Friday, November 23, 2012

Jaguar Sky: Part Nine

Here is this week's installment of Maddie's adventures in the land of the Maya. Will she manage to have a Merry Christmas? Find the other chapters of her story through the link in the righthand navbar.


December 25, 2010

     Maddie sat on the edge of her bed and stared at her packed bags. She wiped tears from her red-rimmed eyes and waited while Joan got dressed.
     “I’m sorry, Maddie,” said Joan. “I tried several times to speak with Tom about your situation. He simply won’t listen.” She shook her head. “Men can be so narrow-minded. It’s infuriating. It would take a riot to get some of them to listen.”
     A knock sounded at the door. Maddie sat motionless on the bed so Joan opened the door. Tom stepped in and gestured to Maddie to come with him. She opened her mouth to speak and he raised his hand.
     “No comments, Maddie. Let’s just get this over with.”
     He walked beside her, keeping hold of her elbow as they went. As they passed the library Colin stepped out of the doorway and leaned against the wall, his arms folded over his chest.
     “Gee, Maddie, did the teacher’s pet get in trouble and get kicked off the team?”
     “Shut up, you ass,” she retorted.
     “You shouldn’t hide artifacts in your jacket, Maddie. Didn’t they tell you that’s against the law? Now you’re going back to Florida and you’ll never find the golden jaguar. Tsk, tsk.”
     “I didn’t do it, Colin, but I guess you’re glad I’m in trouble.”
     “Too bad, Maddie. Nothing like losing a whole career over little bits of jade.”
     Maddie started toward the dining room but Tom put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her. He narrowed his eyes at Colin.
     “Colin, have you spoken with anyone about Maddie’s situation? Ben? Dr. Lancaster?”
     “No, Dr. Davies. Is Ben involved in Maddie’s little predicament, too?”
     Tom stood still for a moment, breathing hard. “Maddie, can you tell me how your jacket ended up in the dining room night before last?”
     She blinked. “I’m not sure.” She thought a moment. “I wore it to the site that morning like I always do but when it was time to come back for lunch I couldn’t find it.” She rubbed her bare arms. “I wish I had it now.” Tears pooled in her eyes and threatened to spill over onto her cheeks.
     “Colin, how did you know why Maddie was in trouble?”
     “Um, I heard you yelling the other night, Dr. Davies. This place isn’t very big, you know.” He offered a smug smile.
     “Artifacts,” Tom growled. “Little bits of jade, and Maddie doesn’t know how they got in her jacket pocket.” He stepped up to Colin, towering over him. “But you knew that it was jade and that it was in her jacket. Colin, you are hereby suspended from this team and from the department. Maddie won’t be on that flight this morning but you sure as hell will. I’m sure the university provost will enjoy expelling you for committing a felony as well as for framing another student.”
     Colin flattened himself against the wall. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
     “Would you rather I call the local police? I’m sure you’ll find the Central American jails very picturesque.”
     “Hey, calm down, Dr. Davies. It’s not really jade from the work site. It’s not really artifacts.”
     “Oh really?” Tom’s voice was cold. “You’d better fess up fast, son, if you want to get out of this situation with your skin intact.”
     “It was just an innocent prank, that’s all. Right, Maddie?” He gave her a pleading look but she turned away. “I bought a jade pendant from the gift shop here – the lady who runs the lodge sold it to me. You can ask her.” He swallowed hard. “I took it to the work site and smashed it on a rock. Mixed it with some dirt and stuck it in Maddie’s jacket. It was just a joke.” Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. “Just a friendly joke.”
     “Just a joke, eh? You stole Maddie’s jacket and made it look like she was trying to smuggle artifacts out of the country.” He turned to Maddie. “I’m sorry, Maddie. I never expected you to do anything like this and it turns out that you didn’t. Please accept my apology.”
     Maddie wiped her face and nodded. “Am I still in trouble?”
     “No, you’re not.” He turned to Colin. “But you are.”
     Colin put up his hands to fend off the professor. “Hey, it was just a joke. Can’t you take a little joke?”
     “No, Colin, I can’t. Not when the intention is to get someone else in serious trouble. You won’t graduate with a degree from my department.”
     “You can’t do that. I’m a senior!”
     “I hereby remove you from this team and disbar you from an anthropology major. I’ll call the dean at home right after breakfast and apprise him of the situation. I think expulsion from the college is the appropriate action.”
     Colin’s face turned dark. “This was just a joke. You can’t prove a thing. It’s my word against yours and if you get me in trouble my parents won’t donate any more money for this project.”
     “That’s right, Colin, it’s a tenured professor’s word against a self-absorbed student’s. And I’m sure we can find appropriate funding for this program elsewhere.” He narrowed his eyes at Colin. “There’s a seat waiting on the morning flight to Miami and now it has your name on it. Eat you breakfast and pack fast. I’ll contact local law enforcement about getting you to the airport. If you disappear, I’ll leave it up to them to find you.”
     Colin slunk away toward the dining room, muttering.
     Tom looked at Maddie. Her eyes were red and puffy. Wet smears shone on her cheeks. She was leaning against the wall, shaking.
     “Maddie,” he said softly, “I’m sorry.”
     “I would never do anything like that, Dr. Davies. Never.”
     He blew out a breath. “I know, Maddie, it’s just that it looked like...You’ve been so irrational lately . . .” He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
     He held out his hand to her in a gesture of truce. She took his hand. He pulled her to him and enfolded her in his arms, holding her until she stopped shaking. She stepped back and he put his hands on her shoulders.
     “I’ll try to pay better attention from now on, Maddie. I know you’re a good student and a trustworthy person.”
     She sniffed back a tear. “Thanks, Dr. Davies.”
     They walked toward the dining room. Tom scratched his head. “What did Colin mean about you never finding a jaguar?”
     “He’s crazy,” she said. “He heard me talking about the Golden Jaguar of Itzamna. I guess I’ve been kind of obsessed about it. Colin thinks that’s why I wanted to come on this trip.”
     They reached the dining room.
     “He thinks you wanted to look for something that doesn’t exist?”
     Colin looked up at Tom from his place at the table.
     “You don’t know anything, Dr. Davies,” he spat with a smug smile.
