Scorpion Archipelago October 30th 1997 5am

“Robbie! Robbie!”

Cobus had risen early, a habit he had acquired during his national service. The others all stirred. Catalina jumped up at the urgency of his voice.

“Oh my God, where’s Robbie?” Now they were all up. “Perhaps he’s gone to the pool for a wash.”

“If he’s up early, man, I think that’ll go against the habits of a lifetime, from what I know of him at Uni, but let’s go look,” said Cobus. The soldier in him surfaced. “Professor, with all respect, you save your energy and stay here. I sense something funny and don’t want to leave the camp unguarded.”

With that, Cobus, Jane, Catalina and Jim set off at a brisk pace. When they reached the lake, despite the urgency of the situation, Jane could not help feel a moment’s thrill and guilt as she looked at the rock over which Jim had bent her the previous evening. She could almost feel the moss on her hands – and other things besides. She didn’t dare look at him. But more pressing matters quickly pushed her lewd thoughts to one side. Robbie wasn’t there.

“Stupid bastard’s gone walkabout,” said Catalina.

“Look,” said Jane, “he might just have gone along the coast a-ways.”

“Ja,” agreed Cobus. “Jim, did you see anywhere yesterday that he might have got into trouble today?”

“Ah…um, no. Actually I didn’t go very far.”

That’s certainly not true, thought Jane, who had to stifle a smile that would have been as inappropriate as her behaviour last night. Again she wondered what demons were driving her now. Was this what happened when the cork had been in too tight for too long? That image directed her thoughts to the amphora and, as one of the least superstitious of archaeologists, which made her a tough cookie indeed, she was shocked to find herself wondering whether that jug had contained some sort of djinni which she had released by translating the inscription.

“I got a bit distracted by the sunset on the water,” continued Jim.

“Okay look,” said Cobus, “it’s early. I might have woken everybody for no good reason. This place makes it difficult to sleep. Maybe he got up and has gone for a wander. But he knows what sort of time we would get up, so I would say, if he’s not back in an hour or so, then we start to worry. There’s no point trying to find him if he’s in this forest somewhere, though why he would be here is beyond me. We made about four miles yesterday in six hours.”

“We can’t just ignore it if he doesn’t come back,” said Jane.

“And I’m not saying we should. Of course we’ll look for him. I just meant we should wait a little longer and try to eat some breakfast; we’ll need our strength.” He looked around him then shouted in anger: “Robbie, you poes!” It was the strongest oath an Afrikaner could utter.

 

They returned to camp and waited, trying to force down some food. Then Pete said: “Gonna have to face it folks; he’s not coming back.”

“Ya, he is,” said a tense Cobus, “he’s just being a bloody idiot.”

Pete lit a cigarette in that self-aware way of his, stuffed his hands in his pockets and said: “C’mon, he’s not popped down to the local off-licence, he’s not gone for an early morning swim – he’s not gone anywhere. He’s been taken.”

The combined intakes of breath from the others had an almost theatrical effect.

“What are you talking about?” said Jane. “If you can’t say something sensible don’t say anything.” She looked at her father, but his silence to that point and his downcast eyes showed that the weight of responsibility, the guilt, was a weight on his shoulders already.

“Oh come on, sweetheart, if he got up before our rock-spider here,” he gestured towards Cobus, who bristled, but said nothing, “he got up at the crack of dawn.” Now he pointed towards the forest. “In there it would’ve still been as black as Newgate’s knocker; hardly the place for a little constitutional. And that…” His thumb jerked over his shoulder towards the sea. “…is as cold as hell, if hell is cold. I can vouch for that, having bathed my feet in it yesterday. I’ve checked, and none of the inflatables are missing, so he hasn’t gone island-hopping. If he’s buried in the sand I trust you’ll find him, Jane.”

“There’s one little flaw in your argument,” Jane retorted. “Who took him?” There was a general murmur of consent, though it contained an undertone of curiosity, as if they all hoped the dissenter had an answer; something they could reach for.

Pete removed one hand from his pocket and took a long, deliberate draw on his cigarette. Jane felt her jaw muscles clench; somehow he had manoeuvred himself into the spotlight.

