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The Last Conquistador

Chapter 1

Nevado Salcantay, Peru

Nina Ramirez sat up. Blinding yellow light streamed through the thin fabric of her tent. The sleeping bag was twisted under her back, and her rib cage ached. Even after ten years of sleeping in it, she still hadn’t found a way to get through a night comfortably. She pulled the iPod plugs out of her ears and listened to the world outside. It was quiet. No wind, thunder, or pellets of hail pinging off the roof of her tent. The weather had finally broken. For the last three days and nights, she and her graduate students from the Cuzco University Department of Archaeology had huddled in their tents on a plateau of Nevado Salcantay,the highest mountain in the CordillaVilcambamba. Gale force winds whipped blinding snow gusts across their camp; it was brutally cold and the air at twelve thousand feet was painfully thin. Digging was impossible under these conditions and wandering outside dangerous. Nina stepped out of her tent and greeted the Indian porters wrapped in their thick alpaca wool ponchos. They were already busy lighting fires and heating water for tea. The tethered llamas could also sense the change in temperature. They rose jerkily to their feet, shook out their coats, and began sniffing the ground, hoping for the odd weed that might grow at this altitude.We’re all together. Animals and humans looking for treasure buried beneath the snow.

Nina squinted at the jagged snowcapped mountains surrounding the plateau. Behind the mountains, to the northeast, thin funnels of black smoke from the Amazon fires cut lines in the ice blue sky. The feeling came over her again that they were not the only ones on this peak. She scanned the site. Her team and the equipment were all in place; the footprints were theirs. The crumbled stones of the ancient buildings strewn over the area were the only reminders of any previous human activity. Perhaps the spirits of the five-hundred-year-old Inca mummies they were trying to unearth were whispering to her, angry at being disturbed. Nina shook off the irrational. She didn’tbelieve in spirits; she was a scientist.

Nina took a whistle out of her pocket and blew a sharp blast. One by one, the students emerged from their tents and gathered in front of her. They had survived the worst of the mountain, and she was proud of them. She had confined her selections to her graduate students. After a seminar, she simply asked if anyone would like to volunteer for an archaeological dig that would involve a strenuous trek and freezing temperatures.The location itself would be revealed only when they were on their way. They would have to surrender their cell phones, as no contact with the outside world would be allowed once they were at the site. The four men and two women all accepted immediately. Since Edgar was also a film student, he would be the team videographer. Luis and Teresa were expert campers and worked part-time as tour guides for North American trekking companies. Cecilia and Roberto had been on expeditions with Nina before, and both were meticulous in their excavation techniques. And Julio,the youngest and brightest, was her favorite—probably because his dark Indian features reminded Nina of her father.

They had left Cuzco a week ago in a battered Cuzco University bus followed by an equally battered Mitsubishi FM557 flatbed with wood slats.

From Cuzco they drove north to Ollantaytomba, a small village famous for its ruins of an Inca fortress. There, the group hired local Indians as porters and drivers. Six llamas were led onto the truck. They would carry the equipment to the digging site: tents, food, stoves, digging tools, brushes, canvas bags, empty wood boxes, tarps, and plastic bubble wrap. The students were excited to be on a real expedition, out of the classrooms and museum basements where they spent long hours cataloging sherdsof pottery, skeletal remnants, beads, and minutia of other archaeologists. The speed with which the expedition had been mounted alerted them that this was important.

The first night, the group made camp in a gentle meadow under the shadow of the mountain. The llamas grazed peacefully, and the porters busied themselves setting out the evening meal. Nina assembled her students.

“Because of global warming—put your hand down, Edgar, I know I’m supposed to say climate change—the ice packs at high altitudes are melting. All you have to do is look at the top of the mountain in front of you—where there used to be ice and snow there are now exposed rocks. This is bad for the planet and good for archaeologists. We are discovering more and more and more Inca sites. But there aren’t enough of us available to excavate and preserve them. We’re not doing a good job of protecting them from looters.”

