The woman paced in the small, cluttered office, pausing for a brief moment to look at the old man sitting in the swivel chair behind an ancient mahogany desk. He was dressed in a chambray work shirt and wore carpenter’s overalls. The thick, horned-rimmed glasses would slide down his nose and he would absentmindedly push them back up to their proper place. He handled the old letter, a set of orders actually, carefully and with the necessary respect one had to show documents of that age. The woman wiped away the sweat on her brow and then without thinking about it pulled her blond hair back and slipped a thick rubber band around it, forming a ponytail. She then turned to look out of the five-hundred-year-old leaded glass window, which gave a blurry, skewed look to the world outside.
San Jerónimo el Real was one of the oldest Catholic churches in Spain and was currently closed for a much-needed engineering renovation. The beautiful Gothic building dated back to 1503 and had already seen many restorations, but this time it was work that would allow the building to stay on its original foundations for another five hundred years. The hammering and sound of jackhammers echoed in the ancient edifice, while outside in the streets many of Madrid’s older population passed by and crossed themselves in reverence of the church.
“My dear professor, this letter,” the man lightly brushed his right index finger across the dried ink, “could be a clever forgery, have you even considered that?”
The woman turned away from the window to face the archbishop of Madrid. The old man carefully laid the letter down and gently tapped the two pages together, carefully aligning them on his desk blotter. The woman noted the delicate way he handled the pages and knew he believed them to be authentic. She stepped to a chair, opened her small case, and removed a laptop. She typed in a quick command and then laid the computer on the archbishop’s desk, carefully avoiding the old text she brought for him to examine.
“The signature on the letter has been identified as that of Father Enrico Fernaldi, clerk of the Vatican Archives. The handwriting was verified by the Vatican Archives, and what you see is a copy of that verification taken from the texts of not less than twenty-seven other documents of that time, including the two-page authorization letter you just examined from 1873.”
Archbishop Lozano Santiago, the seventy-two-year-old curator of this and twenty-one other Vatican properties, smiled and looked up from the computer screen that held the image of the very same signature that was on the Vatican letter sitting before him.
“I compliment you on the trap you have so easily sprung on me, Professor Zachary, very clever.”
Dr. Helen Zachary, chairperson of the Zoology Department of Stanford University, smiled also. “I mean you no disrespect, Your Eminence,” she responded, knowing his blessing would depend upon that very point of proof. As a guardian of one of the most protected Vatican secrets in the world, this man would prove to be formidable.
“Just because the letter and the orders contained in it seem to be authentic, doesn’t mean it holds truth in its words,” he said as he lightly closed the lid to her laptop. “After all, the Holy Church has been known from time to time to use subterfuge in the handling of state secrets, a small conceit for something as taboo as the information you are seeking.
“The artifacts that are clearly described and mentioned in the order were sent away from the Vatican in 1875, after one of the civilian clerks was arrested by the Swiss Guard for trying to smuggle them out of the archive subbasement in November of the previous year, 1874. As it says in that letter to Pope Pius IX himself, and I quote, ‘The necessity of hiding the articles is a must; their presence will only cause corruption in good and decent men.’ That is why the mission to hide the artifacts was trusted only to knights of the Vatican, the papal medalists, and why, according to that letter you just read, Pope Pius IX ordered the diary to be sent here to Madrid and hidden away in this very church. The map was to be sent as far away as it could be sent and still be in the trusted hands of a knight of the Holy Order. That place was the United States, but the knight it was entrusted to met an unfortunate end and the map was lost forever.”
The archbishop slid his large chair back and stood without much difficulty. For a man that was used to grandeur in all things, he seemed well suited to a working man’s clothes.
“You don’t strike me as a fanatical treasure hunter.” He crossed from behind his desk to the front, where he carefully picked up the two-page Vatican letter. “I was sure the area of zoology tended toward the acquisition of knowledge on a more . . . nonavaricious level.”
“I assure you I’m not a treasure hunter. My field is the study of animal life, not hunting down the Padilla legend.”
