As I promised, the rest of Chapter 0ne has been posted this morning. Scroll down to the asterisks ******
The second novel in the Drake Alexander series is almost ready for the presses.
The story begins in 1953 when an amateur rock climber makes a startling discovery while scaling a sheer rock wall in the Andes of Peru. I shared the opening pages in three previous posts. If you would like to read them please go to the Beginning then Section 2 and then Section 3
Now you can read Chapter 1 in two parts.
(Copyright held by the author.)
November 6, Saturday Ollantaytambo, Peru
Miguel Pisconte is an affable man. Cherub cheeks and a widening waistline tell of his fondness for good food. His eyes are bright, brown and serious. His glossy black hair, which is much too long for a priest, hangs down on his forehead. Today his mane is dotted with plaster dust. His brow is beaded with sweat. Dust particles float in the air like feathers, a stale heated aroma of old wood fills the room. He is looking at the ceiling, where he has torn down much of the old plaster and laths. He has almost made his way as far as a trapdoor, which is half way across the room. He’s glad he takes after his mother’s family. Even though Jemina Pisconte is a small woman, her brothers are all solidly built men. His carpenter skills, feeble as they might be, are a trait garnished from his father, Luis. He was never able to master anything mechanical like his Dad or younger brother Alvaro, but he is handy with a hammer and saw.
He studies the water stains on the remaining stretch of ceiling, shaking his head. He fixed the roof where the water came in and now he has to repair the damage the moisture caused to the ceiling. He realizes he is tired and decides to rest a bit. He plunks down on the old wooden chair, taking off his safety glasses. He grabs an open can of Pepsi from the table and finishes off the cold beverage with one large gulp. Closing his eyes for a moment, he thinks that if he had known beforehand how much work his new parish would demand, he might not have accepted the new posting.
In reality, he knows that isn’t true. He is thrilled to be back in Peru, the land of his birth. His Quechan ancestors have been calling to him for years.
He drops the pry bar he is holding to the floor amid the broken plaster and wood. Folding his arms, he wiggles down in the chair and relaxes. His mind drifts like an unmoored boat. He’s been in Ollantaytambo for over a month now. Although he is in charge, a novice priest has been assigned to assist him in tending his flock. Befriending the young man hasn’t been an easy experience thus far. When he had met the retiring priest, Father Van Brevoort, a Dutchman, he told Miguel about the young priest’s disagreeable attitude.
A smile slowly spreads across Miguel’s face as he remembers the parishioners’ warmth and love for the elderly priest. He hopes he can win their hearts half as much. He misses the many Mexican friends he had made while in Ciudad Valles, where he had been the novice priest at one time. He misses his family back in Canada; he misses the moody waters of the Atlantic Ocean. He recalls the first sunrise he witnessed there: his father had woken them all in darkness – his mother, his younger sister Theresa. His brother Alvaro had not been born yet. They had arrived the night before, in the late evening, and slept in their new home. He remembers the astonishment he felt when Mr. Alexander, his family’s benefactor, led him to his own room. It was unimaginable. He had previously slept with his sister on a worn out cot, in the same room as his parents. That night had been the beginning of a wonderful new life. He loves the Alexanders.
He can still picture his father when he brought them outdoors that morning; their house was close to the road, with the waters of the Cocagne Bay opposite. They stood off to the side, by the driveway at the front of their home. Luis Pisconte huddled them all close together, his arms around his wife Jemina and his son. Theresa was yawning and leaning against him. Miguel recalls the ancient Quechan prayers his father had spoken in thanksgiving, finishing his benediction praising God’s goodness in Spanish for bringing them there. The horizon was soon defined by the faintest of light. Slowly the flat line of the earth split into roaring orange and reds above, the water below changed its hue from dark to steel blue before the rising fire glazed it also. Miguel would never forget that moment as the sun crested, the lengthy morning rays painting their bodies. He had looked up at his father. Giant tears escaped from his closed lids. He must’ve sensed Miguel watching him because he opened his eyes, looked down, squeezed his son hard and smiled. He didn’t wipe away the tears; he just continued to study the water. They remained there, embracing, thankful and hoping it to be real.
Father Miguel’s reverie is interrupted by the shouts coming from the hallway. He opens his eyes as he sits up straight. The words are not discernable yet, but they are moving in his direction. It soon becomes evident, from the shrillness in her voice, that Senora Carmona is upset. The apologetic baritone of Father Teodoro Delapaz seems insufficient to calm the tiny woman. Father Miguel stands, wiping dust from his pants before heading to the door. He assumes they are going to his office. He kicks an errant strip of broken wood onto the pile of debris as he steps through the clutter. He opens the door just as the conversants pass by in the hallway. His abrupt move startles them, causing Father Teodoro to raise his arms almost in defence while the Senora clasps both hands to her chest shouting, “Ay! Caramba. Un Fantasma!”
