Balam stepped over the jaguar tracks on her way to the mine. No one else in her village dared use this path, but she was at home here under the jungle canopy. Howler monkeys bellowed, marking their territory and warning intruders. She was careful not to disturb a tiny highway of termite trails constructed from the powdery remnants of a fallen mahogany tree. Velvety white lichen clung to the bark with a single drop of dew suspended from its edge.
As she bent closer to inspect the lichen, the bellowing stopped.
The dewdrop fell.
Out of the stillness, another sound—a terrifying sound—came from her jungle.
At first, she thought it was a predator besting its prey, but, no, it was not an animal. It was a man—no men—screaming. She froze. The hairs on her arms stood erect. Her teeth clattered under the force of her pounding pulse.
The screaming continued. She crouched low in the dense underbrush, invisible in the lush green womb.
She could see nothing; sounds were magnified. Her head snapped around. Something was crashing through the bushes and vines no more than fifty paces from her hiding place.
She parted the foliage and peeked through. Two men ran toward her. One was her brother, Ahk: their most learned scribe, their shaman; he clasped a bundle wrapped in banana leaves. His youngest apprentice lagged several steps behind.
She dared not call out but moved to intercept them, emerging on the path a few feet in front of her brother. For a moment, he didn’t seem to recognize her. Ahk cried out, but when he realized who she was, he managed to skid to a stop before plowing over her. His companion, glazed eyes blinded by fear, lowered his head and charged. The apprentice was two steps from her when she saw the glint of an obsidian spike in his hand.
“No, NO!” Ahk stayed the other man’s arm inches from her skull. His panicked student doubled over and collapsed in the ferns, gulping air.
Ahk turned toward her and dropped the package into her arms. He bent at the waist and propped his hands on his knees. His ribs heaved as he tried to suck in more air. “No time. Take this—hide it. The Ts’ul, invaders—found the mine.”
Balam’s stomach lurched; her skin was slick with cold sweat. The Ts’ul: the white warriors had come from the sea and destroyed countless villages in just two summers. Now, they had found her home. They must never learn the true treasure in the mine.
Ahk stood and looked down at the bundle as a man looks at his first-born son. “They will take me. They must not take Uay. There is no one left, no one else.”
The space around her seemed to contract, squeezing the air from her lungs. She thrust the package back toward her brother and tried to back away. “No, no, no, no, no. Not prepared. I have not been prepared.”
Ahk closed her arms around the bundle and tightened his grip. His face was inches away from her. “Listen! They are coming! It must be you!” When he spoke, his spray hit her face; she smelled the sour scent of fear. She winced and closed her eyes as if that could stop her rising terror. He relaxed his grip and sighed, “Balam, please…”
It was the sound of his voice that washed away her fear. When she opened her eyes and saw her brother’s sagging shoulders, she felt the enormous weight he carried. Her choice was clear. She tucked the bundle in her clothing and took a deep breath.
“Be sure it faces the mine entrance.” Ahk turned to leave.
“The blood sacrifice—has it been done?”
He stopped, and when he turned back, his eyes spoke for him. His face puckered for a moment before he squared his shoulders and nodded. She started toward him for one last embrace, but stopped short when Ahk’s head whipped around at the sound of distant shouts. He had no more time for talk. The soldiers of the Spanish Army were coming.
“RUN!” Without looking back, both men fled in different directions.
Balam ducked down and became invisible in the jungle. Behind her, she heard strange clanging noises and words in a language she couldn’t understand. Peering from her hiding place, she saw a dozen men running.
These men were huge. They must have been twice her height with bearded faces and fierce eyes. They wore shiny breastplates and headpieces made of a substance she’d never seen before.
They were getting closer.
She flattened her body and listened. Cutter ants crawled over her forearm: one or two scouts followed by a swarm, scurrying across her skin, stinging and biting. Some leaves fell across her legs, cut away by the soldier slashing through the underbrush. Something pointed grazed her thigh. She held her breath. Like the dewdrop, she waited, suspended.
