Monday, August 01, 2005

The Treasure Detector

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“You might think that treasure would have a positive reading,” said Dad. There was something about the tone of his voice that made me look at him sharply. “But, it doesn’t. Generally speaking, the aura of hidden or buried treasure is negative -- usually infinitely negative.” His new piece of equipment flickered blue plasma and tiny purple bolts of magnetically charged light as the Vector Generator, a shiny gold, quartz, and palladium cylinder, turned slowly on its base. I averted my eyes. I knew by now that if I stared at it too long, I would either go into a trance-like state or worse.

I had just entered Dad’s basement laboratory to review the Blue Cave near Jacob Lake, Arizona, and to take a look at the original historical documents. According to numerous accounts, a team had made a name for itself in the late 1860s and 1870s as the Pink Lady Bandits. While they targeted outlaws and bank robbers, they saved their real energy and innovation for the bands of outlaws that preyed upon wagon trains of settlers heading to California, or on cross-country stagecoaches carrying coins and jewels back from the gold fields.

Sometime later, it was discovered that one of the ladies was a man, and that they were a husband and wife duo.

Dad opened the shutters to a row of windows that extended the length of the wall. As bright sunlight poured in, I was reminded that the lab was not completely underground like a typical basement, but was partially a split-level affair, with a wide, high window where the chin-level sill was at ground level.

“History is a construct. It is an invented narrative,” he read slowly from a yellowed pamphlet. “This is a translation of a Russian historian who died in the gulags in the 1930s.”

“Do you go along with that?” I asked. “And if so, why do you collect all these maps and books on the gold fields of Nevada, California, and Arizona?”

The vertigo that Dad’s Vector Generator had created in me was beginning to subside. I was still feeling mentally vulnerable, and apt to blurt out any kind of thing that came to mind. Impulse control was an afterthought at best.

“I’m just saying that there’s a lot of window-dressing on the truth,” he said. He leaned over the map he had been examining.

“Window-dressing?” I asked.

“Embellishment. Exaggeration. Cleaning up.” Dad held the map up to the light. “I’m not sure what to believe about the history of the Blue Cave and the so-called The Pink Lady Bandits, for example.”

“Do you remember when you and I went to the Blue Cave?” I asked. “It was the summer after we lived in Lovelock, Nevada. We were on our way back.”

“Yes. That was interesting. I didn’t have the information I have now – but, perhaps it would not have made any difference. The ownership was problematic. That’s why we never did anything with it, even though the copper mineralization was pretty high grade,” said Dad. “I’d like to go back in the next month or so.”

“I was eight years old,” I said. “Yeah. What a time. Right after that, when we stayed in Flagstaff, I had my first seizure.”

I looked down, suddenly filled with sadness. Life with a seizure disorder had not been an easy one, but now was not the time or place to indulge myself with a round of self-pity. Perhaps we were onto something with this. The palladium inserts in the Vector Generator were definitely giving it a magnificent charge. It could, in theory, be used to calculate the distance between two places bearing the same charge. If we put old gold coins in the Vector Pod, it would calculate the distance between that and all the old gold coin occurrences of like frequency. To make it effective, we needed something that had once belonged to one or both of the Pink Lady Bandits.

Suddenly an ear-piercing animal shriek rent the air. Without thinking, I stared into the Vector Generator, which had flared with a thousand simultaneous miniature lightning bolts. As much as I tried, I could not seem to detach my gaze from it, even as I heard more screams from outside the laboratory door.

“Dad,” I felt myself starting to tremble. “Dad. Please. Help me.”

Dad moved swiftly across the lab, grabbed a large canvas rock bag and shoved it down over my head. An eccentric remedy, by any stretch of the imagination. However, it worked. I found myself coming back around. Grabbing me by the arm, Dad helped me up the stairs and out of the basement laboratory.

Once into the fresh, cool morning sunshine, my head cleared. Dad stopped abruptly as the hideous shrieks erupted again.

“You didn’t tell me Stanton was going to come by,” Dad said. His tone was dark, but amused. “Where did he get that thing?”

“That?” I looked at the back of Stanton’s pickup truck. He had a large cat carrier, and in it was an extremely bulky and extremely unhappy feline.

“Perhaps the better question is “why.” What are you planning to do? Do you really imagine you can make something work this time?” said Dad softly. He paused, then continued. “Don’t set yourself up to be hurt.”

The Hidden Temple

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The sickness was upon him again. It penetrated his bones and made him shiver with a dread so intense it felt like a fever. It was not precisely physical, nor was it completely psychological. However, like malaria, it recurred whenever he felt the slightest weakness.