Miguel’s face is white with plaster dust except around the eyes, which are dark and imposing where his safety goggles kept the dirt away.
“It’s no ghost, Senora, only me,” says Miguel, flashing his sociable grin.
“Oh, you startled me, my heart won’t slow down. You should be more diligent Father, scaring an old lady such as myself.”
She has a small lace handkerchief in her hand, waving it to fan her wizened face. Miguel looks into her light blue eyes, admiring the seventy-year-old’s vibrant mien. She is still an attractive woman.
“How can we assist you today, Senora Carmona?”
Teodoro interrupts Miguel’s query by stating, “I was telling the Senora that it would be impossible for one of us to be at her sister’s birthday party tomorrow afternoon with such short notice. We have two weddings tomorrow, as you remember, Father Pisconte.”
Miguel responds, directing his words towards the elderly lady, “How marvellous that Senora Ramirez is celebrating another birthday. How old will she be?”
Senora Carmona changes her scowl to a more pleasant expression, her eyes twinkling when the new priest remembers her sister’s name. She turns her back to the younger priest and his unaccommodating manner.
“She will be 80 tomorrow. As you may remember, Father Pisconte, she has been widowed for many years and with no children. We are her only family. She is very devout, and one of your most faithful attendants. I think it is only appropriate that one of you could offer the blessing for our celebratory meal.”
She folds both hands about her small clutch, holding it at her waist. She steps back from the two men as if to say, “Well?”
Miguel touches the Senora lightly on her shoulder, guiding her toward his office, the second door on the right.
“Please come, Senora, and have a seat for one moment while my assistant and I discuss our schedule. At what time would the meal be presented?”
“We intend to sup at 6 o’clock, so any time prior to that would be adequate.”
Miguel makes sure she is comfortable, suggesting he will only be a few moments. He returns to the hallway, where he sees Teodoro leaning against the wall with a look of discomfort. He looks up as Miguel approaches. He is about to say something when Miguel forestalls him by saying, “Wait, Teodoro, don’t say anything just yet. Hear me out. Come, let us step into the sanctuary for just a moment.”
He leads the younger priest through the heavy door separating the offices from the main church. He wonders why the man is so disagreeable and intolerant. When the door shuts behind them Teodoro knows what’s coming.
“Father Pisconte, there will be nothing but old women there; it will be a dull, boring encounter. Can we not find an excuse to put her off? I know it will be me that has to attend, am I correct?”
“Listen, Teodoro, the Senora’s husband’s family are our wealthiest benefactors. We don’t have the luxury of offending them. Our congregation is shrinking as it is, and it is our job to invigorate this parish and make it grow. Now, as boring as this event may be, it is without a doubt very important to her. I must remind you that the Carmonas have the most splendid vineyard in all of Peru. They will be serving some of the finest wines fermented in these valleys. Does that alone not tempt you?”
Something akin to guilt causes Teodoro’s brow to wrinkle. He is rubbing his hands, avoiding eye contact with his senior as he asks, “Why do you think the vintage of their wine would be important to me, Father?”
“Come now, Teodoro, do you think me so stupid that I don’t notice the missing wine from our own meagre stock. I think you have a fondness for the grape, yes?”
There is no use denying Father Pisconte’s allegation. Teodoro’s blushing cheeks already suggest that he is not innocent. He has been in trouble enough times in his life to know it is better to remain quiet.
“So, you do not deny it? Well, Teodoro, let me suggest to you that it is not a sin for you, or I for that matter, to indulge in the blessings that God has offered us in the way of alcoholic spirits. It is only a sin when it is abused. It is also a sin to steal. I will hear your confession on Sunday, but I will offer you your penance now. The weddings will be over by five o’clock and you will be free to attend the birthday party. So I am asking you, please be kind to the Senora. Now go to the office and make plans with her. Then change your clothes and meet me in the dressing room so we can get the ceiling torn down and the debris cleaned up this afternoon. Okay?”
The novice nods, realizing that Father Pisconte is being generous. He also relishes the idea of sampling a vintner’s private collection.
“Yes, Father, I will do as you ask.”