More shouting. The men ran toward the path Ahk had taken. She had to see. Slowly, she lifted her head above the bushes.
Run, brother—run. Run straight and don’t turn back.
The soldiers were marching back and they had Ahk. She watched them fasten a wooden yoke around his neck. They bound his hands. He looked in her direction, and, for an instant, they locked eyes before Balam, once again, became part of the jungle.
The sun was low over the mountains before she moved from her hiding place. Ahk had been taken with about ten of the village men—only ten. So many more had walked to the mine that morning. As the hours passed, grief turned to anger, anger into dread. What would she find back at the mine?
She exited the jungle curtain surrounding the site and stumbled over the body of a young boy, partially decapitated, his hand reaching for a stone. The strength drained from her legs; she locked her knees to remain upright. She hugged the bundle to her chest and walked on.
Village men, artists and laborers, lay slaughtered, their bodies strewn throughout the site. Balam saw the carvers’ tools left behind in the dust, waiting to be taken up to work the jade as they had for generations. She scanned the site for signs of life. No one moved. No one moaned.
Unable to absorb the horror, she dropped her eyes. There, next to her foot, a tiny glint of color sparkled on the ground. She reached down and brushed away the red dirt to reveal a lavender pendant, dangling from a torn leather cord. The jade felt warm in her hand. Her thumb moved slowly over the creamy surface of the triple twisted loop. She thought of the artist who had turned a rock into this exquisite jewel. The hours he had spent, carving and polishing, until it reached a level of translucence that made the jade glow.
She secured the pendant around her neck and looked skyward, struggling to choke back the primal wail that fought to be heard. Wide veins of sky blue and lavender jade painted the rocks which stood watch over the dead. The serenity she remembered was gone. Blood red was the only color she saw.
She stood at the place Ahk had shown her years before: an enormous outcropping of blue rock—their precious jade—marked the entrance to the mine. In profile, it looked like a jaguar’s head. The Jaguar God: her people worshipped this deity above all others. He escorted the sun through the underworld each night. He was responsible for each new day. He was her namesake.
She stood beneath it, faced west, and paced off a straight line to the Sacred World Tree: a towering ceiba that guarded the site. She used her hands and a wedge of obsidian to dig a hole at the base of the tree. Before she placed the precious bundle in the hole, she hesitated and peeled back some of the leaves. Her tears fell on their holiest relic.
Carved from pure blue jade, Uay—half man, half jaguar—was the oldest god of their ancients. It was a talisman—a guide. Passed from generation to generation since the beginning of time, the chosen shaman, the chuchqajaw, needed Uay to transform into spirit. Only then, could he talk with the gods and learn the future. Only then, could the prophecies be recorded. Only then, could her people feel safe under his guidance. Now, it was up to Balam to preserve it until the time came for it to re-emerge. She rested her fingertips on the distinct cleft in its skull and said a prayer for Ahk.
In the twilight, she buried the treasure in the red earth. She had been careful to point its almond-shaped blue eyes at the mine entrance. Gazing up at the treetops, she wondered how long Uay would wait until he was found. She listened for the howler monkeys’ evening serenade.
Tonight, the howlers were silent.
She had completed her first task. She had no idea how to begin the second.
Exhausted, she curled up, her back flush against the gentle concave bend of the tree trunk, and sobbed until sleep replaced her sorrow.
Two days passed before Balam returned to her village. She was careful to take a meandering path away from the secret grave. Those who survived had collected the dead. Burial ceremonies were performed; offerings made. No one spoke of the massacre. They simply packed everything and abandoned the village, moving deeper into the cloud forest. Balam did not go. She could not leave her beloved jungle; she had a duty to her people.
Although she had protested, she knew, deep down, that she had indeed been prepared for this. Memories from so many seemingly unrelated experiences came to mind. How she had pestered her older brother until he allowed her to watch the artists work the stones. How she had spent countless hours practicing on discarded nuggets until she learned to carve the jade. How she had listened, transfixed, while others told tales of women who were shaman.