     Tom gritted his teeth. “I guess that’s why I have a Ph.D. and tenure – so as not to know anything.”
     Colin sneered. “I put in a quick phone call to my father a couple days ago and he did some research about the golden jaguar. I don’t expect you to know these things, of course – you’re a narrow-minded academic, not a creative businessman. But my father assures me the jaguar does exist and I intend to find it.”
     Tom flung his arms in the air. “I don’t believe I’m hearing this! You’re on some kind of Indiana Jones adventure to find a fictitious artifact and you’re wrecking my dig because of it? You and your father or either stupid or crazy or both! It’s a damn good thing I’m getting rid of you!”
     Other diners turned and stared. Maddie patted Tom’s arm.
     “Dr. Davies, let’s sit down and eat.”
     Tom yanked a chair out from the table and flung himself into it. He gripped the edge of the table. “Well, Maddie, at least I know you’re not part of Colin’s insanity.”
     “I was kind of curious about the jaguar,” she admitted. “That’s why I asked about it.”
     Tom nodded. “And I told you it doesn’t exist. End of story. I guess that just wasn’t good enough for Mr. Wensley.”
     “Actually,” Maddie confessed, “I asked Kin about it, too. But he didn’t tell me anything.”
     Tom raked his hand through his hair. “You wouldn’t take my word for it?” He pointed at Colin. “And how did you think you were going to spirit a stolen artifact out of the country without getting caught? You’re both . . .” He blew out a breath. “Your thought processes are beyond me. Let this be an end to it all.”
     The server brought breakfast and everyone concentrated on their food for a few minutes. Then Colin broke the silence.
     “So what did you dream last night, Maddie?” Colin raised his eyebrows at her as he buttered his toast.
     “Nothing,” she said. “No dreams at all. And you’ve got some nerve even talking to me.”
     Tom smiled in relief. “Well, then, I guess I’m finally the star attraction at my own dig,” he said. “Now here’s the big news. The test trenches are complete, we’ve definitely got a small stone structure and not a rubbish heap, so we’re going to uncover the whole thing and try to figure out what it is. Joan’s ritual hearth might lend us some clues as well.”
     “I’m betting it’s a grain storage shelter,” said Pete.
     “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” said Joan.
     “Now, now,” said Tom. “Pete is here because it’s likely that structure was actually used for agricultural storage. It’s near the remains of some Post-Classic Period raised fields. And even if it wasn’t used for corn we can still learn a number of things from his sampling.”
     When they finished breakfast Tom escorted Colin to his room and watched him pack. They came back out to the lobby where the rest of the team waited, while Tom pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number for local law enforcement.
     Before he could punch in the last number, the front door opened and a uniformed police officer walked in, followed by Father Angelico. They marched up to Tom’s team.
     He turned to the newcomers. “May I help you?”
     The police officer spoke. “I am Constable Santiago. In charge of law enforcement for Indian Church and the surrounding area.” His English was accented but confident. “Father Angelico tells me there is wrongdoing among your workers. Theft of artifacts. This is a serious crime. Why was I not informed?” He glared at Tom, one hand on his sidearm.
     “I’m Dr. Tom Davies of the University of Florida. We’re here on an archaeological dig, Constable.” He stuck his hand out for the constable to shake. The constable ignored it. “It turns out to be a misunderstanding. There were no artifacts involved, just bad blood between two of my team members.” He grabbed Colin by the elbow. “The perpetrator is being sent home today and will be appropriately punished.” Colin snatched his arm out of Tom’s grasp.
     “Just a moment,” said Father Angelico, scowling. “Maddie is the one in trouble.” He pointed her out to the constable. “She is the one to go home.”
     Tom stepped between the constable and Maddie. He waved his hands at the constable. “No, no, sir, Maddie didn’t do anything wrong.”
     The constable looked back and forth between Tom and the priest. “Well? Which is it?”
     “Maddie,” Father Angelico insisted. “Dr. Davies explained the whole situation to me yesterday. She stole artifacts from the site then lied about it.”
     The constable marched over to Maddie and clicked the handcuffs off his belt.
     “No!” Tom pulled Maddie away from him. “Colin set her up.” The constable turned to Colin, who had been snickering. Colin’s face turned serious. “Colin,” Tom explained, “took some modern jade jewelry and made it look like the jade fragments we found at the site day before yesterday. Pete, please go get the bag with Maddie’s jacket in it from our room. You’ll see, Constable.”
     Pete jogged down the hall in that same ‘pretend hurry’ people use when crossing the street in front of a waiting vehicle. He returned a minute later with a large ziploc bag containing Maddie’s jacket. The bottom of the bag was littered with bits of dirt and grungy, broken bits of jade. Tom took the bag and held it out.
     “You see, Constable, these aren’t artifacts.”
     The constable examined the bag. “I cannot tell that, Dr. Davies. They look like artifacts to me.”
     Father Angelico stepped up next to the constable. “Sir, I believe this matter can be solved simply. If we go to the dig site and examine the remaining pieces of jade, we can determine whether any are missing. That is,” he hissed, “if you have proof of what you actually found.”
     “Of course,” Joan snapped. “The jade fragments were photographed, cataloged and boxed according to procedure. The photographs are stored on the team’s digital camera as well as being e-mailed back to the department at the end of that work day.”
     The priest’s face fell.
     “Constable,” said Tom, “I have made arrangements for Colin to return to the U.S. His only crime is framing another team member for a crime she didn’t commit. I assure you, he will be appropriately punished for it.”
     The constable narrowed his eyes at Tom. “I will be sure he leaves our country, then.” He picked up his walkie-talkie and called for a police car to come to the lodge. “I will also need the evidence.” He reached for the bag.
     Tom drew it back, clutching it against his chest. “I’m sorry, Constable, but I need this to prove Colin’s wrongdoing. You have my word it’s all modern jade.”
     “I cannot take your word for that, Dr. Davies.” He snatched the bag from Tom’s hands. “I will have our experts examine the stones to make that determination. I will do my best to return this to you before you leave but I make no promises.”
