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Sunday, April 18, 2010


Please welcome author, Christine McKay into the moonlight today. Christine is the author of a host of other novels, a handful of which are, Loch Dragon’s Lady, Carnal Magic, The Earth’s Edge, and A Taste of Summer Magic. But those few are only a smidgen of what she’s published, so visit her website and learn more about Christine and her books. Click here to visit her website.

In honor of April 15th being tax day, we’re asking 15 questions of our guest bloggers this month, so we hope you enjoy learning more about the authors and their books. Feel free to ask some questions of your own!


GRACEN: Speaking of taxes, are you’re taxes finished, or do you procrastinate with them? Do you do them yourself or do you have a taxman do them for you?

CHRISTINE: I used to do my own taxes but it’s become difficult for me to keep abreast of the new farm tax laws ( I own a farm). I have a CPA do my taxes. While I’m there, she takes care of my writing ones too. (She’s a closet writer so the annual tax appointment is a good time to chat and compare progress).

GRACEN: As it says, “April showers bring May flowers”. What flowers do you hope to see the first thing in spring?

CHRISTINE: I love lilacs. We have over 100 bushes. When the lilacs are blooming, I know spring has finally arrived in northeastern Wisconsin. Pansies, daffodils, and tulips will bloom in the snow. Lilacs – not so much.

GRACEN: Do you plant your own garden? Why or why not and where is it (are they) located? What type(s) will it (they) be and where is it (are they) located on your property?

CHRISTINE: I do garden – poor plants. I have plants tucked all over the place, trying to keep them out of the wind.

GRACEN: Do you prefer plants or seeds? Does it matter where you get them, or do you have a favorite place to go? What’s the name of the place and why do you prefer there over other places?

CHRISTINE: I plant mostly seeds, but some plants. I love Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. A full color catalog with hundreds of rare seeds, everything from prickly yellow cucumbers to blue pumpkins from Australia.

GRACEN: What will you plant (or have already planted) this year and why?

CHRISTINE: The rule of thumb where I live is to not plant until Memorial Day weekend. Anything before that time is subjected to frost or possibly snow. That said, I have my tomato seeds started inside and a few pumpkin and squash varieties that need 90-120 days of growth (questionable up here).

A raspberry patch is on the list to get planted this year as is an asparagus patch. As far as other things, I’m a huge tomato fan – will be planting over 10-20 different tomato varieties. Also have over an acre of pumpkins and various squashes. Peas always get planted and I have minimal success with carrots, but they’re going in the ground whether they want to or not. And of course, there’s herbs all over the place. Chives – you can’t kill chives. Ditto on mint and catnip. I have that growing wild all over the place, thanks to 3 plants I purchased ten years ago. Lavender grows very sullenly here, but it grows. I have myrrh, dill, wormwood, pinks, soapwort, and other sturdy plants.

GRACEN: Do you have any plants that are must haves for your garden, ones that it just won’t be complete without?

CHRISTINE: Tomatoes. The store bought ones have no flavor!

GRACEN: What is your main genre (erotica, erotic romance, romantic suspense, etc.)? What was the draw for you?

CHRISTINE: Fantasy and paranormal romance sometimes with a horror /occult element. I cut my teeth on shelves and shelves of Andre Norton, Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, Robin McKinley, Terry Brooks, and C.J. Cherryh, but I also love Nora Roberts, Stephen King, and a host of other one-book authors. Hence the marrying of many genres.

GRACEN: Besides your main genre we just discussed, what elements do you prefer to use in a story and why those elements over others?

CHRISTINE: I use a lot of magic and magic practitioners in my stories. I have friends who are practicing witches (or Wiccans – depending on the person’s individual preference) and they seem to get a bad rap 99% of the time. Think of the Disney films and count how many bad witches there are versus good witches (and no, fairies and fairy godmothers don’t count). I have other friends who travel the astral plane, speak to animals (which then talk back to them), and have seen ghosts.

When not entirely set in the fantasy world, I like to think my stories portray these sort of people as they are: normal folks with gifts many of us don’t understand and probably don’t believe in.

GRACEN: Do you prefer red roses or black roses? If so, does that show in your writing? If so, how? If roses aren’t your style, what flowers are? Do they influence your writing? If so, how?