Most importantly, she finally understood the meaning of one of her deepest secrets. For as long as she could remember, the jaguar-spirit had come to her. He had appeared in her dreams as a protector and guide. Even now, she could see his face in her mind’s eye. Yes, she was prepared and, like it or not, she had been chosen. She had to finish.
As the final remnants of her world walked away, she turned back to the jungle. She would pray for her people, the world, and the future. No one needed to pray for her. She belonged to the Jaguar God.
Belize, Central America
Meg Denton’s butt was numb from the three-hour ride behind the Belizean Army escort. The 1960s era Jeep had no shocks and every bump on the washboard road to Caracol transformed the shredded plastic seat into cactus thorns. Largely unexcavated, the Maya city was to be her home for the next three months. Once the Maya left their cities, the jungle buried the remnants under a green blanket, leaving the ruins webbed with the thick roots of centuries of ceiba trees and strangler vines. She was here to dig it out.
The rutted dirt road changed to smooth asphalt and the sudden absence of vibration startled Meg out of her daydreams. The sign for Caracol Archeological Park was straight ahead. Grateful for the end of this ride, she stretched her legs and tried to rub some life back into her numb backside. A long caravan followed the Army vehicles and lined up in the tourist parking lot. The overhyped Maya apocalypse had not happened, plunging thousands of stunned true believers back into reality when they awoke, along with the rest of the world, on December 22, 2012.
Several signs dotted the lot, all saying the same thing but in different languages: “All entries to Caracol must be under Army escort. All tourists must be out no later than 4PM—no exceptions”.
The jungle became a different place at night.
Meg looked toward the plantation style Archaeology Residence. Her mentor and dearest friend, Professor Hugo Calderón, stood on the wide porch with three men. He was deep in conversation with the oldest of the three. The two men stood close to each other, the older man punctuating his sentences with his hands. She opened her mouth to shout a greeting, but her gut told her not to interrupt.
She lifted her duffle bag and backpack, shunning any offers of help, and headed to the porch.
The walk to the residence was short. She just made it before the lowering clouds let loose a downpour, drowning out the men’s voices. Just before she stepped on the porch, Hugo turned. When he saw her, the tension in his face disappeared. In two strides, he swallowed her petite frame in a fatherly bear hug.
“Hija! Meg, you look beautiful, and after three hours in a jeep! Welcome to Caracol!” He held her at arm’s length for a few seconds, then enfolded her in another hug. “Everything’s ready for you. Hungry? What am I thinking? Of course you are hungry.”
“Hugo, God, it’s so good to see you! And, you are such a liar, I look like hell, and yeah, I’m starving.” All three of the visitors were watching her. “Ah… I’m afraid I’ve interrupted you. I can find my room. Meet you later?”
“No, no Hija. These gentlemen have been waiting to meet you.”
There was an edge in his voice.
They were a formidable trio. The younger two were obviously brothers. The older man had the same good looks, but he oozed power. He must be the father—the patriarch. All three were handsome—dark hair and tanned skin—the great-great-grandsons of the Spanish conquerors. In Central America, men with their looks were as ubiquitous as tall blondes in L.A.
As Hugo turned back to them, the eldest took her grubby hand and kissed it lightly. “Dr. Denton, allow me. I am Don Julio Portillo. Welcome to Caracol. We have been looking forward to meeting you.” Don Julio’s voice was like cognac, smooth and throaty.
Although her new Ph.D. placed her in academia, Meg was much more at home in the casual world of a field tech. She was prepared for a polite, professional greeting, but his gallantry disarmed her, especially given the tension she sensed in Hugo. She felt the familiar flush as large, red blotches formed randomly on her chest. Mortified, she wished she could transform from the dirty, rumpled, cargo-pant clad shovel bum into the sultry, exquisite, clean woman his manners called for.
“Mucho gusto, Don Julio.” She attempted a discreet swipe at the sweat dripping from her chin.
