"You got another letter from moldy, old Dr. Mecate."
Gina O'Neil glanced up from grooming a horse to discover her best friend, Jase McCord, holding up a brilliantly white business-sized envelope. She knew exactly what business it contained. How could she not, considering the obstinate Dr. Mecate had sent her at least half a dozen others just like it?
It would behoove you to allow me to dig on your property.
What in hell was a behoove?
Proving my academic theory would increase the cachet of your establishment.
She had the same question about cachet.
I would be happy to advance remuneration.
Who talked like that?
"Helloo." Jase waved the envelope back and forth, his wide, high-cheekboned face softened by the chip in his front tooth that he'd gotten when he was bucked from a horse at the age of eight. His face, combined with his compact but well-honed body, made him look like a marauding Ute warrior, which was exactly what he would have been if born in a previous century. "What should I—?"
Gina snatched the envelope from his hand. "I'll take care of it." In the same way she'd taken care of all the others.
Direct deposit into the trash can.
Gina turned back to Lady Belle, and Jase, who was familiar with Gina's moods, left.
Nahua Springs Ranch was not only Gina's home but also her inheritance. Once one of the most respected quarter-horse ranches in Colorado, Nahua Springs had become, after the death of Gina's parents nearly ten years ago, one of far too many dude ranches in the area. Nevertheless, they'd done all right. Until recently.
Recently she'd begun to receive as many letters from bill collectors as she did from Dr. Mecate. Certainly his remuneration would be welcome, considering their financial difficulties. Unfortunately, what he wanted from her was something Gina couldn't give.
If she opened the letter she knew what she'd find. A request for her to let him search for Aztec ruins on her property.
She couldn't do that. What if he went there? What if he found . . . it?
Gina crossed to the open back doorway, of the barn drawing in a deep breath of spring air as she stared at the ebony roll of the distant mountains and the spring grass tinged silver by the wisp of a moon.
Sometimes the wind called her name. Sometimes the coyotes. Sometimes she even heard it in the calls of the wolves that were never, ever there.
The singsong trill haunted her, reminding her of all she had lost. She'd come to the conclusion that the call was her conscience, shouting out the last word her parents had ever uttered in an attempt to make sure she remembered, as if she could ever forget, that they had died because of her.
Everything had both started and ended in that cavern beneath the earth.
"Kids will be kids," she murmured, echoing her father's inevitable pronouncement whenever she and Jase had gotten into trouble.
Let them roam, Betsy. What good is having this place if she can't run free like we did?
Gina's parents had been childhood sweethearts. Boring, if you left out the star-crossed nature of their relationship—Betsy the daughter of the ranch owner and Pete the son of the foreman. Everyone had considered them as close as brother and sister. When Betsy's father had found out they were closer, he'd threatened to send her to college on the East Coast, right after used his bullwhip on Pete.
The reality of the coming grandchild had ended both the threat of a whipping and any hope of college. Not that Betsy had cared. She'd loved the ranch as much as Pete had, as much as Gina did now.
Gina and Jase had been kids that day, heading straight for the place Jase's granddad, Isaac, had warned them against.
At the end of Lonely Deer Trail the Tangwaci Cin-au'-ao sleeps. You must never, ever walk there.
According to Isaac, the Tangwaci Cin-au'-ao was an evil spirit of such power that whoever went anywhere near him died. Basically, he was the Ute Angel of Death, and he lived at their place. What fifteen-year-old could resist that?
Certainly not Gina.
She'd become obsessed with the end of Lonely Deer Trail. She'd crept closer and closer. She'd taken pictures of the flat plain that dropped into nowhere, yet a tree appeared to grow out of the sky. And when that sky filled with dawn or dusk the tree seemed to catch fire.
How could anyone not want to explore that?
Jase hadn't wanted to go, but she'd teased him unmercifully. In the end, he'd given in, as she'd known he would. To Jase's credit, he'd never once said, I told you so.
Not when the earth had crumpled beneath them.
Not when they'd tried to climb out and only succeeded in pulling an avalanche of summer-dried ground back in.
Not when they'd been buried alive, unable to move, barely able to breathe.
Not even when they'd both understood they would die there.