CHRISTINE: Actually if we’re talking roses – yellow are my favorite. They’re cheery without going overboard. If I received red roses for no reason at all, I’d be thinking “Okay – what did you do that I don’t know about?” But yellow roses – they’ve always been a pick-me-up flower.

I think herbs and cooking influence my style more than, say, flowers, though don’t get me wrong – I’m a girl – I like flowers.

GRACEN: The jury’s still out on this question, so we’re still asking it! - Who decides what you write about, you or your muse? What kind of influence do you have over your story, or is the muse always the one planting the seeds? How do you cultivate those seeds regardless of who plants them?

CHRISTINE: My muse inspires me, but I ultimately decide when and what to write. I have a problem with reining in my characters, however. They like to take over the story and run amok.

If I run into a plotline snag or what not, I’ll sleep on it. Generally, by morning, I have my answer.

I’m an avid reader. Nonfiction. Fiction. The backs of cereal boxes. Tons of magazines. I clip pictures from Smithsonian and National Geographic. They’re inspiring.

GRACEN: In your opinion, what author had the most influence on your writing? What about their writing did you find so influential and why?

CHRISTINE: This is a tough one and would really depend on where I was at mentally in certain stages of my life. Initially, my gut reaction would be to say C.J. Cherryh. But there were times when Nora Roberts, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, and Robin McKinley were must reads. And I went through my Bertrice Small stage as well.

I think C.J. Cherryh appeals to my technical nature. I do have a computer background and am quite good at tinkering with them. Her writing also has a rhythm that reminds of me the old stories…and by old, I’m talking Beowolf.

GRACEN: While authors can definitely influence us, inspiration can be everywhere for a writer, but specific people, places and events can inspire certain characters, personality traits or things that happen in our stories. In your current story that we’re promoting here today, The Genesis Clock, did any one particular person, place or event inspire you? If so who/what was it (were they), how did it/they inspire you and how is this inspiration reflected in your story?

CHRISTINE: I love the History and Discovery channels. I watched a program some years back on Naj Tunich and became fascinated by its mysteries and drawings. I read a lot of books on the subject and that started me thinking…just how much do we know about our ancestors?

The characters in this book do a lot of traveling, gun-toting, and even horseback riding. As a former endurance rider (25-100 mile cross-country races on horseback), I used my experience in that area to write the riding scene. I also spent a fair part of my childhood in a indoor rifle range. What can I say? Some kids play hockey or basketball in winter. I participated in a Junior Rifle program.

For details on places I hadn’t physically been too, I relied on my aunt who is a world-wide traveler.

GRACEN: Without giving away anything pertinent to the story, tell us about the hero and heroine (s) of your story. What do they look like? How do they meet (or “did” if this is a second book with these same characters)? What are their personalities – Are they comical cut-ups, are they serious or are they a mix of the two? Please give us a little bit of dialogue from the story that can illustrate this. (Not much, but just a few lines and from a different section than the main excerpt – Thanks!)

CHRISTINE: You’re going to laugh, but I pictured my hero as Hugh Jackman, in his shaggy version from the movie, Van Helsing. This makes for an easy excuse: “No honey, I have to have this huge photo of Hugh in my office – it’s inspiration.” And so Aaron Sparta was born.

For my heroine, I snipped a photo from a magazine of a very sharp-eyed, pony-tailed blonde-haired blue-eyed girl-next-door type woman. This became Evelyn “Evie” Wright. I like using nicknames. It seems to help define a character. You’ll always get folks who aren’t “Missy” or “Mel” but always “Melissa”. That tells you something about them.

Evie’s a bit sarcastic and free-wheeling, continent-jumping into dangerous countries and situations as if she has a death-wish, and personally, I think she sort of does. She’s been running her entire life, from the shattered memories of her mother’s death, from her father and his expectations and craziness, from becoming special to anyone. She basically has an attachment anxiety.

Unbeknownst to her, Aaron has known her her entire life. Now he’s been ordered by his superiors to kill her.

She rolled her eyes and experimentally tugged on the handcuff. Despite the crappiness of the car, the handle was firmly attached to the frame. “You have nothing better to do than watch me?”

“Actually I have five other things I need to be doing. But you happen to top my list. Congratulations.”

The number wasn’t lost on her. Her eyes narrowed. “Who hired you? Why are they looking for the clock’s stones?”

“You aren’t in the position to be asking questions.”