Nina knew that the looters were often the discoverers themselves. Peasant farmers clearing land in the jungle or a rancher searching for a lost calf might stumble across an Inca burial site. Underneath those crumbled stones, in sealed tombs, lay skeletons adorned with gold artifacts, buried with valuable pottery, or wearing miraculously preserved woven fabrics. These treasures presented an irresistible temptation to someone who could feed his family for a year for what a trader of Inca relics would pay. The majority of looters were professionals who followed archaeologists to sites and robbed the tombs at night. Or, worse, they returned with bulldozers and dynamite to uncover, and destroy in the process, the remaining artifacts. There was no shortage of traders willing to buy the country’s cultural heritage and sell it to collectors and acquisitive museum curators.

“This time it’s different,” she said. “A few weeks ago, a technician on the Royal Dutch Shell trawler SS Groote Beer, anchored off the coast of Ecuador, was examining images sent from a satellite searching for oil deposits in the Peruvian Andes. This satellite took infrared pictures to determine earth temperatures as an indication of underground oil deposits. There was something strange about the configuration of boulders scattered near the summit of a mountain that attracted his attention. He enlarged the image. It wasn’t just the size of the boulders but the regularity of their shapes. The technician was curious, so he sent a digital image of the boulders to an anthropologist friend at Leyden University in Holland. The anthropologist recognized the objects as . . .”

“Inca building blocks!”

“Thank you, Teresa. So the Leyden guy e-mailed the pictures to a colleague— Tomas Voigt in the University of Bonn’s South American archaeology department—who had a big unreturned crush on me back when you were all babies . . .”

“It’s called he was into you.”

“Shut up, Edgar. Anyway, Voigt sent them to me and what did I see? Julio?”

“The ruins of an Inca site, which at twelve thousand feet might be a platform and temple for human sacrifice. Awesome.”

“Why is that?”

“Because the Incas preferred to sacrifice on the mountaintops. No one knows why for sure.”

 “Not true,” said Teresa. “There is the theory that they killed their victims at the highest possible altitudes to shorten their journey to the gods. And the Incas considered mountains holy places.”

 “But still,” said Cecilia, “the physical effort needed to get to that height, hauling the huge stones, and then constructing the temple, living quarters, and sacrificial platformit, had to be an almost inhuman task.”

“And it wasn’t easy for us, either.”

Nina interrupted. “Okay, okay. I persuaded the Army commander in Cuzco to send a squad of soldiers by helicopter to secure the sight until an archaeological expedition could be mounted. That’s us. In any event, we can say this time the Internet beat tomb looters to the site. Everybody ready?”

Edgar raised his digging trowel and said, “We who are about to become famous salute you!”

Nina smiled. “Then get to work.”

Within an hour, the teams had taped off a half dozen promising sites. Digging began. The Indian porters worked alongside the students, carefully scraping away thin layers of frozen topsoil, then probed the ground beneath with long needles. Nina walked from group to group, offering suggestions on digging techniques, making sure no one rushed. The work had to be meticulous and slow. Delicate treasure lay underneath the soil and it must be removed with the touch of a surgeon.

The morning passed. The high altitude was debilitating. Nina made sure the students took frequent breaks. They drank mugs of bitter cocoa-leaf tea from thermoses. There was a short lunch break of peanut butter sandwiches and potato salad, latrine visits, and back to digging. Nina wandered over to the jangle of rocks and boulders that must have been the sacrificial platform. She traced the faint outlines of a foundation that could have been a temple. She knew there were architectural mysteries to be solved in future expeditions, but her main concern was what might be under the ground. She prodded, poked, photographed, and made notes of her observations in her moleskin diary. There was something she didn’t notice at first. She moved closer to the remains of the temple and saw a thick piece of wood sticking out between two large stones. It was a support beam for the structure that had beencrushed by the weight of the stone. She took off her glove and ran her hand over the wood. It was freshly hewn. She wondered how it got in there. As she examined it more closely, she heard Julio’s yell.

“Dr. Ramirez! We found one!”

Julio and his partner, Teresa, stood up in a shallow pit, waving their arms.

