Authors: Paul E. Cooley
That left John plenty of time to himself. He'd been up since dawn cataloging and writing reports. He was still waiting on a return email from Willet. The man was notoriously bad about following up on assignments. Which is why John was shocked when the email came through.
He opened the email and took another sip of the black mud. Once he was through the first paragraph, his brows knitted together. "The fuck?" he said to himself. He scrolled through the text, eyes widening. When he reached the bottom, he shut the laptop and placed it on his seat.
He ran toward the dig site. Dust from the wind bit into his face, but he barely noticed. All he could think about was the words in Willet's email.
"Utukku," he muttered. "No fucking way."
He made it to the cave and stood just outside the entrance. "Steph! Linton!"
Linton's voice echoed back. "What's up, boss?"
"Stop digging in the dirt and get your asses out here."
"Hang on," Steph shouted back.
John tapped his foot and looked up into the sky. Several birds flew on the high winds. They seemed to be circling the camp. John shivered, but didn't know why.
Boots crunching over dirt and stone brought his attention back to the cave. Steph and Linton stepped out of the darkness and into the light. Their faces were flushed and smeared with dirt.
"What the hell, John?" Steph said. "We're digging, dammit."
He caught his breath and then smiled. "What do you know about Sumer?"
Bowers raised an eyebrow. "Sumer? Why?"
"Willet," John said.
Steph's eyes widened. "Connection?"
"You could say that. Willet's program flagged the configuration of birds. Carved. Buried."
"Yeah?" Linton said. "Get to it, John."
He rolled his eyes. "All right. You ever heard of the Utukku?"
The black man shook his head. "No."
"Kind of a Sumerian boogeyman?" Steph asked.
"Something like that. And more. Utukku were daemons, spirits that were either good or evil. According to what Willet dug up, an Utukku named Alu would inhabit or possess a person. The only way to keep the Alu from jumping from body to body was to bury it deep in the ground and surround it with an eagle's sigil and feathers."
"So they believed this thing possessed people?"
"Right," he said to Steph. "Other Utukku, like Lamashtu, spread disease to the possessed, or turned them insane. Basically all the bad shit you can imagine. But that's not the interesting bit. Willet says they found sites in the 30s with feathers and eagle sigils. But there were no bodies entombed."
Linton tapped John's shoulder. "Does Willet think that was standard practice for dealing with the evil Utukku?"
"Yeah," John nodded. "So there's at least some kind of cultural link here. At least that's what Willet thinks."
Steph shook her head. "He needs to lay off the magic shrooms."
Linton laughed. "Totally circumstantial, John."
"Agreed," the big man said. "But you got to admit, it's exciting just the same. We need to catalog every damned sigil we find. Period. And we need to try and get some kind of total. Willet thinks the number is important."
"Important?" Steph asked. "Why the hell would the number matter"
"He's a fucking mathematician," Linton laughed. "When are numbers not important?"
John shook his head. "No, you don't get it. At each of the Sumerian sites, they found 37 sigils."
"37? " Steph asked. "How many do you have already?"
John chuckled. "28. So far."
Steph and Bowers exchanged a glance.
"What?" he asked.
"We found 5 more in the cave. And we're not done digging."
"33. We have 33 birds?"
She nodded. "And like I said--we're not done digging."
The stones were laid out on the table in neat rows. They seemed to glow against the dark black jewelers cloth. The bright LED light on John's hat shined against the glyphs. Crude figures of the albatross and condor stared back at him. The carved sigils looked angry and watchful at the same time.
The 33 sigils were all the same--carved in wood and petrified. The dig team had continued burrowing until they found another cap. The hole the body had been placed in had been sealed with a cap at the top which was identical to the one they'd found in the hole's bottom.
After another two hours of digging, they hadn't found another sigil. Bowers scanned the site over and over again using GPR, but there was nothing left to find.
When the dig team returned, they were coughing and sneezing and exhausted. Steph was downright pissed.
"Wild. Fucking. Goose-chase," she'd said as she drank from a bottle of water.
Blanco and Alonso had sat in the chairs across from her. John knew Linton was glaring at him, but didn't care.
