image resembling a dragon’s head emerged from a flower.
“Really something, huh?” Noticing her overwhelmed expression, Don took her by the hand and guided her to a cool, dry place. He sat her down and she continued to gawk at the lofty ceiling. He gave her a kiss on the ear, then elbowed her in the bicep. “Hey—would you like to see what I got?”
“I picked up a hairy tarantula for you. I’ll be sure to put it on your collar while you’re asleep.”
“Uh-huh,” she muttered, still looking up. After a moment, she lowered her head and glared at him. “What are you talking about?”
Don gave her a boyish grin. “Nothing. Just checking to see if you were listening.”
“Of course, I was.” Lowering her gaze, she pointed to a staircase leading downward from a corner of the room. “What’s that lead to?”
“Some sort of passages. I’ve been in too many trenches in the war to want to explore them, though…” Becoming distracted himself, he reached into his shirt pocket to remove a wet cigarette, which he poked into his mouth. “A filthy, rotten, bat-faced hell…Anyway, how’d you like to see what’s in the bag?”
Don removed the statue from the sack. Having the exuberance of a child, though tempered with the embarrassment of a reasonably self-conscious man, his lips wavered between a smile and a flat expression. Made of basalt and carved in a sitting position, the figure itself appeared to have two layers of skin. It wore a sculpted mask, two sets of eyelids, and a mouth within a mouth as if it were either swallowing or being swallowed.
“Why is he wearing baloney?” Vicky asked.
“It’s not baloney, sweetie-pie. It’s supposed to be human skin.”
“Nope.” Don shook his head in mock condescension. “Oh, my goodness, I can see you know very little about flayed deities.”
“Yes, well, you’ve discovered my fatal flaw.”
“Uh huh. So this is a figure of Xipe Totec, the Aztec harvest god.”
“Why is he wearing a skin suit?”
“The skin’s like the shell of a seed about to open, with the living god inside, ready to burst out. His priests wore the flayed skin of sacrificial victims, and—you’re not buying this, are you?”
“I’m not sure.” One of the vine’s leaves started to crawl towards her arm, and Vicky shuddered to discover she was looking at some sort of bug life. Don didn’t notice but looked mysteriously across the room.
The rain had stopped, and sunlight entered, turning the stone the color of salmon-mousse while making radiant the previously shadowed nooks. Don straightened up and shuffled past walls that emitted a slowly churning steam. “Here, let me show you.” He arrived at an alcove choked with debris, reached into the clutter and lifted what appeared to be a strip of translucent parchment. Dangling from his fingers, it assumed a deboned but human shape. Vicky peered into the flaccid, eyeless face, and gasped.
“They were believed to have curative powers,” Don explained. “Mothers would have their children touch them to cure their bellyaches.”
“It’s doing nothing for mine.”
“Oh well, maybe next time I’ll—just a minute.”
“What is it?”
“Either a wild animal—or a wild man.” He stood up, staring at the entrance.
Dry shuffles and panting echoed through the building. Dropping the trail of jerky skin, Don put a finger to his lips, and reaching for a good-sized rock, he pointed out a patch of heavy shadow in the corner of the room. “Move over there,” he whispered, and Vicky complied with the minimum of activity and noise.
A silhouette at the entry cut into the pane of purple dusk, throwing an elongated shadow over the stone floor. It raced in, slipped on the wet stone, and tumbled forward. Lifting its head, it became a man. Even off his feet, he struggled forward on his hands and knees. He noticed Don with frantic eyes and attempted to run past him. Reaching out his forearm, however, Don halted the man’s progress. “What is it?” he demanded, raising the stone.
“Coming, coming. Oh please…”
“He is. Xipe Totec.” His breathing was shallow and quick, the spasms called attention to his sweaty chest. Little sweat drops weighed down the hair against his collar bone, dropping trails into his already soaked shirt.
Don dropped the rock and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. His voice was calmly authoritative. “What do you mean?”
“He’s coming after us, after it. He wants it back, going through us to get it. We took it to sell.”
“Statue, the one he’s looking for. Where is it? We couldn’t find it, but he found us, started to…ran a rock-knife up their backs, back of the head, and…peeled away…collecting…and I ran, I ran, but he’s coming, don’t you understand?”