Don Julio wiped his hand against his trousers and continued with the introductions. “May I present my sons? My eldest, Javier Portillo…”
Javier wheeled around, cell phone to his ear, held up one finger, and mouthed, “Sorry.”
“My apologies, Javier is attending to some critical family business, otherwise we could interrupt.”
Meg turned to the other son. He was the tallest and most compelling. He looked at her with obsidian eyes. His full beard was impeccably trimmed. His hair was the same; gel kept each gleaming strand in place. Although not bulky, he had broad shoulders and rock hard forearms. Really nice arms.
Just as his father had done, he bent low over her hand while Don Julio did the introductions. “Dr. Denton, please meet my second son, a complete scoundrel, Tomás Portillo.” He looked at his son, and in that instant, Meg knew that although he was not firstborn, he was the favored child of the heart.
“Papá, please. Dr. Denton, my father loves to tell people how bad I am, but it’s a lie. I’m thrilled to meet you.”
“Oh, yes, thanks, thank you. It’s a pleasure. Call me Meg.”
Tomás’s voice raised an octave; his words erupted in rapid fire. “I read about your theory—another codex? Haven’t we located all of them? What makes you think—?”
Don Julio stepped forward. “Tomás, leave it for now. I’m sure she’s tired and wants a shower. We have plenty of time to talk over dinner.”
His words acted like a light switch and Tomás shut down, but his gaze, those eyes, never wavered and he continued to hold on to her hand. Although the conversation was now on academic ground, the shift was too abrupt and she felt a rush of adrenaline. Something was wrong. She glanced at Hugo for some reassurance, but he was staring at Don Julio, his jaw clenched.
“Are you an archaeologist?” Perhaps banal small talk would quiet her pounding heart. She pulled her hand away, sensing the slightest resistance before he released her.
“My father’s right. We’ll talk later, after you rest. My apologies.”
Polite, all the right words, but they did nothing to ease her discomfort.
“Meg, let’s get you to your room. Julio, you know where the bar is. I’ll be down in a minute.”
She was desperate for a shower. Sweat poured off her and she had nothing but her hands to wipe away the increasing number of salty rivulets making their way down her body.
She bent to get her luggage.
At the same instant, Tomás grabbed for the duffle, and a minor tug of war ensued.
“Thanks, but I always carry my own stuff.” She gave a decisive jerk on the handle.
“Tomás, she’s stubborn about that. I learned years ago not to try. American feminism, you know.” Hugo winked at her.
Tomás’s eyes widened. She thought he was about to laugh, but instead, he tipped his head, bowed slightly, and let go.
Meg shouldered the duffle and backpack, and followed Hugo inside. She heard a brief conversation in Spanish between Javier and his father. Tomás continued to watch her. She didn’t have to turn around, she could feel it.
As they reached her second floor room, Hugo changed. Deep lines replaced the affable mask. “Hugo, are you okay? I saw you arguing with Don Julio.”
“I’ve found something.”
They found things every day in their job, but something in his voice—the conspiratorial tone, the emphasis on ‘found’—made her step back.
Hugo glanced around, and then drew closer. “I can’t say more. We have to make it through dinner. When they leave—”
“What? Whoa, wait a minute! Hugo, you can’t just drop that on me and leave. They can wait. You’ve got to tell me more.”
“Sshhh! Meg, please. We can’t talk while they’re here. I would have waited until later, but after my conversation with Don Julio…if Tomás asks any more questions, just try to avoid them. Don’t get into any theories. You’ll figure it out. Now, hija, get cleaned up and come down when you’re ready.”
Before he left the room, he turned and gave her his customary wink, the façade back in place.
The shower washed away the fatigue of the bone-jarring trip. She stood with her head bent under the coarse spray until the hot water passed through tepid on its way to ice cold. Wrapped in a huge Egyptian cotton towel, she stared into the mirror.
What could make Hugo drop a bombshell like that and then leave? What about the Portillos? Were they friends or not? Then there was the chemistry with Tomás Portillo—the wrong type of chemistry. She was a scientist. She wasn’t a good liar. Her brain was accustomed to measured reactions and controlled emotions, but not this time. Somehow, she had to rein in her curiosity and get through the next couple of hours.
