Isla del Sol, Bolivia
Tristan paused on the smooth pathway cut through the rocky terrain and spied the man he was looking for. Dimar Castanos. The short, round-faced Bolivian was standing on a hill that overlooked Lake Titicaca, an endless expanse of blue water. The highest lake in the world possessed both beauty and serenity, but the return of Tristan’s low-grade headache reminded him again that his body wasn’t comfortable at 12,000 feet.
He ignored it as he headed down the well-worn dirt trail toward his target. Later, he would look for a vendor who sold coca leaves, since chewing on them would treat his altitude-induced malaise better than any aspirin.
With a half-circle of tourists huddled around him, Dimar was speaking quickly and with animation. It was how Tristan had found the slippery little bastard—through the tour company Bolivia Today! which was run by Dimar and his cousins, Freddie and Pico. Tristan decided the exclamation point on their logo was as pretentious as the three of them, and he was certain the tour company was run with half-efforts and shoddy promises.
A satisfied smile reached Tristan’s mouth. The little shit couldn’t run now. If he did, he’d go plummeting off the side of the cliff into the lake below.
Dimar spoke in English, his words clipped with an accent. “There are over eighty ruins on this small island. The Inca civilization dwelt here in the fifteenth century, and there were also as many as eight hundred indigenous families who lived in small villages all over the island.
“Isla del Sol means Island of the Sun. Following a great flood, the entire area of Lake Titicaca”—Dimar swung his arm behind him to encompass the lake—“was plunged into a long period of darkness. After many days, the bearded god known as Viracocha arose from the depths of the lake and traveled to Isla del Sol. He commanded the sun to rise, and then he created the first two Incas: Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo. They were the Adam and Eve of the Andes.”
What a crock. Like any other conquering people, the Incas invaded the island, and then to solidify their claim over the local people they had created the mythology Dimar was sermonizing to justify their rule. They also, no doubt, sought to link themselves to the Tiwanaku civilization, fifty miles away as the crow flies.
Harold Gatty’s voice echoed in Tristan’s ears. “Tiwanaku isn’t pre-Columbian,” his father had said, his eyes alight with his telltale mania. “It’s nearly 17,000 years old, a true marker that advanced civilizations have come to Earth.”
Yeah, Dad, but radiocarbon dating put the site more reliably around 100 A.D.
Charlie Hartigan—Harold Gatty was his “stage” name—had always waved Tristan away when challenged about his belief in ancient aliens. “You’re no son of mine,” he would mumble.
Like any good boy, Tristan had desired the approval and acceptance of his old man. And so, although Charlie was gone now, Tristan continued searching for proof that Earth had been home to more than Homo sapiens.
However, a belief that advanced civilizations existed on Earth prior to the Egyptians didn’t mean it was true, no matter how many crackpots spouted off about it. And unfortunately, that had included his father.
Such was the limbo of Tristan’s life, caught between ancient alien theorists and the cold hard facts of science.
“Now,” Dimar said, “I’m going to encourage you to spend your time exploring these ancient pathways on your own, and I will meet you back in Yumani where we will settle in for the night at our guesthouse and have dinner.”
The tourists began to disperse, and Tristan stepped forward. When Dimar spotted him, his congenial smile slipped away, and his face turned instantly to stone. He spun on his heel and scurried away down the opposite trail.
Tristan quickly cut him off, putting a hand against the man’s chest. “Oh no you don’t.”
“Dr. Magee!” Dimar plastered a fake smile on his face. “What a surprise to see you here.”
“I’ll bet. We need to talk.”
“I’m very busy. I’m working, as you can see. I don’t have time to shoot the wind with you.”
“It’s shoot the breeze.”
Dimar stopped moving, his cheerful façade melting into a glare. “What do you want?”
Dimar’s disdain, while expected, seemed excessive. Granted, the last time Tristan had been down here it had been a bit of a shitstorm. He’d been mixed up in a few shady transactions of pre-Columbian mummies—courtesy of his father and Dr. Conrad Fontana—and Dimar and his slippery cousins had been in the thick of it. The fallout had been both good and bad—his father had been thrilled with the DNA results and had included them in his last book shortly before his death, but the entire incident had estranged Tristan and his dad from his cousin Shea, who claimed the entire incident not only unethical, but that the subsequent conclusions were ambiguous and should hardly have been made public. Somewhere during all of it, Dimar had to deal with a slap on the wrist from his government, for which he apparently still held a grudge against Tristan.
“Time to man up and move on, Dimar,” Tristan said.
