The rock poised to slam down on him looked the size of a deflated football. Curling until his knees touched his chin, Jake tried his best to cover the most vulnerable parts of his body.
It hit his shoulder with a muted thump, barely scraping his head. The bruise on his upper arm would last for days, but at least his skull was intact. He heard renewed shouting.
“American pig! You are not welcome. You come near our homes again and . . .”
Quick, heavy steps drew near. Shoes crunched on the loose sand and gravel in the alleyway.
“Jake, are you okay?”
The voice sounded familiar, and Jake lowered his arms, scrunching into a sitting position. His father dropped to a knee and began running his hands up and down Jake’s arms and legs looking for injuries. The bright sun was dazzling, the dry heat suffocating.
“I hate this place.”
“I know you do, but I have to finish my work before we can leave. It’s a good thing Avner found me. A few more minutes and you could have been hurt bad.”
Getting to his feet, Jake slapped the dust off his chest and legs. Being an eighteen-year-old American in Israel near the border with Palestine wasn’t always good for your health. Avner slapped his back and squinted as dust billowed away.
“Your Dad was just a couple of blocks away. I told him you were in trouble.”
“Thanks, man,” Jake replied.
“What did you do to provoke them?” his father asked.
“Nothing! Why do you always blame me? I didn’t do anything.”
“Don’t yell at me. People don’t beat someone for no reason.”
Rob Goddard was an archeologist first and a father sixth. Or maybe even tenth. The Harvard Department of Archeological Projects had needed him to represent the university during the investigation into the latest claimed discovery of King Solomon’s Temple. The trouble was the dig was located around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jake had no choice about being dragged along for the journey. His mother had died from cancer when he was three, and he had no close relatives. Besides, living in the Middle East was a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity according to his father.
“I guess I’m just a natural-born troublemaker. Every Palestinian gang with a chip on its shoulder wants a piece of me. You should send me back to Boston.”
“You know I can’t. What’s the matter with you? You’re acting like it’s my fault you were beat up. Let’s get you home. You’ll feel better once you’ve cleaned up and eaten something.”
Jake didn’t want to go back to the residential area, but the grit and dust on his skin coupled with the dry heat made him feel awful. With a reluctant sigh, he turned toward home.
Sparks from the fire-pit billowed into the air.
The pit was a shallow concrete bowl five to six feet in diameter where a fire was built every night. Wooden benches surrounded the pit just far enough away from the heat to allow people to sit around in comfort. As the fire burned down to glowing embers, someone threw small sticks into the pit, causing a burst of sparks to float into the air, swirling and fading into darkness.
One of the few pleasures Jake had discovered was the visual treat of the dancing pinpricks of flames whirling in the night. He looked forward to the display, and tonight it helped him forget his aching shoulder. Avner sat beside him.
“I found a handwritten map on my father’s desk earlier today. It had a small mark on it with the words ‘New Entrance’. He’s been working on the northeastern plaza above the Temple Mount, and I think I have a fair idea where the x spot is.”
Throwing a little stone into the center of the dying coals, Avner grinned as a new cloud of sparks shot up. “Your dad will kill you. You’re already in his sights over the beat down you took today. Why get him even angrier?”
“I’m bored. Playing video games is not real excitement. Winning or losing in Tomb Raider leads to a reset every time. You get killed, reset. You find the treasure, reset. I want to find some real treasure. Touch it. Hide it. Use it. The only friend I have is you, and you own all the games.”
“Thanks for making me feel so good,” Avner said as he tossed another rock. “Guess I’ll go back to fighting fruits and vegetables. At least the apps like me.”
“Don’t take it personal. I just want something to look forward to besides a fire pit.”
“I have a ten o’clock curfew. Think we can do anything in an hour?”
“All we need is a pick and shovel. We’ll dig around until we find something. Come on.”
The light from the full moon was bright enough to require their flashlights in only the deepest shadow.
A few cats and dogs were the only living things they encountered as they picked their way along the stone walks leading to the Temple Mount. Jake was surprised by the lack of human presence, but Avner acted like he expected it.
Every time Jake would make a sudden stop, Avner would ask loudly, “What did you hear? Why are you so nervous?”
“I keep thinking some jerk is going to jump out and grab me. Remember it was just this afternoon when I got beat up.”
“Look, once we climbed the fence without being seen, this whole area became ours. No one disobeys the warning signs. No one would dare cross the barricade. It just isn’t done.”
“What about us?”
“Since no one would dare violate the orders of the military to keep out, we aren’t here,” he grinned.
At that instant, a metallic thunk and scrapes sounded, and Jake ducked behind a stack of wooden pallets. Avner was slow on the uptake. Jake grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him out of sight.