Vicky stepped from the shadows, and a patch of muted sunlight glossed her face. Don swallowed, attempted to calm his voice still further. “No one’s coming. There are no angry gods.”
“He doesn’t know that. You send him out and he comes back, bursts through the skin.” The man’s wet chest started to heave violently. There were tears in his eyes.
With his free hand, Don wiped the perspiration from his forehead and flicked it from his fingers. “Why don’t you sit down for a moment?” Patting the man on the chest, he felt a small, cardboard box in his shirt pocket. Removing the box, he took out several matches, then replaced it in the pocket. The man didn’t appear to notice any of this business, but shook his head, sending sweat spray in all directions.
Recalling a scene more real than anything before him, the man bolted into the shadows. “Hide me, hide me,” he pleaded, apparently to no one in particular, perhaps to the building itself.
Don looked toward the entryway and the encroaching twilight. “We’re going to need light soon,” he muttered to Vicky.
“He’s mad—isn’t he?” she said. “Did any of what he said make sense?”
Don shook his head.
“Where is he going to run to down there?”
“Not sure. There might be nothing more than dead ends down there. On the other hand, he might find a cavity in the stone, and a way out, back into the jungle. But probably he’ll run around, knock his head into a wall, and go to sleep for an hour or so. That’d be best for everyone.” Don stalked past Vicky toward a vine-cluttered alcove. He cleared the growth away and deposited it into a nearby stone-bowl. Retrieving one of the matches he’d taken from the man, he struck it against the wall. He tossed the flame into the bowl, which caught fire briskly and filled the chamber with an inconsistent, slithering light. He gave Vicky a kiss on the cheek. “Stay here. I’m going to take a look outside before it gets too dark.”
“Ain’t nothing out there worth looking at.”
He grinned. “I hope you’re right.”
Outside, he was struck by the silence, a stillness out of character with the howling, hooting, chattering jungle. He climbed the ancient steps toward the top of the pyramid and surveyed the purple landscape. It shook in contrast to the prevailing winds, though in a localized area of about twenty feet. Wild parrots flew squawking from the tumult. Don leaned forward, scratched his chin, then pinched up his face with concern. He turned to go inside, took one last look at the perspiring twilight, and returned to Vicky. As she sat, he gave her a gentle bump on the shoulder with his knee. “Have you heard anything from the gentleman downstairs?”
“I heard him shuffling around for a bit, but then he stopped.”
“That’s fine. I told you he’d knock himself into a little peace and quiet. Anyway, we’re going to have company.”
“About how many?”
“Can’t tell. Maybe half a dozen. I saw them working their way through the forest. They were in a hurry, although the trees and vines and rocks are doing a pretty good job of holding them back.”
She focused her attention outside at the failing daylight. “How long before they get here?”
“Ten minutes or so.” He removed his gun from its holster while handing her the bag. “Here, hide this somewhere.” She took the bag and shuffled into the darkness as he continued to talk. “I don’t think they’re coming for us. They’re leaving their tents to get to this building. It’s the only solid structure for miles.”
“Shouldn’t we be leaving, even if they’re not interested in us?” her voice echoed back.
“I don’t know about you, but I have no intention of spending the night in that soaking, steaming, black mess. As long as I’ve got this revolver and the idol’s nowhere in sight, they won’t bother us. You hide somewhere when they come in, though. I’ll do all the talking.”
“Oh, Don, this is crazy.”
He slowly rubbed his forehead, but said nothing, listening to the silence.
About twenty minutes later, a short, stout man with a round face walked in as if entering a restaurant. His gray jaw and dented Panama hat belied the refinement of his gait and gestures, and his neatly-creased trousers were ripped and stained. Several rougher-looking men in damp white shirts followed him. They surveyed the interior while the man strolled up to Don; the latter stroked the barrel of his revolver against a sideburn, making a sandpapery noise. The man removed his hat, presented a sweaty, bald crown surrounded by wildly curling hairs. “Good evening,” he said in a high-pitch as if speaking from the upper back of his throat. His moustache appeared to have been drawn on with a pencil, though without the aid of a mirror, so that it had a noticeable slant, particularly when he spoke. “My name is Schlender, Schlender of Prague.”
“You are Don Fedora.”
“You know that,” Schlender tittered to himself. “You know…that’s fine. I wonder if that’s all you know.”