Because if Gina's sleep was disturbed by the ghostly, singsong trill, if on occasion the wind also called her name, if she felt every morning in that instant before she awoke the same thing she'd felt in that cavern—the stirring of something demonic, the reaching of its deformed hand in a mad game of Duck, Duck, Goose, pointing first at Gina, then at Jase, before settling its death claw on her parents, well . . .
That was probably I told you so enough.
Mateo Mecate stared at the hieroglyphics until they blurred in front of his overworked eyes. He might be one of the foremost scholars in Aztec studies, but the letters still sometimes read like gibberish. He shoved them aside, removing his glasses and rubbing a hand over his face.
According to the calendar, May meant spring. As usual, Tucson wasn't listening. The temperatures had been pushing ninety for a week.
The door to Matt's small, dusty, scalding office opened, and his boss, George Enright, stepped in. His gaze went to the papers on Matt's desk, and he frowned.
"Mateo." Enright's voice held so much disappointment, Matt expected him to cluck his tongue, then shake his head, or perhaps his finger, in admonishment. "This has to stop. I've put up with it thus far because of the respect I had for your mother. But the time has come to move on."
Enright was the head of the anthropology department at the University of Arizona, where Matt was a professor of archaeology—his specialty, like his mother's before him, the civilization of the Aztecs.
Nora Mecate had been a descendant of that great civilization. She'd been fascinated—some say obsessed—with proving a theory she'd gleaned from ancient writings passed down through her family for generations. She spent her life—no, she gave her life—trying to prove it.
"You could become the chair of this department when I retire. But you need to abandon your mother's ridiculous theory. You're becoming a laughingstock." Enright lowered his voice. "As she was."
Matt stiffened. Any academic who refused to face facts became an amusing anecdote at the staff watercooler. Matt had noticed a lot of the graduate students staring and whispering lately.
Not that such behavior was anything new. For some reason the women around here liked to fashion him a Hispanic Indiana Jones. He wasn't, but that didn't stop them from pointing and giggling and showing up during his office hours with foolish questions they already knew the answer to.
Matt wasn't interested. Not that he didn't occasionally date—if the willing women he took to dinner, then back to his bed, then never saw again could be considered dates—but his life was work, and he had little use for anything else.
"I have one more location on my mother's list of possibilities," Matt said.
Enright lifted his artificially darkened brows. Everything about Enright was artificial—his gelled, black toupee, his high-gloss manicure, even his right hip.
When Matt did not elaborate, Enright sighed. His breath smelled of the Jack Daniel's he kept filed under W.
"The semester is nearly done, Mateo. By fall, be ready to move on."
"Move on?" Matt echoed.
"Choose a different avenue for your research or choose another university." The door shut behind Enright with a decisive click.
Matt glanced at his mother's notes. As he shuffled them, searching for something he might have missed during the eight thousand other times he'd shuffled them, he could have sworn the scent of her—oranges, earth, and sunshine—lifted from the pages. Sometimes, when he touched them in the depths of the night, their whisper was her voice calling him in from childish explorations across every dig they'd ever shared.
He'd enjoyed a charmed childhood. What wasn't to love about living in a tent, searching for buried treasure, and never once—until he'd come here—stepping foot in a school?
Nora had been the only child of the very wealthy Mecate family. When she'd chosen to become an archaeologist more than a few inky black Mecate eyebrows had been raised. She didn't need to work for a living; she most definitely didn't need to dig in the dirt. That she wanted to had been beyond the comprehension of many, including her father.
However, only poor people were crazy. Rich people were eccentric, and the more eccentrics in a rich family the greater their prestige. The raised eyebrows had lowered before too long.
When Nora had turned up pregnant—not a boyfriend or a husband in sight—no one had bothered to exert their eyebrows at all. That Mateo would be a Mecate, and carry on that precious name, had gone a long way to bridging the gap between Nora and her father.
She'd dragged Matt with her all over Mexico and the Southwest. She'd taught him everything she knew about how to research and explore. Then she'd died on a dig the summer before he left for college.
"Hell," Matt muttered, tracing one finger over his mother's chicken scratch scrawl.
