Sealed With A Kiss
Five Years Later
“It’s hotter’n a Nashville tick out here.”
Wade wasn’t wrong. We were trudging through the jungle on the Yucatan peninsula, and it was steamy. The air was thick with moisture and clung to our skin. Sweat was running down my back and causing my bra to rub uncomfortably between my shoulder blades.
Roman led the way, clearing a path with his machete. Wade and Luke followed behind while carrying a large trunk between them. I took up the rear.
“It feels like I jumped in the river,” Roman said at the front. “My shirt is drenched in sweat.”
“Look on the bright side,” Luke said. “There aren’t any natives aiming rifles at you.”
I thought back to our time on Kanawa six years ago. This trudge through the Yucatan jungle reminded me of that. Back then, we had been working against Roman. Things were a lot different now.
A lot better, too.
“Don’t speak so soon,” I said. “Plenty of time for us to get hassled by the locals here.”
I loved how things had gone since our search for the Khan Diadem. We had really melded into a nice little group. Roman and I did the historical research on what relics to search for. Wade communicated with anyone we came across along the way—he had even started learning some of the African languages to help round out his skill set. And then Luke was the muscle on the missions themselves. We rarely needed physical force, but having Luke along helped ensure that. Peace through intimidation.
Everyone had a role. And we were completely happy together. So happy that sometimes I wondered if any of it was real.
Roman hacked at a fern and then paused. “I think I see our target.”
The boys lowered the trunk to the ground and then we peered through the ferns. There was a clearing ahead. In the middle of the clearing was a tremendous Aztec step-pyramid. I counted nine levels.
Here in the Septentrional region of Mexico, the Aztecs had built most of their step-pyramids as places of ceremony. Unlike Egyptian pyramids, Aztec pyramids weren’t burial sites.
Except for this one.
Modern imaging technology had revealed a chamber deep within the pyramid. The national government was forming a historical team to examine it and excavate the contents, but the corrupt local governor hadn’t wanted to wait. He had drilled into the pyramid immediately with the goal of looting and selling the contents for his own personal gain.
Our job was to recover the historical artifacts before that happened.
“Two guards on the left,” Luke said quietly. “Three more on the right.”
“And another inside the pyramid.” Roman pointed. “You can see his gun poke out when he turns.”
A silence fell over the team. Our intel claimed that only excavators were at the site. It didn’t say anything about armed guards.
“Abort?” Wade asked.
I gritted my teeth. “I hate leaving those priceless artifacts for the governor to steal.”
“Hate gettin’ filled with bullets, too,” Wade replied.
I watched the guards patrolling around the site. All of them were armed with automatic weapons. The risk was high.
And it’s not just my life I’m risking, I thought, picturing who was waiting at home for us.
“I think we can get in and out,” I said. “Shame we don’t have a motorcycle for Luke to use as a distraction.”
The big former SEAL grinned at me. “Got other ways to do that, boss. Just say the word.”
I glanced at Roman. He nodded. After a moment, Wade did too.
“If we’re caught, we surrender,” I said. “No shootouts. We can always bribe our way out of the local jail, but we can’t bribe bullets out of our bodies.” I stared at Luke. “Be careful.”
“Copy that.” Luke patted me on the shoulder and jogged off into the jungle, circling around the other side of the pyramid.
We waited at the edge of the clearing. The ever-present background hum of insects and birds filled the air while we watched the pyramid guards patrolling around the perimeter. They seemed totally at ease, guns slung over their shoulders and casually smoking cigarettes. I couldn’t blame them—who would want to attack a historical site?
The explosion sounded on the far edge of the clearing. Trees whipped back and forth and soil fountained into the air from Luke’s grenade. All the guards turned toward it at the same time, dropping their cigarettes and reading their weapons.
They shouted to one another in Spanish, then began spreading out toward the location of the explosion. A second grenade went off moments later, this time deeper in the distance. The guards entered the jungle, disappearing from sight.
Roman held up his fingers. Three. Two. One…
We leaped from our hiding spot and ran across the clearing. My knees ached from crouching for so long, but the adrenaline of suddenly being vulnerable made the pain disappear. We were totally exposed as we ran toward the hole in the side of the pyramid. I waited for someone to appear, to shout at us and aim their weapon, but no one did.