"It was worth a shot."
"Bullshit," Linton said. He sneezed again and then growled with pain. "Steph's right. That bastard sent us on a stupid errand."
John sighed. "Look, he had a hunch. And we got real close."
"33," Blanco said. "Only four short. Perro nada mas en agujero."
"Si," Alonso said. "Nothing more in that hole, Jefe. Nada."
The dig crew had gone to bed angry, exhausted, and sick. He couldn't blame them for being angry. Because of Willet's bullshit, they'd spent longer in the cave than necessary.
The sun was long gone and the moon had yet to rise over the peaks. John shook his head beneath the lanterns as he stared at the carvings.
The carvings were similar, and yet very dissimilar. John picked up the first in line and compared it to each of the others. "Carved by different hands," he whispered.
In his mind's eye, he saw 33 Caral villagers each carving their own version of one of the birds on a piece of wood. They didn't speak to one another. They didn't look at one another. Each person worked furiously, sweat dripping from their brows, as their knives scratched and etched.
Did they carve at the temple? Out in the desert? Or from the safety of the village? John frowned. The only wood for kilometers was across the valley. But that didn't mean much. Thousands of years meant at least hundreds of floods, droughts, and windstorms. That much of a toll on the hills could have destroyed verdant land long ago. Or the Caral could have deforested the area themselves.
John put the carving back down and took off the headlamp. He clicked it off and hung the hat from a hook affixed to the tarp's bottom. The wind gusted and then calmed, but sand had already covered the table. John cursed, picked up the artifact broom and quickly brushed off the sigils. Satisfied, he pulled another black blanket from beneath the table and covered the find.
He headed back to his chair and picked up the laptop. Its surface was covered in sand. He swept it away, sat down, and opened it up. The satellite link blinked as he turned it on. With the computer on and connected, John started the email.
He told Willet about the sigils and how they'd searched like hell for the missing four. John thanked him for his work and to alert if the program found anything else.
His finger punched the touchscreen. After a moment, "Message Sent" appeared on the display. Willet would be pissed. Or heartbroken. Probably both. He might even write back begging them to search again. Just to prove his theory, he'd want them to kill themselves and the entire goddamned hill in the process.
John clicked open the expedition journal. As he started to type in the day's notes about the dig, the email client dinged. John brought it up and stared at the new message. It was, of course, from Willet.
You said you found 33 sigils in all. However, did you find any other stones or carvings? Your first notes mentioned a cap atop the burial site. Was there another? I know you're worried about damaging the fragile stone, but can you check to see if there are any markings on the cap?
John stared at the message and blinked. He closed the laptop and headed to the table. He skirted past the shroud covered body on the table and unwrapped the two caps. The sandstone was clotted with dirt and hadn't yet been brushed. He grabbed the broom and started cleaning them.
When he was done, he stared at the two caps. There were faint lines scratched into the stones. John pulled one of the lanterns closer. The lines became more defined. "Oh, shit," he said aloud. One cap had an albatross carving, the other, a condor. "35," he said to no one. He flipped over the caps and brushed away more of the dirt. Two more sigils appeared. He shivered.
Thirty-seven birds in all-- 24 condors, 13 albatross. John walked back to his chair, opened the laptop, and sent Willet another email. He was betting the smug son of a bitch would read it, smile, and then never ever let John forget he'd been right all along.
John closed the laptop as another gust of wind sprayed sand across its surface. He sighed, brushed off the laptop again, and carried it to the tarp. He placed it in the equipment crate, closed the top and stared at the table. The body was wrapped. The wooden carvings were wrapped. The only thing left was to rewrap the caps.
His back ached. It had been a damned long day. He began wrapping the caps. His nose tickled. He tried to stifle the sneeze but it was no use. Phlegm exploded from his nose and shot across the blanket wrapping the body. He stared at the yellow-green ooze on the black cloth. The snot seemed to move across the blanket.
John rubbed his eyes. The oozy discharge was gone. "Losing my mind," he chuckled. His fingers made short work of rewrapping the caps. When he finished, he placed them next to the sigils and switched off the lights.