Captain Harville had achieved the rank of captain. With his new rank came orders to go to a place he could never divulge. Harville was required by law and by protocol to deny he had ever flown over this land. Needless to say, he was not able to mention that he had also landed his helicopter on an awkward strip of land next to a rice paddy, nor could he describe the small cluster of bamboo huts on stilts where monsoon rains rolled down the palm frond thatched roof. The flat leaves kept out the rain, for the most part, but not the small animals, and certainly not the brown snakes that dropped from trees and coiled themselves around the bamboo rafters, waiting for the Burmese mice, the gold and black-striped salamanders, or even a bat or two.

At first, Captain Harville was well. He thanked the skies above that he was able to land, despite taking fire, some of it undoubtedly friendly, thanks to the secrecy that shrouded what he understood to be his mission.

Laos was beautiful, even magical, thought Harville. He might even enjoy it here.

However, the day he took the boat down the dark green waters of a tributary of the Mekong River, he knew his mind and his body had come under the thrall of something terrible and inexplicable. The jungle changed hue from lime green to dark, shadowy brown and green, and a humid, dank canopy covered the entire river. The sense of foreboding was as clammy as the sweat on his arms. Monkeys chattered, birds sounded shrill alarms, and the unearthly sound of a woman’s scream, which he knew to be a tiger, not a woman, made him question the wisdom of taking the boat alone.

Waterfalls flowed from underground channels and conduits. Where they encountered escarpments, the water cascaded out like water shot from spigots or bizarre horizontal fountains. In the gloom, Harville made out the three mounds of vines he had been looking for. Tying the boat near a small path cut through the jungle, Harville made his way toward the largest of the three. As he approached, he could see that the vines had been chopped back, and three almost identical structures revealed. Carved of limestone, with intricate patterns, the largest of the three was a stupa, a Buddhist temple.

Slashing some of the vines out of his way, Harville bared a small expanse where he saw the outline of a door. There were no visible knobs, but his instructions were clear. Clear the vines. Push the limestone block to the side, pull the iron ring, push the wooden lever. He did so, and a section of the wall moved smoothly inward, revealing a dark passageway.

It was not a gratifying success, Harville noted. This was the Golden Triangle, after all. Whatever was hidden here was likely to have a host of interested parties. He dreaded what he would find. The most likely possibilities were opium, arms, ammunition.

He saw nothing, however. Instead, he saw white smoke and sensed an overpoweringly sweet smell that generated a bitter taste in his mouth. The limestone walls seemed to bend, waver, and melt, when the sight of a man made him catch his breath in surprise. An impossibly small Buddhist monk in a crimson robe appeared in front of him, and addressed him in an impeccable British English.

“You must respect the fact that I have no choice in this matter. I am one of the last remaining Guardians,” said the tiny Buddhist monk.

Back in his base camp, Captain Harville awakened with no recall how he got back, nor why he was here. He lay in bed, vaguely nauseous, and he looked above into the bamboo beams and palm fronds. There his eyes followed the actions of 6 brown snakes as they coil, turn, writhe in the rafters.

Clutched in his hand was a small carving of iridescent green jade that, when turned a certain direction, changed colors and turns as peach as transparent flesh. It was a coiled dragon. Its eyes were black garnets, and there was a blood-red droplet of something on its tongue. Upon close examination, one can see that it was a fiery red garnet.

The impossibly small Buddhist monk appeared in the room with Harville. Harville heard a voice, a monk’s voice, imagined the monk perching somewhere on a bamboo rafter. The monk’s dark red robes glowed, brightened, darkened, faded. He wavered, then faded.

“Be not deceived. You cannot enter the temple without becoming one of us. You will be forever bound to the Bao Luong Min Temple.” The voice seemed to come from three places at once.

“Bao Luong Min,” said Harville. “What does that mean?”

High-pitched laughter came from the rafters. Instead of six snakes, there are now at least two dozen. The are writhing and coiling frantically. More high-pitched, cackling, hysterical laughter.

“God’s Hostage.”

Harville closed his eyes. He felt the bitterness in his mouth turn to pepper, then to licorice.

The sickness rose in his brain like a fever. The dragon in his hand crackled with energy, glowed, burned, seared images into his mind.

Later, when he awoke, a full day and a half later, nothing remained to indicate that anything at all had happened, not even the trip down the river.

Then, Harville looked down upon his hand. The carving was gone, but what remained were blood-red lines – the tattoo of a dragon.