     Tom grimaced but said nothing. The police car pulled up outside. Tom shoved Colin and his luggage out the front door. He handed the officer a slip of paper with Colin’s flight information and propelled Colin into the back seat. Constable Santiago leaned in the driver’s window and spoke to the officer in quiet, rapid Spanish. The officer nodded and pulled away. Tom heaved a sigh of relief then tensed again as Father Angelico spoke.
     “Well, Constable,” the priest said, “shall we accompany these fine people to their work site to be sure nothing is missing?”
     The two men followed behind the team as they hiked to the clearing. Tom and Pete rolled up the sides of the lab tent. Joan pulled the box of jade fragments out from under a table and reviewed the photos on the digital camera until she found the correct one. She spread the jade fragments out on the table and set the camera next to them.
     “Here,” she said, motioning the constable over to the table. “You can see there’s nothing missing, not even a pebble.”
     The constable studied the photograph and the jade fragments for several minutes, hunched over the table, while the team waited. Finally he stood back up.
     “I will agree that nothing is missing.”
     Father Angelico motioned to the jade pieces. “Constable, do you think these valuable finds should be left here for just anyone to tamper with? We have already discovered that anything might happen to them, even if no one but the team is present.”
     “We have an agreement with the site superintendent,” said Tom. “We’ll turn in all our loose finds on the last day of the dig. We notify him of everything we find so he’ll know what to expect. That’s what all the teams here do.”
     The Constable shook his head. “That is not good enough. We have seen that some members of your group are not to be trusted. From now on you will turn in your finds as soon as they have been recorded. That very day, that very instant.” He pointed to the jade fragments. “These will go to the site superintendent now.”
     Tom took a deep breath. “Joan, will you please pack these up and take them to the superintendent’s office? Get a written receipt for them, please.”
     The constable nodded. “Very good. Father Angelico, I am grateful to you for bringing this situation to my attention. I am sure it will never happen again.” He gave Tom a pointed look.
     “Of course not, Constable," Tom said through gritted teeth.
     Constable Santiago waited while Joan boxed up the jade fragments.
     Father Angelico turned to Maddie. “I am so glad you are not in trouble,” he said, his voice cold. “Now you will be able to continue your search for all things Mayan. I wish you luck.” His dark eyes bored into Maddie and she looked away.
     “I’m ready,” Joan announced.
     “Good,” said Father Angelico. “I hope I have not missed too much of Christmas morning mass.”
      He and Constable Santiago accompanied Joan off the site.
     Tom pulled a bandana from his pocket and mopped his forehead. “Everyone to work, please. I didn’t expect so much excitement on this trip.”
     The others moved off to their accustomed spots. Maddie stood in the lab tent. She rubbed her arms.
     “That’s the only jacket I brought,” she said.
     “Here,” said Tom. “Take mine. I’m too warm already.” He took off his canvas barn jacket and helped Maddie put it on. He looked at her. “Maddie, I’m sorry for all – well, I’m just sorry.”
     “Thanks, Dr. Davies.” Maddie rolled up the sleeves until they were short enough for her hands to stick out. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
     “Sure, Maddie.”
     She looked around the site. Pete, Colin and Ben were all working over by the mound.
     “I just wanted to apologize for all that stuff about my dreams,” she said.
     “Why, Maddie, that’s very mature of you.”
     “I didn’t mean to take attention away from you since it’s so important for you to be the star attraction here. Silly me, I thought we were a team. And I’m very interested to hear about Joan’s hearth, since Kin and I did all the work on it while Dr. Lancaster disappeared into the jungle all day. Of course, that’s probably what I should expect from someone who thinks I would steal artifacts from a site.”
     Tom took a step back. “Maddie, I don’t know what to say.”
     “I have to get to work.” She turned her back on him and sat down at the table, preparing to sort slides and label samples. Tom shook his head and walked out to join the others.
*                   *                   *
     A while later Ben came over to the tent to get some more tools.
     “So,” said Ben,  “you didn’t dream anything last night. Maybe it was all just stress.”
     “I lied, Ben. I had a dream.” Her voice was sullen.
     “Oh.” He was silent for a moment. “I guess you’d better tell me.”
     She narrowed her eyes at him. “You think I’m crazy.”
     “Well, crazy or not, you’re still my friend.” He touched her arm. “Seriously, Maddie, I want to know.”
     She stared at the slide in her hand. “All right. This dream wasn’t quite as weird as the others and it’s given me an idea of why I’m having all these strange experiences.”
     “That’s good.” He reached for her hand but she pulled it away.
     “Ben, I dreamed about the stuff we were talking about earlier – the collapse of Maya civilization.”
     Ben nodded. “That’s not crazy. You’re surrounded by all that history right here.”
     “In my dream I saw overcrowded cities with slums just as bad as New York or Chicago. I saw horrendous drought, crop failures, people fighting and starving and a terrible epidemic.”
     “That’s all perfectly reasonable. Your mind was just sorting out all the images from that conversation yesterday.”
     “Please stop analyzing everything I say.” She set the slide down and looked at Ben. “I dreamed about a woman. A Maya priestess.”
     “Yes. She was doing something with a plant – a night-blooming water lily – to help cure the epidemic.”
     “OK, that’s a little artistic license, but I’m sure the Maya used herbs for medicine. Everyone did, before the last century or two.”
     “The thing is, the woman – she wasn’t much more than a girl, really, maybe not even my age – anyhow, she seems really familiar. Like I know her.”
     “She’s probably an unconscious projection of you in your dreams.”
     “Since when did you turn into Sigmund Freud?”
     “That would be Carl Jung, actually. Aunt Ruby taught me a little about dream interpretation. I just think it’s interesting.”
     Maddie squinted at him. “Ben, do you believe in reincarnation?”
     He shook his head. “That’s a little too far-fetched for me.”
     Tom came over to the tent. “Ben, can I help you find something?”
     Ben blushed and looked sideways at Maddie. “I just need some more brushes. I don’t know which box they’re in.”
     “Probably the one labeled brushes,” said Tom in irritation. Tom pulled a handful of brushes out and gave them to Ben. They walked back toward the mound.
     “Dr. Davies?” Ben said, just loud enough for Maddie to hear.
     “Yes, Ben?”
     “Um, about the mess with Maddie and Colin . . .” He fidgeted with the brushes.
