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I. DEATH AT DISCOVERY RANCH


Chapter 1

Tuesday, 22 June 2004

The scene opened on a black hole in a bright, sunlit ochre cliff face. A solid, square-built fellow with a dark brown, grey-streaked beard lining his jaw closely examined its surroundings. He was dressed in denim shorts, sturdy boots, orange vest, and a miner’s hardhat. He removed his sunglasses with a dramatic gesture to address the camera in a low voice, his brown eyes squinting and serious.

“The desert’s full of legends and mysteries,” he said. “One that the Indians still whisper fearfully about concerns this place, said to be the lair of a snake that ate an entire village. I’m Professor Gus MacLantis, and today, we’re going to find out if there’s anything to it.”

“That’s right,” said a taller, well-built man with a short scruffy blond beard joining him.

He smiled in a broad, easy grin. “Hi! I’m Skip, and our sister, Allie, is fielding the camera today. We’re the ‘Clan MacLantis.’” A hand appeared in front of the camera waving. “Welcome again to MacLantis Mysteries!

“We’ve got a great one today, Skip, involving a giant serpent and lost Spanish treasure.”

“Sounds exciting, but as we always say: don’t go exploring caves on your own kids – it’s dangerous, even for trained and well-equipped professionals like us,” Skip said in all seriousness. “This time, it could be more dangerous than ever. Right, Gus?”

“Quite so, Skip.” his younger brother answered with equal gravity. He waved his hand at the serpentine pictogram daubed in red and a handprint next to the opening. “These ancient glyphs are to alert us that this mystery could be very perilous, indeed.”

“How so, Professor?”

“Unlike others we’ve seen, they’re not Spanish miners’ warnings of booby-traps,” he continued. “This is an ancient Native American plumed serpent; likely this place is a shrine.” Gus’ voice dropped. “Maybe even the den of the snake god of the Tecos. Legends say it still lives, guarding a golden bell seized from the friars during the great Indian Revolt.”

“That might account for the faint fetid smell after all this time.” Skip chuckled with unease. “But I’ve already checked for unpleasant surprises hanging around the entrance, like scorpions or spiders.” He switched on his hardhat light. “It’s clear. Let’s go; watch your step.”

The opening widened inside into a broad empty chamber; Gus followed, then helped his sister. Skip leaned back out of the beam of sunlight to allow her a shot of several large slabs, standing upright like pillars a foot or so apart. Allie adjusted the camera to compensate.

A bright shaft of light sliced through dancing dust motes. It lit up a large spiral pecked into one of the stone slabs.

“Look at that,” Allie said in an awed whisper. “A Sun spiral!”

“We may be in the right place, then.” Gus pointed at the winding coil hammered into the rock face crossed by a glowing splash of sunshine. “These stones were placed in sacred spots so a sliver of light at noon would shine right there in the center to mark today: midsummer.”

“Ah, but there’s more signs back here,” Skip called. “Deeper, this way.”

While Skip slipped into a dark opening, Gus took the camera as Allie followed. The next chamber was even larger, black beyond the narrow cones of their lights. Bright circles danced across wavy lines painted all over the walls.

Skip whispered, his voice making odd echoes. “There are snakes painted everywhere.”

“Yeah,” Gus agreed. “They say that the Tecos Indians adored a gigantic serpent in an underground temple. Nobody but shamans, chiefs, and victims went there. Yet the pueblo sacrificed so many children to chase out the Spaniards that the entire community died out.”

“A whole village fed itself to a monster,” Allie breathed, “perhaps in this very place!”

“Sure is big and spooky,” Skip whispered. “From the echoes, this cavern must be huge.”

“In such a cave,” Gus mused, “how could you ever be sure what is shadow or truly real?”

“Don’t get philosophical just yet, Prof.” Skip waved his hand. “Come on. We’ve got a reptile to catch.” He squirmed past a slab blocking a crevice.

“Don’t forget the curse,” Allie reminded him. Gus coughed.

Skip laughed. “Sure, like with all buried treasure, a horrible death is said to await whoever disturbs it. Gus can go first, then.”

His younger brother led them into a large open space. On a dusty stone altar, a small metal object gleamed in a thin beam of sunlight coming from somewhere high above. It was surrounded by sand with strange ripples. Around the edges of the circle were small piles of crushed bones and fur. Under the crude altar was a dark, low opening, stained and worn slick.

“This is amazing!” Allie focused on the shining metal. “Looks like a bell to me.” Pointing her camera lower, she said, “But I sure don’t like the looks of that hole.”

Gus and Skip crept up to the altar from either side. “The bell’s not very big,” Skip said. He brightened, “Maybe that means it really is gold,” and reached for it.

Gus stopped him. “Hey, hold on, brother, stop right there. We’re scientists! We’ve got to go slow, document everything; you know, do this right. There’s much to be studied here.”

“What’s right is how this would look back at Discovery Ranch,” Skip objected, shaking off Gus’ hand to grab the bell.

“No! Let it go,” Gus demanded, and commenced a tug-of-war. “This sanctuary is unique, like nothing we’ve seen. We need to study this site–” They were interrupted by a low hissing from off-camera.

Behind the grappling men in the spotlight on the wall a serpentine shadow intruded from the side and kept growing larger.

“Let me have it,” Skip said, yanking the bell towards him. “It’s what we came for – holy crap!” Spotting the shadow on the wall, Skip jumped backwards clutching the bell, with a muffled clang. The hiss broke up into a woman’s laughter.

Accompanied by more mirth, the camera caught a shaking rubber snake in somebody’s hand. Gus started laughing, too. “Oh, Skip, if only you could see your face!”

Skip, his back against the rock, bell clutched to his chest, straightened and brushed himself off with all the dignity he could find.

“Real funny, guys. That was not cool at all. We’re trying to do a show, remem–?” He stopped mid-word and crouched again, looking up. “Uh oh. We’ve got company.”

Gus laughed off-camera. “Sure, right. That won’t work.”

“I ain’t kidding, Gus. Look! Up there!” Bats swirled amid a cascade of falling rocks.

There was a sudden collapse of the rear wall. Above them, a giant, round grey ball slowly rolled out of the hole and fell towards them. Skip and Gus scrambled to get out of the way.

Allie screamed but held on to the camera as they ran, surrounded by fleeing flying mammals. Skip and Gus scuttled through the clefts in a mad rush, pausing only to help their sister. As they stumbled into the first room, Gus tripped.

Flailing about, he fell against a slab, which swayed and toppled into the next, and the next, like huge shattering dominoes.

Gus fell among the heap of broken tablets. Their insides were white plastic foam and wooden laths. The ponderous grey ball bounced, landing straight on top of him.

With a long, slow, blubbering wheeze like a slow fart, the giant balloon deflated.

While Gus struggled beneath the collapsing envelope, a hand plucked the fallen bell from next to where Skip lay. Allie swung the camera up, catching a tall, slim, older man leaning on a cane, dressed in khaki like an overgrown boy scout, complete with a pith helmet. He shook his head. Pointing a finger straight at the lens, Doc MacLantis, world-famous celebrity archeologist, drawled, “That, boys and girls, is why you don’t mess about in caves.”

He held up the bell. “See, it’s not even gold – it’s just brass.” Amid the groans, Doc said with less amusement, “Cut! We’re done here.”

 


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