Dimar pinned a ferocious scowl on him. “They fined me, no thanks to you. You here to settle that?”
“Maybe,” Tristan hedged. Not really. But he knew to keep his goading to a minimum. For now. “I’m looking for Dr. Irene Caridad.”
“Don’t toy with me.”
Dimar clamped his mouth shut, his lower jaw jutting outward.
“I heard she’s headed to Rurrenabaque,” Tristan continued, “and that you were seen talking to her.”
Dimar frowned. “I talk to a lot of people.”
“Why is she in Rurre?”
“How should I know.”
“Is she going into the jungle?” Tristan pressed.
“A lot of people go into the jungle. It’s quite the tourist destination, you know.”
“And you know the wilderness better than most.”
Dimar released a dramatic sigh. “You looking for a guide?”
“Are you offering?”
Dimar squinted his eyes so quickly that for a moment he resembled a cat poised and ready for the kill. “I’m not going to Rurrenabaque,” he hissed.
“I am busy. I don’t have to tell you why.”
“Afraid of spooks in the Amazonian jungle?”
Dimar huffed. “You take the spirit world too lightly.”
Tristan leaned close. “On the contrary. I take it very seriously. I need to find Dr. Caridad. And I’ll pay you to take me to her.”
“Two hundred American dollars.”
Dimar guffawed, not bothering to hide his derision. “You owe me at least five hundred for the shitkick you left me with the last time you came to our lovely country.”
“You mean shitstorm.” Well, fuck. Tristan really didn’t want to play into the man’s hubris, but he needed to get into the jungle, and Dimar was the best option he had. “Fine. Five hundred.”
“Give me the money now and I’ll think about it,” Dimar said coolly.
Tristan chuckled with little humor. “Wrong again. And what’s there to think about?”
“It isn’t just spooks I’m worried about. There are poachers, drug people, gold miners …” Dimar shook his head, fear flashing through his eyes. “It’s never a good idea to go milli vanilli into the jungle.”
Tristan released a tired sigh. “I wouldn’t want to go into the jungle with a lip-syncing band either. And I can handle myself with jungle criminals. And by the way, it’s willy nilly.”
Tristan shook his head. “Never mind. Look, I’ll meet you back in Yumani.” It was the nearest town in the island's south end. “I’ve got a room at the same motel where you’re staying. You can buy me dinner, and we can chat some more.”
Dimar’s lip curled a bit and Tristan wasn’t sure if it were a snarl or perhaps nausea.
“You’re not altitude sick, are you?” Tristan asked, hoping to push aside thoughts of his own unsettled stomach.
Dimar shot him a look of annoyance. “It’s not the altitude that makes me sick. So be it. I’ll meet you later.” And with that the man scampered off.
The island wasn’t big, and Dimar couldn’t escape unless he wanted to abandon the tour group for which he was responsible. Which was possible, of course, but it was late in the day, and Dimar wouldn’t be able to get back to Yumani to catch the four p.m. ferry to Copacabana unless he ran. He was stuck here until morning.
While Tristan could have waited to ambush Dimar at the motel tonight, he had been restless upon arriving at Isla del Sol. Walking had helped to clear his head. And then he’d spotted Dimar, and he couldn’t resist letting the man know that he was here.
But now he had a few hours to kill, so it would be a shame to waste it. Tristan decided to do the touristy thing and take in the island, despite that he’d been here before. The day was clear with a bright blue sky, but it was a buzz of anticipation in the air that he couldn’t quite put his finger on that had Tristan’s nerves humming. Or maybe it’s my throbbing headache and accompanying lightheadedness.
While he had never considered that he possessed any kind of paranormal gifts, he did have a knack for sensing when he was on the precipice of … something.
Wearing a safari hat and aviator sunglasses to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare, he walked the hilly trails, passing agricultural terraces, tranquil beaches, grazing animals, giant eucalyptus trees and cacti. In the distance, magnificent views of Cordillera Real’s snow-capped peaks framed the sweeping expanse of Lake Titicaca.
It was paradise.
He approached a rectangular stone enclosure with three holes in the wall from which water flowed. A woman was bent over peering into the water. She kneeled and tried to reach for something.
“Can I help?” Tristan asked.
She glanced up at him. “Well, I seem to have lost my hat. A gust of wind took it right off. I was thinking of climbing on the ruins to get it, but I don’t think the locals would appreciate it.”
“You’d be right about that. Lemme see if I can help.”