     “Maddie would never do anything like that. She just wouldn’t.”
     “I know that, Ben. I just got caught up in circumstantial evidence. Blew my top a little too soon. Digs are always stressful, one way or another.”
     Ben shifted from one foot to the other. “You like Maddie, don’t you, Dr. Davies?”
     “Of course I do, Ben. I like you, too. Colin’s another story, though.” He shook his head. “At least I caught him before he did any permanent damage.”
     Maddie sat in the lab tent with baggies, slides and the microscope while the others worked on the structure. Kin and Johnny had the day off – it was Christmas, after all – but Kin appeared right on schedule anyway. Maddie thought he looked different from usual but couldn’t place the discrepancy at first.
     When Pete started toward the lab tent Kin scampered over, patted his hip and said something to him. Pete’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and he stood rooted to the spot. Kin turned and headed over to the lab tent and then Maddie saw it. Kin had a buck knife, a big one, hanging from his belt. As he crossed the grass to the lab tent Maddie wrestled between gratitude for his aid and irritation that he thought her so helpless as to need a bodyguard.
     “Good morning, Phoenix.” He grinned.
     “Merry Christmas, Kin.”
     He motioned for her to come out of the tent. “Come, Phoenix. You work there today.” He pointed toward the structure. “Dr. Galloway work in the tent. You work over there.”
     “But I don’t know how to collect samples,” she protested.
     “He teach you.” Kin grinned and patted his knife.
     Maddie put on her straw hat and walked out into the sun toward the structure. She stopped a few feet from Pete. Kin shadowed her, three paces behind. Maddie cleared her throat and looked Pete right in the eye.
     “Do you want me to collect samples today, Dr. Galloway?”
     Pete raked a chunk of hair off his forehead. He looked at Maddie, then Kin, then Maddie again. “Uh...sure...I’ you how.” He turned and staggered over to the structure. He demonstrated to Maddie the method for obtaining samples without contaminating them.
     “Do I have to collect as many as you’ve been doing?” she asked.
     He glanced at Kin. “I guess I’d better earn my keep on this trip so I’ll be checking out those slides over in the lab tent. You just do what you need to here. Keep an eye out for corn kernels.” He attempted a laugh then headed for the lab tent, giving Kin a wide berth along the way.
     Ben smiled at Maddie from across the stone wall. “I see Dr. Galloway let you out of your cage.”
     “One more afternoon and I’m done with him.”
     Maddie waited for Joan to trowel away some dirt, then scooped up a small sample and searched it for corn kernels. Kin brought Maddie a box of baggies for her samples.
     “Thanks, Kin.” She wiped the sweat off her neck with a bandana. “I’m not used to it being so hot at Christmas. I like the sun but today I’ll be glad when it gets dark.”
     Kin squatted down next to Maddie and watched her work.
     “My people do not like the night,” he said. “The sun travels under the earth at night.”
     “But Kin, the stars at night are so beautiful, especially here where there’s so little light pollution.”
     “Phoenix, at night the Underworld slides up from under the earth. That is why the night sky is dark. It is the Underworld you see at night. You look at the Underworld sky and see back to first creation.”
     “But the stars are bright,” she persisted.
     “Dark Jaguar prowls in the Underworld. The spots on his hide are the stars in the sky.” He narrowed his eyes at Maddie. “Anyone who wears jaguar spots wears the whole sky full of stars on them. Jaguar can be bright but can be very dark, too.”
     “Kin, do you believe in reincarnation?” she asked.
     “Of course,” he said. “Church says we are only born once but my people know better. Everything happens over and over.”
     She examined the contents of a baggie as she labeled it. Instead of dirt, it contained a dark brown matted substance that looked like old rotten straw.
     “Kin,” she said, “do you think I’ve been reincarnated?”
     “Most everyone has.”
     “Well, I had another dream.”
     “Good. The gods still speak to you.”
     “They’re about the only ones still speaking to me.”
     “Tell me.”
     “I dreamed about a Maya woman. I think she was a priestess. I think she was me. I was her.” She gave Kin a pleading look.
     “What this woman do in your dream?”
     “It was at the time of the collapse when so many Maya died a thousand years ago. There was no food and there was a terrible epidemic. My dream woman was giving people a medicine made from a plant so they wouldn’t die of the disease.”
     “What plant?”
     “A water lily. It’s white and blooms at night and has a wonderful sweet fragrance when the bloom opens.” She hadn’t known that much until she opened her mouth to say it.
     “Imix,” he said.
     “Ee-meesh?” Maddie repeated.
     “Water lily. It is sacred to the Underworld. White people do not know about it.” He looked hard at her, narrowing his eyes. “The gods send you here, Phoenix. Something you must do here. Very important.”
     “I’d like to believe you, Kin, but I just can’t.”
     “Do not believe me, Phoenix. Believe yourself.”
     “Kin, I need help to figure out all these dreams. I’ve got to do something but I don’t even know where to start. It’s like there’s a mystery I’ve got to solve. No, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle only I don’t have all the pieces and I don’t even know what the finished picture looks like.” She tossed another full baggie onto her growing pile of samples. “And I can’t stop it and I can’t ignore it.”
     “The gods call to you, Phoenix. Ask them to help you.”
     “What can your gods do for me?”
     “They already give you many dreams you do not ask for. Now you ask for the dreams you want to see.”
     “You can’t just ask for dreams,” said Maddie, frowning.
     “Of course you can. When you go to sleep at night, close your eyes and say to yourself the thing you want to dream. Ask the gods to help you and you will have the dream.”
     “That’s,” she hesitated, “crazy.” She looked sideways at Kin. “You really think it could work?”
     “You have lightning in the blood, Phoenix.”
     “That sounds like some sort of tropical disease.”
     He laughed. “Your blood speaks. You are...inspired? Connected to the gods. The gods choose you, Phoenix. Now you discover the work they have for you.”
     She shook her head. “I don’t think so.” She sealed a baggie and labeled it. “Kin, can you please tell me about the Golden Jaguar of Itzamna?”
     He busied himself digging at the edge of the structure.
     “Kin, please. Dr. Davies says it doesn’t exist but I’m sure it does. Those Maya people in my dream wanted me to give it to them but I don’t have it. I don’t even know what it looks like.”
