Karl Thorson, ex-military, is working security for an archaeological site in the Yucatan. He suspects theft of an artifact. Dexter Megistos is a nigh-immortal sorcerer, who desires to get his hands on a magical artifact from the site. Alejandra Matamoros-Lopez is the leader of a small gang of cocaine producers/smugglers located in the jungle near the site. An earthquake leads to the narcotraffickers and the archaeologists learning of each others presence at about the same time as Megistos and his hired mercenaries arrive to take the artifact. Can Karl Thorson protect the archaeologists, save the artifact, and defeat both mercenaries and narco soldiers?
Karl Thorson and the Jade Dagger
contemporary fantasy adventure
contemporary fantasy adventure
Karl watched the woman emerge, blinking and bewildered, from the terminal into the glaring Cancun morning sun. The press of taxi drivers, shuttle bus agents, and timeshare touts descended upon her, momentarily concealing her from Karl’s view. He shouldered through the crush until he could see her again, feeling rewarded when he did, as she was easy on the eyes. A massive hard-sided suitcase trundled behind her on click-clacking wheels, and she bore a backpack that appeared oversized on her petite frame. She was looking about, incipient dismay written on regular, porcelain skin features. Eurasian, Karl had time to note before hipping aside a solicitous local in loose khakis and an orange guayabera embroidered with a travel company logo. All the rest clamoring about looked like variations on this fellow: transit and tourist workers in the business of ferrying visitors from the airport to hotels and resorts, wearing ID badges on lanyards and holding clipboards. They began to disperse the moment Karl reached out to touch the woman’s arm, his action alerting them that she was not a customer.
“Dr. Chen?” he asked. He hoped it was her, otherwise he’d wasted the last few moments while the actual archaeologist he’d been tasked to collect from the airport waited impatiently somewhere else. “Karl Thorson, from the dig. Professor Allison sent me to pick you up.”
Karl watched her shoulders sag in relief, suitcase dipping and backpack lowering. She fumbled out a pair of sunglasses from a loop on the backpack, opened the frames.
“Oh, thank God. The immigration line was a bitch and a half. I thought for sure I’d get the red light at customs, but at least––”
“Come on,” Karl said, “we’ve got to move.”
“What? Can’t I at least buy a bottle of –?”
“Can’t risk losing him. He might have moved already.”
“Who? Risk losing who? What are you talking about?”
“I’ll explain while we walk. Here, give me that.” Karl took the handle of her suitcase and, not waiting to see if she followed, turned and pushed through the crowd of arriving tourists along the sidewalk outside of Cancun International Airport, Terminal 3. At least two or three planeloads must have recently landed, judging from the throngs intermingling, jostling, and making herky-jerky passage along a sidewalk just beginning to soak up the tropical morning sun. Oncoming tourists parted before him, the breadth of his shoulders making his near six-feet seem somehow even taller. Even some of those moving the same direction slipped aside, as if sensing his presence.
“Where are we going?” Dr. Chen asked. “Where’s the car?”
“Jeep. Not car,” Karl said. “We’ll get to the dig. First I have to get eyes on someone again.”
“Who? Come on, you said you’d explain while we walked. We’re walking. Spill.”
Karl glanced at her face, saw eager curiosity overcoming travel fatigue. He liked that; the woman was game.
Karl navigated a blockage of a family of five digging through a suitcase to find the anodyne to mollify a bawling toddler. He cleared his throat. “Right. Zero one hundred this morning I made my rounds of the camp. I saw a car that didn’t belong, idling along a trail. One man behind the wheel. Before I could approach, another man emerged from the trees, got in the car. They drove away. I had time to sprint to the car park, grab the Jeep. I followed. Thought about giving up after an hour or so, but they hit 307 and turned north. I had to pick you up at the airport anyway; no reason not to keep following. Turned out they were coming here.”
Karl broke through a gaggle of garishly dressed middle-aged women taking group pictures, then slowed. Behind a moving screen of tourists, he saw a snack bar. Thirsty travelers stood two deep in a semi-circle about the service window. Customers occupied each stool at the bar. Karl stopped.
“They parked,” he continued. “Split up. One headed this direction, the other entered Departures. I followed Mr. Departures. Couldn’t get too close without spooking him or getting security on my ass. But I did get close enough to overhear his destination was JFK. For whatever that’s worth.”
“What about the other guy?” Dr. Chen asked.
“Over there,” Karl said, jerking his chin at the snack bar. “The skinny guy in the baggy jeans and yellow Hawaiian shirt.” Even as he spoke, the man in question leaned down and snatched up a compact carry-on bag resting against the stool next to him – a stool occupied by a travel-worn tourist paying more attention to his cell phone than his luggage. “Son-of-a-bitch. You see that? Come on.”
The skinny guy was up and moving, his near-empty bottle of Coke abandoned on the bar before him, the carry-on bag tucked under one bony arm. Wasn’t much to the guy, maybe 5’7” tops, too-large clothing bagging and drooping about him. Large-frame sunglasses overwhelmed a light-skinned face, features possessing more of the Spanish than the locally common Mayan characteristics.
“What are we doing?” Dr. Chen asked between breaths as she struggled to keep up with Karl’s longer strides. “Why don’t you just alert security?”
“Baggage theft isn’t my responsibility. Finding out what he was doing at our dig is.”
