The Sun Stone: An M. G. Towne Adventure
The singular thought snapped into existence, zipped down the spinal cord and raced through every nerve ending of one M. G. Towne–professional archaeologist, amateur conspiracist, and world-class imbiber of spirits.
That lone notion wasn’t lone for long. As M. G. leaped carelessly down the yellowed limestone steps with his pocket-sized flashlight bouncing off the inner tomb walls and a heavy backpack slapping into his kidneys, an image of a mouth-watering Tom Collins entered his mind. It was enough motivation to get out and get out quickly. Given the gallon of sweat pouring down his head, he feared he wouldn’t make it back to the bus let alone back to the hotel bar in time to enjoy a fine cocktail. At the age of sixty-five, he was reluctant to admit he was half the man he used to be, but somehow twice the size. If security found him unconscious on the ground, they’d surely search his backpack. Nearly a year of planning to snatch the artifact would have been all for naught.
M. G. could see beams of sunlight as he neared the entrance. The unwanted cell phone in his pocket buzzed over and over again. He cursed himself for even bringing the damnable thing, but his assistant, Carla, made him promise to take it when he was traveling and he never knew when it may actually come in handy.
Get with it, old man, she had admonished, I even made sure it was an ancient flip phone–just your style.
It had taken him a half-hour just to figure out how to turn the ringer off and though the soundtrack may have been appropriate, he didn’t need to broadcast a beeping rendition of Flight of the Bumblebees in the middle of a heist.
At last, he was outside.
Twenty or so of M.G.’s fellow tourists were lined up beneath the steady sun, only half of them with white sunblocked noses, but each and every one of them entranced by their guide’s ability to blabber on about basic Egyptian Middle Kingdom stuff. M.G. attempted to casually insert himself behind a stocky, overweight woman wearing a flowery sundress and floppy hat. He nodded and smiled as the guide spoke. Even if he’d forgotten twenty times in historical knowledge than what that chump knew, M.G. still would have had a hard time paying attention. He was too focused on catching his breath, trying not to stand out. Obviously failing, the woman turned and gave him a disgusted look, then stepped to the other side of the group.
If his peers saw him now, an inch of white belly peeking out from the bottom of his khaki shirt, they would joke that “he was too old for this shit.” A part of him wondered if maybe they weren’t wrong, but M. G. ignored the possibility. This discovery was too important.
As if connected to his thoughts, the artifact pressed into his back like a hot poker and he thought he heard a low hum emitting from within. Every remaining minute of the tour was almost unendurable, but by some miracle, he eventually found himself sitting on a lumpy bus seat carrying them back to the Al Bustan in Cairo. Upon entering his room, he pulled out the cell phone and counted twelve missed calls from Carla.
“What!?” he exclaimed. He wanted to put off the call for at least another thirty minutes so he could head downstairs and suck down that Tom Collins, but he knew she’d continue hounding him.
“Where are you?”
“Oh, that’s right. Well since I know that’s a lie, maybe you can tell me the truth about why you shut down the Komesh Painted Cave for maintenance.”
M. G. grumbled. The two of them led the excavation and preservation of sacred Komesh Indian land and artifacts along California’s central coast, so he had taken a risk to do so without telling her.
“Hold on, hold on,” Carla continued. “Let me see if I can answer that for you. I’m just going to take a wild stab here and say that you’ve been surfing the alien conspiracy forums again, came to the conclusion that the Lisht Sun Stone has some sort of intergalactic connection to the cave, and decided to play Indiana Jones.”
M. G. hated his assistant director and potential successor for the same reasons he loved her. She was the smartest archaeologist he knew–besides himself, of course. “Since you know such much about my whereabouts and plans,” he said, “you should also know the artifact was just sitting there in a minor tomb, barely remembered.”
“Probably for a reason,” she said.
M. G. refused to answer.
“Well,” she said, “even if you’re going to play the derring-do antiquity thief who sloppily leaves behind a travel itinerary sitting on his desk, I’d appreciate the courtesy of having at least one of my phone calls answered. I might have something important to say, you know.”
