Prologue: The Enemy On Both Sides
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Tula Ruins, Hidalgo, Mexico
She stepped away from her car with the chill of death rippling her skin. She tugged at her park service jacket, pulling it tighter against the pre-dawn darkness. Perhaps it was the cool air or the bank of clouds delaying the cheery radiance of morning that ordinarily sensitized her dormant clairvoyance. It could be the way the crimson dawn appeared as a slivered artery just beneath the clouds, spilling a bloody caress down the cold, chiseled faces of the rigid Atlanteans.
Whatever hung in the air, it discomforted Maria Delarosa.
Early morning hours were usually what Maria lived for--that silent time before the tours started rolling in, when the weary ruins slowly shed their one-dimensional silhouettes and emerged as glowing Toltec temples. It was only then that the Atlanteans stood boldest against the skyline like basalt sentries standing guard against some oncoming apocalypse. This morning, however, they appeared less like the defenders of a lost city and more like gory savages returning from the carnage left in the clouds.
Maria decided to walk off her jitters in the open courtyard of the ruins. She avoided the warriors crowning Pyramid B though she couldn't quite shake the chill creeping beneath her skin, which only seemed to intensify as she passed the large central altar of the courtyard. She continued to the edge of the precipice overlooking Tula de Allende, comforted somewhat by the soft sprawling lights, and the refinery glowing in the distance.
She paused in the serenity and thought about waiting there, watching the town awaken with the morning. She may have done just that had not the faint odor of death drifted over the breeze. It seemed to be coming from the Jaguar Chacmool.
Of all the things in Tula, the chacmools mystified Maria most--those oversized figures of men reclining on their backs, knees up, heads up, and always holding a round plate on their chest. The chacmool near Pyramid C had long lost its head but the Jaguar Chacmool was intact, unblemished in fact, and just beginning to appear from the shadows as she approached.
The Jaguar Chacmool's immaculate condition made it exceptional compared to the others. The beautiful polychrome statue emerging from the shadows drew her eye from the subterranean ball court just beyond. Soon the sun would find it, releasing its colorful contrast to the surrounding ruins, and Maria hated it for that.
The Jaguar Chacmool was a replica, brought to the site seven years ago in celebration of one hundred and twenty-five years of archaeology in Tula. Though it was undeniably beautiful, Maria loathed it, fearing its presence distracted from the authenticity of Tula's ruins. Admittedly, it was structurally accurate, but the artist who donated the brilliantly-colored statue had taken liberties with its painting by including the figure of a jaguar on the breastplate, thus giving it its deplorable name.
This morning, however, it was the smell rather than the sight of the chacmool that caught Maria's attention, and she noticed something lying behind it.
The chill returned to the very hairs of her jacket-insulated arms. With quivering fingers she dug into her pocket and withdrew a pen light. She clicked it on, but the small beam didn't offer much in the pre-dawn glow. Gingerly stepping closer, Maria focused on the feet of the chacmool where her light dimmed upon the soles of a pair of hiking boots.
It wasn't the first time she'd come across a drunk who'd wandered too far from the cantinas, but given the fetid odor now ravaging her nose, she'd be satisfied stumbling upon a sweaty, inebriated boozer needing a ride back to town. Suddenly, a car reeking of tequila and urine didn't compare to what she feared lay behind the Jaguar Chacmool.
This drunk didn't move.
Maria cleared her throat to call again, but stopped. Hiking boots weren't the typical footwear for cantina regulars, and by the looks of the thick, unbeaten treads, these boots hadn't hiked very far.
She inched closer, suddenly aware of her pulse as she held her breath. She strained to peer around the chacmool, bracing herself with a hand upon the statue. There was a cold, clammy feel to the stone, the feel of death upon her skin. She turned the light to her hand and found it tacky with blood.
With a gasp, she stumbled around the statue but stopped short. The beam from her pen light landed on the face of a gaping young man, staring wide-eyed and pale-faced toward the bruising sky.
Gulping back a gag, she let the light beam trail down to the man's naked torso. His arms were flailed about as though he'd been tossed to the ground and a dark smear of blood coated his chest. His body was twisted awkwardly, but effectively enough to stretch open a deep gouge just beneath the rib cage.
Maria panicked, slamming into the chacmool. She braced herself against the smooth stone but her hand bumped something fleshy lying atop the chacmool's chest plate. Bile rose to the back of her throat as she turned her pen light back to the statue. There, the tiny beam shimmered off the congealed blood pooled beneath the fleshy bulb of the man's heart.
"Oh God!" she gasped. "Not again!"