Leaving the sidewalk with its concealing waves of tourists for the relatively empty expanse of parking lot, Karl slowed, letting his quarry create more separation. He recognized the man’s car, a beat-up Peugeot coupe streaked with jungle mud. Karl veered away, moving fast toward the Jeep, a four-door model with a modest lift. He boosted Dr. Chen’s suitcase into the back seat with no apparent effort. He held open the passenger door for her. To her credit, she appeared to have adopted his sense of urgency. She shrugged free of her backpack, handed it to him, and hustled in, hoisting her five feet and small change into the Jeep. He tossed the backpack after the suitcase and was in the driver’s seat as she completed securing the seat belt harness.
Karl caught up with the Peugeot as it cleared the airport parking lot and headed north. He dropped back, allowed a taxi and a shuttle van to pull in front, limiting the chances of the Peugeot driver noticing he had a tail. The trick was to not let any other vehicles into the pursuit gap. The locals drove aggressively, indifferent to turn signals, lane markers, or any notion of safe following distance. Karl managed it skillfully; he had years of combative driving under his belt in places where the roads resembled more destruction derby arenas than public thoroughfares.
“So, Karl,” Dr. Chen said, then paused, that opening gambit stalling. She cleared her throat. “Jim – I mean, Professor Allison – sent you to pick me up?” Her right hand shifted constantly, searching for a firm handhold. “The dig is southwest of here, right? So aren’t we going the wrong direction? Maybe you should just drive me to the dig site? Let this guy go?”
“Don’t worry, Dr. Chen. I’ll get you there.” Karl braked, swerved, downshifted, and accelerated, clearing a rusting, dented truck loaded with water bottles which changed lanes without warning. “But picking up archaeologists at the airport isn’t my primary mission.”
“What is your primary mission?”
“Consider me a general-purpose troubleshooter. Site security is my remit. I see someone I don’t know lurking outside, another stranger emerging from the dig site, I think–”
“Artifact theft,” Dr. Chen interrupted. “Okay. I got you. But the one who got on the plane, he’s probably the thief, the one carrying whatever it is that was stolen.”
“Yeah, but maybe his driver can give us a clue. Who he was, what he stole. Where he’s taking it.”
“Wow. You take this responsibility seriously, don’t you? Okay. Let’s go get this bastard. The dig can wait.”
Karl spared a glance at her, grinned. “That’s the spirit, Dr. Chen.”
“May. Please call me May. I’m already calling you Karl.”
“Okay, May. Of course down here you’re more likely to hear me called by my given name, Carlos, rather than Karl.’”
“Well, how about that? You had me fooled. You don’t...Your American accent is perfect.”
“Probably because I’m American. Born and bred.”
“Okay, I’m getting confused.” May emitted an abbreviated humph. Then she clutched at Karl’s leg with her left hand, fingers digging in like five tiny knives. “Look, Karl! He’s turning.”
“I see him,” Karl said. He cut over into a nearly non-existent gap in traffic, followed the Peugeot off the highway and onto a boulevard, now in Cancun proper, away from the linear commercial strip built up merely to serve traffic to and from the airport. The Jeep swayed, righted. Karl got a fix on the Peugeot, then let a taxi intervene, dropping back. The Peugeot turned again, north, then west again, moving further away from the prime tourist areas.
As Karl took the westward turn the Peugeot accelerated, the driver pulling around a couple of tourists on rented scooters and punching it, hard. The Peugeot dwindled, then disappeared around a corner.
“Shit, he’s made us,” Karl said. He downshifted and applied steady pressure to the accelerator, RPMs climbing rapidly. He braked hard, took the corner on squealing tires, then stomped down on the gas pedal. The Peugeot again grew nearer through the windscreen.
“What do we do now?” May asked.
“The direct approach,” Karl said.
The aging Peugeot’s anemic four-cylinders proved incapable of holding off the new Jeep’s six, and Karl closed the gap in seconds. The Peugeot turned, then turned again, trending always west, Karl hanging on his tail. Traffic thinned as the two cars left the bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops farther and farther behind, entering an expanse of hardware stores and electronics retailers, auto repair and tire shops, taco and torta stands with weathered plastic chairs and torn vinyl awnings.
“Don’t let him get away,” May said, and Karl could almost sense her bouncing in the seat.
A battered pickup truck backed from a driveway into the street a block ahead. The Peugeot cut to the left, slipping by the tailgate.
Karl nudged the Jeep to the right, popping two wheels onto the curb. He watched the truck driver’s jaw drop in surprise as he squeezed the Jeep between the grill of the pickup and a window display of a Quinceañara specialty retailer. He dropped back onto the street.
The Peugeot driver was fighting the wheel, struggling to recover from his sudden maneuver. The car swerved right, then more sharply to the left as the driver overcorrected. The front bumper crumpled as the Peugeot struck the high curb almost head on. Metal scraped, then the tires jumped onto the sidewalk and the car grated to a stop. The engine still revved, but the front tires had no purchase. The Peugeot was beached on two canted, mismatched sections of concrete sidewalk.
Karl stopped the Jeep behind the Peugeot before the driver gave reverse a shot. Karl looked about. The chase had ended in a narrow side street, in front of a chain link fence fronting a closed – or perhaps defunct – restaurant. The painted menu out front was weather faded, advertising a variety of tacos, hamburgers, fish, and cold drinks. Corrugated metal covered the opening behind the counter. A single, filthy, blue plastic chair rested upended before a padlocked door.