“I know I’m out of cigarettes—dry ones, anyway. Otherwise, I’d have the satisfaction of not offering you one.”
Schlender gave him a tilted half-smile, which straightened out his moustache. “Please, allow me.” From his pocket he produced a silver case; he clicked it open, took out a cigarette, and handed it to Don. He next produced a pigskin lighter. It shook in his hand, shined with a ripple in the firelight as he passed it over.
“Thanks.” Don inspected the lighter; he lit his cigarette with it, then slid it casually into his pocket. Schlender watched him, though he tried to maintain an air of calm indifference.
“So, how’s business?” Don chuckled with the cigarette still in his mouth.
“Business?” A bead of sweat formed at the tip of Schlender’s nose. “We are thieves, sir, thieves the victims of thieves. Nevertheless, you are brave, quite brave, since you are willing to kill us and yourself…also your lovely lady friend.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Schlender repeated his half-smile, but with the other side of his face, causing his moustache to tilt again. “The figure you took. He means to have it back.”
“You will not believe me if I tell you. Only understand your life is about to be taken, though not by us. You must return the figure to him now.”
Don chuckled, so that the cigarette lifted to a forty-five-degree angle, like a Roman candle about to take off. “How come? You on commission or something?”
“You must return it,” Schlender repeated, a sweat drop falling from his upper lip.
“If you’re referring to the knickknack, I lost it crossing the river.”
With widened eyes, the man looked less reproachful than alarmed. He struggled to raise a grin, however, and the moustache rocked like a buoy on the water. “Come now, you couldn’t have put so much trouble into stealing it just to let it drop into the river.”
“My hands were slippery. I’ll manage it better next time.”
“Did you also lose your lady friend in the river?”
“Oh no. She’s in the back doing her laundry.”
Schlender rubbed his eyes, making a little squishy noise. “How very fortunate for her.”
“Not really: you should see how dirty our stuff got.”
“Oh Don, don’t irritate the psychopath,” Vicky whispered to herself. In the shadows, near the ancient, downward steps, she listened, trying to glean pieces of the conversation. “Please, please, just a nice, boring story with a nice boring ending. That’s exactly what we need right now. No wise-guy attitudes—Oh, now what the devil’s he doing?”
Schlender closed his eyes tightly, smiled, then slowly opened them again. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m saying this for your good— “
“My good? No, not at all. You’re sweating yourself out of shape. Your head looks like a half-sucked lollypop that’s been picked up off the theater floor.”
Schlender sighed. He gestured to one of his machete-wielding servants, then pointed to Don. “Pedro, matalo.”
“You heard me. Put him out of our misery right away.”
“Pero…tiene una pistola.”
“Never mind the gun. We’re all dead men, anyway. I just want to see his guts hit the floor before I go. Go on, Pedro: rip him from the belly to the jaw.” He turned to Don and proudly declared, “Watch this. Pedro is an artist with a machete.”
“It’s not an art worth dying for.”
“Of course, it is. He’s about to die, anyway. Better to leave this world creatively—don’t you think?”
“I do. Hold on—I’ll make a masterpiece of you in a moment.” Don took aim at the approaching man, closed his eyes, and squeezed the trigger. Instead of the expected burst, however, he heard a click. Opening his eyes, he saw the man approach more quickly, raise the blade.
“Ha! How about another joke, funny man?” snorted Schlender. “One last quip while your vocal chords are still intact?”
“Eh, well, there was this traveling salesman, and he stopped by a farm, and well…”
Hearing the revolver click, seeing the machete flash, Vicky ascended into the light, called out, “Now boys, there’s no reason to get gruesome, particularly in front of a lady.”
“Sweetie,” Don growled, “this is hardly the place or the time to— “
“You shut up. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll sit down, too. Besides, I’ve heard that joke, and it’s not what I’d call a lifesaver.”
“It’s in the way I tell it, though— “
“No, it isn’t!” She turned her attention to Schlender. “Now let’s see if we can come to some reasonable—”
She was interrupted by a rattling sound, low at first, then more insistent, as if from a large, percussive instrument. “Now what the hell is that?” she asked.