Glancing into his rearview mirror, he turned onto a side street and parked behind a seedy motel. Actually, according to its sign, it was an “ote”—both the “M” and the “l” were missing. Pieces of the M still dangled from the advertising board. Once the siding had been painted a mint green. Now the only parts of it still totally green were bathed in the perpetual shadow from the surrounding buildings. Moss thrived on shingle and fiberboard.

“You think Edensteen’s going to let you walk away with me in broad daylight?” Especially after she’d shown Spencer the garnet.

He grinned, his straight white teeth lighting up his face. “I just did.”

She swore at him in five different languages.

“Music to my ears, baby. It just makes you more valuable.”

GRACEN: The main characters are usually great, but sometimes, secondary and tertiary characters are known to steal the scenes. Who are the secondary/tertiary characters in your story and what do they look like? What’s unique about them? What is their relationship to the hero/heroine? Have any of these gone on to become scene-stealers? If so, who and how did they do it? (Again, please give us a small bit of dialogue to illustrate this – thanks!)

CHRISTINE: I try to make my secondary characters well-rounded, but not so much that they become scene stealers.

Evie’s father serves as a ghostly secondary character. Every action, right down to his death, has shaped Evie’s actions. So even though you don’t physically see him strutting around, his presence is felt throughout the story.

And then there’s Spencer. Spencer is Evie’s casual lover and their employer’s watchdog. Picture a well-dressed, well-spoken, cultured and British (of course!) techno-geek. Glasses are mandatory. As I’ve mentioned, Aaron Sparta is our hero, so there is some natural animosity between these two men.

“Close your eyes,” she repeated.

“I beg you, at least let me book the flight first.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck. “I have a surprise for you.”

His fingers toyed with a loose lock of hair. Tucking it behind her ear, he grazed her cheek with his knuckles. “Temptress.”

“I promise it’ll be worth your while.”

His lips twitched and he closed his eyes. “Very well then.”

She slipped off his lap, glancing to make sure he still had his eyes closed. He did. Pulling her purse out from under the bed, she removed the garnet. It lay like a frozen puddle of blood in her hand. Shivering at the mental analogy, she walked back to Spencer and sat on his lap. “Let’s see those hands.”

He obediently held them out. She laid the jewel in his cupped palms. “What’s this?” he murmured. He opened his eyes. “Dear God in Heaven.” He bobbled the stone.

She caught it before it hit the floor. “And you want to be a curator?”

“You can’t just drop that in my hand and expect me to do nothing.” He adjusted his glasses and took the stone from her. “Is this it?” He held it up, examining the indentations in the base of the stone.

“The Ark’s Beacon,” she confirmed. Plucking it from his hands, she held it up to the desk’s reading light. A shaft of pure red shot across the room, illuminating the bed. “Mood lighting.”

“My lord,” he murmured. “You may be comfortable with the stuff of legend, but I’ve never seen its like.” He touched it with a fingertip but didn’t attempt to take it away from her. “How did you get it? Where did you get it?”

“My father sent it to me,” she said smoothly, hopping off his lap. “I bet Edensteen’s going to shit bricks when he sees it.”

“Definitely worth soiling one’s trousers over,” Spencer agreed.

There was a knock at the hotel door. Spencer glanced at Evie’s attire. “I’ll get it,” he offered.

She stepped toward the bed, dropped the stone into her purse and started to slip into her pants.

The door slammed open before it was completely unlatched, the chain ripping from the doorframe. Spencer struck the wall. Aaron Sparta walked in, pointed a pistol at Evie and said, “You, out.”

“How many of those frickin’ things do you have?” she complained, not at all cowed. If he wanted to kill her he would have done it last night when she was alone, not in front of a potential witness. Slipping into her shoes, she hesitated. Leave her purse in the hotel room and risk Spencer rummaging through it and finding her father’s notes? Or take it along and hope she could escape before Aaron did the same thing? Who was the lesser of two evils? She grabbed her purse.

Distrustful wench. Quakoralina laughed.

Evie ignored her.

The gun’s barrel swung toward Spencer. “Don’t try it,” Aaron cautioned. Spencer held a shoe in one hand. “Get a move on,” Aaron growled to her.

She hurried to Aaron’s side, stepping over Spencer.

“Where are you taking her? Who are you?” Spencer pulled himself to his feet. “I can write you a check of any amount you need. Money’s over there.” He nodded toward the computer.