Meg selected a bright floral sundress made of rayon that clung to the right spots, yet still allowed the breeze to reach her skin. It was out of character for her to make such an effort at dressing, but tonight, she wanted to feel like a girl. Free of dust, her chestnut hair reflected the afternoon light. She had managed to apply the mascara on her lashes, not her eyelids, which created a perfect frame around turquoise eyes.
Her empty stomach churned. It was making enough noise to be heard across the room. True to form, no matter the circumstance, Meg needed food. She swiped some gloss on her lips and turned, prepared to face the charming Portillo men.
When she reached the bottom of the polished mahogany steps, she heard men’s voices erupting from the bar. She followed the sounds and when she opened the door, everyone froze, conversation stopped. Javier was not among the guests. Presumably, he’d been called away on business.
“Hija…” Hugo’s smile was forced and his voice unnaturally high. “You look lovely. Please join us.” Hugo pushed a plate of fresh fruit, cheese, and olives towards Meg.
“Thanks.” She popped an olive in her mouth and waited for someone to break the awkward silence.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” Hugo said. The inane announcement did nothing to break the tension. Don Julio stared at his glass of rum. Tomás sat close to Meg. His fingers played with his beard, keeping time to an invisible metronome—stroke, stroke, stroke.
He stared—unabashed and intrusive.
Normally, she had no problem winning a stare-down with a guy. This was different—he looked through her. She had to look away. Her chest got hot. She tried again, held the gaze a few seconds longer, but, once again, surrendered. Confused by chemistry and hunger, Meg ignored the growing gut level alarm gnawing at her.
Deliverance came in the form of a woman’s voice announcing that dinner was ready, followed by chairs scrapping and boots clomping across the wooden floor.
Dinner was delicious and—plentiful. The cooks prepared tipico dishes: stewed chicken, rich with tomato, red onion, peppers and cilantro; fresh, crunchy red cabbage ensalada with a tart vinegar dressing; rice, black beans, and fresh corn tortillas, thick and warm, completed the meal. She ate three helpings.
The food provided an effective diversion from the tension and the first hour passed filled with pleasant small talk. Where was Meg from originally? What types of businesses did Don Julio’s family own? How were coffee exports? Then, just when the satisfaction of hunger satiated settled in and relaxation embraced them, Tomás turned the subject to her work.
“Meg, tell us about your theories.”
Hugo’s shoulders flinched.
Don Julio kept his eyes on Hugo and said, “Yes, tell us.”
She took another bite to allow time to formulate a response. “Well…” She forced herself to swallow. “It’s just hard to believe we’ve found all of the records.”
“Have you found any evidence? Hard evidence.” Tomás’s conversational tone changed; he was all business now.
Despite Hugo’s warning, there was no avoiding his question. On the surface, it seemed an innocent exchange, but the roar of blood in her ears and the flip-flops in her gut couldn’t be denied. Still, she had to remain calm.
She scooted her chair backwards, looked around the table, and assumed her best academician airs. “No, nothing specific. The Maya recorded centuries of their data on stone. Then, they changed to cloth, fig bark, like the existing codices. If the jungle can swallow cities, my hunch is we have a few more treasures to find.”
“They published your theory. It must be more than a hunch. ” Tomás was determined to keep probing. He seemed relaxed, leaning back in his chair, but his fingers pulled and tugged at his beard. “Is that why you’re here?”
She was out of ideas and turned to Hugo for help.
“Tomás, there are empires still buried under our jungles. Untouched. You’ve flown over them. Yet we have only four known codices—four.” He leaned back in his chair. “Who knows when, or if, we’ll find anything? Right now, Meg and I are focused on uncovering the rest of the ball court and stelae. Sí, hija?”
Tomás leaned forward and clasped his hands together. His eyes were glassy from rum. “Claro, ball courts and stellae—and the lost jade source, right, Tío? So many jade artifacts, but no known source.”