     Kin shook his head.
     “Kin, please,” she persisted. “Colin nearly got me in big trouble because he doesn’t want me to find it. He wants it for himself. He wants to steal it.”
     “What he think the jaguar is, Phoenix?”
     She shrugged. “I guess he thinks it’s some kind of gold statue. He thinks it’s going to make him rich.”
     “It is not like that, Phoenix.”
     “So it does exist?”
     “Maybe you meet the jaguar one day.”
     Tom glared across the structure at Kin, who got up and strode away from Maddie. Maddie worked on, thinking about jaguar spots.
*                   *                   *
     Back at the lodge the team gathered in the dining room for lunch. Once they were all seated Tom retrieved a bag from under the table.
     “Merry Christmas, everyone.” He passed small packages around, one to each member of the team. “Go ahead, open them.” His eyes gleamed.
     They opened their presents, which all turned out to be local Belizean crafts of various sorts.
     “Joan,” Tom said, “yours is a slate carving of Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of the moon and healing, done by a local woman. I thought you would appreciate that.”
     “Thank you, Tom.”
     “Ben, that’s a handcarved native wood box. It’s got a secret compartment.”
     “Thanks, Dr. Davies.” He grinned as he opened and closed the sliding lid.
     “Pete, is that the clay flute you were admiring in the gift shop?”
     Pete nodded. “Indeed it is. Thanks much, Tom.”
     “You’re welcome. Maddie, you haven’t opened yours.”
     “Sorry – I was watching to see what everyone else got.” She tore the paper off the small package. She opened the box to reveal a small copper plaque, hand-hammered into the form of a jaguar.
     “Wow.” She stared at it, her jaw slack. “Thank you, Dr. Davies.” She shook her head to dispel the sound of drumming.
     “Merry Christmas, everyone.” Tom beamed. “Joan, you and Ben have a presentation to make this afternoon, I believe?”
     “Yes,” Joan replied.
     “All right, time for the rest of us to head back to the site. Since it’s Christmas let’s have a short day. We’ll call it quits at four o’clock.”
     Everyone made happy sounds. With full bellies they meandered out into the lobby and one by one drifted to their rooms to put away their gifts and gather their necessities. Ben followed Joan toward the back of the lodge to prepare for the afternoon’s presentation.
     Maddie stood in the lobby, browsing the local artwork for sale in a glass case. A young Maya man, not much older than Maddie, appeared in the doorway of the lodge office. The manager waved him out and shut the door behind him. He walked over to Maddie and set a ragged, dirty cloth bag down on the glass case.
     “You like Maya art?” he asked, flashing her a broad grin.
     Maddie nodded. “Are you an artist?”
     In response he opened the bag and drew out a stack of carved stone plaques, each about the size of Maddie’s hand. They were edged in Maya glyphs with one large figure in the center of each plaque. Maddie recognized Ix Chel on one plaque but the identities of the other images eluded her.
     Just then Tom and Pete walked through the lobby toward the front porch. Pete called to her as he passed by.
     “Madeleine, are you shopping or working today?”
     “I’ll be there in just a minute.”
     The professors went on out the door. Maddie looked at her Maya companion. He pointed to the plaques.
     “One is your favorite?”
     “Jaguars. I like jaguars.”
     He shook his head. “Sorry. No jaguar today. You like others? I make you a deal.”
     “Maybe you could tell me something.”
     He shrugged. “Maybe.”
     “I’m trying to find out about the Golden Jaguar of Itzamna. Do you know anything about it?”
     “Golden Jaguar of Itzamna is great secret,” he whispered. “Great secret.”
     Maddie scowled. “I have a Maya friend who won’t talk to me about it. I need to find it. It’s very important.”
     The young man shook his head. “Very dangerous to take you there. I get in trouble. Not worth it.” He began packing up his plaques.
     “But I need to find the jaguar,” Maddie pleaded.
     He sized her up. “Maybe I take you there. You pay me.”
     “How much? I have $50 Belizean,” she lied.
     “Not enough.” He picked up his bag to go.
     “Wait!” She gulped. “$100. I have $100. That’s all the money I have, I swear.”
     He narrowed his eyes at her. “OK. Enough.”
     “Can we go now? Please?”
     “We go outside. You pay first.” He jerked his head toward the front door.
     “All right.”
     Maddie peeked out the front window to make sure the team had gone on down the trail. The coast was clear so she followed the young man out the door and down the front steps. He marched around the building and stopped behind it. A row of guest-room windows peered down at them.
     He put out his hand. “You pay now.”
     Maddie rummaged in her pocket and drew out a wad of bills. She handed it to him. He unfolded the wad and counted. Satisfied, he folded the bills up again and stuffed them in his own pocket. He turned and walked directly into a thick wall of underbrush and trees. Maddie followed him, fighting her way through the vines and bushes.
     In a few moments they emerged into a small open area. Maddie realized they were standing on a path that ran parallel to the treeline. It ran a short distance in both directions before disappearing into the jungle.
     The young man turned to his right and trotted down the path without waiting for Maddie. She followed behind him, brushing leaves out of her hair and rubbing the scratches on her legs where vines had whipped her skin on the way in.
     Maddie had to jog to keep up with the young man. He turned and crisscrossed down several paths in the monotonous green of the jungle until Maddie was hopelessly lost and out of breath. Eventually they came up behind a large ruin and he stopped. Maddie leaned against the stone, her hands on her hips, trying to catch her breath.
     The young man pointed his finger at her. “You wait here. I make sure safe.”
     “Um, OK.”
     He turned and trotted off down another trail.
     “Hey, wait!” Maddie called. “What’s your name?”
     The young man was already out of sight around a bend in the trail.
     Suddenly a branch snapped nearby.
     “Is that you?” Maddie whispered. “I’m sorry, you never told me your name.”
     The underbrush rustled a few feet away; something grunted and snorted within it. Muffled footsteps sounded behind her. She turned and looked down the path. Nothing but jungle. Then footsteps sounded down the path to her side. The bushes rustled and she heard murmuring voices.