“Your money’s worthless to me,” Aaron said. Grabbing her by the arm, he yanked her out the door.

Wincing under Aaron’s tight grip, she said, “Spencer, my .22’s in the bathroom under the towels.”

Spencer nodded and lunged for the bathroom door. She jerked in Aaron’s grasp, throwing off his aim. His shot rang as silently as a BB gun, a pop that could easily be mistaken for a cork blowing off a champagne bottle.

Damn it, couldn’t she keep a partner alive for even a day?


Tick tock. Tick tock.

Time marches ever forward, unmindful of the humanity it condemns to death, looking only to the future. What if someone had the power to not only stop time, but reverse it?

Those who built the legendary Tower of Babel found a way. But the hand of God crushed the tower before the Genesis Clock’s power could be harnessed. Its pieces were scattered across the world, guarded by creatures and societies long since forgotten or shrouded in myth.

Evie’s father spent his life searching for the clock’s parts. Now it’s left to Evie to distinguish between fact and fiction, friend and foe, and to determine if her father’s quest is worth her life. She can’t lose her soul—that she already bartered away when she assumed the role of priestess to the sex-starved Star Goddess—but if she’s not careful, she could lose her heart to the man sent to kill her…

Because not everyone wants to see the clock resurrected.


Chapter One

The sun relentlessly flogged the back of Evie’s neck. Reprieve from the roasting temperatures, tennis racket-sized creepy-crawlies and bacteria-breeding moisture was a rare luxury and in this part of South America, usually ill-gotten. She ignored the unpleasantness the best she could, though she’d kill for a Popsicle about now. A minor exaggeration but not far off the mark. The bit of hide she held in her hands might lead her to enough treasure she could afford to treat all the villagers to Popsicles. Then again, it just might get her killed. Either offered her amnesty.

Only a handful of people, mostly forgotten old men with too much unoccupied time on their hands, could read the variation of Vartanian script written on the hide. Even less could write it. Thanks to her father, she could do both.

Hide didn’t survive thousands of years in this climate. The aforementioned niceties often contributed to its demise. More likely someone had viewed the original script on a chunk of stone and copied the symbols to the hide to facilitate traveling. Rock made a poor traveling companion, particularly when hacking a path through the brush.

Why would anyone bother to copy it if they couldn’t read it? Unless they intended to find someone who could. The writing explained how to safely navigate the perils of Nantuk’s tomb. The Vartans revered Nantuk, priestess to the star goddess Quakoralina, though archeologists quarreled on whether it was out of fear of her mistress or for her supposed supernatural skills. Rumors of gold and jewels, including the goddess’s headdress, had sent more than one unwary treasure hunter on a meandering goose chase ending in an undesirable death.

If she had been her father—god forbid that particular nightmare ever came to pass—she would already be rushing to commandeer the village’s sole Jeep. She had learned from his actions exactly what not to do. Caution and careful planning led to results. Results garnered sponsors. Without results and sponsors you were just another crackpot spouting off tales of treasure in the hopes a bored and clueless millionaire wanted to live vicariously through your adventures. In her case, she also had to sort through the true financiers and the wannabe fuck buddies.

Feet shifted, beating an impatient rhythm on the hard-packed path.

Raising her head, she wiped sweat out of her eyes with the back of her hand. “Tell me again. Where’d you find this?”

Evie stood a full head taller than her bronze-skinned companion. She’d taken to wearing a huipil, the natives’ version of a blouse, heavy with elaborate embroidery, but shucking her cargo pants in favor of their long skirts wasn’t going to happen. Nor was she willing to risk snake or insect bites to run around barefoot. No matter what she did, be it speak their language—which she did fluently—or adopt their dress, she wouldn’t blend in. With the usual fair skin that accompanied the blonde-haired and blue-eyed, she stood out like a gringo tourist on market day.

Tolto knew how to write his own name and not much else. But he had the heart of a true buccaneer. Without him she would have stumbled into a few of those unmentionable deaths others before her had. Without her he wouldn’t be wearing commercially made thick-soled leather boots and packing a Glock 25 pistol. Oh, he’d still be armed, just not in style.

Add a dash of sex and it would have been the perfect arrangement. Only Tolto’s tastes didn’t run to gangly fair-skinned women who wore pants and wielded guns and knives just as well as a man. Pity. She rather liked Tolto.

“Pedro picked it off a body west of the stelae we uncovered last season.”