Schlender stood, moved his chair out of the way. “Madam,” he addressed her in a formal, breathless voice. “It wants it back. It came for us, squeezed right out of the shadows, proceeded to tear my camp, my workers apart…”
Distracted by the noise, the man with the machete failed to notice Don approach him. Yet before any struggle, he simply dropped the weapon, so that it clattered violently against a stone block wall and out of reach. He fled from the entrance into the dark, with all the others following him. Don forgot the blade and turned his attention instead to the commotion surrounding him.
Shadow tissues swept across the walls; they swelled and shrank and thickened and grew thin. And as the men scattered, at times almost knocking into him, one inadvertently struck Don in the arm, sending his revolver to the ground. Don reached to retrieve the weapon, fixing his eyes on Schlender as he did. Schlender remained motionless, staring back at Don.
“You’re not running?” Don asked while wiping off the gun.
“No,” Schlender replied. “I’ve seen him, seen what he does. He’s going to finish off all of us, and I want it to go quickly. I do not want to understand such things while they are happening. You understand.”
“Maybe I do,” Don said, reaching for the machete, the blade a rippling orange with the firelight. “But I’m married now, and the missus wouldn’t put up with my just standing around.”
Schlender straightened his moustache with a dry laugh.
The rattling continued. Don turned Vicky to face him. In the firelight, her eyes looked large and soft and lovelier than ever. “Run,” he whispered, the sound echoing through the great room.
“Not without you.”
“Are you being funny? I’m right behind you.” He nodded to Schlender. “Sorry.”
Schlender remained motionless as if standing at attention, though his eyes were still fixed on Don. “See you soon.”
The rattling echoed through the empty chambers, audible in spite of all the shouts and shuffling. Before heading downstairs, Don glanced behind him. In the failing torchlight, he saw a figure enter the building. The eyelids were swollen-looking and half-shut, with no eyes visible beneath. The ears were long, the lobes perforated and dangling. The skin of fingers flapped at his wrists like unused gloves. There was a hole in his chest, through which Don could see light from the fire.
“But Don— “
“Outrun me if you can!” he cried in whispers, pushing Vicky forward.
“Can’t see where I’m going.”
They stumbled into shadows, saw with hands to keep from slamming into stone. Ahead, they hurried to a dead end, into –stone. They turned around, chose another path, and hurried into–stone. They leapt down narrow steps, scraped shoulders against stone. They raced through tight, tall corridors, low-ceiling crawl-spots, into—stone. They squeezed sideways, close to getting stuck, ducked under rooty weeds, arriving finally at—stone.
Their panting hissed back at them; screams echoed both before them and behind. Before them and behind they heard the same percussive rattle.
Screaming, groans, and rattles…Thinking he was going to hit another wall, Don tripped over one of Schlender’s men. Tipped over from a crouch, the man flailed like an upturned insect. He began to whimper. “Shh,” Don whispered. “Keep moving—come with us.” The man ignored him.
Vicky and Don continued to hear noises: a suddenly interrupted shriek, a juicy, cracking sound, followed by gurgling, then low and heavy breaths. And the rattling continued. The noises prompted Don and Vicky to run still faster, in spite of the darkness. They raced down a skinny passage into—stone. Retracing their steps, they slipped into a side entrance, a wall of cobweb, then another corridor. In the smoldering dark, his vision unreliable, Don thought he saw flashes of movement. He raised a forearm for defense, the sack he carried swaying in his fist. Finding nothing, with Vicky’s hand still in his, he hurried on, arriving at—stone.
Again, at a dead end, Don inspected the corridor wall. He felt it give slightly as if it were partially eroded by moisture. Looking back, he caught a glimpse of what he thought was Schlender, although the figure was taller, its face unnaturally stretched and dripping from the eyes and nose. Don returned to the rotting stone, drove a foot through, and feeling briefly with his hand, found access to an open space. He pressed Vicky through, then followed, glancing briefly back to see the figure with the distorted though familiar face.
He found himself in still another corridor. He took Vicky’s hand and hurried by, with carved faces speeding past as if pressed out from the vine-infested walls. Don caught glimpses of death’s heads, glyphs of skulls and bones and bats. Voices began to echo in his head. See you soon.
Looking back, he saw “Schlender” effortlessly crouch through the hole Don had made several moments earlier. Soon—
“Aw, nuts to you.”
Don lay the bag down and continued to run, arriving at a wall with no apparent means of escape. On the stone panel facing him, he could make out the relief of a grinning, cone-hatted skeleton, dangling in its hand an empty skin. See you…
“Like hell, nuts, hell.”