     Her heart pounded. Maddie tried to call out again but all that came out of her mouth was a strangled squeak. She took a step down the path and a pair of muscular arms closed around her. A gloved hand covered her mouth and nose. She fought against her attacker, kicking at his legs, trying to wrench her head free from his grasp.
     She couldn’t breathe. Her nose and mouth sucked against smooth leather, not air. Her heart pounded in her ears. Her head began to ache. The jungle grew fuzzy, blurry, then black closed in around her.
*                   *                   *
     Maddie heard an odd sound and realized it was her own voice groaning. She opened her eyes.  A shaft of warm sunlight slid through the canopy and lit up her face. She winced and squinted. Her head hurt. She sat up slowly and inched back to lean against a ruined Maya structure. The cool stone felt good against her skin.
     She looked around and remembered how she had gotten there. She tensed, peering around her. No sign of anyone. She looked at her watch. 1:37 p.m. She had been there an hour.
     She gulped and forced herself to stand on trembling legs. She stumbled down the pathway, skidding on stones and tripping on tree roots. The path branched and she chose randomly, disoriented, shuffling through the jungle with her arms held out in front of her to ward off harm. She barked her shin on a tree stump and yelped, hopping down the path on one foot and shaking the other leg to stop it throbbing.
     Suddenly the greenery parted and Maddie stumbled into the sunshine. She stopped, stunned. She stood at the treeline on the edge of the team’s work site, across the clearing from the lab tent.
     Maddie peered around in confusion for a moment until she realized she was standing at the head of the trail where Joan so frequently disappeared into the jungle. She took several deep breaths to stop her heart from pounding.
     She pressed herself against the underbrush and crept around the edge of the clearing to the lab tent. Tom and Pete were bent over their work at the structure and didn’t notice her.
     Maddie made it to the lab tent and dropped into a folding chair. She gripped the sides of the chair to stop herself from shaking.
     “Oh, Honey, I was beginning to think you had fallen down a cenote!”
     Maddie jumped at the sound of Shonna’s voice.
     “I – I took the long way around.”
     Shonna narrowed her eyes at Maddie. “Honey, are you all right? You look all shaken up.”
     Maddie pressed her lips together. Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over onto her cheeks. Shonna reached her arms out and enfolded Maddie in a warm embrace. Maddie clutched Shonna and sobbed.
     Shonna held Maddie for several minutes, until the sobs subsided. The older woman fished in her woven-straw tote bag and offered Maddie a tissue. She waited for Maddie to blow her nose, then she spoke.
     “This isn’t because of Tom, is it? You’d better tell me what’s going on.”
     Maddie wadded the sodden tissue in her fist. “I did something really stupid.”
     Shonna patted Maddie’s knee. “Now, Honey, everyone makes the occasional bad decision. I bet it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”
     Maddie shook her head. “I paid a Maya man to take me to the Golden Jaguar of Itzamna. He took my money and left me alone in the jungle. Then someone attacked me.” She began sobbing again.
     Shonna fished another tissue out of her bag and handed it to Maddie.
     “Now, let me get this straight,” Shonna said. “You’re looking for a golden jaguar and a Maya man told you he’d take you to it for a fee?”
     Maddie nodded.
     “Oh, Honey.” Shonna shook her head. “I’m sorry you got taken like that. There’s always a shyster or two, everywhere you go.” She leaned over to Maddie. “You know, the ones with the real information are the ones who make you work for it, and they won’t take money.”
     “But what about whoever…whoever…”
     “Rule Number One is never go into the jungle alone.” She narrowed her eyes at Maddie. “Did they hurt you, Honey, or…do anything to you?”
     Maddie shook her head. “Grabbed me from behind,” she said, her voice trembling. “I passed out. Please don’t tell Dr. Davies.”
     “I promise.” Shonna patted Maddie’s knee again. “No harm done, then, just a little scare.”
     Maddie looked down at her hands. “And my money.”
     “Well, Honey, there’s a lesson to be learned there. How much did he take you for?”
     “$100. All of it. I’m broke.”
     Shonna whistled. She fished in her tote bag once more. She reached over and put several folded bills in Maddie’s hand.
     “Shonna, I…”
     “Now, Honey, it’s not much. I don’t have a lot to spare. But $30 Belizean will buy your exit visa when the trip is over, so put it someplace safe.”
     Maddie wadded the bills into her pocket.
     “Thanks, Shonna. I guess I’d better get to work.”
     The two women looked across the clearing to see Tom staring at them.
     “Oh geez,” Maddie groaned. “I hope he didn’t see you give me that money.” Maddie looked again and saw Kin standing behind Tom, also staring.
     Shonna stood up and drew Maddie to her feet. “Now don’t you go worrying about old Thomas there. He may huff and puff a lot but he’ll bend over backward for you if he thinks you need a hand.” She looked Maddie in the eye. “And he’ll move heaven and earth if he has feelings for you.”
     Shonna turned, picked up her bag and strode back down the path toward the lodge. Maddie took a deep breath and walked out to the structure. Kin gave her a questioning look and she forced a smile in return.
     Tom tapped his watch. “Did you get lost on the way back from lunch, Maddie?”
     “I’m sorry, Dr. Davies. It won’t happen again.”
     Tom grumbled then turned back to his work.
     Per Pete’s instructions, Maddie collected a bucketful of dirt from inside the structure and sifted it through an extra-fine sieve, looking for remains of corn or beans.
     “You’re much too slow,” Pete whined. “We’ll never get through it all at this rate.” He snatched the sieve out of her hands and jerked his head toward the lab tent. “You go finish labeling the slides and I’ll do this.”
     Maddie heaved a sigh and got up. She wandered back over to the lab tent and began absently sorting and labeling slides. Kin managed to find things to do between the lab tent and the structure. A box and a half of slides later Ben appeared out of the jungle. Maddie looked up from her work.
     “I thought you and Dr. Lancaster were giving a presentation,” she said.
     “Dr. Lancaster is giving a presentation. I’m playing gopher. She doesn’t want a male sharing her limelight.” He screwed up his face.
     “It figures.” Maddie stacked a handful of slides into the box. “So what are you here for?”
     “To get out of her hair and to tell you that I’ve been thinking about your dreams.”
     “Yes?” Maddie perked up.