So not all Houltan villagers were squeamish of dead men’s ghosts. She tucked the knowledge away. “Did he say how the man died? Was he local?”

Tolto shook his head, straight black hair swinging around his face. “Not local. Too dark-skinned. Others say the man died of fright. No apparent wound on the body though the lizards had gleaned the tender parts.” He grinned, a wide white smile. Tender parts included eyeballs, nose, fingers and toes.

The stelae, tall narrow sandstone pillars carved by the Mayan, didn’t bear Vartanian marks.

“What does it say?” Tolto asked.

“It’s a description of a tomb.”

“Does it lead to treasure?”

“Perhaps. Death, more likely.”

The news earned her another wide grin. Leave it to Tolto to ignore her warning. “I knew it!” He wanted to purchase a bit of property at the edge of town and establish a respectable business. Many Houltan women inspected a man’s dwelling before even agreeing to a date.

“Don’t get all starry-eyed. It’s Nantuk’s tomb. We’ve been through this already. It’s too risky.” She was fairly certain they knew where the tomb was. The fact that it was carved into Wiskingsly Gorge was deterrent enough for most. The mound of skeletons stacked at its entrance usually stopped the rest that rappelled down.

“But you have directions now.”

“What if they fudged a symbol?”

“I trust you.”

She carefully rolled the hide up and secured it with the agave string it came with. Tucking it in her pack, she snagged her walking stick and headed toward the village. She needed a drink and some time to think.

Tolto, familiar with this side of her, followed in silence.

“Did Pedro find any identification on the person?”


“You report him to the authorities?” Without identification and fingerprints the dead man became just another picture in a file thick with unidentified corpses. Unless he had wealthy relatives seeking him, he wasn’t worth the paper the photo would be printed on. At least not to the authorities.

Tolto shrugged. “I did not ask.”

“How much did you pay for the hide?”

Tolto gave her a sly glance. That long straight nose and those finely chiseled bones could have served as a template for pictures painted on ancient Mayan ruins.


“Pedro owed me a favor.”

She rolled her eyes. Everyone owed Tolto favors. Had the man been born in the States, he’d have been a successful bookie or salesman or infomercial rep.

Last season’s excavation site was a good day’s ride from the village. That was assuming the roads were open. An overly wet season paired with already rutted roads mired anything on wheels. Traveling by horse would take an extra couple days. She could already feel the calluses on her ass protesting.

“Would Pedro take us to the body?”

Tolto crossed himself. “Why would you want that?”

“To see if he missed anything.”

“The bones will likely be picked clean.”

It was her turn to shrug.

“You have no respect for the dead,” Tolto muttered. “I will send word to Pedro.”

“Thank you.”

“When do we leave?”

“When we know Pedro will guide us to the dead man.” She caught sight of her hut and quickened her pace. She needed to add another layer of sunscreen to the one she’d already sweated off.

“If we are heading to the gorge, it is out of our way.”

She paused. “There’s only a handful of people who know how to read Vartanian.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “My father, myself, some crusty British scholar my father works for and a couple of monks somewhere in France, I think. They weren’t a brilliant race. The bulk of what they wrote that we’ve found fills less than a notepad, and there’s around six hundred symbols in their alphabet.”

Frankly, she didn’t know why her father bothered with it. The Mayans and Incas amassed hordes more wealth than the Vartans. While all the early civilizations had their own deity rites upon which life often revolved, the Vartans were the ones who were obsessed with them. Hunting and farming took a backseat to religion and in a region like this that was tantamount to signing one’s own death warrant. She shrugged. That was why their civilization—no more than an eccentric extended family of the Toltecs really—died out in less than two hundred years. A blip on the South American radar…or it would have been if the Mayans hadn’t taken over some of their sacred sites.

Tolto was staring at her expectantly.

“I want to know who has an interest in the Vartans and why.”

“I will do my best.”

“Thanks.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “You always do.”

“I have a vested interest.” He headed off to his own hut.

If there was another treasure hunter haunting her sites, she wanted to know about it. She was meticulous, not omnipotent. If one of her former excavations had yielded the hide’s symbols, she needed to know how she missed it.