The two men separate, Miguel going back to the mess in the dressing area, Teodoro to soothe the Senora. As he enters the work area, Father Pisconte is thinking how little he knows of his assistant. The man doesn’t encourage familiarity. When Bishop Altamirano had welcomed him back to Peru, he had explained the young man’s need for a strong mentor. He is twenty-two years old and impetuous. The bishop explained to Miguel that the lad was familiar with money, spoiled and pampered most of his life. Why he became a priest is still a mystery to the older man. The grandest of all surprises is that Teodoro Delapaz is the son of Anacelia and Guillermo Delapaz a noted politician and a paleontologist. The bishop confided to Miguel that he had received specific instructions that the novice priest was to receive no special treatment because of his parents. It had been left at that.
Teodoro escorts Senora Carmona to the parking lot, where her driver patiently waits with the rear door of her car open. He is jotting down the address for the celebration as he leads her to the vehicle, a heavy black Rolls Royce. He tucks his notebook into the pocket of his cassock.
“Until tomorrow, then, Senora, I bid you adieu.”
“Yes, Father Delapaz. Until tomorrow then.”
Teodoro watches the dark cruiser slowly leave the parking lot until it disappears, its wide tires scrunching the gravel of the driveway. The grandness of the impressive auto is diminished as a smelly gray cloud of exhaust hovers in its wake, the smell as sour as Teodoro’s mood. He stands in the parking area at the rear of the church, his hands folded in front of him, wishing he was back in Spain, in Valencia to be exact. When he had been coerced to attend the Seminario Metropolitano Inmaculada, he had gone reluctantly, realizing then that life as a priest, until his grandfather died at least, was much better than life as an outcast, penniless and shamed. A grimace disturbs his smooth features as he remembers the fiasco when he had been at university in Madrid. The young lady that had attached herself to him during a night of carousing with his roommates had become a nightmare of the hugest proportions. He had woken in a small grimy hotel at the outskirts of the city. Both the young girl and his wallet were missing; all that remained was his clothing and a headache. She had shown up two months later at his door with her father, a grizzly of a man who stank of rotted fish. Both were protesting loudly at the terrible condition he had left the poor girl in. She was pregnant and claiming that Teodoro had raped her.
The torment that had ensued was an unbearable blemish to his family. His father had hushed things up by buying off the man and his wayward daughter, realizing later that that had been the plan from the beginning. Teodoro had been chastised and banished to a life of celibacy; he would become a priest, where he would not have the opportunity to shame his family again. The man and the girl mysteriously disappeared. On top of this terrible recollection, layered like a poisonous sandwich, is the troubling phone call he had with his mother only days ago adding to the misery he already suffers from.
Teodoro clears his head of the troubling thoughts, going to his room to change into work clothes before he goes to help Father Pisconte with the renovations. He actually smiles, for he enjoys nothing more than wrecking things. He secretly appreciates the skills he is learning from the priest. The occasion to work with his hands is fulfilling. He can forget his cloistered life as he concentrates on the details of construction. He quickly changes into a pair of jeans faded from many washings and a navy t-shirt that has a picture of Yoda on the front. He sits on the bed to lace up his work boots, wondering if Senora Carmona’s granddaughter Beatriz will be there. He smirks, scoffing at the idea of celibacy. He may have made the vows, but they were in word only, the fire of carnality continues to burn within him.
When he reaches the dressing room, Miguel is on a rickety step ladder tugging at the mouldings that frame the trapdoor. Teodoro glances at the reddish water stains that decorate the old plaster, tugs the chair they are using as steps into the middle of the room and grasps the extra pry bar from the floor.
“What section should I tackle, Father Pisconte?”
Miguel reaches up to tear off the mitered wood he has loosened and replies, “Teodoro, when we are alone, I would like it if we could forget the formalities. Please call me Miguel. Why don’t you start on the section beyond this hatch and work towards the back wall. I will work in the opposite direction. Try to direct the larger pieces towards the pile behind me, okay? “
The young man smiles because he really does like the priest, who is not much older than him. Miguel has been kind to him even though Teodoro’s dislike for the priesthood and his posting have been evident in his behaviour. It isn’t this man’s fault, he knows.
“Very well, Miguel.”
“Use those gloves on the counter, Teodoro; you can’t be giving out hosts with scarred fingers. The parishioners will be reluctant to let you put them near their mouth.”
The men laugh at the quip, knowing that it is only the older members of their congregation that want the priest to place the precious body of Christ upon their lips; the younger people want it in the palm of their hands.
Teodoro puts on the gloves before sweeping some of the larger rubble towards the main pile. Getting up on the chair, he places the wrecking bar into the cavity made by the missing mouldings and heaves on the laths that hold the plaster in place. He is fortunate in his placement. When he pulls down, a section of the ceiling the size of a small coffee table falls. The laths at the opposite end are rotted from the excess moisture. They crash to the tarp-covered floor, breaking into a dozen pieces. A dust cloud erupts from the collection of rubbish fogging the air.