Karl leapt from the Jeep. He wrenched open the rear door and retrieved heavy, long-handled bolt cutters from the back seat. The sound from the Peugeot altered, the driver working the transmission from drive to neutral. Before he could reach reverse, Karl jerked open the driver’s side door. He raised the bolt cutters in a gesture that could be interpreted as menacing. That was the intent, anyway. The Peugeot driver certainly seemed to consider it minatory; he leaned far to the right, throwing his hands up before his face.
Karl reached in, turned the key to the off position. He left it in the ignition, since he couldn’t extract it with the transmission still in the neutral position. Instead of worrying about that detail, Karl grabbed a fistful of Hawaiian shirt and yanked the luggage thief bodily from the Peugeot.
Karl maintained his grip on the floral-patterned fabric, keeping the skinny little guy off balance. He dragged him a couple of tottering steps, then flung him into the chain link fence. Karl bounced the business end of the bolt cutters off the fence beside the thief’s head. Terror froze the man in place. Karl plied the cutters on the padlock securing the gate. The lock clattered onto the filthy concrete.
“Muévete,” he said then followed the man inside the fence, the thief casting nervous glances over his shoulder at Karl.
Karl prodded him on with the bolt cutters, then snipped open the lock securing the door of the restaurant. The place was little more than a blockhouse of rebar, cinder blocks, and corrugated sheet iron. It held a rusting stove and a grill. Stains on the concrete floor indicated where a sink and a couple of refrigerators had once stood. A lone plastic chair remained, a long crack running through the seat. Three broken-paned windows and the open door provided enough light to tell the sad story of a failed business enterprise. Karl nudged the thief ahead of him.
“Too bad,” Karl said. “I was so busy chasing your ass all over I never got breakfast. Could use a taco.” He noted the incomprehension on the thief’s face. No English? Or perhaps his English skills were simply too limited to process dry humor.
Karl heard the door pulling shut behind and shot a glance over his shoulder. May stood, back to the door, eyes wide, fingers drumming on the doorknob. He flashed her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Of course, she might take it for psychopathic glee. A thin line?
“Sientaté,” Karl said, nodding at the chair. The thief complied, plopping down. The chair twisted, the crack in the seat threatening its structural integrity, but it held.
Karl offered the man a wide smile. He touched the hem of his own Hawaiian shirt, a dark red number sporting cream-colored hibiscus blossoms, then pointed at the thief’s blousy yellow one.
“Nice shirt,” he said, getting zero response. No English, then. Confirmed. “Buenos dias. Como te llamas?”
The thief said nothing, but his mouth pursed. Karl let his smile sag to a grim line. He slammed the head of the bolt cutters against the concrete floor between the thief’s feet. The thief jumped.
“Enrique,” the thief said. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Me llamo Enrique.”
“Bueno, Enrique,” Karl said. “Me llamo El Jefe, comprendes?” The thief nodded. Karl looked at May. “You following this so far?”
May nodded. “The simple stuff, yes. He’s Enrique and you’re the boss. My Spanish is rusty, and never great to begin with. But I’m with you so far. But, uh, are you sure about this? This, interrogation?”
“Not my first interrogation, May. Wasn’t my MOS, but I sat in on a few in Afghanistan.”
“I don’t doubt you. But I wasn’t asking if you could do this. I was wondering if you should.”
“Relax. Won’t take long. We’ll be on the way to the dig in no time.” He returned his attention to Enrique.
Enrique, as Karl predicted, proved to be agreeably forthcoming. With his frightened eyes following every move of the bolt cutters, Enrique answered every question, elaborating without any prompting. He insisted that he was just the driver. He’d stolen the Peugeot. He knew the guy he took to the airport from a bar where he often fenced the items stolen from tourists. The bar was a hangout for lots of guys on the hustle. He’d picked up a few jobs there before. Didn’t know the guy well, a man going by the name of Festo. Festo hired Enrique to drive him out to the jungle, wait there while he took care of some business, then drive him to the airport.
“Que negocio?” Karl asked.
Karl repeated the question, tapping the floor around Enrique’s toes with the bolt cutters.
Enrique ran off a string of Spanish. Karl nodded. He looked at May, who returned a quizzical look.
“Our friend Enrique says the only thing he got from Festo was that Festo was taking something to Mago D.”
“Yep. Mago D. In NYC, apparently.” Karl grinned. “Right, let’s get on the road. Enrique, straighten up and fly right. Turn over a new leaf and walk the path of the righteous.”
“Que?” asked Enrique.
A half dozen people stood near the Peugeot and the Jeep as Karl and May emerged. More approached, drawn to the spectacle. Distant lights and sirens suggested the imminent arrival of official inquiry. Karl shifted the bolt cutters to port arms. The onlookers shifted aside, opening a path to the Jeep. Karl held the door for May, offering a half-bow. But once she was in, he wasted no time trotting around to the driver’s side and starting the engine. He left twin streaks of rubber as he left Enrique and the stolen Peugeot to their fate.
* * *
May was silent as Karl made his way back to the highway, taking them south this time, back toward the airport and points farther on.
“That was an intense morning,” she said at last. “You sure know how to show a lady a good time, Karl.”
Karl glanced at the dashboard clock. “Early afternoon now. Lunch?” From the corner of his eye, he could see May’s forehead furrow. Calculating, he guessed.
“Look,” said Karl, “this little adventure has set back the timetable. I doubt we could make K’aay-Boox today.”
“K’aay-Boox?” May asked.