Gods above, sometimes she wondered how she’d ended up here, sponsorless, funding digs off the finds from previous ones. A hand-to-mouth existence at best. Gambling, that’s all it was. Most times she didn’t mind. When she stumbled over a better-financed dig—the men who actually had use of their own Jeep, rather than the local village’s cobbled-together deathtrap—the green-eyed monster set in. She had guns and the local villagers’ support. They, oftentimes, had soldiers, also with guns and the government’s consent. The lack of sponsors gnawed at her. It wasn’t as if she had a lack of buyers. On the contrary, she maintained a list rivaling Heidi Fleiss’ black book in its breadth of clients. It was just that her reputation now scared away more public funding of her work. She would starve before she prostituted herself in exchange for a sponsor.

She sighed, surveying her life’s work. Photos were tacked up on the bamboo walls, more as art than any sort of record. Her reed bed was rolled up in one corner, the remnants of her breakfast fire still smoldering in the fire ring’s center. Tree stumps and a car’s hood served as her desk.

She could be working on tenure at Setonville University. A steady paycheck, hours probably only half as long as the ones she kept here, no chance of getting bitten by poisonous snakes. Probably a real desk too. Bet at the university she’d own more pens than guns. Pulling off her shoulder holster, she hung it on a peg on the wall.

Lunch was waiting for her on two legs, pecking and scratching at the bit of corn she left it this morning. She pulled a knife out of the sheath strapped to her thigh.

Just another day at the office.

* * * * *

What was that crazy woman up to now? Lowering his binoculars, Aaron Sparta rubbed his chin. Evelyn Wright’s motives were as much an enigma as any woman’s. But most American women didn’t earn multiple Master’s degrees at record pace only to vanish into the Honduran bush stocked with no more than the clothes she was wearing and enough firepower to give the local police pause.

She had an artist’s eye, an archeologist’s careful hand, the reckless courage of a child and the heady aspirations of a drug runner sampling his own supply. She had uncovered more sites in the last five years than most archeologists tackled in their lifetime. And why not? She didn’t seem burdened by any sort of social conscience. She photographed, took what could be most easily sold on the market and moved on. What she was looking for, gods only knew.

It was why he’d been sent to watch her…again.

Not a single villager could be bribed to raid her hut. Either they respected or feared her too much. He wondered which it was. He thought he’d steered her away from Nantuk’s tomb years ago. So why was she hanging from a completely inappropriate harness over Wiskingsly Gorge?

Shouldering his coil of rope, he headed down the slope. Careful surveying of the site had yielded another possible opening to the tomb. He couldn’t remember how many people had attempted to break into it over the years. No amount of funding or high-tech equipment kept them from dying. What made Evie think she could cheat not only Death but the rumored curse the Vartans left to guard their most cherished possession?

He ground his teeth. Why couldn’t the Sentinels have sent someone else? He had no such death wish.

Enki help him, he’d been half in love with her since the day she’d scaled old Ch√Ęteau Gaillard armed with nothing but a bundle of tied-together bedsheets and a busted compass. Nearly broken her neck too. Not that it was the first time—nor, judging from her current precarious perch, anywhere close to the last—that she’d tempted death.

The locals called her Gees de Dood, Death’s Ghost. Fitting enough. She played in its shadow her entire life.

He raked the hair out of his eyes. Evie Wright was forbidden fruit, daughter of a deserter. Why couldn’t she find a nice desk job in the States and stay the hell out of his life?

Eyes raised, he offered up a silent prayer.

* * * * *

Dangling two hundred feet over Wiskingsly Gorge put her life’s work into perspective. She, Evie Wright, was certifiably crazy. Above, Tolto played out more rope. Maybe she shouldn’t have picked an assistant who believed so wholeheartedly in her. Maybe she should have dismissed the idea as soon as the dead man’s body disappeared. But as Tolto had pointed out, many things vanished into the jungle’s leafy maw. Just as many people recklessly plunged over cliffs.

The writing appeared authentic, though her knowledge of the language wasn’t as intimate as her father’s. She had swallowed pride and a whole heap of bitterness and placed a very expensive international call to her father only to reach his answering machine. She’d hung up without leaving a message. He probably wouldn’t have helped her anyway.

A review of the stelae site hadn’t turned up any clues either. Her private marks on the site were undisturbed. If anyone had tried to excavate there, she’d have known.

Tolto was most likely right. She was neurotically distrustful.

She banged her hip into a dagger-shaped rock and cursed, a stream of English sprinkled with more inventive words she’d learned along her travels. A skeleton half-draped over the cliff entrance’s edge beckoned to her, its arm waving in the breeze.