The archbishop regarded the letter once again and then held it out to Zachary. The mere mention of the lost expedition of Captain Padilla, a story handed down by word of mouth from Spaniard to Spaniard and which was fraught with tales of gold and mystery, the legendary El Dorado, was almost enough for him to stop talking immediately.
“You are to be congratulated at the very least for your persistence in digging up such a rare find as a Vatican document as important as this.”
Helen took the age-yellowed pages from his hand.
“These were,” she hesitated a moment, “lent to me by a friend in the States who collects very old things.”
“Indeed,” he said. “I would be interested to know how many more secret documents this friend has that belong to the Church. Maybe Interpol would be curious as well.”
Helen wanted to steer away from her source of the letter; she didn’t need that headache. And the mere thought of Interpol’s tracking down her source was almost laughable.
“So you agree it is an authentic order?” she asked.
“Even if it were I would never divulge any information about the Padilla diary or the map, my dear professor. Even if said knowledge was in my possession, I would never allow—I mean, the Church would never allow such recklessness to once again stain its history, and surely not for treasure seekers such as you or whoever is backing you.” He turned his back on her. “If I were to guess, you have a partner in this endeavor, yes?”
Helen looked at her feet a moment and then closed her eyes. She held the thin and precious pages gently in both hands.
“I do have a silent partner that will back me for my reasons for going, and that reason is not for gold or glory, but for a far greater find.”
The archbishop turned and stared hard at the thirty-six-year-old woman. She was tanned and striking, her green eyes ablaze with passion.
“Perhaps it is time you tell me the reason you want to see the diary.” He held up a finger when Helen’s smile returned. “This is not an admission that I have the cursed thing, or that it is even in the possession of the Holy Church.”
“Believe me, Your Eminence, I would never have had to bother you if the quest for the Padilla map had been successful, but I’m afraid it’s truly lost.”
He frowned. “You are positive?”
“Yes,” she said sadly as she moved toward a far corner of the small office, “I’m afraid it’s gone forever.”
“A shame, indeed, but as you know, the legend says that Padilla had managed to secure samples from the richest gold mine in history; are they lost also?”
“I have no interest in that part of the legend. Only the fact that Father Escobar Corinth had the map and samples placed into two separate containers of which no description has ever been discovered.”
“For good reason perhaps, for even your Vatican letter says that to open these containers would bring a curse upon anyone who defied the Vatican locks.”
Helen reached the far corner of the room and carefully picked up an aluminum container. She hefted it and placed it on the desk, narrowly avoiding the laptop there.
“I didn’t think the Catholic Church gave credence to such ridiculous superstition.”
“It is just a story that is told. We don’t believe in curses, officially anyway. Even Satan has taken a backseat, a mere lowercase evil in today’s teachings.”
“So, is it a tale that is remembered through mere legend, or one that you read in a diary by a long-dead conquistador of Spain?” she asked while matching his smile with her own.
He wagged a finger at her. “You are fishing again, Professor, but this fish is not so easy to hook.”
She turned and unsnapped the four clasps on the aluminum box. An audible pop was heard as the airtight container became unsealed.
“You are indeed a difficult fish to hook, Your Grace,” she said, nodding at the aluminum carrying case, “possibly as hard as this fish would be to catch.” She opened the box and stepped away so the archbishop could see its contents.
He immediately froze and found taking a breath had become a chore. He couldn’t get enough air into his lungs for that simple reflexive action. His eyes widened and he quickly crossed himself. Around him the noises from the ongoing foundation renovation continued, but it went unheard by the archbishop.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ,” he mumbled as old church doctrine came flooding back to him.
Helen Zachary didn’t smile or speak. Having had to show the contents of the container was a last-ditch effort to get the archbishop’s assistance. Not only that, but much more important, his trust. After all, she was only asking him to disobey a papal command in order to help her.
“As I said, the treasures I seek have nothing to do with gold or the riches of man. It’s knowledge I seek. I need your help. The rumor of strange and exotic animal life described in the diary may be connected to this object.”
“This . . . this, fossil, how old is it?”