We reached the side of the pyramid. The hole in the pyramid was shaped like a doorway, cut recklessly into the side of the pyramid. It made my heart ache to see such careless attitude toward a wonderful historical structure.
“Savages,” I hissed while touching the pyramid’s stone. “Might as well have taken a sledgehammer to the whole thing.”
“I seem to recall y’all destroying Genghis Khan’s entire burial tomb,” Wade whispered. “Collapsed right in front of us like a swamp sinkhole.”
I narrowed my eyes. “That was an accident. This, however, is on purpose.”
Wade leaned toward the doorway and called out in Spanish. A moment later, the guard walked out to see who was calling him. Roman smoothly put the man into a choke hold, covered his mouth to keep him from calling for help, and then lowered him to the ground as he passed out.
I nodded approvingly. “Nicely done. You’re more than just a pretty face.”
“And you’re more than just a fine piece of ass.”
“She’s a lot of that too,” Wade said, reaching out to pinch my butt. I deftly avoided him and stuck out my tongue.
Down into the pyramid we went. The tunnels were earthen and lined with stone, and everything smelled like rich soil. We heard the occasional explosion above as Luke kept the guards distracted. It was reassuring knowing he was still running around. Better than the alternative.
Unlike Genghis Khan’s tomb six years ago, this burial site was not boobie trapped or filled with puzzle chambers. It twisted and turned, back and forth, until finally our flashlights came to what was unmistakably the burial chamber. A stone platform rose up in the middle of the room. A vase was placed on the center of the stone, which likely contained the Aztec warrior’s ashes. All around the vase were noble gifts: jaguar skins, the remains of what were once bird feathers, and fine jewelry made of thick gold. There were also small figurines of Aztec gods circling the vase.
“None of it has been moved yet,” I whispered. “We’re not too late.”
We filled two backpacks with the treasure, except for the vase of ashes. I carried that in my hands. Then we rushed back out of the tomb until we saw daylight.
“We’re out,” I said into our radio. “Meet us back at the trunk?”
“Gonna need more time than that,” Luke replied. He sounded strained, like he was running. “I’ll see you at the plane.”
I tensed. “Do you need help?”
“I’m good, boss. Just taking the scenic route.”
I didn’t argue. If Luke said he was fine, then he was fine. The huge man rarely asked for help, but when he needed it, he did ask.
We made sure the coast was clear and then sprinted across the clearing. I didn’t feel safe until we were back in the jungle. The trunk was right where we left it. Roman opened the lid, revealing the protective straw inside. We spent a few moments carefully arranging all the artifacts inside. When we were done, Roman pressed a button inside the lid of the trunk and then closed it tight, snapping the latches down. A hissing sound escaped the seam as the trunk filled itself with protective foam, coating everything inside and ensuring it didn’t move around.
When the hissing stopped, the boys carried the trunk between them and we headed back to the plane. I led the way with the machete this time, hacking through the thick foliage. It was slow, exhausting work. Within minutes my arm ached and then went numb. But I couldn’t stop. We couldn’t stop until we got to the plane and escaped.
A staccato burst of gunfire in the distance to the south added urgency to our flight.
We eventually reached the plane. It was floating on the bank of the Punta Laguna, right where we’d left it. Moments later, Luke came sprinting out of the jungle to our right.
“Got a few minutes lead on them,” he said. His body was drenched in sweat, but he wasn’t even breathing heavily. “Better get into the air.”
“Naw,” Wade said sarcastically. “I thought were going to hang out a bit. Do some sightseeing.”
Luke flicked him off.
The two of them loaded the trunk into the plane while Roman readied everything in the cockpit. Soon the propellers were spinning noisily and our plane was pulling out into the laguna. Roman turned the plane toward the long end of the laguna, the engines roared, and we took off without seeing any of the guards.
Everyone visibly relaxed once we were in the air. “Wish all missions could be that smooth,” I said.
Wade pulled a handful of beers out of the cooler and handed them out. “I’ll drink to that.”
“How about that landing spot?” Roman yelled from the cockpit. “Awfully convenient having a plane that can land on water, isn’t it?”
“You’ve made your point!” Wade yelled back. He lowered his voice and looked at me and Luke with incredulity. “One comment six years ago, and now he has to point out every time his damn boat-with-wings is useful.”