     “I have a theory. It’s kind of far-fetched but it would explain everything.”
     “OK, shoot.”
     Ben sat down next to her. “All right, we know that all sorts of powerful people once lived here. We know they performed all sorts of dramatic rituals and we know they eventually died.”
     “Everyone does, yes.”
     “I think what’s happening is that our dig has somehow tapped into one of these dead priestesses and the impression of her life energy is somehow resonating through you.”
     Maddie recoiled in horror. “I’m possessed?!”
     “No, no, calm down. The English have a word for this. They say you’re being overshadowed by the spirit. It’s not really possession, just...influence.”
     “I don’t know, Ben. This sounds almost as wild as some of those UFO end-of-time theories.”
     “Well, think about it, anyway. Most wild theories have a grain of truth in them somewhere. I guess I’ll wander back to the lodge and see if Dr. Lancaster is done yet.”
     “You could lurk in the shadows and watch her presentation.”
     He laughed. “Maybe, but I think she can smell testosterone at a distance.”
     He headed back down the path to the lodge. Maddie reached for the next box of slides.
     “Well, isn’t that interesting.” Tom’s voice boomed up behind her. She jumped in her chair.
     “Dr. Davies, I didn’t hear you come up.”
     “I know.” He moved Ben’s chair out of the way and stood next to Maddie. “I’m very disturbed to discover that you’re now including Ben in your little game.”
     “Game!” She stood up, pushing her chair back to make more space between the two of them.
     “Look, Maddie, I don’t know what you’re cooking up or what you’ve convinced Ben of, but this has to stop. You’re a perfectly able member of the team. You don’t have to be possessed by a ghost to impress me. And I’ve already told you that mythical jaguar doesn’t exist.”
     “Damn it, Dr. Davies, I’m not making this up and I’m not lying to Ben.” She squared her shoulders and balled up her fists. “And the Golden Jaguar of Itzamna is real.”
     “Apparently that groundskeeper has been telling you stories, Maddie.”
     “No, he hasn’t. In fact, he hasn’t told me a thing about the jaguar even though I keep asking him.”
     “And you’re na├»ve enough to believe in this nonexistent object because Colin was after it.” He huffed and took a step closer to Maddie. “Let me repeat. There is no Golden Jaguar of Itzamna. The Maya didn’t value gold. To them, jade was the most precious substance. May I remind you that the Maya word for gold can be pretty accurately translated as sun-shit?”
     Maddie shook her head. “Dr. Davies, I know the jaguar probably isn’t gold. It may not even be a statue. Maybe it’s a drawing or a story or something. But it exists. I’m sure of it.”
     “Maddie, you make me so angry I could just . . .”
     He grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her full on the mouth. She was too surprised to resist. He staggered back, his face beet red.
     Maddie stared at him, silent, breathing hard. He turned and fled down the path toward the lodge.
     Someone snickered behind her. Maddie turned to see Pete leaning up against a tent pole.
     Maddie fumed. “I’m so tired of people sneaking up behind me!”
     Pete laughed. “Oh, dear. I guess you and Dr. Davies had a little lover’s spat. There, there.”
     Maddie took a step back. Before she could form a reply her hand flew through the air as if controlled by a third party. She heard the smack and saw the red mark on Pete’s face. He raised his hand to touch the spot.
     She stalked out of the lab tent, across the grass and into the jungle. Tears stung her eyes. The sun had not yet begun to lower and the sky was still bright but the jungle felt oppressive as Maddie wandered through the ruins. After about fifteen minutes she sat down in the dirt, leaned her back against a crumbling building and cried. She cried hard, sobbing, hugging herself and rocking back and forth. Eventually the sobs turned to hiccups and sighs. She blew out a breath and leaned her head back against the damp stone.
     Damn it, she thought, why does my life suddenly have to be so complicated?
     She closed her eyes and tried to calm down. Her breath still came rough and she could hear her own heartbeat echoing in her ears. Thump-thump, thump-thump. A double drumbeat, the beat of life. Thump-thump, thump-thump.
     The acrid smell of burning copal incense stung her nostrils. She looked up the front of the ruined step pyramid she was leaning against. Its stone was clean, new, freshly plastered white and painted with colorful figures. Its steps had crisp edges and its two terraces were lavishly decorated with brightly-colored carvings, and topped with thatch-roofed pole shelters. On the first terrace up from the ground stood a group of five Maya. Maddie counted two men wearing jaguar skin skirts, one man completely covered in blue body paint and two women painted head to toe with white lime, but with spots rubbed off all over to show their brown skin, like the spots of a jaguar.
     Maddie looked down at her hands. They were covered with lime, with small spots rubbed off here and there. Her skin was brown. She picked up an acacia thorn and laid it over her fingernail with the end extended like a claw. The other jaguar priestess lashed the thorn to Maddie’s finger with a length of cord. She added an acacia claw to each finger this way until she had a full complement. Then Maddie outfitted the other priestess the same way.
     The drumbeat grew louder and more insistent. One of the jaguar priests added more copal to the basin of coals. Thick smoke billowed up and engulfed them. Maddie’s eyes and nose stung. She coughed and gasped for air. The priest held up a small yellow figurine and waved it back and forth through the smoke. He touched the figurine to Maddie’s forehead and then to the other priestess’ forehead. He passed it through the smoke again before returning it to its perch above the basin of incense.
     The two priests moved to the middle of the terrace and looked down on a plaza packed with people. The floor of the plaza was painted the deep red of fresh blood. The priests held their hands up and began to chant in long, slow, melodic syllables. Maddie did not understand the individual words but she knew what they meant:

 “Lords of Death and Life,
 These offerings are not piled high
 It is only a small amount
 But grant us your divine pardon
 Grant us your divine forgiveness
 And receive this humble offering,
 Receive these meager lives.
 Lords of Death and Life,
 Look kindly on our pitiful offering
 May you find it acceptable.”

     The priests still held their arms up in the air. The crowd began to chant in low, murmuring tones. Maddie walked to the far side of the terrace and stood next to one priest. Her companion priestess stood next to the other priest. The two priests removed their jaguar-skin skirts and stood naked before the crowd.