He shrugged. “Ghosts. Whoever built that?” He pointed to the totem. “I don’t know. I’m just pointing out the obvious conclusion, which I think the intellectuals among you are trying to avoid. At least one of you was voicing this very concern yesterday.” He didn’t bother to look at the Professor, but everyone knew what he meant.

Sutch seemed to feel the pressure of eyes avoiding looking at him. “He may be right. We don’t know who or what is, or isn’t, here.”

The others all glanced at each other and once more Jane felt deep concern for her father. He had been quiet since yesterday, by his own standards. If this was what happened when you followed a dream, she thought, she would just keep on digging. She threw him a lifeline back to his old self. “What do you suggest we do, father?”

He sighed. “Well, I think it’s pointless racing off on some erratic search and rescue mission.”

“We could radio for help,” said Jim.

“I’m not sure how much that would achieve. From the air these islands…well, you’ve seen for yourself. They just look like giant pieces of broccoli. You’d never find one man out here; not without a very large team, which would take some time to assemble and get out here. You saw how Dirk had to strip the plane to get both us and the kit on board. And yes, planes could fly over the sea and search, but if you were out there in those temperatures you’d be dead by now.”

Jane saw Catalina screw her eyes shut.

“I’ll tell you something else,” said Pete, “if a plane arrived here now, I, for one, would be wanting to hop on and head back.” Jane looked hard at him, but instead of ignoring it, which he did most times to wind her up, he turned on her. “What? Don’t give me the evil eye. I’m just voicing what everybody else is thinking. Let’s face it, nobody wants to be here -” he turned, “- including you now, I suspect, Professor. Your stubbornness brought us in pursuit of some fairy-tale, which doesn’t appear to be ending with everyone living happily ever after – or even just living.”

Cobus couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Show some fucking respect, man, which is how we treat our betters where I come from. Why don’t you shut the fuck up, man? Whatever’s happened to Robbie is not the Professor’s fault.”

Jane tensed, but Pete appeared to take the insults in his stride. “Well who else is to blame then? He suggested we didn’t need to keep a watch last night because there were no signs of life on this fucking island.”

Jane heard grudging acknowledgement from everyone in the ensuing silence. This was bad.

It might have ended there for the moment, but Pete flicked his cigarette butt in the general direction of Cobus’ feet. “And anyway, why don’t you make me shut the fuck up…Cobie.”

Cobus took a step forward. “I’ve packed against prop forwards, man, who’d have your skinny arse for breakfast.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about Afrikaners and your liking for arse.”

Cobus took another pace and Jim stepped up. “Guys, what are we doing here?”

“That’s what I was just asking,” said Pete.

“You know what I mean.”

Cobus pointed a finger past Jim at his tormentor. “I’ve faced up to fuckin’ guerrillas, man. Don’t think you scare me.”

“Whadya do – offer them your banana?” said Pete.

“Okay, Cobus, okay,” said Jim. “Let’s leave it.” Jane could see the anger in his green eyes and wondered for a moment why he didn’t back the student, but at that moment he cast her a look of apology that said: “I’m sorry, but I’m suffering some atavistic guilt for having fucked the other guy’s wife.”

“Look,” said Jane, “let’s just all take five minutes to absorb this and think about what to do.”

Cobus and Jim wandered off in one direction, the photographer’s arm round the South African’s shoulders. Jane took Catalina another way, while Pete simply pulled out another cigarette.

Catalina turned to the older woman. “I’m sorry, Jane, I’m a plain-speaking Aussie and I’ve gotta ask you; is that what life with him is like? How did you end up with him?”

“A combination of hormones and naivety, I guess.”

“Ah yeh, I mean, he’s good looking enough.” Jane saw the girl blush; she’d reddened enough of late herself to identify with that uncontrollable feminine blight. It would have been quite sweet if Pete hadn’t been the cause and if she couldn’t remember having done the same thing years ago. “But provoking your dad like that when he must be feeling bad enough about what’s going on…”

“I guess he was just telling the truth – as he saw it anyway. Perhaps he did utter one or two things that the rest of us didn’t dare to.”

“I suppose. But there’s telling the truth and then there’s rubbing it in. What about a little respect for his father-in-law.”