“Yeah, sure.” M.G.’s thoughts drifted to the bar downstairs. He could almost smell the squeezed lemons sitting beside the bottle of Tanqueray.
“Shut up, please, and listen,” she said. “So, while I was out checking on the cave, trying to figure out just what maintenance was needed, I noticed something odd.”
He remained silent, but she had his attention now.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I noticed?”
“What?” he said, failing to sound nonchalant.
He knew she was pausing for effect. She loved to tease him. “There was an odd…humming…coming from the rock behind the painting.”
Questions piled up in M. G.’s mind like a car accident on the I-5 freeway. “Do you think someone’s going to hear it?” he asked as calmly as possible through his state of inner frenzy.
“Doubt it. I only noticed because I was so close inside.”
A deep exhale made his whole body shiver in release. “Good.”
“And just to iterate, you’re really bad with the details. My memory extends beyond that of a goldfish, you know. Did you really think I’d buy that excuse of you going to a conference in Prague? Not only do you hate small talk, but they banned you from returning three years ago. They still haven’t forgotten the raining frog incident.”
“I was just trying to prove a point,” M. G. said.
“You certainly did that.”
He said nothing more, worried she was getting too involved in his extracurricular affairs. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, but there were some things a man had to keep to himself, no matter how poor a job he made of it.
“Anyway,” she said. “I don’t know why you think the cave and stone are connected. Granted, the humming is a little weird and I’m sure you have one of your crackpot theories involving alien technology, but my guess is it has something to do with ferromagnetism and atmospheric conditions. There could be a deposit of iron in those cave walls.”
She was the Scully to his Mulder, always dousing any flame burning inside.
“Well it’s a hell of a coincidence that the Sun Stone is doing the same thing, then.”
Now there was silence on the other end.
Sometimes it was just better to believe their separate beliefs.
“Look,” Carla said, picking the conversation up again. “I’m crazy for even talking to, let alone aiding and abetting, a known antiquities thief, so just tell me when you’re coming home.”
He was relieved to change the subject.
“I’m flying out tonight,” he replied.
“I’ll pick you up at LAX tomorrow, assuming you make it. And if your little rock is indeed humming like the cave, good luck getting it past airport inspection. I’m not flying out to Egypt to bail you out on attempted terrorism charges.”
“Yes, yes,” he said dismissively. “I’ll be fine. Look, I need to take care of one final thing, then I’m off the airport.”
M.G. hung up the phone, changed his shirt and headed downstairs. Omar, the lobby bartender, smiled as M. G. approached and began pulling out all of the ingredients for a top-notch Tom Collins.
Getting past airport security had never really been a concern for M. G.. He’d smuggled so many treasures through corrupt checkpoints over the years, the ways were uncountable in which he could convince customs officers that a prized artifact was really a cheap memento he’d purchased at a gift shop–something by which he’d remember the beautiful people and lands which he visited. As a last resort, he was always willing to pay in cash for whatever ‘fines’ were required for whatever ‘laws’ he had violated. That was always part of the travel budget.
No, security wasn’t the issue. The more pressing concern was the short man M.G. first noticed outside the terminal.
The pulled-down vanilla fedora, the pitch-black aviators, and the tan coat which ran from chin to boot seemed strangulating in the heat, but M. G. initially thought nothing of it. Even the surgical face mask concealing most of his face wasn’t that unusual. Perhaps the man had an embarrassing disease. Such was common in third-world countries.
It wasn’t until M. G. checked in and sat down on a stiff metal bench that the alarm bells began to sound off in his head. He tried to be clever with his newspaper, peeking over and around the edges, avoiding any signal that he was aware of the man’s constant hovering presence.
And then his nervousness grew when the shadowy man stepped in line a few people behind him to board the eighteen-hour flight with a layover in London.
Finally, he had taken his seat and the man brushed by him, smelling of must and mildew. M.G. tried to make out identifying features, but all he caught was his own pale reflection in the dark sunglasses. His feet clasped tightly on the backpack. He definitely sensed that the artifact’s drone was much louder now, but luckily difficult to hear over the bustle of recycled air and boarding activity.