“One of the grad-students deciphered an inscription a couple weeks back. K’aay-Boox. Professor Allison assigned it as the name of the site. My point is, the place is a ways off. So stopping to eat isn’t going to be an insurmountable setback; we’re already set back.”
“Was it worth it?” May asked. “Did you accomplish what you needed with this ridiculous car chase and the third degree?”
“Hey, I’m hurt. I thought you were all in. You’re part of the dig team now. Someone stole from our dig. I want to know what was stolen and who stole it. Kind of my job, May.” Karl drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as a sort of emphatic punctuation. When he agreed to an undertaking, he performed the task. No shortcuts, no rationalizing his way out of inconvenient extra steps. He understood that his attitude might be construed as overzealous, but he didn’t give a damn. “And yeah, to answer your question. It was worth it. I don’t have all the answers, but I have a clue.”
“Mago D in NYC. Big help,” May said. “New York City doesn’t narrow it down much. And Mago D? What is that, a rap name? Are we looking for a hip-hop star with a penchant for archaeology?”
Karl laughed. He was tired. Barring a short siesta yesterday afternoon, he’d been up for well over twenty-four hours. He was hungry. But the affair d’Enrique had given him a boost. And he was enjoying the banter with May. Feisty. Though he probably shouldn’t say that aloud.
“So,” he said.
“Yes. All right. Let’s eat. I slept through the food service on the plane. I’m hungry too. Haven’t eaten since the layover in Houston.”
Conversation picked up again once they’d gotten back on the road. Lunch had been quiet, May as narrowly focused on eating as Karl. The had two consumed a mountain of grilled flesh, Karl impressed that such a small woman could eat so much and that she’d not even hesitated at adding a couple of lengua tacos to the order. And she’d downed her ice cold Tecate with gusto. A Tecate woman always earned points with Karl.
“Why aren’t you sweating?” May had asked as they walked back to the Jeep.
“I am sweating,” he answered, “just not as much as you.” He flapped the hem of his Hawaiian shirt. “Loose clothing. Better for heat.”
“I hear white clothing is good for heat.”
“Yeah,” Karl said, “white’s not my color.”
On the road, sipping coffee to go despite the heat, Karl asked, “So what brings you to our dig? You mentioned a layover in Houston. Where did you fly in from?” He wasn’t all that curious, but despite the caffeine, fatigue was setting in. A full belly and a couple of cold cervezas didn’t help. Conversation would help keep him alert.
“Portland. Took an airport shuttle up from Eugene. Where I work – working on tenure, I suppose, while teaching archaeology to disinterested sophomores.”
“University of Oregon, right? Not Oregon State?”
“Correct, Karl. You win a prize. The Beavers are about forty-five minutes away in Corvallis. And they didn’t offer me a faculty position. So I’m a Duck.”
Karl sipped at his coffee. “You’ve known Professor Allison long?”
“He was my graduate advisor in Chattanooga.”
“University of Tennessee?”
“You’re good at this game, Karl. What’s your alma mater?”
“The United States Army, ma’am. Graduated with honors.”
“Oh. Sorry. Don’t mean to sound surprised about it, but you come across as...well, as rather educated. Well read.”
“I am well read. My mother saw to that. But we’re still talking about you. You’re the newcomer, you get grilled. Traditional, don’t you know.” Karl affected a passable British accent for the last sentence.
“Fair enough. Look, I don’t know how much I should share.”
“I’m just making conversation, May. Keeping awake. If it’s too personal, stop me. I’m not going to pry.”
“Thanks, Karl. But I might as well face it. I’m a talker. I’m going to talk. The thing is that Jim and I –. Well, when he asked me to fly down and assist on the dig I wasn’t sure whether his motive was purely because of my professional capability. Sorry, I’m not explaining this well.”
“Take your time. Got plenty of it.”
“Okay. See, we have...a past. Cliché, I know. Professor-student fling. Tawdry. Age difference. Not quite May-December. More May-September.”
“May-September. I see what you did there. Been waiting years to use that one, haven’t you, May?”
May punched his shoulder. “Come on, it was a good one. Worth the wait. Anyway, I decided to accept the invitation. See if there are any sparks remaining. And if not? Well, I’ve missed fieldwork and from Jim’s information, this seems like an exciting find. Is it exciting?”
Karl shrugged. “A lot of dirt. A lot of rock. A lot of jungle. I have just enough knowledge to be interested, not enough to be excited. I’m only the help, May, not one of you egghead experts.”
May punched him again. “Egghead, am I?” But she was laughing while she spoke.
Late afternoon caught them as they reached Tulum.
“We need to head west from here,” Karl said. “But most of it will be gravel roads or dirt track. Not the kind of thing you want to do at night. Trust me; I did it last night and it sucked.”
“Aren’t they expecting us back today?”
Karl patted the center console. “I’ll call on the sat phone, let them know we’ll be late.”
“Satellite phone? No cell coverage at the dig?”
Karl held his palm out flat and waggled his hand. “I wouldn’t count on it. You’ll occasionally see some people doing the Cell Signal Polka.”
“Cell Signal Polka?” May laughed.
“Yeah. Hopping around, waving the phone, trying to get a solid signal. Sometimes you can even get a few uninterrupted moments if you find the right spot at the right time of day. But most people find it too aggravating and opt to wait for the sat phone. And given the kind of data you scientist types tend to send, a reliable signal is important.”