Jane put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and stopped her. “Look, there’s no good pretending. It’s pretty obvious to you all that our marriage isn’t the happiest. And my father? –  well, if I’m honest, he’s never hidden the fact that he doesn’t have much time for Pete.” Inwardly, Jane applauded Catalina’s attempt to act surprised at the non-revelation.

“Jim should’ve let Cobus teach him a lesson.”

“Catalina, firstly that would have achieved nothing. Secondly, it wouldn’t have worked out that way.”

“Whadya mean?”

“Pete was reeling Cobus in. You may or may not have noticed that he’s a bit of an adrenalin junkie. Extreme sports are where he, and most of his debts, are at. There, and at the casinos. But he also gets his kicks, literally as well as metaphorically, from martial arts; jujitsu, tae kwondo, you name it. And he’s good. Possibly the last thing Cobus would have remembered would have been taking his first and only swing. I guess that was among the reasons I married him. A woman likes to feel her man can protect her.”

Catalina seemed impressed. “Yeah, that’s always good – till you tire of each other and he gets jealous. Who’s going to take him on then?”

Jane simply nodded.

 

“Okay everybody,” said Sutch a few minutes later. Jane’s words had galvanised him; he knew he had to make something happen. They grouped together again, though the tension was as tangible as the silence of the forest. “This is what I think we should do. We know that trying to find Robbie here will be like looking for…actually I’m growing tired of having to use the needle and haystack simile. And deep down, I don’t know about you, but if we’re going try, I think this island is as good a place to start as any. Having said that, I would like you, Jim, to take one of the boats and make a trip around the other islands, just to see if there’s any obvious sign of activity, past or present. I know we don’t have lots of fuel, but I don’t want to think we didn’t try. If you see something, don’t attempt anything alone. Report back and we’ll go suitably…prepared.” He looked in the direction of the gun case. “The rest of us will continue from yesterday, except our main hope as we go will be to find our friend.” He paused. “I’m now going to say something that you may think callous, but that is as far from my intention…as we are from our homes.” He looked at each of them in turn. “Rightly, or wrongly, we came here to achieve something. If we give up on it now, and heaven forbid we never see Robbie again, his loss will have been a total and utter waste of a life. If, on the other hand, we find this lost kingdom, I will ensure that Robbie’s name lives on. Indeed I will twist history, with your compliance, and he will be the one who made the discovery. This will be renamed McCullochIsland. But let’s not give up on him. Before we proceed, does anyone disagree vehemently, have a better idea, or think that we should simply go home?” There was silence. It didn’t necessarily signal consent; possibly it meant they disagreed, but not vehemently; had ideas, but not better; wanted to go home, but wanted to be able to look in the mirror. Maybe Tariq’s universal truth applied; wondering was sometimes better than knowing. “In that case, we have work to do; a kingdom and a colleague –a friend – to find.”

He saw Jane smiling through her tears; her pride shone through. Was he worthy of it? Finding the truthful answer to that question would have needed an even larger team, to hack through the twisting creepers of hypocrisy that he felt were hiding the ruins of his soul.

“I think we should have someone guarding the camp,” said Jim. “Just in case.” He saw them look at him with concern and added: “You know, in case Robbie returns and wonders where the hell we’ve all gone.”

****

 

Rather like the moment when he’d found the key that had opened the door to the world of dreams, Sutch was struck by the suspension of time that followed their second discovery. They’d been pushing forward for perhaps an hour. Jim had left to make a circuit of the archipelago and Catalina was watching the camp. For the briefest of instances after the machete clanged against stone, there was a vacuum, then excitement and disbelief followed, like litter dancing in the slipstream of a car. They all turned their head towards the sound. It was Jane’s machete, which ironically had been hanging loose in one hand as she’d used the other to push aside a branch. “Oh my God,” she said as she peered down.

The Professor came stumbling over to stand by her. Jane hacked at the shrubs and there it was; a tiny section of wall, no more than seven or eight blocks of stone; not the most imposing piece of architecture, but wondrous in the eyes of the team. Sutch took the bandana he’d been wearing beneath his hat and wiped feverishly at the lichens and moss. “Look, look how they’re slotted together, like those…oh, what are they Jane, those Mayan sites in South America?”

