Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Juggernaught: Chapter 14 - Stolen Artifact

They were supposed to tour an archeological dig.  That was the plan.

Misty could see that Howell's eyes seemed to grow far off as they pulled into the dirt parking lot of the dig site.  In fact, they had grown more and more so during each passing mile this morning, almost as if the ghosts of the past were calling to him.

The bus pulled up next to a shack marked security, in several languages with line of half a dozen mo-peds out front.  What kind of security a rent-a-cop on a mo-ped could provide was up for grabs.

"Archeology.  Must be pretty boring, huh?", she probed, trying to bust Howell out of his shell.

He turned and gave a curt smile.  "On the contrary.  Nothing could excite me more."

She couldn't tell whether he was being sarcastic or simply British.  Still, the fact that something was going on inside his mind was self-evident.  Rather than dwell on it, she simply took his hand as he marched off the bus, but even that was cold and unresponsive, almost like it belonged to another man.

The group followed Yvonne as she walked up to a topless WW-II Jeep with the dig's official tour guide waiting inside.  She wore heavy laced boots, knee-length cargo shorts, and had hair every bit as light brown as the sandy soil in which she dug.

She sprung lightly out and, and no sooner had her boots hit the ground when Yvonne was already introducing her to the group.  Avani was her name, and after a brief run-down of her academic qualifications, Yvonne handed over control of as guide.

Avani guided them along the official tour route of the archeological dig.  She transformed an otherwise dull subject with her infusion of personal passion.  Here was a woman who loved sifting the dust for the forgotten secrets of the past, and it was hard not to feed off her zeal.

Soon the group halted to look into one particular pit, in which the majority of the archiologists seemed interested.  Even the indefatigible Avani seemed to take it up a notch as she spoke of it.

"And here", said the archeologist with no small note of pride in her voice, "was the site of an ancient battleground where we unearthed many important finds, including the prize of the project, a rare sculpture of En, god of the Sardeate, or perhaps Daradanian people group who lived in this region, in their day, known as Illyricum."

Jack raised his hand.  "Illyricum?  Weren't those guys into human sacrifice?", he asked.

At the time, he'd questioned the extensive amount of study that Dr Puttery had been pounding into his brain, but now it was finally taking on a practical relevance.

"Some were..." began the host. She was truthfully a little impressed by the question.

As Avani explained the nuances of the Sardeate subculture, Howell shifted his weight uneasily, and exchanged glances with another member of the tour group who was doing the same.

When the questions ran out, Avani directed them to the next step on the tour.

"Up next, we'll have a rare look at En himself.", she said with excitement.

Wendell turned to the others and whispered, "Why bother?  You've already got a guy who's chiseled, right here."  He flexed to (allegedly) prove it.

Irmingard stuck her tongue out at him.

As they made their way to a large canvas tent nearby, the tour guide continued her running commentary.  "The idol you are about to witness is being painstakingly restored by a team of six world-renown archeologists as part of the Seebeck team.", she pulled aside the tent flap, "You'll notice with how much care it takes to properly clean and preserve such an important find like..."

All at once her prepared and oft-repeated speech died on her lips.

"How strange.", she said, "Looks like nobody is here at the moment."

She looked around behind her as if looking for confirmation that all was right with the world.  She got none.

Even as she said it, her stomache filled with butterflies. 

She swallowed them back down, put on a professional face, and continued,  "Well, what you would be normally be seeing is how carefully they..."

Yet again, she found herself at a loss as she noticed an even more disturbing absence.

Though the tables were littered with all the tools of the trade... En himself was missing!

"Perhaps he is being studied elsewhere." she ultimately decided.  She was trying her best to lie to herself, but this time not even she could make herself believe it.

"Excuse me", said Avani, and ran outside to yell for the nearest security guard.  She was about to open her mouth to do so,  but found that somebody else had beaten her to it.

"Help!  Somebody help!  Professor Kolo is murdered!" came a cry from the other end of the site.

The tour guide held up a hand that the group should remain where they were.  The Moast  and Howell teams made for the direction of the shouts anyway.  Young and eager for action, they were not to be dissuaded when there was trouble afoot.

Out of clueless curiosity the other tourists followed as well, leaving poor Yvonne bringing up the rear and shouting very good advice that nobody was listening to.

They soon arrived at the scene, an outdoor parking area with a man in a white coat soaking the hard earth with his own blood.

The professor was not actually dead, but the bleeding was quite serious.  Howell immediately ordered one of his team to fetch a first aid kit while he did his best at staunching the flow.

Wendell and Misty did their best to quiet the hysterical undergrad assistant who had found him that way.  They knew full well that her going into shock could be even more deadly then the other man's bleeding.

The professor's eyes suddenly opened, so Jack moved closer to ask him some questions.

"What happened here?"

"Somebody took it in the truck.  I tried to stop 'em.  Maybe I shouldn't have."  The professor laughed a little at the last statement but immediately winced in pain.  "Guess now's not the time to make jokes." he observed.

"Who was it?", asked Howell. "Have you ever seen them before?"

"No.  Never.", said the professor.  "They looked like pretty average guys.  Five of 'em.  They just lifted the statue into the back, pretty as you please, just like they had a right to it.  When I tried to say something, they just shot me and drove off."

"Which way?", asked Wendell, who had apparently left the assistant to Misty's care and had been listening in.

The professor pointed.

They thought they might be able to see a plume of dust in the distance, but it was so faint that it could be no more than their mind playing tricks.  Either way, the truck was now too far gone to even think about catching on foot.

On... foot? Jack's mind raced.

Lola placed a hand on his shoulder and pleaded,  "No, don't!"

In retrospect, he should have probably listened to that.

Instead, he grinned and ran off.

The preceding has been a chapter from Juggernaught: A Moast Unusual Bible Study
(Copyright 2016, Edmund Lloyd Fletcher.)

For more on this story, please visit its main page.

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