“Fine. Hotel then. Make the call. I could use a shower and room service before a month or so of roughing it. But separate rooms, Romeo.”
Karl laughed. “Your loss, May. I was going to wash your back.”
The penthouse doorbell chimed, a funereal basso profundo. Dexicos Megistos did not deign to look up from the copy of GQ he was perusing from the wing-backed depths of his Eames chair.
A polite cough announced the presence of Dexico’s butler, Potter. “Sir,” Potter said, “a Señor Festo Hidalgo requests a moment.”
Dexicos glanced up from an article on the new cuts for autumn suit coats. Potter’s face remained as blank and expressionless as ever; the big man, of some mixed African and Southeast Asian ancestry, possessing a gift for placidity and understatement. The butler’s attire Dexicos had mandated suited him; classic and timeless.
“See him to the den,” Dexicos said. “Decant a bottle of red. Something Chilean, I think. Or Australian. Use your judgment.”
Dexicos waited until Potter glided from the room, then rose with similar smoothness from the depths of the Eames chair, considering it a not bad effort for a man in his third millennium.
The sitting room windows overlooked Central Park, but Dexicos kept the blinds drawn, preferring to maintain his focus inward; a sentiment warranted as much by his justifiable self-regard as the ambiance of his penthouse sanctum. The sitting room altered annually, sometimes even seasonally, depending upon whether or not Dexicos concurred with the judgments of one of the interior design magazines that contributed to the glossy publications fanned across the glass-top of the oak-framed coffee table. A trend toward minimalism had seen to the removal of a sectional leather couch, a sideboard, and a display hutch. Now only a second chair and a love seat in cream and chocolate joined his Eames chair.
There was also, of course, a full-length mirror. Dexicos Megistos – known by most of his current assemblage of flunkies and minions as either Dexter Magus or Mago D – paused to inspect himself. He straightened his waistcoat, thinking the subtle pinstripes accentuated his lean height and trim midsection. The charcoal slacks suggested the informality of the lord of the manor taking his ease while still projecting the requisite status and power of a man of his lofty, yet covert, position. He slicked back a stray lock of hair, the sidewalls graying but the top still black and luxuriant, the coiffure pomaded and combed back from a broad forehead.
Dexicos nodded his approval to himself, then padded down the hall to the den. If the sitting room bowed to minimalism, the den served as its counterpoint. Curios and curiosities from seven continents and more than seven centuries festooned the walls and crammed the bookshelves that diminished what would otherwise have seemed a fair-sized room. Ornate, carved wooden masks of demonic or bestial aspect created a focal point opposite the entry. Beaded fetishes, ivory figurines of such antiquity as to be nearly featureless, and painted icons of forgotten saints sat in ranks on a shelf below a stretch of leather-bound volumes that would cause a rare book dealer to swoon. Racked on another wall were ceremonial axes, sacrificial daggers – running the gamut from flint, to bronze, to modern alloys – and a small collection of spear points. Paintings, whose existence would startle art historians, hung where space allowed, certain masterpieces partially obscured by an array of crucifixes, or a spreading sheaf of ostrich feathers.
It was too much to take in at once, a point in which Dexicos took some pride. And apparently his guest harbored the same opinion. He gazed about with an unconcealed awe at the bewildering variety, ignoring the glass of wine Potter set before him.
“Thank you, Potter. That will be all,” Dexicos said.
Potter nodded and departed. Dexicos focused his attention on the man seated in one of the deeply padded leather wingback chairs that flanked the tea table.
Festo Hidalgo appeared to be in his early thirties. Fit still, though on the cusp of letting himself go. Stubble-covered cheeks beginning to plump from good living. He wore a rumpled linen jacket over a yellowing, sweat-stained oxford, and khaki trousers. Dried mud crusted his leather brogues and darkened the knees of his trousers.
Dexicos made a note to tell Potter to vacuum once his guest left. Who knows what filth he’d tramped in?
“A bit of a dog’s breakfast, I know,” Dexicos said. “Lo siento.”
Hidalgo jerked, his entire body shifting spasmodically to face Dexicos. “Señor Magus. I did not see you there.”
“I move in mysterious ways, Festo.” Dexicos took the chair opposite.
Potter had poured two glasses. Dexicos picked one up, sniffed. The Australian. He would have gone with the Chilean, but he had told Potter to use his own judgment. One can’t do everything oneself. He sipped. Bold and plumy. Good. But of course it would be, coming from his own cellars.
“Now, Festo, you’ve come a fair distance to see me. May I assume you have something for me?”
“Sí, Señor Magus.” Festo patted at a jacket pocket. “Was not easy. I hid in the jungle for a day, bugs crawling over me, before chance to take picture.”
A picture. It had been too much to hope that this petty crook could get his hands on the actual artifact. No Indiana Jones, here. Just a marginally competent hireling, desperate to earn a peso. Dexicos offered a nod that suggested he’d expected no more.
He held out his hand. “The pictures, then. You know, of course, that the highest figure I’d offered in recompense was for the article itself.”
“Was hard, Señor,” Festo whined. “I tried. Always too many people. Students, diggers, always there. Was risk to even get pictures.”
“You bring artifacts, you receive artifact pay. You bring pictures, you get compensated correspondingly. Now give.”
Festo retrieved the plastic, thumbnail-sized wafer of a digital camera’s memory card. He hesitated, looked across the tea table at Dexicos. Dexicos narrowed his eyes, bringing his eyebrows close together. Festo’s hand jerked across the table so rapidly he came within a fraction of an inch of upsetting the wine glasses.