He was taller than her and his reach was just enough that on all fours he was able to grab the tan ball cap bearing the slogan GALLOWAY FILMS stitched in block lettering.
“Thank you,” she replied as she took it from him, gifting him with a polite smile. She adjusted a pair of sunglasses perched atop her head, shifting the messy knot of brown hair gathered at the base of her neck.
He dusted off his hands and asked, “Are you a filmmaker?”
“No. My brother is. Marine films, mostly.”
She laughed. “No, sorry. Underwater. He films sharks and other things.”
She shook water from the hat. “Yeah, like Jaws.”
“You sound American.”
“Originally from Mississippi. Are you enjoying your tour?”
“I am, but I’m not on a tour. I came on my own.”
“First time here?”
Tristan indicated the structure beside them. “This is the Fountain of the Inca. The Incas referred to the three separate spouts of water as Ama Sua, Ama Kella and Ama Llulla, which mean, ‘Don’t be lazy, don’t be a liar, don’t be a thief.’”
“How prophetic. I was considering being lazy, a liar, and a thief.”
“It’s a slippery slope once you start.”
“I can imagine. Thanks again for your help.” With a wave she turned and headed down the path that led toward a lake overlook.
Tristan made his way back to Yumani, passing donkeys and sheep along the way as he entered the small village with houses dotted along the countryside.
A few hours later, Dimar had managed to elude him at the hostel where they were both staying, but Tristan easily tracked him down at one of the local restaurants with a spectacular view of Lake Titicaca.
As Tristan took a seat, Dimar grimaced.
“Just keeping an eye on my guests,” Dimar replied, indicating the people sitting at the other tables with a wave of his hand.
“Thanks for saving me a seat.” Tristan ordered a local beer and a plate of fresh trout. “Have you given any thought to my offer?”
“Offer?” Dimar grunted. “I know it’s an order. But sí, I will take you. In two days. Because you owe me that money.”
Tristan gave a salute with his beer bottle and took a drink.
“Excuse me,” a female voice interrupted from behind Tristan. “Are you Dimar Castanos?”
A glance over his shoulder confirmed that it was the woman he’d helped earlier at the Fountain of the Incas.
“Who’s asking?” Dimar said.
“You’ve found him,” Tristan spoke at the same time.
The woman’s gaze settled on Tristan. Instead of the earlier polite friendliness, her eyes flashed with a glint of wariness. “We meet again.” But she didn’t dwell on their brief acquaintance and instead shifted her focus back to Dimar. “I’ve been looking for you. You’ve been incredibly difficult to locate.” She stepped from behind Tristan’s chair and held out a hand. “I’m Brynn Galloway. I’m a friend of Irene Caridad’s, and she told me you would help me.”
Brynn Galloway? Why did that name sound familiar?
Dimar shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, his reply nothing more than a monotone. While Dimar could prove elusive to track down, he was never elusive with his displeasure. Apparently, he’d not only been avoiding Tristan but also California Girl with the ball cap from her brother.
“You should join us,” Tristan offered, grabbing an extra chair from a nearby table. He couldn’t deny that seeing Dimar squirm gave him joy, but randomly meeting this woman who was also looking for Irene was nothing short of the universe showering him with synchronicity.
“Thank you,” she replied, her response business-like. “If it’s not too much trouble.” She sat while saying the last bit, clearly staying whether it was a bother or not.
Apparently, Irene was drawing others into her antiquities side-hustle, and Tristan couldn’t wait to hear Ms. Galloway’s side of the story. Because, goddammit, he’d protect his own interests at all costs.
But when Brynn Galloway cast a look his way, the flickering candlelight caressing her cheeks and illuminating eyes that made him think of a calculating jaguar, a jolt of awareness caught him by surprise.
His brief encounter with her had showed her to be confident, intelligent, and to possess a dry wit—nectar to his libido to be certain. But he wasn’t looking for a quick lay. Been there, done that. Nor did he have time for emotional entanglements. Chasing antiquities on the black market the past few years had effectively hardened him about every aspect of living.
People were greedy, selfish, self-serving. End of story.
At the moment, he had room in his life for only one thing, and that was retrieving what Irene Caridad had so brazenly stolen from him.
If Brynn Galloway could facilitate that in any way, he’d use it.
He extended his hand and said, “No trouble at all. I’m Tristan Magee.” A vague disappointment filled him when there was no violin serenade or explosions of fireworks when she touched him.
After a simple handshake, she tucked herself back into her space.
Get your head straight, man. She’s just a woman.