Voices murmured, but they were too far away to understand what was being said. Using piles of debris and stacks of machinery and supplies to screen his moves, Jake dodged and crawled to a closer vantage point.
A group of laborers was taking orders from a man dressed in khaki and wearing a leather beret. He was standing too far away to see any facial detail. The men each held either a shovel or pickaxe, and the dirt on their clothes indicated they had been digging for some time.
“Keep looking,” the beret-wearer said.
There was a grumbling in the crowd and at last someone shouted, “We’ve been digging a week. No results. The men want to know when this is going to end.”
The hat-wearer’s arm had been hanging loosely, but with no warning, it pointed at the crowd. A gunshot followed. It wasn’t a loud, echoing boom; just a muted thunk. A silencer.
“I’ll let you know when it ends,” the beret-wearer growled as one of the men collapsed. “Bury your spokesman in one of the holes you dug. In a few thousand years, maybe someone will think he’s a long-lost Jewish King.”
Jake was frozen in place. He’d just witnessed a murder and knew deep in his bones the danger he had found. Avner mewed, and Jake shushed him. Maybe a little too loud.
The beret-wearer turned and said, “There’s a two-legged dog nearby. Find it!”
Men began heading his way, and Jake knew he had to find a better place to hide. His panicked mind turned the piles of debris into small mounds. He couldn’t stay where he was. In frantic haste, he focused on his surroundings, seeking a hidey-hole. Perhaps his eyes were playing tricks on him, but he made out a dark area at the foot of a stone wall not too far away.
Scuttling to the wall, he ran his hand along it to keep a straight path toward the dark area. Avner followed. They came upon a hole. Jake dared not use his flashlight. The men had already come past the pile they had hidden behind and were fanning out to increase their search area.
Taking a deep breath, Jake dropped into the hole, catching himself with his outflung arms. He tried to touch the sides with his feet, but it was impossible. It was like he was hanging from the top of a dome. Jake’s fear of heights began to send cold lightning bolts up his spine.
“Get out of the way!” Avner hissed.
“I can’t. My feet are dangling. I’m scared.”
Instead of whispering a reply, Avner climbed onto Jake’s shoulders and started pressing. Jake’s arms couldn’t support the added weight, and he fell into pitch blackness. Two feet. Expecting a much farther drop, Jake’s legs stoved into his hip sockets, and his knees buckled. Avner fell on top of him.
Lights flashed across the opening and someone said, “Check out that well.”
Jake scrambled away from the opening above his head, using his hands as guides. The stone wall felt warm. The sane voice in Jake’s mind noted the warmth and made a note to check it out later. The insane voice in Jake’s mind said “Forget the crap. Hide!”
A light shone down the hole and circled.
“Nothing down there.”
The voices moved away and in moments, the silence indicated the searchers had moved on to other possible hiding places.
A light stabbed the darkness, found Jake’s legs and moved to his face.
“Get that out of my eyes.”
“You look okay,” Avner replied as he moved the light beam to their surroundings.
They were in a narrow tunnel that angled down, deeper into the foundations.
“Who were those guys?” Jake demanded. Since Avner was a native, he had to know everyone, Jake reasoned.
“How should I know? The discovery of the Temple has brought in a lot of new people from everywhere.”
“Well, now that we’re here, let’s explore a little.”
“My curfew is in thirty minutes. My parents will kill me.”
“Better a figurative death than a real one. Those guys up there aren’t going away soon,” Jake replied as he moved down the tunnel.
Shaking his head, Avner followed.
A hundred yards is not a long way unless you’re in a stone chimney two feet wide.
The hot, humid air only enhanced the claustrophobic experience. Their trek ended in a round room of solid rock. The chamber gave the impression it was formed by acid mopped or brushed on the rock to slowly eat away until the desired shape and size developed.The walls were smooth yet uneven - without tool marks. Jake ran his palms about the smooth surface, trying to find any kind of abnormality. A rough place, an indentation, a bulge - anything to investigate. There was nothing but undulating waves in the stone where cloth soaked in acid had been rubbed. Avner was impatient.
“It will take us a while to climb back to the entrance. We need to get going.”
“Give me another minute. There’s got to be something here. People don’t just dig a tunnel and put a nice room at the end of it for nothing. Put yourself in the shoes of the builder 3,000 years ago. How would you have hidden something in here?”
Resignedly, Avner sat back on his haunches and considered.
“Okay. I have a way to make a hole out of solid rock. It looks like the builders used some kind of acid to eat away the rock. See the rub marks?”