We relaxed in our seats while flying west. Unlike that day in China six years ago, there were no fighter jets being scrambled to shoot us out of the air. In this case, we were helping the national government.
The flight to Mexico City took three hours. Just long enough to take a nap and wake up as we descended. The government officials and museum curators met us on the runway and greeted us with warm hugs. When they saw what we had rescued from the corrupt governor, the curator kissed me on both cheeks.
“Just glad to see these are being put where they belong,” I said, translated into Spanish through Wade. “We’ll come back and see them in the museum when the exhibit launches.”
The flight back home to Portland was much longer. Ten hours, with a layover at ABQ. By the time we landed and drove home, it was 10:30 in the evening.
I opened the front door slowly, so as not to make any noise. I glanced upstairs; everything was dark and quiet there, but I heard the TV on in the living room.
But when I walked in there, the person awake was not who I expected.
My daughter was sitting on the couch watching TV. She was curled up against a huge bear of a man, a Ukrainian whose head was tilted back and was snoring loudly.
“Mommy!” she half-whispered when she saw us enter. She leaped off the couch and wrapped me in a big hug. All the while, Konstantin kept sleeping on the couch.
“Isn’t it past your bedtime, Patricia?” She was only four years old, and we’d named her after my mother. That was their idea: Roman, Wade, and Luke. They insisted, and it warmed my heart.
“Konstantin fell asleep,” she whispered, as if she was telling me a secret. “I had to stay up to watch over him.”
“Who’s babysitting who?” Roman said as he scooped up Patricia into his arms and gave her a big kiss.
“Do I hear my little skunk awake?” Wade called from the kitchen.
“Eww!” Patricia said. “I’m not stinky!”
“You’re stinkin’ cute,” Wade said as he hugged her.
We carried Patricia upstairs to bed while Konstantin continued snoring on the couch. He’d immigrated here three years ago, and was a tour guide at the museum. He had such a huge, bombastic personality that he was worth every penny. And he was a great babysitter when we were gone.
Except for when he fell asleep.
“How was the mission?” Patricia asked as I tucked her in bed. She was so curious. A sponge for information. It reminded me of myself at that age.
It reminded me of mom, too. I could see the fire in her eyes. Whatever she chose to do in life—whether following in my footsteps, or going her own path—I knew she would be wildly successful.
“The mission went smoothly,” I told my daughter. “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.
“But I want to hear about it now,” she whined.
“It’s past your bedtime. By several hours.”
Luke strode into Patricia’s bedroom. He crouched down by the bookshelf. “Alright. What bedtime story do you want me to read for you, boss?”
I smiled. I loved how he called her boss. And it was half-true, too. Patricia was at the age where she thought she was the boss of the house.
And the three men in her life? They were push-overs for her. None of us knew which of the three was her father. Sometimes I saw Roman in her sparkling eyes. Sometimes I saw a glimpse of Wade in her freckled face. And I always saw Luke in her stubborn personality.
But honestly? It didn’t matter. She was all of ours. More precious than all the treasure we had ever found.
“I don’t want a story,” Patricia told Luke. “I want to hear about the trip!”
“You got it, boss,” he replied simply.
I gave him a look. “It’s past her bedtime.”
“Come on, now,” Wade said as he joined us. “You know this little skunk ain’t goin’ to bed until we tell her all about the mysterious step-pyramid in the Yucatan!”
“I’m not a skunk!” she said, but she laughed while saying it.
Roman sat on the foot of the bed. He gave me a calm, lopsided grin that said everything without words: we might as well tell her now, so she’ll go to sleep.
I sighed and shoved into bed next to her. “It started with Roman landing the plane in a laguna…”
“What’s a laguna?”
“It’s Spanish for lagoon,” Wade said.
Patricia frowned. “What’s a lagoon?”
“It’s like a lake, but close to the ocean. Roman had to land on it! He almost hit the trees as we descended…”
Patricia giggled. “You’re a bad pilot.”
Roman scoffed. “Am not!”
“She’s only been flying three years!” Roman protested.
I grinned sweetly. “You heard it from our daughter. I’m a better pilot. Anyways, we landed despite Roman’s reckless flying, and then had to trek through the jungle…”
The three of us took turns recounting the tale of our most recent mission to our daughter, until she was sound asleep.