“You mean Tikal and Naachtun – or Masuul, to give it its correct ancient name.”

“Yes. You were involved in excavation work there for a time.”

“I see what you mean.” She frowned. “But at Naachtun the walls were defensive. The Mayan city states, like Tikal and Calakmul were always attacking each other and Naachtun sat right in the middle of them, so they built walls to protect themselves. But why would they need to do that here, miles from anyone or anywhere. Yet these blocks do look typical of the large cut blocks they would have used,” she ran a hand deferentially over the stone, “fitting perfectly, without any need for cement.”

Pete had stepped up. “What did I say – a series of small walls.” In his moment of triumph Sutch could have happily swung his machete at Pete, but before he had the chance his son-in-law seemed to see just how he’d needled him and, for whatever reason, changed his tone. “Actually, I’d have thought you’ve just answered your own question. If the Mayan people were always attacking each other, perhaps the separate islands formed there own kingdoms and built their defences accordingly.” He reached for a cigarette. “And does it strike anyone else as strange that the Mayan civilisation also famously just disappeared?”

Father and daughter looked at Pete and found themselves in the pretty unique position of thinking that he might just have made a very valid point. Then Jane withdrew her notebook from her rucksack and started to sketch.

“Cobus,” said the Professor, “have you got the tape?” Cobus immediately threw down his pack and withdrew a large reel of yellow and black tape, along with some metal tent pegs. “Mark this out. Then I think we’ll need two small teams. Jane, you and I will continue upwards.” He thought back to the recent argument at the camp. “Pete, you come with us. Cobus, when you’ve finished head back to camp and wait for Jim. He must be due back very soon if he’s not back already. Then send him and Catalina up and you take a break. Tell them to follow along the line of these stones and see whether there are other fragments, as if it were indeed a city wall.” Cobus looked disappointed, so Sutch went up to him and said in a low voice. “I’m letting you go back because I trust you to get it right and also look after the camp properly.” He saw the young man’s face brighten a little. The implied criticism of Pete had probably helped. “There’ll be plenty of work this afternoon.”

When Cobus had gone, Jane looked up from her sketchbook and said to her father: “I think this must be a defensive wall, you know. A lot of the Maya still lived in thatched farms. I’ve not dug up too many dwellings with walls as thick as this.”

“Okay, c’mon Jane; Pete.”

“Hang on, I’m still drawing.”

“Haven’t you finished yet? It’s just a few stones.”

She snapped her notebook shut. “Yes father.” “She smiled and he returned it. For a while at least Robbie’s disappearance was washed over by the waves of discovery, though that meant, of course, that it would resurface when the tide went out again.

Suddenly, it was as if scales had fallen from their eyes; tired eyes that had been seeing only the dripping, sodden green of the forest. Now everywhere they looked bricks and pieces of masonry peeped from their hiding places on the ground.

“There must have been some track or road, long since overgrown, that led up from the harbour,” said Sutch, “and now that we’ve entered the city limits what treasures we’re finding. Look!”

Jane stood open-mouthed. Repossessed by nature, but still spectrally visible was an arch. Even Pete let out a long whistle. “Congratulations, father-in-law. If I’m not mistaken, this looks very much like the culmination of forty years’ research.”

They went to it and simultaneously put their hands on the stonework.

“Unbelievable,” whispered Sutch in awe.

“It’s almost Byzantine in style,” said Jane. “That’s amazing; not at all like Mayan architecture. Look at the detail on the keystone. Is that one of those,,,oh , what the heck were they called?”

“Chupacabra?”

“Yes, those things people claimed were aliens; te goat-sucker – sucked the blood out of farm animals.”

“It could be,” said the Professor.

“These people may have come across from the west coast of South America originally. The forest appears to have done us a favour. It’s protected a lot of the detail from the sea air and the wind. This is magnificently preserved.”

“Oh my word, just look!”

As if they had adjusted the focus on a camera lens, their eyes were able to pick out all manner of half-collapsed structures beyond the arch. The forest was littered with the ruins of houses, both plain dwellings and more extravagant villas, and much grander structures that might have been municipal buildings. There were isolated arches, devoid of the stonework they had been supporting; the rib-cages of a dead civilisation picked clean by the vulture of time. Those arches were in a variety of styles; rounded, square, Gothic, as if this were an architect’s workshop.