Now that he was aboard, his muscles stiffened and he ground his teeth. Sure, the stranger could just be flying back home or off to conduct business, M. G. thought, but the true conspiracist was never one to carelessly toss aside a gut feeling.
The man might be connected to the artifact.
He might be here to take it for himself.
Knowing he had to relax enough to think rationally, M. G. ordered a miniature bottle of Teacher’s scotch. Occasionally, he turned and looked at the seats behind him, but the man was nowhere in sight. As M. G. sipped his medicine, he knew that he would have to get up to relieve himself at some point. He’d try to get a closer look then.
Three more bottles down and a pleasant warmth running through his body, M. G. pulled himself to his feet, secured the backpack to his person, and stumbled to the bathroom. His eyes bounced from face to face, not once seeing the man, but certainly made more difficult by the dimmed cabin lights. It was only when he’d slid the bolt along the toilet door that M. G. wondered if the stranger had also removed his layered outerwear, which would make it nearly impossible to figure out where he was.
M. G. closed his eyes and breathed a loud sigh of relief as his urine splashed into the bowl.
And then the familiar scent of mold entered his nostrils. A cold breeze hit the back of his neck.
His eyelids popped open and his whole body froze in fear. In the mirror, he saw the man squeezed between himself and the door.
M. G. shrieked and on instinct, jammed his arm back into the man’s gut. M. G. cursed and winced as his elbow crunched against the rattling door. He turned, ready for a confrontation.
There was nobody there.
Then came a knock. “Is everything alright in there, sir?”
M. G.’s breathing grew shallow. He searched every corner of the tiny commode. He felt around for hidden doors and false walls. Zip. Zilch. The tell-tale smell had been replaced with the overly-sterile odor of an airplane bathroom. Finally, he unlocked the door and rushed out, nearly colliding with a short, chubby flight attendant.
“Can I help you with something, sir?” he asked.
M. G. frantically searched the aisles and the galley behind the bathrooms.
Nothing. Everyone was seated.
He straightened up as much as he could. “I’m fine,” he replied. He squeezed by the snifter of a man and grabbed every headrest along the way, holding himself up while his legs wanted to give out. He sat down once more and held the backpack tightly in his lap, relieved to feel the outline of the Sun Stone. His seatmates were fast asleep. There was the radiant hum again, and though he was on full alert, the sound seemed to woo him, bringing him back to a more relaxed state. He closed his eyes, promising himself that he was only doing so for a moment. M. G. was startled when the plane touched down in Heathrow. He quickly relaxed again, hearing the low-frequency still coming from the backpack tucked safely in his arms.
The layover was entirely uneventful. M. G. was on full alert, avoiding all restrooms, but he never saw the man. By the time he landed at Los Angeles International airport, his bladder was full again and he couldn’t hold back any longer. He urinated with paranoia. Thankfully, the airport bathroom was populated with only the smells of hand soap and urinal cakes.
At baggage claim, M. G. spotted Carla. With a youthful glow on her mahogany cheeks and sympathetic brown eyes, she looked as relieved to see him as he was to see her.
M. G. assumed she caught on to his cautious demeanor because the two of them said nothing until they were in her sedan.
“You seem extra nervous,” she said. “Interpol on your tail?”
M. G. wasn’t ready to tell her about the incident on the plane. He wasn’t sure he was ready to accept it himself.
“No,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”
“I figured this would be old hat for you by now. I’m curious, do you keep records of how many of these treasures you’ve collected throughout your lifetime?”
“Some things are better left uncounted,” he said, remembering snippets of thievery–like the time he was almost spit-roasted by Shining Path guerrillas in Peru after a run through an Inca temple, or when he nearly lost his toes to frostbite after recovering the world’s finest jade Buddha in a remote corner of the Himalayas.
“Interesting,” she said.
“Not really,” he replied.
“No. I mean I can hear the hum.”
“Oh,” M. G. said and inclined an ear towards the backpack. “You still think I’m crazy?”