Come on in, it teased. Jewels the size of eggs and enough gold to plate your coffin await.
So did death and an ancient curse. She could wait.

The sun had to set before she entered the tomb. That’s where so many had failed. Entering unfamiliar ground at dusk went against every rule she’d established. Then again, it was a cave. Odds were it was going to be dark regardless of the outside conditions. Tolto wasn’t exactly in a safe position either. The jungle’s bigger predators preferred night’s mantle. Navigating the tomb of a possessed priestess or hunkering on the edge of a cliff in the dark? She didn’t know which death she preferred.

Her fingers scrabbled to find handholds in the shale cliff face while the wind plucked at her rope, her clothes and anything else it could get its breathy fingers on. She was going to be motion sick before she touched down. A thorny vine snagged her pants leg. She shook it free. If everything she unearthed was as difficult to reach, she might have retired already.

Nah. Who was she kidding?

The sun vanished behind the lip of the gorge, dyeing stone, river and brush shades of burnished gold in one last spurt of energy. She turned her face toward its rays, feeling its warmth on her flushed cheeks and chapped lips.

This time tomorrow she might be kicked back in her hut enjoying a bottle of bubbly with Tolto and maybe even some meat she didn’t have to cook and clean herself first. Her mouth watered. She’d kill for a good beef steak. Funny how everything circled back to killing.

Dusk settled on the gorge. Balancing on the cliff wall parallel to the tomb entrance, she glanced at her watch. Showtime. Tolto’s face was just a blur above her. She swung into the entrance, landing on her back and skidding like a hockey puck down the center of the shaft. It angled downward and, rather than slowing, she increased speed. Elbows, shoulders and tailbone struck stone. She grunted.

She was thankful for the darkness. It blurred the glimpses of bones, skulls and ghoulish drawings.

When she stopped moving she carefully unzipped her pack, secured to her chest in anticipation of her fall. Her headlamp came first, followed by her pair of Glock 26s, a fuzz lighter than Tolto’s model with a sizable clip capacity. She slid them into holsters at each hip. Flicking on her headlamp, she glanced around. It appeared the cave was shallower than she’d anticipated. She’d slid into the back wall.

In the yellow light, the cave’s interior sparkled like millions of unblinking eyes. Crystals nestled in carved grooves, jammed helter-skelter on walls and ceiling. She recognized several constellation patterns. A skull, whittled spike jutting through its forehead, glared down at her like a macabre planet.

She carefully sat up, transferring her pack to her back. Her gloved fingers ran lightly over the sidewall, feeling the crystals wiggle in their niches. A handful of crystals lay at the foot of the wall just inches from a decapitated skeleton and its outstretched bony hand.
Note to self: Leave crystals alone. She didn’t even pick up the loose ones, tempting though they were.

Inching forward, she ran her hands along the back wall. Grooved depressions marked a series of handholds and footholds. A crevice separated the wall from the floor, barely wide enough for her body. She reached into her pack, pulled out a chemical flare and cracked it open. Holding it at the edge, she shined it down the hole. There was nothing but blackness. She dropped the flare. It fell, struck something gold-colored and spun madly, like a firecracker vomiting sparks. Another strike. Another gleam of gold. The flare hit the bottom. The blank glare of hundreds of empty eye sockets stared back at her.

She swallowed a small scream. She preferred the living to the dead. Bullets deterred the living. Skulls served as surrogate home to all sorts of creepy crawlies. Sometimes she could be such a girl.

Her walkie-talkie hissed, a string of sputtering words with an edge of panic to them. Unhooking it from her belt, she brought it to her lips. “I made it. The tomb slopes downward. I’m going to keep going.”

Garbled crackling echoed her words.

Damn radio. They could put a man on the moon but they couldn’t get a radio signal to penetrate rock? She resisted the urge to smash it. Expensive equipment was hard to replace and while nothing would satisfy her more than beating its squeaky speaker in with a rock, she’d regret it later. She hooked it on her belt.

Taking off her pack, she slung it at her waist. The crevice wasn’t wide enough to accept the added bulk. She’d have to put up with it banging her hip. Nerves jangling like it was her first time, she descended into the tomb.