   “It’s eclectic in the extreme,” said Jane as they wandered amongst the ruins of temples and markets in the diffused light beneath the forest canopy, “such a confluence of styles and influences.” She put her hand to her forehead in puzzlement. “This is so weird. Naachtun is known for its varied architecture, but that was a reflection of changing political allegiances and the impact of regional styles. But here, we’re looking at a right old hotchpotch of influences in a kingdom that kept the outside world at bay.”

“Perhaps that’s what happens,” said Pete, “when your merchants sail to various distant ports and return with tales of what they’ve seen. Nothing develops organically.”

Not for the first time Jane and her father looked at him in surprise.

“Fair point, darling.” said Jane, the term of endearment slipping out before she could prevent it – and how she wished she could. She was shocked; couldn’t remember the last time she’d called him that, and she could see from his face that he couldn’t either.

“No need for tape here,” said Sutch with a laugh, totally oblivious to the moment’s awkwardness.

The three of them moved on, amazed, through a huge, moss-covered plaza. Then Jane pointed to three stone pillars at the far end. “Aren’t they…”

“The same as the one down by the camp,” said Sutch. As they got closer they could see there were hieroglyphics on these too.

“These are almost certainly stelae. The Mayans used to record their history on them. My God, it’s all pointing to this island as having been peopled by them. If that’s the case, then Pete’s earlier comment is…well, no-one has ever explained why such an important and advanced civilisation just collapsed. What we do know is that wherever they went they built huge cities; as big and complex as anything in the known civilised world, and they seemed able to adapt to and exploit whatever environment they chose to live in. But then they just seemed to…I don’t know…up and go.”

“Kinda spooky, huh?” said Pete. He lit another cigarette. To Jane it felt like an affront to the majesty of the ruins, but with yesterday’s adultery still tingling in her loins, she bit her tongue. She was still trying to recover from what she assumed was her guilt-induced use of ‘darling’ moments before.

Typically, just when she’d hoped Pete would act like a Philistine that morning, as if that would have somehow justified what she’d done, he’d chosen instead to make sensible, salient comments. It seemed for a moment that the disrespectful cigarette might help to redress the balance, but when he spoke again he seemed determined to frustrate her. “I wonder what these people worshipped.”

“The Mayans had any number of gods, most of them pretty bloodthirsty. As you mentioned the other day, the cult of human sacrifice was strong.”

“I’m betting that image of Cobus back there,” he jerked his thumb obliquely in the direction of the first arch, “that Chipolata, or whatever you called it, wasn’t content with goat’s blood. It seems to be everywhere.” He pointed around them. “It’s like a day out in Natal.”

It had been too good to be true after all, thought Jane.

“I suggest,” said the Professor after he and his daughter had exchanged raised eyebrows, “that we uncover the full extent of this site before we start analysing the detail. I think we’re a bit overcome by all this – I know I am – and it’s a lot to take in. Also, let’s not forget that we’re now the vanguard of a much larger expedition that I’ll now have to organise.” He turned to his son-in-law. “Pete, I think I’d like you to take next shift of guarding the camp. Send Cobus and Catalina up here and also Jim, assuming he’s back,” Pete looked at him pointedly, “if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all.” The way he pitched his cigarette to the floor gave that response the lie. “I need another bloody coffee anyway.” He turned and started to make his way back.

Jane watched him go and, despite everything, felt uncomfortable. Part of her still wondered who the hell she’d been when she’d married him – though as he swaggered away, with his open, sweat-stained shirt clinging to his bulky pectorals and latissimus dorsi she forgave, as well as regretted, her youthful indiscretion – but another part winced at the less-than-subtle dismissal by her father. It smacked of being sent to the back of the class, especially as Cobus had only just been sent down to rest. She wished her father had left things alone for the time being, especially as the only person to have done wrong in the last twenty-four hours was Jane Sutch, the adulteress.

“Oh, Pete!” shouted the Professor. Pete stopped, but kept his back turned. “We’ll make the next change after four hours. Otherwise we’re not allowing ourselves enough time here.” Pete turned his head slightly, gave a curt nod and wandered on again.