The question sent a small shock wave around the table. Jade? How the hell did jade get into this conversation?
Meg wanted to look at Hugo, but knew better. Her stare remained glued to her empty plate, her hands, folded into a prayer position, covered her mouth.
“Tomás!” Don Julio glared at his son
“Basta! Hugo has already given us his word. Dr. Denton has nothing to do with this. Verdad, Hugo? If anything is found—whatever is found is the property of my people, not you archaeologists. We are tired of Norte Americanos stealing our treasures to put on glass shelves in fake California mansions.”
“Julio, no one suggested stealing anything.” Hugo stood up, his voice calm and conciliatory. “You know we, more than anyone, honor these artifacts.”
Don Julio stopped rotating his glass and stared at Hugo. “Don’t lecture me about how much you’ve done for us.”
“If you are so concerned about stealing, look to the black market.” Hugo walked around the table and stopped next to Don Julio and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “The black market. That’s how our treasures end up with rich collectors. Archaeologists are here to protect them, to preserve them. We’ve learned much since the early days of Maudsley and Seler. Besides, remember, I am not Norte Americano. I am Guatemalteco.”
Don Julio knocked back the last of his rum, banged the glass on the table, and stood to face Hugo. “Just as bad, my friend. Remember what I said—nothing leaves here. The ministry has given me complete authority.”
Hugo nodded. “Agreed. Meg will be here for several months. We promise to let you in on anything exciting. Now, let’s leave business behind.”
Don Julio grunted, his clenched jaw relaxed and one side of his mouth produced a hint of a smile.
Tomás waited and watched his father for a moment before turning back to Meg. “Don’t worry. They fight like brothers all the time.”
Meg was bewildered by the tension buried under innocent banter. It was exhausting trying to keep up semi-social dinner etiquette after the professor’s bombshell, and now, the mention of lost jade, dominated her thoughts. She was dying to know what he’d found. This argument was serious, the demands clear, yet she knew Hugo had no intention of keeping his promise to Don Julio.
She began thinking of some ‘the evening is over’ signals, trying to will the Portillos to leave, when the massive double doors opened, and a Maya woman ushered in a young man balancing a large silver tray.
His steps were deliberate, almost ceremonial. His eyes never left the precious cargo: an enormous triple layer chocolate cake. Meg laughed and looked at Hugo, a huge grin on his face. He was so proud of his surprise.
“For Meg, no meal is complete without chocolate. This was made the old-fashioned way from one of our own cacao trees. The cook adds some coffee. Qué rico...so delicious. We can each take a slice and give Meg the rest.”
Finally some laughter, genuine laughter. If they only knew how accurate Hugo was.
“Hugo, muchas gracias, but Tomás and I must go. We’re on our way to Honduras. There are rumblings of unrest in the capital. Probably nothing, but I’ve invited some friends in the government to visit.”
Don Julio took Meg’s hand once again and held it in both of his. “Meg, please enjoy our portions for us. It was such a pleasure meeting you.” So smooth. So charming—as if nothing had happened.
He didn’t wait for her to respond. Instead, he turned to his son. “Tomás, I’ll notify the pilot while you say goodbye.”
“Que le vaya bien, Julio. We expect you back very soon.” The two friends embraced—a stiff hug accompanied by two sharp claps on the back.
“Hugo, my friend, thank you for a wonderful evening. Buenas noches.” At that, Don Julio strode toward the door, carrying himself like a thoroughbred, secure in his place as head of a dynasty dating back to the Conquistadors.
Hugo watched him leave. Then he turned to Tomás. “Hasta luego, Tomasito. Take care of your papá. Meg, I have a little work. We’ll catch up in the morning.”
“See you at breakfast,” she said as Hugo went across the hall and closed the study door.
After he left, Tomás turned back to Meg. Slowly, he took her hand, pressed his lips to her skin, and left them there, just a beat too long to be a polite gesture. His thumb stroked the back of her hand. “I’m sorry about all that. Lately, well lately we’ve had disputes over ownership and control of artifacts. When politics and power are at play, well, he meant no disrespect.”