Helen looked at the skeletal remains of the hand. They had been carefully packed in a soft foam cutout. The four fingers were long, at least seventeen inches from palm to tip. The thumb was half that length, and the bone was thick and very powerful looking. Three of the digits had very lethal-looking clawed tips. The other claws were obviously absent due to its extreme age. Patches of petrified flesh were visible.
“I’m afraid it barely qualifies as a fossil, Your Grace, we have estimated its age at only seven hundred years, give or take a decade, placing it in the time frame of the Padilla expedition.”
“Is this possible?” he asked. “No, no, this cannot be.”
Helen slowly and carefully placed the lid back on the aluminum container and snapped the clasps closed. Then she pressed a small button on the container’s lid once, twice, three times, expelling the air that had entered the protective box and thus any contaminant that may have been allowed in. When she was finished she placed the container back onto the floor and turned back to the archbishop.
“The legend of the Padilla expedition and the rumors surrounding its demise may have been no mere legend, or just a story to scare schoolchildren at night. This is the treasure we are seeking. Can you imagine what we may discover at that site if we can find the route? If you have read the diary, is such a strange and wonderful creature as this described by Padilla?”
Archbishop Santiago slowly made his way to his chair. His emotions were in a vortex, for he had always prided himself as being a progressive entity in his church. Never one to shy away from real facts of science, he was one of the few that knew the real truth of this world can only strengthen one’s faith in there being a God and his son Jesus Christ. But this was something he had never counted on, possible proof that man had sprung from something other than God’s image. He removed his glasses and tossed them onto his desk. The words he had read many times over the years that sent chills down his spine—were they words that painted a picture of actual creatures and not just the ravings of overzealous imaginations? The legend of Padilla was told by millions of people the world over, and each telling told of the wondrous sights and all described the horrible beast that guarded a magical valley.
“I need to examine that diary. I’m begging you,” Helen said as she sat down in a chair. She placed her arms on her knees as she leaned forward. “I know one of your many passions is learning about our past; you even have a doctorate in world history from the University of Venice. So you must see that this fossil is possible proof we didn’t develop alone, that we had relatives that grew alongside of us.”
Santiago sat in his chair motionless. He rubbed his eyes, at the back of which had suddenly sprouted a headache.
“Was it sent to San Jerónimo el Real for safekeeping in 1875?” she asked point blank, while closing her eyes as if in prayer.
He swallowed and cleared his throat.
Helen looked up and into the man’s brown eyes. Her own were now wide and expectant.
“I will not allow the diary to leave church property. You may make two copies of the pages you seek; they may give enough descriptive information of landmarks to allow you to find the area you wish to find. The rest of the diary is not for your eyes, even if it can help you. There’s a reason that information is buried in this church. And since the map and gold samples are irrevocably lost to the world, it would seem I have little choice but to help you. I will not be a roadblock to knowledge.” He noticed her expression. “You are shocked? At first I was also, but then I thought this is not faith shattering, it only proves that God is still mysterious and his ways unknowable. But that does not mean that knowledge cannot be a dangerous thing.”
Helen closed her eyes again and clasped her hands together, not really listening to Santiago’s warning. But she refrained from verbally expressing any joy when she saw the archbishop’s expression of consternation as he rose from his chair.
She stood also, shaking with the excitement at knowing her search for the diary of Captain Hernando Padilla had come to an end. The artifact she had shown the archbishop had the effect she had prayed for.
“I’m afraid you may have stumbled upon something God has seen fit to hide in an inaccessible place for a reason, and, from what I saw in that case, Professor, you would be wise beyond your young years to leave this alone.”
“If I may ask, why are you willing to assist me?”
He turned toward her again, his face a scowl. “I have read the diary, from cover to cover, many times.” He saw her expression. “Does it surprise you that I would naturally be curious as to the old legends? But it is not only mere curiosity that guides me, but the fact that there are other things in that jungle besides your mysterious animal I must know about firsthand. You will be my messenger, because certain decisions will have to be made about this mysterious world you are going to, and you will assist me in acquiring the information I need to make those decisions. That is the deal, and for that reason alone is why I will help you.”
She started to respond but the archbishop had already opened the thick oaken door and was gone.
Copyright © 2007 by David Lynn Golemon. All rights reserved.