Considering what he surmised for a moment, Avner continued, “I would use the acid to make a smaller hole somewhere inconspicuous. I would put my treasure in the hole and seal it with a disguising paste made from the rock. Unless you knew where to look, my hole would remain hidden.”
Jake began touching and pushing at the chamber wall near the back of its floor. His pushing and prodding revealed nothing.
“There has to be something here,” he fumed as he worked.
“I don’t think you’re looking in the right place,” Avner said. “If moisture ever got in here, the first place it would settle is where you’re looking.”
“Where would you put it, Einstein?” Jake asked as he flashed his light in Avner’s face.
Blinking at the harsh light, he said, “I’d put it in a place where no one would think of looking, but where it would have the best chance of escaping damage from water.”
“So the ceiling near the entrance,” Jake said as he moved his light upward.
“What do you mean nope?”
“This chamber is too obvious. A mysterious tunnel leads to a puzzling chamber. I’ll bet there’s treasure hidden somewhere inside.” Avner rolled his eyes to emphasize his disdain for stupidity.
“All right, Mr. Wiseguy. Impress me with your knowledge of ancient crypts.”
They crawl-climbed back to the spot below the entrance. Jake was tired, and sweat dripped into his eyes with a burning sensation.
He couldn’t use his T-shirt to wipe the watery mess from his eyes because it was covered with dust and slime from the narrow passageway. Avner was in no better condition. He had so much dust on his face, his sweat ran in streaks.
When they reached the mouth of the passage, Avner began shining his flashlight along the top of the chimney-hole, pausing every so often to push his fingers into an interesting crevice. To keep from feeling bored, Jake began exploring as well.
His short attention span was screaming STOP when his fingers felt a raised pattern. In the dark, he couldn’t be sure.
“Wait a minute. I think I found something. Put your light where my finger is.”
Avner pushed the focusing sleeve on his flashlight to its narrowest setting and aimed the light where Jake indicated. A small rune the size of a nickel was embossed on a stone. It was so small and blended so well with its surroundings, the only way to discover it was by touch. Unless you knew where to look.
“Wow! I wonder what it means.”
“I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
Jake selected a pointed rock and used the tip to hammer at the rune.
“What are you doing?” Avner hissed. “The symbol may be thousands of years old, and you’re destroying it like a dumb caveman.”
As the symbol cracked inward and began crumbling away, Jake said, “You don’t need a college degree to know whatever is here was hidden for a reason.”
Jake continued to chip away until the hole was large enough for his hand. Thrusting his pointed fingers into the opening, he felt something leathery.
“If I was hiding a treasure in a place like that, I’d put a poisoned needle or something to kill a robber like you,” Avner warned.
“Guess whoever hid this didn’t think it would be found with such ease,” Jake bragged.
Pulling an aged leather pouch from the hole, Jake untied the binding and dumped the contents.
A pile of dust, some grayish lumps and a heavy gold-colored ring fell into his palm. Grabbing the ring and dumping the dusty lumps, Jake motioned for some illumination. In the narrow beam of Avner’s flashlight, Jake could make out some strange markings around the base shoulders below the ring head. The top was flat with two opposing triangles carved into it. Jake tried it on and its finger hole was so large, his right hand middle finger was the only one close to its size. Jake noticed a subtle warmth as he pushed it on his finger, and the ring seemed to writhe as it settled into place. To Jake’s surprise, it fit better than he imagined.
Footsteps sounded from above and a cloud of sand and dirt fell from the opening to their hiding place. Avner flicked his light off.
“Did you see the light?” a gruff voice whispered.
“What are you talking about? This place, the darkness, it’s getting into your head.”
“Maybe,” the gruff voice answered.
A whistle sounded and the gruff voice said, “They’re wanting us back. I don’t like the man in charge. He killed Moche like he was nothing. The guy’s crazy.”
“Be careful what you say and do, or you’ll be his next victim,” the other voice replied as they walked away.
Avner waited until he thought they were gone. “We’ve got to get out of here now!”
“Okay by me. I found my treasure.”
“What are you going to do with it? You can’t go around wearing a gold ring all of a sudden. It would look weird.”
“I like it. I’ll say I found it in the market. Dad won’t mind. He doesn’t care about anything but his work. He’ll glance at it and won’t mention it again.”
“I hope you’re right. If anyone finds out we were here, they’ll call us grave robbers or something.”
Jake intertwined his fingers and boosted Avner up until he managed to grab the sides of the opening and pull himself out. He then jumped for Avner’s outstretched arm and pulled himself up and out of the hole. The ringing of pickaxes and shovels from the distance indicated the searchers were occupied. Jake and Avner slunk away.