Dexicos accepted the proffered wafer. “No case? Well, thank you. See Potter on the way out for your pay envelope. Wait.” Dexicos drummed the manicured fingers of one hand atop the tea table. “Festo, should you wish to supplement that pay envelope, return to the site and perform a discreet reconnaissance. I will pay well for timely and reliable on-site intelligence. Now, you may go.”
Festo left with less than dignified haste. Dexicos sipped his wine and pondered the card. If it held what he hoped... He smiled. The fun he could expect! The anthill he’d kick over!
Dexicos drained the rest of the glass, then retrieved a laptop computer from beneath a copy of Hygromanteia. He swigged Festo’s untouched glass while he waited for the computer to churn fully awake. He thumbed the memory card into the proper slot. And...
“Potter,” Dexicos said, voice raised only slightly above the conversational.
“Sir,” Potter replied a moment later from the doorway.
“Summon Alexandros and Smith. I’ll be in the office.”
Dexicos was on his feet and in the hallway before Potter could even offer a deferential “Yes, sir.”
Despite its impressive volume, the office could boast little furniture due to the sheer size of the desk occupying most of the square footage. The desk gleamed, a massive, polished expanse of burled walnut. It held only a telephone.
Dexicos leaned back against the firm tension of the high-tech, wheeled, swiveling office chair behind the desk. He liked the incongruity of the old-fashioned telephone, the handset with its brass earpiece and curved speaking horn resting in its cradle above the deep-bellied body that housed the telephone dial. Dexicos found pleasure in the precision and ritual of dialing the numbers that keypads could not replicate.
From memory, he began making calls.
“Brad, Dexter Magus. Buy jade. What? All of it. Stuff the portfolio. Put together some street teams, buy out the jewelry shops as well. What’s that? Then stay late. Oh? Well, happy birthday.”
“Kwan, Dexter Magus. Yes, I know what time it is. I need you to buy jade. The mines? No, I don’t want a controlling interest. In fact, if I have any mine shares, sell them. But buy all the jade you can get your hands on. Yes, Kwan, I know it will drive the price up. Look, do I need to replace you? Fine. Zài jiàn.”
Thus, call after call, to brokers, factors, and money managers around the globe from London to Hong Kong. Not technically his brokers, factors, and money managers. In fact the institutions employing them would be surprised to learn these financial professionals took instruction from someone who did not provide a regular paycheck. But they complied, even more readily than they did for their nominal employers – a globe-spanning collection of banks and investment firms – who now, unwittingly, had among them begun the process of cornering the jade market.
Dexicos presented a picture of contentment, reclined as far as the office chair would allow, fingers interlaced behind his head, when Alexandros and Smith appeared at the doorway. Alexandros rapped deferentially against the doorframe.
“Mr. Magus? You asked for us?”
Dexicos let the chair propel him upright. “Indeed I did. And you appear.” He raised his right arm and flourished his hand theatrically. A bouquet of plastic roses thrust up from his right hand. A deck of cards sprayed from his left, littering the clean desk top.
Alexandros and Smith remained expressionless. Both were large men in expensive suits. Alexandros wore his thick, wavy hair slicked back, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses even indoors, his features Levantine and impassive. Smith, black and smooth-scalped – whether naturally or by choice, Dexicos neither knew nor cared – stood a couple inches taller. The tailored Hugo Boss suit coats did little to hide physiques built by iron and anabolic steroids. But Dexicos had hired with brains as well as beef in mind, and both men were competent, independent thinkers he could task without the constant need to keep tabs on them or manage every aspect of the job.
Neither, however, possessed much of a sense of humor.
“Pack your bags, boys. We’re going to Mexico,” Dexicos said.
“Yes, sir,” they replied, nearly in unison.
“Hold off on the bathing suits, though. This is a business trip. And, before you pack away your toothbrushes and sunscreen, I’ll need you to arrange a crew of fixers on the ground.”
“What’s the job, boss?” Smith asked. “What skills do we need to recruit?”
“Excellent questions, Smith,” Dexicos said. “I’d have lead with ‘where.’ Mexico is a pretty big country. But, still, an excellent effort.”
“Yes, sir,” Smith said, betraying no more with his tone of voice than with his expression. “Where in Mexico shall we assemble the crew, Mr. Magus?”
“We’re going to Cancun. Señoritas and Piña Coladas. So, let’s ensure our team can all speak Spanish this time? Entiendes?”
“Look,” said Alejandra Matamoros-Lopez in slow, very clearly enunciated Spanish, “the Gulf Cartel may be to the north and Los Zetas to the east, but they are not here. Not in this section of jungle.” These indios. She couldn’t be sure all of them spoke Spanish. Half the time all she heard from them was Mayan gobbledygook. Too many consonants. But a woman used what employees she could hire.
And what options did she have out here?
In shallow trenches hacked into thin, hard-packed soil cowered the physical plant of Alejandra’s processing operation, tucked among the trees and beneath concealing tarp canopies in green and grey. Blue plastic barrels of solvents, yellow-tinged glass canisters of sulfuric acid, and yellow barrels of lye stood grouped in ranks beneath interlocking branches of ficus, persimmon, and willow trees. The leafy canopy protected against prying eyes in the sky. Seen from above, the jungle appeared a green, unbroken plain, the trees terminating at a uniform height, as if maintained by God’s lawnmower (though the occasional palm tree thrust up higher, as if giving the deity the finger.)