 

Just over an hour later Jim and Cobus arrived at the ruined citadel.

“Any luck?” asked Sutch.

“’Fraid not,” said Jim. “I saw nothing worth investigating.”

“Where’s Catalina?”

Jim looked down. “She said she’s going to stay at the camp. I think Robbie’s disappearance has unnerved her.”

“Ya,” said Cobus, “She said she wasn’t ready yet to spend more time in the ‘forest of the dead’, as she called it.”

Sutch shifted awkwardly on his feet and then turned back towards the ruins.

“Nice one,” whispered Jim to the South African.

“Ah shit,” hissed Cobus. “Me and my big mouth.”

Jim was sweating profusely because of the climb and the heavy bag of equipment. “You guys got any water?” he asked. “I only brought photographic stuff.” Then, despite the circumstances, Jane watched Jim’s eyes grow increasingly wide at the sight before him. He pushed his hat back off his forehead and whistled. “This is incredible! National Geographic, Royal Geographical Society, start putting the zeroes on your cheques now.” Even in the excitement of the moment, he noticed the coolness of Jane’s fingers lingering against his as he took the bottle of water from her. He turned to her father hastily and embarrassed. “I want to thank you, Professor, for giving me this opportunity.”

“The thanks are all from me, dear boy, for agreeing to come on this hare-brained, ill-planned expedition…” Sutch paused and looked around, then gave a big grin, “…that turned out so…” He’d been about to say wonderful, then remembered himself. Instead, he called Cobus, who was also staring open-mouthed at the frayed majesty all around them, and the four of them embraced, although the shadow of their missing colleague flitted amongst the ghosts around them

Jim was the first to come to terms with the practicalities of the situation, and slipped into professional photographer mode, pulling out a telescopic tripod and a clutter of lenses, from which he selected a 200mm for starters.

Jane was ready to settle down with her notebook, when her father said: “No you don’t. You and I are going to wander on a bit, my girl.” Sutch was so excited, he didn’t notice the disappointed undertone to Jane’s protest, but dutifully she left Jim behind followed him and they nudged, pushed and hacked their way forward for what seemed like another half mile.

They had moved away from the grander central area of the plaza and the imposing temples and palaces.

“I think we’re entering what might have been the commercial and residential areas of the city,” said Jane. “These buildings seem increasingly humble. I reckon they’re dwellings – or the shells of them anyway.”

“An interesting word – shell; very apt,” said Sutch, looking around with a hint of sadness in his eyes. “Shells they are; things of beauty that tell a substantive tale of their former occupants, who either abandoned them or were ripped from them.” He paused, clearly moved, then whispered in awe: “I never thought I’d find the Marie Celeste on dry land.”

They passed yet another home containing numerous artefacts of pottery and fungus-encrusted wood, all of them pointing to lives put on hold with an immediacy that spoke of some sudden and dreadful event. Now Sutch felt obliged to enter the house and straighten a toppled stool. “Astonishing,” he said as he looked at the wood beneath his fingers. “Even the woodworm has fled.”

In building after building lay the flotsam of a sunken civilisation; more pottery and mouldy wooden furniture, jewellery, combs, bottles, goblets; all manner of things that revealed a people whose love of trade and material possessions was at odds with their apparent sociophobic desire for secrecy.

 

All of this was veiled, to a greater or lesser extent, by a forest that had swallowed its prey, but only partially digested it.   At length the buildings and detritus became less frequent and the land started to rise more sharply. They could hear a dull pounding and sighing that they knew came from the waves at the base of the cliffs.

“There were always one or two, even back then,” said Jane. The Professor, who seemed to be mulling something over followed her gaze distractedly, then saw, perched further up the mountainside, what appeared to be the remains of two houses of lavish proportions, peeping out from the trees.

“Oh, you mean those who want to live at the top of the hill looking down on the plebs,” he said.

Then Jane noticed his face revert to a frown. “What is it, father? I recognise that look.”

“Well, at the risk of sounding gruesome, I’m missing bodies here.”

“Surely they’d have decomposed centuries ago…” she stopped, “…no, you’re right, there’d still be bones. Or are you talking about cemeteries; tombs? I take your point.”