“Of course,” she said. “Sometimes, M. G., you can be annoyingly unscientific with your flights of fancy.”
“I’m telling you, there’s some connection here.”
“A connection between an American Indian tribe in California and ancient Egypt?” Her incredulity practically dripped with each word.
M. G. didn’t have the patience at the moment to get into all of the research he’d done. He was exhausted and just wanted Carla to drop him off at home so that he could sneak over the cave after she’d left.
So, he changed the subject.
“It’s good to see you,” he said. “I really do appreciate your help keeping things quiet.” He meant it.
She flashed him her best you owe me look. “So are you going to fill me in on your plans?”
She wasn’t going to let him off easy. Fine, M. G. thought, peering out at the sea of red tail lights in front of them. He turned to face her.
“First off,” he said with a bit of sarcasm in his voice, “I don’t think little green men are involved. I’ve never been one of those people. But I do believe in two things: One, there are powers and realities outside of our senses that we’re unaware of day to day. Other dimensions, as some scientists have theorized. Two, ancient peoples are not given enough credit for their ingenuity and capabilities. There’s plenty of evidence for a shared culture between the Komesh peoples and the Egyptians. That is if you’re willing to see it.”
Carla was focused on the road, but her eyebrows were in a perpetual state of up. “Okay, let’s assume all of that is true–which is a huge stretch. Why did you feel the need to ‘borrow’ the stone and bring it here?”
“If I say why, you’re just going to hassle me.”
“Of course I am. I consider it a part of my job description.”
M. G. shrugged. It was all or nothing. “I think the cave is a doorway to one of those alternate dimensions and the stone is the key.” He braced for impact.
Instead of a biting response, Carla was simply silent. Perhaps she was quietly debating whether or not to drop M. G. off at the nearest mental institution. M. G. thought maybe he’d finally gone too far for even her to put up with, but he was a man of risks.
“Actually, it’s sort of your fault,” he said. “The idea began to stir based on those Egyptian astrology and astronomy books you lent me. I found the patterns painted on the cave to be tightly coupled with the stone. After rereading Komesh mythology and confirming some theories on one of my regular Internet forums, I felt that I was on to something. I needed to get the pieces together in order to figure out how they work in tandem.”
More silence in response. M. G. knew he was pushing it.
“Before we get back to the lab and begin the real work, can we make a pit stop?” he asked. “I’m parched.”
She reached behind her seat and pulled out a bottle of water.
“I was hoping for something with flavor,” he said. “You know, there’s a little place on the corner of Venice and Washington called Mahoney’s—”
“Damn it, M. G., do you really need to have a drink right now? You know I’m not going to support your nasty habit.”
“Fine, fine.” He waved her off and took a swig of the tepid water while he watched the passing Los Angeles highrises. He didn’t dare mention the frightening experience on the plane now, not after Carla’s chilly reception. She definitely would have thought the whole thing was an alcohol-induced hallucination enhanced by a brain which had finally cracked. She must have been feeling overly sympathetic to help him this much. Perhaps she was jockeying for a raise, he mused. He opened up his backpack and pulled out his hat, taking a final look at the Sun Stone. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Carla couldn’t help taking a peek as well.
He zipped up the pack and reclined his seatback. “Who thought sitting on your ass for a whole day would be so exhausting,” he said before placing the hat over his face. “Wake me when we get to my house.”
M. G. woke up feeling groggy, stiff, and as cold as ice. His breath was sour and he had to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
He shivered, smelling something lingering on the breeze.
And then his ears registered waves crashing against stone as grains of sand blew onto his face.
Wherever he was, it wasn’t home.
He reached up to remove his hat, only to discover two problems: first, the hat wasn’t there and, second, his arms were bound tightly across his stomach.
“Carla?” he tried to say, but it came out more like a frog’s croak.
He was lying down on his back and with a simple turn of his head, he knew exactly where he was.
The Komesh Painted Cave.
The gate securing the entrance was open and he saw a pair of shadows emerge.
“Carla?” he shouted, this time more clearly. “What in the devil is going on here?”