While still a young woman, Nora had translated the ancient Aztec writings she'd uncovered in the musty library of the family estate and discovered something amazing.
The reason the Aztecs never lost in battle was because they possessed a secret weapon, what Nora referred to as a superwarrior, a being of such incredible strength and power she believed him to be a sorcerer. That warrior had been buried somewhere in the American Southwest. All she had to do was find the tomb.
Scholars would have accepted her searching for remains north of the Rio Grande, even though most believed the Aztecs had not ventured farther than Central Mexico. But the tomb of a supernatural warrior? A sorcerer?
No one but Nora believed that.
Certainly when Matt was a child his mother's tales had captivated him. He'd accepted them completely. But as time went on, Matt's enthusiasm for a supernatural warrior waned.
However, Nora's research on the tomb itself was solid. There was something buried at an as-yet-undiscovered site north of the Rio Grande. Perhaps nothing more than a very large, freakishly strong, and more deadly than usual Aztec, but if Matt found that tomb and those remains, he could vindicate his mother's theory. Or at least those parts it was possible to vindicate. Then she would no longer be a laughingstock.
And neither would he.
His mother had translated a list of half a dozen possible sites from the hieroglyphics she'd found. They'd explored all of them—save one—and to date they'd found nothing but rocks.
Detractors pointed out that the Spanish had destroyed most, if not all, of the Aztec records—flat, accordion—like books known as codices, fashioned from deerskins or agave paper. Any texts that survived had been written under the strict supervision, and often with the help of, the Spanish clergy.
Therefore, the writings Nora Mecate had based her life's work upon—Superwarrior? Sorcerer? Indeed!—were nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by some laugh-a-minute priest in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
"Because priests back then were known for being extremely 'ha-ha' kinds of guy," Matt muttered.
Matt had been studying the documents himself ever since Nora had died. He could find nothing wrong with her geographic translations. He had found no other viable sites.
Therefore, Matt had one last chance to prove her theory. If the final location yielded nothing new, he'd have little choice but to give up his mother's dream—which would be tantamount to admitting she was a crackpot—and move on. However, he'd encountered a problem with the remaining site.
Matt pulled a glossy three-fold brochure from the center drawer of his desk. The front panel revealed majestic mountains, four shots: spring, summer, winter, and fall—green, blue, gold, brown, white, purple, and orange abounded. Horses gamboled. He turned the brochure over to see if bunnies hopped and cattle roamed.
Instead, he found an artsy portrayal of a cowboy in silhouette, head tipped down, hat shading his face. However, the outline of the body was every ride-'em-
Inside lay the propaganda—several gung-ho paragraphs superimposed over a sepia print of what Matt assumed was the main house, which, despite the "old-time" feel of the photograph had obviously been updated and well maintained. According to the text, gourmet food complemented an authentic western experience.
"Yee-haw," Matt murmured, rubbing the slick brochure between thumb and forefinger before removing another older, less slick, more crumpled paper from his desk.
He wasn't an expert on photography, but he was still fairly certain the person who'd taken the pictures for the brochure was the same person who had taken the image Matt had uncovered on the Internet about a year ago. The one that matched the final descriptive translation for the burial site of Nora Mecate's superwarrior.
Somewhere on this dude ranch lay his last chance to vindicate both his mother's and his own life's work. He'd had his assistant leave a dozen unanswered phone messages, followed by as many unanswered e-mails. Then Matt had taken over and begun to write letters, reiterating the request for permission to dig. He'd yet to receive a single response. It infuriated him.
Deep down he knew that his single-minded devotion to proving his mother's theory, or as much of it as could be proved, was based on guilt. He'd stopped believing in the superwarrior long ago. He'd started to wonder if his mother was the kook everyone thought her to be.
Grow up, Mom. I did.
Even now, Matt winced at the memory. She'd died still believing and he'd—
"Gone on," Matt murmured. He hadn't really known what else to do.
So, if Gina O' Neil, owner of Nahua Springs Ranch, thought her silence would make him go away . . .
Matt booted up his computer and clicked the tab for Expedia.com.
She'd soon find out how wrong she was.
Copyright © 2011 by Lori Handeland