Nina pocketed her book and ran, her camera bouncing on her chest. She reached the dig site where Julio and Teresa waited. Stepping to the edge of the pit, she could see the outlines of a mound, the size of a burlap sack. It was underneath a layer of dirt, but she knew what it was—the mummified corpse of a sacrificed Inca child.

Everyone crowded around the pit. Nina told herself to stay calm, even as she knew they were on the verge of an amazing discovery. She just needed to get people to do the tasks they had rehearsed.

“Roberto, lay out the tarp and get a freezer chest.”

She turned to the porters. “Can we get some hot water, please? We’ll need it to melt the ice around it. Who’s recording this?”

Edgar held up his video camera. “I’m on it.”

While they waited, Nina asked Julio, “Can you tell me why you decided to dig here?”

“Like I said, the Incas sacrificed at the highest possible altitude so that the journey to the gods would be quick. I think this is the highest spot on the ridge. He pointed to the rocks. “And closest to the ruins of the sacrificial platform.”

“Anything else?”

Julio hesitated, unsure, then said, “What the hell. I felt it.”

Something’s talking to him, too.“Very good. The digging force is strong in you, young Skywalker.”

“Teresa confirmed it,” Julio added, indicating his partner.

“Well, you two found it, now go ahead and bring it up.”

Julio and Teresa returned to the pit. Edgar squeezed past Nina and began videotaping. His camera light illuminated the two students as they brushed away the dirt covering the half-buried mound at the bottom of the pit. Julio and Teresa worked meticulously to free the mummy from its frozen coffin. Gradually, as they scraped handfuls of dirt away from the mound, the earth began to yield other spoils: small clay pots that once held grains, a silver water jug, glass beads that rolled free from their decomposed string, seashells, and little gold figurines of llamas, snakes, and turtles that would accompany the victim of the sacrifice on its journey to the gods.

They passed each artifact to Cecilia, who placed them on a wooden tray. And from there, Nina imagined, they would eventually make their way to a final resting place—on a bed of green velvet under bulletproof glass in the National Museum. Once again, as her father liked to say about archaeologists, they were disturbing the universe and undoing the past.

Ninaremembered the first time she had dug her trowel into a mound of dirt and heard the dull clang of metal hitting metal.

She scooped the dirt away with her fingers, gradually revealing a perfectly preserved gold Inca mask of Inti, the sun god. She pried away the pebbles embedded in its casing, then brushed away the dirt, never looking up, never making a sound, holding her breath as the image of the god began to emerge into a golden clarity.

“Why so glum, Nina? He said. “You’ve just made a fantastic find.”

“I’m sorry, Professor. I’m so excited I’m at a loss for words.”

But a feeling of guilt, an uneasinesscame over her. She wasundoing the past.

The mound was still embedded in the frozen dirt.

“Just rock it back and forth gently—like a loose tooth.” Nina looked over her shoulder. “Where’s the hot water?”

“Coming now.”

“Good. Now go easy. We don’t want the shroud damaged.”

One of the porters arrived with a plastic bucket of steaming water. He handed it to Nina.

She lowered the bucket to Julio, who spilled out a steady stream around the edges of the mound, melting the ice that glued it to the floor. As he poured the water, Teresa continued to tease the bundle back and forth. She stopped and looked up at Nina.

“It’s coming free.”

“Go on,” said Nina, “get it out.”

Teresa hesitated.

“It won’t bite. It’s dead.”

Julio and Teresa put their hands around the mummy and lifted it to Nina.

It felt light in her arms, the dead body. A child with no weight, drained of fluids, muscles shriveled. I’m thinking about what it could be even before I open it.She could be carrying a bag of dust and bones. Slow down. She lowered the bundle onto the blue tarp. A freezer chest and an open medical kit were on the edge. Nina put on a gauze mask and latex gloves.“Edgar, are you recording this?” she asked.

He gave her a thumbs-up and moved closer.