But Alejandra did not rely on trees alone for concealment. She’d discreetly brought in backhoes and tractors, digging deeply into the tough jungle soil. Interlocking dugout trench lines now stored bales of raw coca, Alejandra’s strategy for competing with the big cartels. The big dogs primarily specialized in moving finished, packaged goods from producers in the South to the final consumers in Los Estados Unidos. They dealt in massive quantities, working economies of scale to their advantage. Alejandra couldn’t match the prices per kilo offered by Los Zetas or The Knights Templar. But the leaves? Those she could get cheap. Within her trenches, beneath tarps of yellowing olive green, her army of chemists, packagers, couriers, and soldiers lived and worked, cooking up the final product. By processing herself, she saved the cost of buying the final product and thus could offer competitive prices. Narrowly, true. But with cost conscious buyers, those margins made enough of a difference to matter.
Concealment. It all came down to hiding, really. If the enemy can’t find you, he can’t hurt you. Reasonable. How many people can you employ before concealment is no longer viable? That question grew increasingly important as successes mounted. Sales led to demand for larger deliveries. Larger deliveries required production of more product, which demanded more workers, more couriers, more security. But for now, Alejandra felt she was managing to maintain a low profile. Her organization was still small enough to conceal, small enough for her to personally vet each employee.
So how had she let this stupid puta in? The sister of one of Alejandra’s second cousin’s brothers-in-law. Or something like that. A local, barely competent to purchase groceries, mix masa, and make tortillas. Barely.
She’d let the woman into her “office” (the space beneath an olive-green tarp holding a folding table and camp chair from which Alejandra ran her field operations) after Diego – her head of security and chief bodyguard – passed along the word that one of the cooks had seen something important in Las Crucitas. Diego stood now a respectful three paces away, his Bushmaster carbine slung at the ready across his expanse of chest. As always, he managed to look simultaneously bored and alert. Alejandra could understand the boredom. What could a barrel-chested, battle hardened narco like Diego have to fear from a prematurely aged indio cook?
“Sí, Señora,” the woman was saying. “But I am sure I recognized him. He used to work for mi tio at the llantería. When I stopped seeing him there, I asked what happened to him. He was cute, you know? My uncle said he’d joined up with the Gulf Cartel. I know it was him driving that truck.”
Alejandra’s fingers tightened on the pearl and silver inlaid grips of her Sig Sauer P238. She kept the custom .380 pistol in a paddle holster at the small of her back. Her habit of clasping her hands behind her meant the weapon was always close to hand.
“Did he see you?” Alejandra asked. She spoke evenly, calmly. But looking at this fat lump of a woman, with her thick ankles, coarse, plaited hair, and cheap, gaudy dress so inappropriate for the jungle, that red cloth practically a beacon... That such an uneducated peasant might jeopardize the entire operation was intolerable. Alexandra’s operation. She was the jefa. And this woman’s prattle bordered on disrespectful.
Alejandra took in a deep breath. She was letting this tortilla maker get under her skin.
The cook frowned at the question. “What, did I wave and chase the truck down the street?” she asked. “No. Do you think I’m stupid, Señora?”
That did it. No one spoke to Alejandra Matamoros-Lopez that way. The .380 was in Alejandra’s fist and jammed beneath the cook’s chin. “Yes, puta, I do think you’re stupid. Worse, I think you’re disrespectful.”
The woman’s eyes widened to a satisfying degree, insolence driven out by fear. That is what Alejandra needed to see. Without that fearful respect, how could a woman expect to maintain her control over an organization like this? If she had to bury another body in the jungle, she would. This stupid puta might serve Alejandra better as an example than as a cook.
The cook’s mouth opened. “I...”
The ground trembled. Whatever the woman might have said remained unspoken. Alejandra spread both arms for balance as the earth shifted, swaying like a hammock. At least that removed the weapon from below the cook’s head. Alejandra disliked the thought of killing someone by accident. It would make her look foolish in front of Diego.
Sounds of devastation rose from the encampment. Alejandra could hear barrels toppling, tent poles snapping, tables collapsing, people screaming. Then a greater grinding and rumbling swelled to a crescendo, drowning out the lesser noises. Her camp desk toppled over, spilling documents to the seemingly animate ground. Guy wires and poles gave way. The tarp collapsed, enfolding Alejandra in its mildewed embrace.
She fought it, pushing at the heavy, clinging folds while the earth threatened to unbalance her, trying to throw her to the ground. Alejandra conjured the image of a grave-sized fissure opening at her feet and the tremor tossing her in, wrapped in a canvas shroud. She felt a scream rising from her knotted and pinched stomach.
The earth ceased to move. Light from the morning sun returned as someone lifted the tarp from her: Diego, a look of concern altering his normally placid features.
“Alejandra, estas bien?” Diego asked.
Alejandra swallowed. She took a deep breath, holstered her pistol, smoothed down stray hairs the tarp had dislodged. Then she nodded. As Diego rolled away the tarp she righted the folding table, then sat down on the camp chair.
“Let’s hear the damages. Let the chiefs in to report.” Her heart still pounded, the choking, engulfing burial within the tarp too recent. But she refused to let it show. Sound calm, act calm, and they’ll think you are calm. You are the boss; you can display no weakness.