While the restaurant ran a generator, it was only for the kitchen. With the candlelight and the full moon highlighting the shimmering waters of Lake Titicaca, the ambiance was downright romantic.
“You Americans are bullies,” Dimar cut in, ruining the mood.
“I beg your pardon?” Ms. Galloway replied.
“First him”—Dimar thrust a finger at Tristan—“now you. I’m on vacation.”
“No you’re not,” Tristan rebutted.
“A working vacation.” Dimar uttered the syllables with precision. “Isn’t that what you Americans do all the time? So you can write off all your expenses?”
“Well, anyway,” Ms. Galloway said. “Irene said that she was unable to wait for me in La Paz and that you would take me to her.”
“Who told you that?” Dimar demanded.
Ms. Galloway’s forehead wrinkled into a lovely look of consternation.
“Don’t worry, he’s not as dumb as he sounds,” Tristan said.
“Are you sure?” she murmured, flashing Tristan a look of amusement before returning her attention to Dimar with a sigh. “As I just said, Dr. Caridad told me. In an email.”
Tristan chuckled. “Looks like you’ve got more customers than you can handle, Dimar.”
The look she cast Tristan’s way no longer held amusement but instead a glint of annoyance. “Who are you again?” she asked.
“A friend of Dimar’s.”
“You are no friend of mine, Dr. Magee,” Dimar said with a beady glare.
Tristan could all but hear Ms. Galloway’s brain clicking away as she contemplated her table mates. He asked in as light a tone as he could muster, “Do you know where Dr. Caridad is?”
She shook her head. “If I did, why would I have come all the way out to Isla del Sol, which is beautiful by the way but is costing me an extra two days of travel, to interrogate you monkeys?”
“Bully,” Dimar muttered.
“I’m not a bully,” Ms. Galloway replied, clearly exasperated. “I had hoped to have this resolved as soon as I landed in La Paz, and frankly, Mr. Castanos, your lack of response has been nothing short of rude and aggravating.”
Tristan drained the last of his beer. “She’s got your number, Dimar.”
“Fine,” the Bolivian said. “You can come with us. Dr. Magee here is already paying for my services, so I won’t charge you.” He gloated triumphantly from across the table.
Ms. Galloway gave Tristan an assessing look. “You’re looking for Irene as well? And how do you know her?”
“That’s not important. You’re welcome to join us”—he nodded toward Dimar—“if you like.”
“Into the jungle?”
Ms. Galloway’s innocent question confirmed Tristan’s suspicion that Irene had gone off grid. The question was, why? The only answer he could come up with was she planned to sell his artifact, but it baffled him as to why she would disappear into the Bolivian jungle to do it.
“The one and only,” Tristan replied, then he remembered how he knew of Brynn Galloway. It was also clear why she was here, whether she copped to it or not.
“I’ll bet you’re an archaeologist,” he said, knowing full well she was. “Why don’t you let me buy you dinner? And we can chat.”
* * *
If it weren’t for the fact that Tristan Magee watched her with a detached speculative look in his eyes, Brynn could almost allow herself to indulge in meeting a handsome stranger in a strange land, with serendipity her companion as she crossed paths with him not once but twice. And they were both acquainted with Brynn’s mentor, Dr. Irene Caridad, professor of Near Eastern Culture and Language at the University of California Los Angeles.
The grumpy Bolivian man, Dimar, whom she’d been trying to locate for over two days had departed, claiming exhaustion. She could only hope that he wouldn’t disappear come morning, but her dinner companion had assured her that Dimar would follow through on his promise to take them north. All it had taken was a monetary incentive.
Now it was just her and this enigmatic man who watched her like she had something to hide.
So naturally it had to be him playing cloak and dagger.
She should have left when Dimar had, but she was famished, and the trout and vegetables and rice, along with the cold beer, were hitting the spot.
“What do you do, Dr. Magee?” she asked.
“You can call me Tristan. I’m a physicist.”
“And you work in La Paz?”
“No.” Having finished his meal, he leaned back in his chair, tossing his napkin onto the table. “You’re an archaeologist, but not a Ph.D., at least not yet.”
Was it written on her forehead? She craved the legitimacy a doctorate would give her, but lately she’d been feeling less than excited about pursuing it. There had even been a few moments when she’d considered leaving school and getting on with her life.
“I’m thinking these aren’t lucky guesses on your part,” she said. Irene must have told him. But why? “What exactly is your association with Irene? I’ve never known her to work with a physicist.”
Rather than answer her question, he said, “I read your paper.”