Teodoro jumps from the chair to get out of the way of the falling ceiling, slipping and falling onto his butt. The pry bar he has been using lands in the middle of the pile with a thud.
“Be careful you don’t hurt yourself Teodoro,” says Miguel.
“Well, I hope it all comes down that easy, it was all breaking off in small pieces before. This won’t take us too long.”
He picks himself up, brushes away some of the dust and retrieves his tool. When he bends down to pick it up, he disturbs a dusty blue rag that was rolled into the insulation. He picks it up.
“What have we here, Miguel?”
Miguel is braced upon the ladder. He watches Teodoro reach for the rag, noticing that there is something rolled up inside where the edge of the flap is open.
“It’s very heavy, whatever it is.”
Teodoro unravels the cloth to reveal a roll of paper. The shiny edge of something gleams from within. He drops the rag to the floor, holding the items in his hand. The paper has an unfamiliar feel and thickness. As Teodoro unrolls the paper, the golden object slips out, falling to the floor. Miguel has alit from the ladder, curious as to what Teodoro has. He is standing beside the younger man when the object falls. He picks it up. Holding it in both hands, the men are speechless as it is obviously made of gold. After several moments, Miguel says, “This is an ancient dagger, Teodoro; it is similar to one on display I saw at the University in Cuzco. Archeologists have suggested knives like this were used in what was referred to as capacocha ceremonies, human sacrifice, often children. The squat figure of the haft might be a depiction of one of their gods. This one reminds me of Supai, the god of death, but I’m only guessing.”
Teodoro remains spellbound, not so much by Miguel’s interpretation, but at what such a relic might be worth. He has forgotten about the paper he holds in his hand until Miguel hands the golden object out to him and says, “Hold this Teodoro and let me see the paper. Handle the scroll carefully for it seems quite old.”
The men trade objects; the younger man’s eyes are glazed by greed, unnoticed by Miguel. Teodoro handles the dagger with caution, turning it over while inspecting the details of the carved figure. Miguel studies the paper roll, surprised at how white the paper is. It hasn’t yellowed like most paper, adding to the mystery. The texture is much different than normal paper; it almost feels like a banknote. It is then that he realizes that it is likely rag paper, paper made from fibres of the cotton plant. That would explain why it is not brittle.
“Come with me, Teodoro; let’s go into the office with this.”
Teodoro is mesmerized by the gleam of the polished metal. If it is as old as Father suggests, it is possible the notes lead to more treasure which makes him think back to the last conversation he had with his mother, only three days ago. When he called her, as he did every week, she wasn’t her usual self. Her voice had been distraught. She confided in him, not as a son but as a priest. She broke down, telling him that she had just fought with his father. While shopping that day, her credit card had been declined. When she questioned him about their finances, he had told her they were deeply in debt. There was no one else she could talk to; it would be devastating if it were to become public knowledge. Teodoro offered to come home to be with her, but she put him off, telling him that his father had said everything would be fine again in a month or so. Their conversation ended with her apologizing to Teodoro for worrying him and thanking him for listening. She told him she loved him and that things would be fine. What she didn’t tell him was that the whole story was a lie, a fabrication.
Miguel turns and notices Teodoro standing, a blank stare on his face.
“Teodoro, did you hear me? Let’s move to the office.”
The young man snaps out of his musing, keen to find out what the papers Father Pisconte holds will reveal.
“I’m sorry, Miguel, it’s just that this is a magnificent relic if it is what you suggest. What are we going to do with it?”
“I don’t know yet, Teodoro. Let’s find out what this document says first.”
Miguel heads to the office, with Teodoro following. The young man is polishing the figure on the haft of the knife with the bottom of his t-shirt, his gaze fixed upon the ugly creature. “The god of death,” he muses. All he sees in his hand is an ingot of gold, something of great monetary value; he cares not for the stupid old gods. The dagger’s bloody past pulses through the deadly tool of Incan priests. It weakens his already fragile consciousness, his eyes frost with covetousness
“I have to have this!” he tells himself. He lifts his head to look at Miguel, who is two steps in front of him, just turning into the office. He will have to make note of where Father Pisconte stores it. He will get it later, but first he has to learn what is on the papers. It could lead to more items of value, something that might help his mother and father maybe, an opportunity to compensate for his youthful misbehaviour. He is already scheming on how to leave Peru.