Initial damage reports alleviated her early concerns. A couple of overturned barrels spilling gasoline. A kitchen fire quickly doused. Scattered coca leaves. One broken arm. All tolerable, all remediable.
Then Hector arrived. One of Diego’s lieutenants, Hector was earnest, serious, and reliable. He was related to Diego in some manner Alejandra hadn’t bothered to trace and looked up to the older man, emulating Diego’s dress and manner. He even went so far as to adopt the same rifle.
“Jefa,” he said, “the cenote tunnel has collapsed.”
Shit. There was no easy fix to that. Her organization depended on secrecy, concealment. That included her delivery system. The tunnel system from the cenote was the indispensable first leg of that delivery system.
Deep sinkholes riddled the limestone bedrock of the Yucatan peninsula. These filled with water over the millennia. Water eroding soft limestone created linked tunnel complexes in some areas, most never explored. Alejandra had explored. The cenote within her camp served as more than a cooling pool to swim and bathe in. It also offered tunnel entrances. One of these tunnels exited several kilometers from camp, roadside. Alejandra had built a souvenir shop in front, a ramshackle affair suggesting an enterprise anticipating tourist traffic that had never materialized.
With the product emerging far from her camp and loaded into inconspicuous delivery trucks and vans, she could feel fairly confident she’d go unnoticed by the two large cartels battling to control the territory. And then, on to the cruise ships, where her network of cousins served aboard as pursers, cooks, maids, or in the laundries. After a luxury cruise, the goods would arrive in the States where her purchasers would take delivery. Her cousins would take payment and deposit it in one of several US banks or return with the cash, whatever circumstances required.
“How bad?” Alejandra asked. “Can we dig it out?” Her prima, Maria Patricia, would be in port at Playa del Carmen on the Grand Princess in four days. She would be expecting the shipment.
“I don’t think so, Jefa. We’d have to bring in heavy equipment. Backhoes, tractors.” He shrugged. “Three, four weeks minimum.”
Alejandra stood. “We don’t have that much time. Let’s take a look.”
She led the men through the disarrayed encampment. It did not appear that any trees had fallen within the camp, though leaves and even complete branches littered the ground. Her people were already at work, righting toppled equipment, cleaning up spills, gathering fallen material and personal belongings. Good to see, but to Alejandra they looked frightfully exposed. Too open to aerial surveillance.
“Get the tarps back up. First priority,” she said to Diego. He nodded and peeled off, leaving her with Hector.
A dozen steps into deeper jungle, around a pile of stones possessing a regularity that suggested purpose, and down a ramp. The air grew increasingly humid with each step lower beneath the ground. Bare bulbs on a wire affixed to the cavern roof illuminated the pathway. The quake had not taken out the generator, gracias a Dios. Vines and tendril roots of the trees above clung to the porous rock walls. The ramp gave way to crude wooden stairs. They too remained intact.
So far so good. Perhaps the damage wasn’t as bad as Hector indicated.
The stairs switched back, once, twice. The final turn revealed the placid waters of the cenote, illuminated by both electric bulbs and the few shafts of sunlight managing to pierce through the layers of trees, undergrowth, earth, and limestone. The pool was roughly circular. A ledge allowed dry passage around roughly a third of it. At one time, five cavern mouths had opened off from the cenote – at least five above the surface. One of these stood at the far end of the ledge. Or it had before the quake. Now Alejandra could see only a mound of debris. The ground above the cavern had collapsed, stone and earth had slumped in to fill the newly open space, and now an impassable wall stood between Alejandra and the entrance to the tunnel through which she’d been accustomed to moving kilo upon kilo of product.
“Shit,” Alejandra said. She fought back the urge to draw her pistol and unload the magazine into the offending obstruction. But she refused to show such petty emotion in front of Hector. “Hector, get some men down here with flashlights and ropes. Make sure they can swim. Get to exploring the other tunnels. Not just these four – any others close to camp they might know about. And then get into town, buy some inflatable rafts.”
“Rafts?” Hector asked.
Alejandra gestured at the depths of the cenote. “Whatever we find, odds are it will involve water. Swimming over a few kilos at a time won’t be too efficient, will it, Hector? We’re going to find a new way out of here. And fast. Muévete.”
Ken Lizzi is an attorney and the author of an assortment of published short stories. When not traveling – and he'd rather be traveling – he lives in Oregon with his lovely wife Isa and his daughter Victoria. He enjoys reading, homebrewing, exercise, and visiting new places. He loathes writing about himself in the third person. Karl Thorson and the Jade Dagger is his fourth novel.
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Karl Thorson and the Jade Dagger Copyright © 2019. Ken Lizzi. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
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artists. Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2019. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved. Cover art © 2019 Tamian Wood. All rights reserved. Credit Jaguar head: Roaring Jaguar in Mayan Jadeite Jade by Mayan Mountain Carvings, Clothing & Jewelry
All rights reserved. This page last updated 10-19-19. Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.
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A special note to TTB readers. All contents of this web site are copyright by the writers, artists or web site designer. If you discover any artwork or writing published here elsewhere on the internet, or in print magazines, please let us know immediately. The staff of Twilight Times Books feels very strongly about protecting the copyrighted work of our authors and artists.
Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2019. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
Cover art © 2019 Tamian Wood. All rights reserved.
Credit Jaguar head: Roaring Jaguar in Mayan Jadeite Jade by Mayan Mountain Carvings, Clothing & Jewelry All rights reserved.
This page last updated 10-19-19.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.