He moved his face close to hers, paused and said, “Good night, Meg.”
Outside, the helicopter powered up, the slow whine increasing to the whump, whump, whump of the blades, preparing to take off. Tomás released her hand, breaking the spell.
“Yes, thanks. Good night, Tomás.”
She walked to the porch and watched him jog towards the helicopter, bending low to avoid the downdraft and shielding his face from the flying leaves. He waved again before pulling the door closed. Seconds later, the black helicopter lifted straight into the air, dipped its nose, and sped south.
Tomás ducked his head, securing the door behind him. He settled in the seat across from his father, aware that Don Julio was watching every move. Avoiding his father’s gaze, he buckled his seatbelt. Don Julio gave two sharp knocks on the bulkhead behind him. The pilot throttled up and the helicopter began to lift.
“I told you to keep quiet about the jade, verdad? I told you.”
“I wanted to see her reaction. She and Hugo are close; he had a chance to talk to her. Maybe she knows something. That’s all”
“That’s all? You like her.”
Tomás looked at his father. His face suggested something much more salacious. “Yes, I like, and respect her and think she is in a position to help us. Anyway, she is a professional woman and you were dismissive, Papá.”
“You should not have brought up the jade—you involved her, not me. She has no place in these matters and neither do you. Understand?”
Tomás remained silent.
“Hey, understand? And don’t tell me you’re interested in her as a professional. She’s another attractive toy. You think I’m a fool?”
Tomás struggled not to react to the sarcasm. “Papá, there’s more to my life than women.”
“Oh, yes. There is traveling, gambling, and your…hobbies.” Don Julio’s smile was reminiscent of his compadres when he emerged, disheveled, and flushed, from the small rooms above their favorite bar. “Tomás…hijo, I don’t hold this against you. Actually, I’m envious. Your life is meant to be like my brother’s, without the burden of the family business. You can play, for now. Then, maybe law?”
Tomás began to chew the inside of his right cheek, a habit he had tried to break. When he realized it, he stopped, hoping his father didn’t notice.
Don’t say anything, he thought. Just keep quiet.
Don Julio placed his palm against his chest. “I had to do what was expected. So does Javier. Don’t be angry. Be grateful.”
The slow words, the calm tone, infuriated Tomás. Outside, he smiled and nodded. Inside, he burned.
He had heard this speech—this condescending dismissal—too many times. Be happy you are not Javier. Be happy you can play. Be happy you are nothing.
He was no toy. His life was relevant. Did his father have any idea what happens inside a man when no one expected anything from him? Did he realize that being the second son, the redundant one, was the equivalent to being worthless? Did he realize the humiliation? He took a deep breath and calculated the best response.
“Papá, I am grateful for what I have, truly. I know many men would like to have my life, but every man needs to find a purpose. Every man.” He leaned toward his father. “I am no different.”
“You will find it, son, you will find it. In the meantime, enjoy your freedom, but stay out of my business.” He leaned back and turned away. Tomás watched him for a few moments, but Don Julio didn’t notice. He opened his laptop, conversation over. He had been dismissed—again.
Tomás opened a magazine and pretended to read. Once again, his father had touched a festering wound in his heart. One day his family—his father, Javier, all of them—would look up to him. He would be the one who made it on his own. He would be the one to accomplish greater things than being handed the family business. He would matter.
Ignoring the printed photos, he reviewed the obvious attempts to evade his questions. Javier might be the business brain of the family, but Tomás had learned a great deal from their father. He saw straight through people. He was certain that Calderón had made an important discovery; their man at the camp reported his odd movements days ago. He was also certain that his father did not have as much power over Hugo as he imagined.
His father was right about one thing. Although Tomás had known about the visiting archaeologist, the woman he met tonight proved to be much more than expected. She fascinated him, and that was a complication. The memory of her—dirty and defiant—was stamped on his brain. Shaking his head to clear away her image, he went down his mental checklist.
The plans needed some modification, but they should still work.