Nina rubbed her hands over the bundle, quickly feeling for knots. She turned it on its side, selected a metal probe from the medical kit and untied each of the three fiber knots in the wrapping. Then she rolled the bundle back to its prone position. Cecilia stood by the medical kit and handed Nina a pair of large tweezers. She began to draw back the folds of the shroud. Go slowly. Inch by inch. There. There. Oh, my God.It was the five-hundred-year-old corpse of an Inca girl. She was curled in a fetal position, wrapped in a multicolored shawl. Her skeletal fingers clutched a gold llama figurine as if it were her favorite doll. The skin was taut over her bones, stretched and shiny, the color of mahogany. Her teeth and mouth were painted red.

“She’s beautiful,” Teresa said.

Beautiful?TheInca girl’s skull had been bashed in and the black stains on the shawl weredried blood. She studied the girl’s face and tried to find some emotion in it. There was none. Shehad been drugged before the sacrifice. Had it calmed her? This is what a body looks like when the soul abandons it.

“Julio, give me a hand, I want her in the freezer box right away.”

She rewrapped the fragile body. Julio placed it in the freezer box and shut the cover. From one icy tomb to another. She turned back to the grave. Two of the porters were already shoveling the earth back into the hole. We’re like criminals, covering up the evidence of our theft.

The students returned to their work.


The second discovery happened as Nina was checking her watch and about to announce that they would stop work for the day and resume in the morning, Cecilia’s voice rang through the site. “Dr. Ramirez! Dr. Ramirez! We found another one!” Cecilia and Luis were jumping up and down, waving their arms like excited children.

“Everyone, we found another one!”

One mummy was extraordinary.Two at the same site was phenomenal, and it would confirm they had also discovered an Inca sacrificial site. There might be no end to the treasures that lay buried on this mountain peak. The mountain was revealing its secrets.

Students parted for her. Nina knelt at the edge of the shallow pit. The dirt here was thinner, and she could see portions of cloth showing.

“The topsoil was a different color,” said Luis.“It was clear there was something buried underneath.”

“And it was fairly easy to dig through the topsoil on this one, Professor,” Cecilia added.

Nina nodded. “Cecilia, go down and see if we need some water to melt any ice away.”

Then she lowered herself into the pit. “I need some light.”

Edgar moved forward with his video camera and aimed its light at the mound.

“We don’t need water. It’s not even frozen,” said Cecilia as she started to dig the dirt away from the sides of the mound with a small trowel.

“Use a brush, too,” Nina said.

Cecilia alternated scooping and brushing as she moved the dirt away. In a few minutes, she had cleared enough to reveal another bundle.

“It’s coming loose. Help me, Luis.”

Luis climbed down into the pit. Together, they rocked it back and forth until it came free in their hands. They lifted the mummy and passed it up to Julio and Teresa.

“Careful. Same procedure. Put it on the tarp and get another ice chest. Edgar?”

Edgar recorded the proceedings on his video camera. Like the first, this mummy was wrapped in woven cloth and bound by fiber cords with knots. Gold figurines of animals were embedded in the cords. Nina felt the knots. They were moist and slippery. She didn’t want to cut them. She reminded herself to be patient and work slowly. She needed to rollthe knots in her fingers like dough, loosen them, then look for the ends of the cord and try to untie it. She felt the knot soften.


“In a minute, Cecilia, I’m coming close on the first knot. There.”

One more knot and she would be able to part the cloth. Her fingers were hurting. She closed her eyes and felt the knot. It was loose, as if someone didn’t bother to tie it tightly and it opened easily.


“I’m here.”

She pulled apart the mummy’s wrap.

It was a boy this time, curled in the fetal position. A searing band of dried blood encircled his neck. There was a black gaping indention on his skull. A swab of red paint streaked across his mouth and teeth.

“Oh, Jesus!” shouted Edgar. “Somebody take the camera, I’m going to be sick.”

“Professor?” Julio said. “Your hands. Look at your hands.”

Nina looked down. Her fingers were covered in blood. The mummy was bleeding.

The boy was dead, but his death was so recent that his blood had not dried. Nina realized she was looking at a victim of the present, not the past. A few hours ago, she felt she was not alone, that someone was watching her. Now she wondered if it was someone who had witnessed this death. Or caused it.

The Last Conquistador
by by Michael Elias