The world went completely dark and John patiently waited for his eyes to adjust. The moon was finally rising and would soon bathe the valley with its pale yellow light. He stepped carefully beneath the tarp and headed toward his tent. Something rustled behind him.
He turned and stared back toward the table. Nothing moved. Someone coughed and John nearly jumped. He whirled around, fists raised, but no one was there. The cough came again and a light snapped on in Steph's tent. His heart thrumming in his ears, John grinned in the darkness. There was nothing to be afraid of here. Nothing but his imagination.
He unzipped his tent and stepped inside. Somewhere in the desert, he heard a bird call. It sounded like a child being torn apart. He coughed and then sneezed. "Goddammit," he said aloud. As he zipped the sleeping bag around himself, he hoped like hell he didn't have what the dig crew had.
IN the darkness, a pair of yellow eyes stared at him. Through the moonlight spilling in from the unzipped entrance, John made out the silhouette of a short, thin man. Its glowing eyes lit a face of oozing sores and a wide, jagged mouth. The thing opened its jaws in a toothless grin.
A wheeze of breath escaped its mouth and the tent filled with a rotten stench. John coughed, but was unable to move. The visitor stepped toward him, its feet crinkling the tent's floor. He tried to sit up, to scream, to do anything, but his body refused to obey.
The thin man hissed out unrecognizable syllables as it approached. John's eyes watered as he breathed in the smell of putrefaction and ancient rot. The visitor dropped to all fours and crawled up his sleeping bag. John's breath locked in his throat as the thin man's joints cracked and popped. The thing sat on his chest, but he barely felt any weight. John watched in horror as it leaned toward him, its face inches away from his own. Its hollow cheekbones filled with breath, and then it exhaled a black cloud. John found his voice and screamed.
JOHN coughed himself awake. A glob of phlegm shot from his mouth and stuck to the side of the tent. He blinked several times and tried to take a deep breath. Something rattled in his chest. He moaned and sat up.
Moments from the dream flashed in his brain. John shook his head to clear the vision of the gaping black mouth and the memory of the horrid stench. The smell lingered in his nostrils.
He leaned over and unzipped the small tent window. A dim glow caught his eyes.
, he thought. He shivered as chill air made its way through the flap. John wriggled out of the heavy sleeping bag. The cold immediately bit into his bones. Gritting his teeth, he grabbed a fresh pair of jeans from the folded pile of clothes and slid into them.
As he pulled off his white t-shirt, he heard a moan from somewhere in the camp. He tossed the shirt aside and wrapped his chest in a heavy flannel. He struggled to the tent entrance, put on his boots, and stepped out into the camp.
The fire had long since died, but curls of smoke still rose from the pit. John blinked in the growing sunlight. Another round of coughing broke from Steph's tent. John stretched and walked toward the sound.
"Steph?" he called. "You okay?"
The voice that answered him was filled with gravel and pain. "John? I think I need some help."
He stepped quickly to her tent and unzipped the flap. He peered in and then took a step back. Steph lay atop her sleeping bag. Sweat poured off her ashen face. Pustules covered her cheeks and forehead. The red sores seemed to pulse.
"Jesus, Steph." He entered the tent and grabbed a bottle of water near the tent's entrance. He spun off the clear plastic covering, popped the nipple, and raised it to her mouth. "Drink."
Her withered lips contracted around the end and she gently sucked. After a long pull, she lay back on the sleeping bag. "Thank you."
"What the hell is going on?"
Steph scratched at her cheek and a dribble of bloody pus ran down her cheek. "I don't know," she said. "Woke up feeling like I'm in a furnace."
He dropped to one knee and put the back of his hand against her forehead. "Christ," he said. "I need to get the medkit. You have a very high fever."
"No shit," she croaked.
"You're one tough bitch."
Her face broke out in a wan smile. "Don't you forget it."
He forced a smile. "Be right back."
He walked out of the tent and headed for the crates beneath the tarp. John's big hands grasped the box marked with the red cross. As he started to leave the canopy, something clicked in his head. He turned toward the portable table set in the middle. The tarp that had covered the mummy was gone. And so was the mummy.