     The drumbeat hastened and intensified until Maddie’s heart pounded hard in rhythm with it. She became dizzy. The priest beside her glowed with a shimmering light. His eyes burned blood-red. In mindless fury Maddie lashed out at him with her acacia-thorn claws. A gurgling roar escaped her, rumbling up out of her chest, through her throat and out her mouth. She slashed the priest again and again, panting and growling. The priest turned his back to her and she slashed at it as well until his whole body ran red. Then the two bloody priests stood on opposite sides of the blue-painted man. Maddie and the other jaguar priestess stood behind him, holding his legs with theirs and pinning his arms behind him. Maddie growled in his ear and poked his back with her bloody claws.
     The drumming pounded in her ears, pounded until she thought her heart would burst out through her chest. The crowd roared a formless chant, “Ah-oh, ah-oh!” as the two priests raised razor-sharp obsidian knives above the blue man’s head. The bloodstained priests chanted, too, swaying in time to the rhythm. The chant reached a fever pitch. The drums crashed and the priests plunged their knives into the blue man’s neck, slashing deep and slicing through to his backbone. Blood spurted down Maddie’s arms and chest as the man’s head lolled over to one side. One of the priests took a final slash with his knife to free the head from the body. He gave it a push and the head tumbled forward, down the steps and onto the plaza. The people stepped back from it and cheered wildly. Maddie let go of the man’s body. The priests pushed it, too, down the steps. She watched it tumble but before it reached the ground blackness absorbed her vision.
     She could see nothing but black. After a time, a tiny star winked into existence, then another and another. A deep, soft voice whispered formless words in the nothingness.
     Slowly a figure moved in the darkness. The stars shimmered and shook as the black shadow of a jaguar flexed its powerful muscles, crouched and leapt across the ebony darkness. The cosmic cat melted into the black depths of the universe. Maddie could make out a writhing shape, a twisting trail of smoke that slowly coalesced to form the body of a snake. It shimmered darkly in the blackness, an oily swirl of deep blue and green. The serpent coiled around Maddie, hissing and whispering, its voice growing louder until she could finally comprehend its words.
     “Holy Quetssssal Woman,” it hissed. “You musssst hide the knowledge. You musssst hide it here, the knowledge of the orange moon priesssstessssesssss.”
     Maddie tried to speak, to ask the serpent what it meant, but she could not feel her body to make it respond.
     “Holy Quetssssal Woman,” it hissed again. “You  hide the jaguar sssssecretssss. You travel to the Otherworld, yessss, and you come back when you are reborn from the top of the Vision Ssssserpent Tree. You come back to thisssss placcccce. You find the jaguar ssssecretssss. You sssssshare them with the otherssssss when time returnssssss.”
     The serpent swirled around her and the stars, too, began to swirl, streaming spiral streaks of white against the pitch blackness. The whole universe twisted and whirled around her in a dizzying chase, spinning wildly.
     She jumped, startled. Her heart was pounding.
     “Maddie.” Tom was leaning down, shaking her by the shoulders. “You must have fallen asleep in the heat. I know you're tired. Look, I’m sorry about earlier. I just want this trip to be a positive entry on your resume, that’s all.” His face showed a mixture of irritation and concern. He scanned the clearing, his eyes searching the ruins.
     Maddie struggled to her feet, leaning on the worn gray stones. She scowled, straining to see the white plaster and colorful paintings. “I guess I was dreaming.”
     “Let’s not get into that again. It’s getting dark and the mosquitoes are out. I don’t know how you ended up at N10-43 but let’s get back to the lodge, OK?”
     Maddie looked at him. His hair was more tousled than usual and he was breathing hard.
     “Why did you come out here looking for me, Dr. Davies?”
     He looked away from her. “Pete said you ran off. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. I can’t afford to have a member of my team get lost or injured. We’ve had too much trouble already.”
     Maddie brushed the dirt off her shorts and looked around.
     “This way,” Tom said, motioning to a path that led off into heavy greenery.
     Maddie nodded. They walked back to the lodge in silence. Maddie made sure to keep far enough away from Tom on the path that their arms did not brush together as they walked. They arrived as the others were gathering in the lobby for dinner.
     “Go on in,” Tom grumbled to the rest of the team. “We’ll be there in a minute.”
     He and Maddie raced back to their rooms for quick showers and clean clothes. They hurried to the dining room and joined the others just as dinner was being served.
     Tom stumbled at the sight of Shonna sitting with his team, one empty chair on each side of her. He regained his composure and chose a seat. Maddie took the chair on Shonna’s other side.
     Shonna smiled at Maddie. “You must be a great student for Tom to stay late at dinnertime. He never misses a meal. Were you working on the structure or those jade fragments?”
     “Neither,” growled Tom. “I was rescuing Maddie. She got lost in the jungle.”
     “Twice in one day?” Shonna patted Maddie on the shoulder. “You and that jungle just don’t get along, do you?”
     “What do you mean, twice in one day?” Tom narrowed his eyes at Maddie. She slunk down in her chair.
     Shonna waved him away. “Now, Tom, that’s between Maddie and me. She’s just fine, no harm done, and still plenty of time to work on your wonderful project.”
     Tom harrumphed and turned his attention to his food, giving Maddie sidelong looks every few bites. Maddie sat silent through dinner then disappeared from the dining room as soon as she was finished, leaving the others at the table.
     When dinner was over Ben went looking for her. He found her on the front porch, leaning on the railing.
     “What happened this afternoon after I left the lab tent?” he asked.
     “Nothing.” Maddie stared into the darkening jungle.
     “I know better than that, Maddie. That priest keeps following you, Kin acted real funny around you all day and then Dr. Davies talked about rescuing you. It's like something is going on between you two.”
     “Jesus, Ben, can’t you think of anything except how the other men are acting around me? This isn’t a goddam mating contest, it’s an archaeological dig! What are you going to do now, challenge Dr. Davies to a duel?”
     Ben gripped the porch railing and spoke through clenched teeth. “I care about you, Maddie.”
     “Then act like it. Get off my back and act like a friend.”
     She turned and pulled the front door open.
     “I’m going to bed, Ben. See if you can turn down the testosterone so we can be friends again, OK?”
     She went in and shut the door behind her.