“No, they wouldn’t have had any…” He stopped.

“What do you mean?” She saw an evasive flicker in his eye, but didn’t pursue that line for the moment. He was old enough to have earned the right to deal with things in his own time, and the time clearly wasn’t now.

“Even assuming everyone fled from some cataclysm – even if everyone somehow scrambled up this precipitous slope and then threw themselves from the cliffs in despair – there’s no sign of a wall of water having passed through the city, even if it were capable of getting this far – and that would be one hell of a wave, I can tell you. Rather like the terminal moraine of a glacier, you’d expect the debris of human life to have been pushed along and deposited as the water receded. Yet it looks like everyone just went out for a stroll at the same time. We’ve seen pottery and other artefacts lying where they belong. And as for the buildings, well-built though they are, there’s no mortar holding the stones together. Hit by a force as powerful as a tidal wave or an earthquake, there should be more damage.”

“You’ve said this before, father. So what do you think happened?”

He looked at her and smiled. “I have no idea. And maybe I’m completely wrong for doubting. Anyway, I think we’ve come as far as we need to. Let’s head back to Jim and Cobus.”

They turned and Jane gave a cry of alarm. Though she’d seen such things many times before, the unexpectedness of its discovery in this place shook her.

“What is it, Jane?”

She pointed.

Behind a small, isolated section of wall, curled in a foetal position, was a body that, with the desiccated fragments of skin on the back of the head and neck, looked like nothing so much as an unwrapped mummy, clad in a dirty brown djellaba that camouflaged it beneath the overgrowing vegetation.

When their legs felt capable of supporting them again, Jane and Sutch made their way over to the find.

“Perhaps I wasn’t missing bodies so much after all,” said the Professor.

Jane’s soft voice quivered. “You sure have a habit of making things happen, father. Look for ancient, undiscovered civilisation – find one. Wonder about absence of bodies – find one. Please don’t think ill of me ever.”

“That what you call graveyard humour?” He put an arm around her, smiling, and then moved nearer to the corpse. “Strange.”

“Um, technically I think that’s what’s known as an understatement.” Jane held back, frustrated by her weakness, but unable as yet to overcome it. The body had spooked her, but not as much as her own had recently, as if every suppressed, distaff nerve was being pulled taut. She looked up and around, and the irony wasn’t lost on her – ever since they’d discussed coming to this place of death, and especially since they’d been here, she’d never felt more alive or aware.

“I meant the clothing. It looks in perfectly good condition.”

They squatted and Sutch reached out a tentative hand to pull at the corner of the garment where the shoulder would have been. The body collapsed with a horrible, bony rattle onto its back.

Now Sutch gasped, then reached over and took something from the clawed hand.

“Seems to be a parchment of some sort.” Then he spotted something on the ground by the body. As he picked it up, he had to fight the urge to drop it immediately. He held it in shaking fingers towards Jane. “And this, if I’m not mistaken, is a very obviously twentieth century pen with ‘Marriott Hotels’ written down the side.”

Jane backed away and felt the onset of hysteria as an incongruous mixture of bile and laughter fought its way up through her chest. She put her hands on her knees for support.

Then the sound of running feet caused her body to jerk, as if all her taut nerves had contracted further. To her intense relief she saw Jim, who’d heard her previous scream. She collapsed against his chest.

“Jane, are you okay? Where’s the Professor?”

“I’m here.” Sutch rose from behind the wall, feeling in his old, creaking limbs a certain consanguinity with the lone corpse. He had the rolled parchment in his hand; though it wasn’t his to take, he felt this dead stranger would have granted him leave. He was wrong on two counts, and the force with which this revelation hit him as he unrolled the document caused him to stagger; the parchment was his to take – in fact it was addressed to him – and this was no stranger.

Cobus arrived now, having been a little way behind Jim when he’d heard Jane’s scream. He was just in time to see Sutch’s distress and hear Jim’s question: “Professor, are you alright?”  The Afrikaner had some first aid knowledge, acquired during his time in the army, and seeing Sutch turn white he wondered whether it might now be needed in administering CPR.

“Father!”

“It’s…” the Professor hesitated, “…from Tariq.”

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