That stopped her cold. “What paper?”
“Your master’s thesis on the Moon Tablet of Ur.”
Brynn was a bit flabbergasted. It wasn’t that her work was a secret, but few people perused research projects for light reading unless they needed to reference it in their own work. And she’d written her thesis nearly two years ago. She was becoming more confused by the minute.
“Are you an archaeologist?” she asked. She’d only had one beer, but when the waitress returned, she waved off having another. She needed to keep her wits about her.
“No. Just an interested party. And I’m guessing that’s why you came.”
“I came to Bolivia because of my thesis?” she asked, wondering if the altitude was getting to her. Impossible. She’d recently spent the summer at K2 Base Camp, and since it was situated at 16,000 feet, she was more acclimated than any Bolivian local. “No,” she answered her own question. “I came because Irene asked me to.”
“And you didn’t think it was odd that she asked you to come to Bolivia when your area of study is Sumerian culture?”
It would certainly have given Brynn pause, except that during their email exchanges, Irene had told her that Connie—Dr. Conrad Fontana and Irene’s husband—may have found proof of Sumerian habitation in the Americas. They wanted Brynn to be part of the discovery team, and while she was more than a little skeptical, if it turned out to be true, then it would make for one hell of a Ph.D. dissertation topic.
And while her ambition for gaining a Ph.D. had been slowly waning, she would have come anyway. For Gramps. Her grandfather—Domenico Milano, nicknamed “Mico”—had been a passionate hobbyist of all things Sumerian. Brynn only wished he were still alive so she could share her adventure with him, whether it panned out or not.
Since she had little reason to trust Tristan Magee, she feigned ignorance. “Well, I suppose I need to speak with Irene before I jump to any conclusions. But you think this all has something to do with my thesis? If you read it, then you know that it was a boring treatise on ancient metallurgical practices. Also, much of it was conjecture since the tablet has never been found.” She didn’t mention the more fringe belief that the tablet also contained celestial maps for space journeying and alchemical references to time travel. She hadn’t been foolish enough to include that in her final copy.
He nodded. “Never been found. Is that your story?”
She froze, stunned. “What are you saying? Has it been found?” She couldn’t hide her excitement.
Tristan’s gaze locked onto her. He was a handsome devil with sky blue eyes framed by dark brown hair, and her heart performed an unwanted flutter. Time slowed, and she felt a rush of everything cliché: a sense of rightness, of anticipation, inevitability. As if she and this man had been destined to meet.
And then it was over, and with a flash of irritation she pushed it aside. Quit acting like a princess who just found the man who would save her. What a load of horseshit.
“You think Irene found a Sumerian cuneiform tablet in the Bolivian jungle?” she asked. Was this why her mentor had asked her to come?
“Of course not. How the hell would the Sumerians have gotten here? A flying saucer?”
Connie and Irene had conjectured about the global reach of the Sumerian culture, but that’s all it had been—a fanciful hypothesis. Brynn had never really taken it seriously. Sumer was an area of land in Mesopotamia, which was essentially modern-day Iraq. A place far away from the likes of here.
“Right,” Brynn said, trying to ignore the crackle of annoyance hovering between her and this man. “You’re talking about the alien theories regarding the Sumerians, Dr. Magee.” She over-emphasized his name, trying to put professional distance between them. “There’s certainly plenty of fruitcakes who like to talk about aliens visiting the earth, and especially their link to the region known as Sumer. A flying saucer would explain how they could have brought their precious clay tablets into the Bolivian jungle. I’m afraid I’ve never bought in to such theories.”
She relaxed her shoulders. “Maybe that’s too harsh. My old college roommate Audrey always liked to consider the possibilities of alien technology. She even thinks the Sumerian gods could have been extraterrestrials. And she’s not a fruitcake. In fact, she’s a miracle.”
Some of the tension from moments ago began to dissolve and the rigidness in Brynn’s body released in small increments.
“As a child, she had brain cancer. When she was nine years old, her father took her camping in Northern Arizona, and something amazing happened. She was cured.”
“Just like that?”
“And her cancer never returned?” he asked.
“Nope.” She knocked on the table just in case for good measure. Now that she had calmed down—Audrey generally had that effect on her, especially in person but it would seem her aura could also reach across continents—she returned to the topic at hand. “Why are you looking for Irene?”
“She stole something from me.”
“And you think she brought it here?”
“What is it?”
“The Moon Tablet of Ur.”
Was this man for real?
A grin split her face. “Holy shit.”
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