* * * * *

Aaron felt like a glob of ground meat being squeezed into a sausage casing. The access passages to the tomb were built to accommodate midget bodies. He wasn’t a big man but in order to wiggle through the stone passageway he had to bend body parts like a contortionist. Shoulders rolled forward, his elbows dug into his stomach while wrists and hands supported his weight.

The constricting stone walls abruptly vanished. He dropped onto a rock ledge, hearing the mad whirl of rubble as it tumbled over some as-yet-unseen precipice. Unhooking a flare from his belt, he cracked it open and held it up.

He was on a narrow line of rock, along one edge of a sunken chamber. The glint of gold reflected back his fluorescent light. One misstep and he’d have fallen directly into the chamber. No more than a foot wide, the ledge he stood on must have supported the artists that carved the elaborate relief on the rock behind him.

No sign of Evie Wright.

He wondered if she’d made it through the upper chamber. The thought of her skewered and dying alone in the dark made his stomach twist. He shook his head, clearing the vision. It wasn’t his job to rescue her from every little disaster anymore. She chose this adventure.

Lowering the flare to his chest, he carefully turned around. More pebbles tumbled to their death. Gods and demons, he wished he had a camera. A full night sky was etched on the rock face, complete with constellations, planets, shooting stars and comets. Shortly, the explosives strapped to his body would damn the art to the netherworld.

Seemed like such a waste. Then again, how many people had already damned themselves trying to reach it? Or guard it? Or even earlier, build the foundations to house it? The Sentinels should have blown the god-touched trap to bits years ago. Sentiment shifted as the years passed and their numbers dwindled. What was acceptable now would have been unthinkable centuries ago. Better to rid the world of the menace before it took another life.

Before Evie Wright died here.

He set his first charge and inched along the ledge. He didn’t see another entryway other than his yet. Pulling out another flare, he cracked it open and flung it across the chamber. It spun, a flaming pinwheel, and landed on the ledge opposite him. No gaping maw there. He didn’t want to waste all his light but in order to know where to best place the charges he needed to get a better visual of the chamber than the crumbling sketch he’d seen on the surface.

His last flare tumbled into the center of the chamber, landing on a gilded divan. The fine fabrics covering it had long ago rotted away but its foundation remained. Its high back mimicked the moon’s crescent shape, the arms sinuous ripples set in a mosaic of precious stone. Beside it, on its own throne, rested Quakoralina’s headdress. Ropes of gold threaded with diamonds spilled over one edge of the band. A star carved from diamond and meant to rest in the center of the wearer’s forehead overshadowed a thin disk of gold.

Three steps down the dais lay the equally gilded sarcophagus of Nantuk, an island of gold surrounded by a pool of black water. He wondered what sort of nasties were camouflaged beneath the pool’s smooth surface.

The formal entryway arched beyond that. If Evie successfully navigated the passages above—and he had no reason to think she wouldn’t, given her skill at evading death—she’d enter beneath that carved arch. He needed to blow it shut before she got that far.

Inching along the ledge, he set another charge. If all went as planned the wall would collapse into the chamber, burying tomb, headdress and treasure beneath an insurmountable pile of rubble. Just in case it didn’t, he’d packed extra explosives. It never hurt to be prepared.

The swirl of stone stars changed here, forming words. He held his light a bit higher. Share your body. Share my soul. Accept my magic. Forfeit your soul.

“Nice touch, ‘Lina,” he said out loud. By the time someone entering the tomb found the warning it’d be too late. But the goddess hadn’t broken the rules. A warning needed to be set in stone. And here it was. Fifty feet above the main floor. It might as well be worlds away from the headdress.

The darkness swallowed his words. He couldn’t shake the otherworldly feeling of being watched. Quakoralina was a powerful deity in her own right. The Vartans had worshipped her above all others. The Star Goddess. Keeper of the Heavens. Mistress of the Moon. A dozen other titles scrolled through his head, ending with the less pleasing ones. The unexpected death of her priestess had trapped her in the human realm. She’d been waiting ever since.

The darkness pressed around him. She didn’t want to be denied life again. A woman searcher was coming. Finally.

Not if he had a say in the matter.

The rock crumbled beneath his foot. Lurching forward, he dropped his flare, hands scrabbling against the rock. His fingernails dug into an elaborate stone swirl. His other foot tried to find purchase but the rock was littered with rubble. It was like skating on marbles. His fingernails broke. He plummeted fifty feet to the chamber floor below.

Silent laughter filled the chamber.

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