Howard Books


The Smuggler's Mask

Excerpt One

Teotihuacan, New Spain, 1521

Miguel slid his sword from the scabbard, extended it in front of him and slid feet first down into the hole. Luis handed him a candle, and Miguel squatted to lower his eyes until he could see into the tunnel. Chiseled through brown bedrock, the narrow, low, curved ceiling passageway led on into the dark beyond his candlelight.

Squatting and bending, Miguel squeezed into the tunnel and then, holding his sword and candle out ahead in one hand, shuffled forward far enough to allow Luis room to drop down into the hole behind him. The musty air, long trapped here under the Pyramid of the Sun, turned the spit in the back of his throat bitter as he swelled his cramped chest against the rock walls and sucked in short gulps. He heard a grunt as Luis slid into the tunnel, heard Luis gag and spit then felt the tap of Luis's sword point on his boot.

Miguel began to crab along the tunnel, neck bent, head down, straining to see ahead from under his eyebrows, cramped muscles already burning. He had gone far enough that he was sure he was beyond the walls of the cave above when the passageway led up into a narrow flight of stone stairs.

The top of the stairwell was covered by a smooth ceiling of stone. Up against solid rock here beneath the Pyramid of the Sun, Miguel's heart raced. His lungs seemed shallow, unable to hold enough of the foul air to satisfy him. I'm trapped, he thought. Maybe Luis can back his way out of here, but not me. I'm jammed in here like a bunghole stopper in a cask of sour Portuguese wine! The stinking spit ball that had grown on the back of his tongue climbed back up his throat each time he tried to swallow it.

Miguel put his head and shoulder against the overhead rock and pushed. The stone fought him as he shoved up at it again and then again. His legs quivered and burned under the strain, then the slab of brown rock scraped, slid sideways, and in the flickering light from his candle, he saw open space above.

Holding his candle above his head, Miguel stepped up into the heart of the Pyramid of the Sun, into a narrow chamber with walls, floor, and ceiling constructed of fitted, cut stone blocks. He knew that the ceiling blocks, supported by the walls and stretching the width of the room, were holding the weight of the mountainous pyramid above.

Miguel turned, and what he saw made his skin ripple cold and his yellow beard bristle. Facing him in the middle of the floor, eyes locked onto his, ears laid back, lips drawn in a snarl, every muscle tensed, crouched a giant stone jaguar.

"Jesus Cristo!" Luis said as he climbed up into the chamber beside Miguel, his candle adding to the light. "I thought we were stuck in that tunnel. After almost soiling my pants in there, we had better find some gold in this pyramid!"

It was then that Luis had seen the jaguar watching him with its stone eyes and when Miguel had slid the coffin lid open to reveal the mummified Teotihuacan emperor. Now, as Miguel stood beside the king's coffin with the two halves of the golden, jaguar snake death mask in his hands, still remembering the image of Hernan Cortés pacing in front of the conquistadors assembled in Montezuma’s courtyard for the hanging Alfredo Lorenzo, Luis's voice broke into his thoughts.

"Cortés would hang us if we reported this find to him now, Miguel. He would think that we had at first planned to hide these things from him. Even if he did let us live, he would punish us by not giving us a share of this gold...claim to it or no claim to it."

Miguel looked down into the shriveled face of the dead king in his jaguar coffin, here in this royal burial suite inside the Pyramid of the Sun, then back up at his brother and nodded his head. "Let's keep the treasure for ourselves," he said.

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