Carla stepped into the moonlight with a flashlight in her hand.
“G’morning, sunshine,” she said without emotion.
He tried to peer around her and look at the second shadow.
“Who’s with you? Why am I tied up?”
Carla grabbed his arms and helped him onto his feet. He’d never noticed just how strong she was.
M. G. was at a loss for words, grasping for meaning as to why they were here. Just as he opened his mouth to ask more questions, the familiar stench of mold entered his nostrils. From behind Carla, out stepped what could be described as a monster to be found only in the old zombie movies. Its flesh was a greenish-gray, shriveled and flaking, while the eyes were milky and translucent. Clumps of stringy gray hair fell from its head and across its face. Only a tattered cloth covered its torso down to its thighs and clasped in its left hand was the Sun Stone.
“This is Eneq,” Carla said, stretching her hand out as if introducing the beast at a cocktail party. “I believe you two have met.”
“The Sun Stone does not belong to you,” the foul creature gasped. The sound made M. G.’s case of dry mouth seem minuscule in comparison. He suddenly remembered the pain in his sore elbow and his legs felt weak.
M. G. managed to steer his eyes back toward Carla, the sweet, smart-as-a-whip 27-year-old who’d quickly worked her way from intern to assistant director in a brief six years.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “You know about him?”
“Her. She’s Komesh.” She looked with sympathy at the shriveled thing. “Or at least she was. She’s been slowly decaying for over 3,000 years, but being stuck between dimensions will do that to a person.”
If M. G. could have reached up to scratch his head, he would have. He felt as if his brain could cook an egg.
“Come on, M. G., don’t tell me you’re suddenly a true believer in rationality.”
“I don’t know what to believe, right now,” he replied. His eyes narrowed at her. “What do you have to do with all of this?”
“Really?” Carla said with indignance. “Did you forget I’m Komesh?”
He knew she had American Indian in her blood but had never bothered to ask her lineage. Had she mentioned it? Probably. He’d likely been his usual arrogant self, thinking it unimportant enough to ignore.
Carla continued without waiting for his answer. “My people have known of the gate for millennia, known of the power that exists behind it, but we’ve been unable to retrieve the key ourselves.”
“So you needed someone with my skills and mindset to bring it to you.”
Carla was grinning now. “You’re not a completely useless drunk.”
Like Pavlov’s dog, just hearing the word drunk made his mouth water for the sting of gin. He could certainly use a stiff drink.
“I still don’t understand how the key ended up in Egypt,” M. G. said.
His curiosity required satisfaction, but he was also buying time trying to figure out a way to extricate himself. The coastal highway wasn’t far from here, but it was a considerable jog up a series of steep trails. He didn’t doubt Carla would have any trouble catching him in a fair race. Still, he realized she wasn’t very schooled in tying knots as he began to slyly loosen his bonds.
Eneq’s scratchy voice chimed in. “Because of me.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
The decrepit Eneq laid it all out for him: “I was the priestess who opened the gate. Many paid the price, not least of all me. The Komesh were once a great civilization until my mistake. I unleashed pestilence and creatures beyond that which you can imagine. After much hardship and death, I was able to close the door, but was cursed in many ways.” She looked up at Carla and now her eyes had a sense of sadness. “A part of me had become anchored in the other place. I found that I could travel between our world and that place at will. In fact, I was forced to as I found myself rapidly decomposing if I spent too much time on any one side.”
Carla added, “What was left of our people determined that such a thing should never happen again, so a group of them set sail on the ocean with the Sun Stone in hand. They were committed to making sure it was deposited somewhere far away.”
M. G. interrupted her there. “If this thing is so terrible, why wasn’t it just destroyed?”
“You think they didn’t try?” Carla asked. “It’s indestructible. The best that could be done was to take it far away from here.”
“Okay,” M. G. said, “So here I am bringing Pandora’s Box back when your people worked so hard to be rid of it.” He looked down at the rope wrapped around his wrists. “Maybe now you can tell me why I’m standing here with my hands tied, freezing my ass off to see you two bringing the pieces back together again.”
