Satisfied, Gil hooked his rifle over his shoulder and climbed down the ladder to join the others.
“Ai, Dios mio, it’s a fucking maze down here,” Juan whispered sourly.
Miguel just grunted, spitting out a jawful of hoja de coca. The coca leaves splattered against the granite stonework.
Neither had been down into the ruins. Only Gil had intimate knowledge of the tunnels and rooms of the buried building. Crouching, he led them through the maze to the last chute that led to the sealed door.
Juan continued to grumble behind him until the thin man stepped fully into the chamber and saw the door. “Jesu Christo!”
Gil allowed himself a small grin. The arched doorway set in quarried stone spoke of ancient times and hidden treasures. Its bands glowed in the glare of the single sodium lamp. The writing and crucifix were a dark blemish against the silvery metal.
“We don’t have all night,” Gil snapped.
They knew what had to be done. Miguel dropped his bag of tools to the floor with a clanking clatter and fished through its contents. Juan swung his pickax in precise swings, loosening the rock around the bolts. Miguel then used his crowbar and hammer to free the bolts. Within minutes, the top band fell to the mud and rock underfoot.
Juan wiped sweat from his brow, his grin wide. Miguel’s shirt clung to him like he had just climbed from a river. Even Gil, who did nothing more than oversee the labors, found himself mopping his face with a handkerchief. The eternal dampness of the tombs seemed to cling to them, as if claiming the three as its own.
In short order, the other two bands soon joined the first in the mud. Rock dust sifted through the room, stinging eyes and irritating noses raw. Juan sneezed and swore a stream of vulgarities.
Gil clapped him on the shoulder. “A little respect for our ancestors, ese. They are about to make us rich.” He wiped a smudge of mud from Juan’s cheek with his thumb. “Filthy rich.”
With a swing of his arm, Gil waved his two companions aside. He grabbed the crowbar and approached the unfettered block of stone. “Let’s see, mamita, what you’ve been hiding for so long.”
Gil worked the edge of the crowbar between rock and arch, then leaned his weight against the bar, his shoulder and back muscles straining. The door held firm against his efforts. He dug his toes in and pushed harder. Suddenly a loud grinding crack erupted from the door, and the stone shifted.
Gil stepped back, his face still ruddy from the struggle. He nodded to Juan and Miguel. “Put your backs into it.”
The two leaned their shoulders to the loosened stone door and shoved. The block of stone toppled forward. Dust bloomed like a shrouded phantom from the mouth of the burial chamber, and a muffled thud echoed through the room as the stone struck the floor of the tomb’s entrance.
Waving the cloud of dust from his face, Gil strode to the door. “Hand me one of those lights,” he said, bending by the entrance.
Miguel tossed him a flashlight from his canvas bag. Gil caught its long silver handle.
“Stinks in there,” Juan said as he joined Gil and stared over his shoulder.
“It’s a grave,” Gil said, clicking on the light. “What did you expect from—” Words died in his mouth as the light lanced into the dark depths of the tomb, illuminating the passage ahead. Beyond a short entry hall lay a huge chamber, about thirty meters along each side. Gil had expected to discover piles of bones and scattered pottery, but what his handlamp actually revealed was a sight he could never have imagined—not even in his most drunken dreams.
“Dios mio!” he exclaimed in a voice hoarse with awe.
His partners gathered to either side, speechless.
Ahead, the right and left walls of the square chamber were plated with sheets of gold. The beam of Gil’s flashlight reflected and sparked off the mirrored surfaces, a brilliance that almost blinded after the dim tunnels of the excavation. But Gil ignored all this, his light still fixed on a single object resting against the far stone wall of the chamber, directly opposite the gathered trio.
“We are all going to be filthy rich, mi amigos.”
Across the open chamber stood a six-foot golden idol, a figure of an Incan king outfitted in ritual mantle and crown, bearing a staff topped by a stylized sun. The detail work was so lifelike that the figure’s stern face seemed ready to shout a warning at any moment. But no word of protest was raised. The Incan king, sculpted of gold, stood silent as Gil led the others into the chamber.
Bending, Gil ducked through the threshold. He did not wait for the others. He pushed forward down the short hallway, the gold drawing him on. Past the doorway, he was able to stand straight again. Gil held his breath at the sight. Both the roof and floor were also covered in precious metals, an intricate pattern of gold and silver tiles, each about a meter wide. The roof’s pattern was a mirror image of the floor. At the feet of the idol were piled tools and weapons, also sculpted of precious metals and bejeweled with rubies, sapphires, amethysts, and emeralds. Gil shook his head. The sheer amount of wealth was too large to comprehend.