Soon…Don’s hands pressed flat against the stone, sent a jolt of pain to his wrists. He kicked against the stone, sent another jolt of pain through his foot. He pressed Vicky near the stone, then stood in front of her. See you…
“Nuts, hell, nuts, nuts, hell.”
His breath was quick and echoed through the chamber; he struggled to control it, listened, but heard only silence. Turning to Vicky, he pressed a finger to his lips, then stepped forward toward the sack he’d left behind. It was gone, and the corridor was empty and still.
“Shh,” he whispered and kissed her on the forehead. “You stay here while I take a look.”
“Like blazes,” she whispered back. Taken firmly by the hand, he followed her through the corridor, through the darkness, until the walls were painted with a thinly golden firelight. They climbed the steps, returned to the main chamber. The room was rippling gold except for the dead black entrance. The emptiness was awe-inspiring and prompted both of them to continue to speak in muted tones.
“Don, I couldn’t see a thing with your back in front of me. What just happened?”
“I, uh…well, it’s just that…I scared him off.” He gave her a big, nervous smile and shuffled toward the entrance of the pyramid. Outside, he stared at the field of stars glistening in the darkness. Vicky followed him out, followed his line of view, and joined him in watching the still, night sky.
The dawn was fresh, and the sun above and the jungle underneath emerged as if the kick-off of Creation. Daylight made the rain-wet landscape, the leaves, the mossy pyramid steps, appear pearly and pristine. Sitting outside, near the entrance, Don and Vicky watched the world squeeze gradually into existence, with brilliant colors, gold and green and purple. Neither of them had slept at all and greeted the morning with a pink-eyed daze. While Vicky lay her head against Don’s shoulder, staring at the hangnails that jut from just about each finger, he inspected his revolver. He peered into the muzzle, rotated the cylinder, and aimed it into the jungle. Leaves flashed, appeared to cup the dewy light. He lowered the weapon without firing, and said, “It’s almost like we’re Adam and Eve.”
Vicky took a cursory glance at the pyramid, then planted a kiss on Don’s neck. “So, this is the Garden of Eden, eh?”
Don scratched his head. “I suppose they do have a few things in common.”
“Yeah, like King George and King Kong. But Donald, promise me the next time a war-god goes rampaging for one of his knick-knacks, you’ll let him have it.”
Don seemed to be only half listening. “If I had followed the river a little further, we might have pulled it off.” He stared at her intently, nodded, then tilted his head as if considering the idea. “Yeah, it might have worked.” He removed his well-worn Panama hat. Once white, the brim now had a yellowish sweat-stain. A number of the interweaved strands of straw were frayed or jutting out. He flopped it over and stared into the empty shell. Then lifting his head, he gave a boyish grin. “Now to find a decent job, something to keep you from having to worry all the time.”
“Yes, dear,” she answered quietly and kissed him on the cheek.
“You believe me, don’t you?” he asked, hoping she might have caught some bit of probability in it so he might be able to believe in it himself. “You know I don’t have to live like this, don’t you, that it’s not something compulsive?”
“Of course not,” she agreed.
“Good… So all we need to do at this point is go back to that ruffian camp, find provisions and something like a boat, sail up the river to the first village we find, locate a means of transportation to the nearest port city, then scrounge enough money to travel to Panama. There’s a friend of mine there who owes me a favor. I should be able to squeeze information out of him about the secret location of a few valuable artifacts which should bring us enough money to buy tickets for a ship to New York. And once we reach New York, I’ll look up an old acquaintance of mine, one who’s more than likely still alive. He deals in antiques; and if he hasn’t been arrested, bumped off, or deported, he should be able to find me a respectable job, one that makes good money, with plenty of security and opportunities for advancement, and…”
Vicky listened, nodded intuitively, though her thoughts were on a butterfly that bobbed in the air like a wind-blown petal.
— ♦♦♦ —
Art by Carol Wellart
“Duke” sets down the package and lifts his arms blindly, hearing Layla’s jacket sliding off and hitting the mattress. Another sound to his right makes him shudder, but before he can reach for the Colt, the bedside lamp comes on and he’s staring down the barrel of a small black Beretta at the end of Layla’s straight, steady arm. She’s smiling…It’s so hard to cipher a double-cross, let alone a triple.