Eneq’s and Carla’s eyes met simultaneously.
“For a clever thief, he seems very dull,” Eneq gurgled.
“Do you think it was a coincidence that you happened to steal this particular artifact?” Carla said. “For a man who sees conspiracies on cereal boxes, you missed the conspiracy happening right in front of you. Who do you think led you on by loaning you books and posting a trail of half-clues in those alien abduction and flat-earther forums you subscribe to?”
It was another one of those magical moments in M. G.’s life where all of his far-out theories and assignations came together to form a perfect picture.
Carla continued, “We want to open Pandora’s Box.”
“By spending time in the other world,” Eneq cut in, “I have learned some things. I’ve come to understand the monsters that live within. I’ve learned how to harness the powers within. We just didn’t know how to do so when we first opened the gate.”
“I see.” Now for the question that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be answered. “Well, since you could have just taken the stone while I was sleeping and left me in the car, why bring me here and tie me up?”
“Retrieving the stone was only one-half of the problem,” Carla said.
Eneq said, “You are also here because those with Komesh blood are unable to open the gate. It was one of the curses I was forced to place on the stone after the gate was sealed.”
Carla put on a devious smile. “Think about it, M. G. You can take solace in the fact that you’ll be aiding a culture that you’ve spent so much time helping already. The Komesh can become a great power again, even more so than ever before.”
With that, Carla picked up the Sun Stone from the ground and put it in M. G.’s hands. He balled his hands into a fist.
“And if I refuse?”
Carla looked out at the ocean. “How good are you at swimming with your hands tied together?”
A plan had rapidly come into place during their conversation. He would do what she asked.
“Fine,” he said. “But I expect you to buy me a drink after this.”
She simply sneered at him as he took hold of the Sun Stone. She pointed at a notch on the ground beneath the painted symbols. He walked over and dropped the Sun Stone into the slot where it slid in like a perfectly cut puzzle piece.
The hum was incessant now and the low frequency began to make M. G. dizzy. And then he saw the miraculous. It wasn’t showy. There were no flashes of light–no strange zip or zaps to indicate to anyone but those standing in front of it that an interdimensional portal was spreading across the back of the rocky cave wall. It’s dimensions reached that of about six feet high and four feet across.
The moldy stench of Eneq was amplified as a harsh wind broke through from the other side. It was a noisome and peculiar world. The zombie-woman seemed to blink out of existence and appear on the other side. “I will alert the otherworld forces that we are ready,” she said, walking to the left and out of the scene.
Carla stepped in front of M. G., entranced as she watched the bizarre dimension come to life. M. G. was saddened that he had only a few moments to take in its purple sky flecked with tiny blue clouds and endless maroon-tinted sand dunes before he would have to carry out his plan.
“You’re forgetting something very important,” he said. “You think you have this all figured out, but you’re wrong.”
She barely cocked her head. “Oh really? What haven’t we figured out, M. G.? What haven’t the very people who discovered this millennia ago learned?”
“I’m not the only one that misses the little details,” he said.
He slipped his hands from the bonds that he had been slowly working himself out of and yanked the stone up from the floor. The hum began to soften and the portal began to slowly close.
Carla turned toward him and shouted furiously, “What are you–”
Before Carla knew what was happening, he lobbed it into her arms. As she instinctively reached out and took hold of it, M. G. lifted a leg and kicked her with all of his might. She tumbled through the rapidly shrinking window with the Sun Stone in hand and collapsed onto the red sand.
“You didn’t realize that the key only works in one direction.”
“No!” she screamed and scrambled up on to her feet. But it was too late. The portal was nearly sealed.
He dusted the remaining sand off of his pants and spoke through the softball-sized gap. “I bid you a wonderful day, Carla, but I have to run. I hear Mahoney’s calling my name.”
M. G. took one final look at the cave before departing. The wall and its paintings were completely restored, as if they had never been touched.
It’s a shame to lose such a good assistant, he thought. He reached into his pocket, pulled out the flip-phone, and threw it into the ocean.