Juan finally moved forward to stand beside Gil. He shifted uneasily, intimidated by their find. When he spoke, he tried to act undaunted, but his voice cracked. “S… so let’s get hauling.”
Miguel had joined them by now and made the sign of the cross, eyeing the golden king.
“He’s not one of your dead relatives, Miguel,” Juan jibed at his compadre. “Lighten up.”
“This place is cursed,” Miguel mumbled, eyes wide as he searched the room. “We should hurry.”
“Miguel is right,” Gil said. “We must move fast. Grab what we can tonight and store it in the jungle. We’ll return before daybreak and take care of the americanos and their scrawny Indian laborers. Once they’re out of the way, we can call in the additional men, those we can trust, to help clear this lot out.”
Juan started across the tiled floor, his bootheels echoing oddly in the hollow chamber. He nodded toward the mound of precious items left at the foot of the idol. “I say we collect all the small stuff. Leave the lugging and toting of the heavier objects to the others. Make them earn their share.”
Gil followed, with Miguel hovering at his heels. “When we’re done here, there’ll be plenty for everyone. A hundred men couldn’t spend this wealth in a lifetime.”
Juan glanced back, a wide grin on his face. “Oh yeah? Just watch me.”
Halfway across the chamber, the trap was sprung. Juan stepped on a silver tile, and the corresponding gold tile in the roof above snapped open. A cascade of silver—thousands of tiny chains—swept over Gil’s companion. Gasping, Juan ducked as his form was instantly drenched in the fine chains. Once fallen, the chains draped from the open panel, like a frozen waterfall of silver. They clinked brightly as Juan danced among them, shocked but clearly unharmed. His motions only succeeded to enmesh himself further.
“What the—?” Juan started to say, reaching to shove aside the tangling links of silver. His hand darted back. “Shit, they got hooks all over them.”
Gil finally noticed the hundreds of glinting centimeter-long barbs sprouting along the lengths of chain. Their points were all curved upward, hinged, so they caused no harm when they fell from the ceiling.
Gil froze in mid-reach. Fuck, he thought as he suddenly realized the danger. A warning rose too late on his lips.
Suddenly the cascade of chains spun viciously around Juan, ripping upward at the same time. The man screamed, an animal’s cry of panic and fear. Juan was lifted two meters off the ground by the barbed chains, writhing in their hooked grips, before his weight finally dropped him to the floor.
Juan pushed himself onto his hands and knees. Most of his clothes had been ripped from his body, along with large swaths of skin. He raised his face toward Gil. His left ear was gone; his scalp lay torn and flapped over to one side. Both eyes were bloody ruins. Blind, all Juan could do was howl. Even now, Gil saw Juan’s skin begin to blacken where the hooks had dug in.
Still Juan wailed in agony, crawling, dragging himself slowly across the floor. He didn’t make it far. The poisons reached his heart, and he collapsed to the gold and silver tiles. The scream ending in mid-rattle.
Miguel went to check on his friend.
Gil grabbed a fistful of Miguel’s shirt and pulled him to a stop. The two men shared a single gold tile on the floor. With their friend’s cries echoing away to nothing, Gil now heard the tick and grind of massive gears hidden behind the tiles and walls all around them. They had walked into a massive booby trap.
Gil glanced around. They stood on the single tile that centered the room. He studied the gold under his feet. “It must have been built to activate only after someone fully entered the room.” He eyed the tiles that led toward the golden idol and those that led back toward the entrance. The ticking of the gears sounded from all around. He suspected neither path was now safe.
Miguel moaned beside him.
Gil scowled at the enormous wealth around him. Knowing death lurked behind its beauty, the luster faded from the gold. “We’re trapped.”
Nestled in his sleeping bag atop a camp cot, Sam awoke to the noise of some animal snuffling by his tent door. At night, opossums and other curious nocturnal creatures were always wandering from the rain forest’s edge to investigate the camp. But whatever was out there now was large. Its shadow, cast by the camp’s spotlights, blotted out a good section of the tent flap. Sam tried to remember if he had snapped the fasteners after zipping up the door against mosquitoes. His first thought was jaguar. A few of the large cats had been spotted along the UrabambaRiver, which ran through the jungle below the ruins.
As silently as possible, Sam reached for his Winchester rifle, a legacy from his grandfather, passed from father to son through the Conklin family, dating back to 1884. Sam didn’t go anywhere without it. The rifle had not been fired for years, more a keepsake and good-luck charm than a weapon. But right now, unloaded, it might serve as a good club.
His fingers slipped over the wooden butt of the rifle.