Soledad's car screeched to a halt in the middle of the street. She shoved the gear into park, swung the driver's door open and ran toward her father's bookstore. Although it was eleven o'clock on a Wednesday, she barely registered the traffic jam she had caused. Nor did she give a second thought to the traffic cop, barking orders to move her car. Her focus was on the ambulance parked along the curb in front of Mendoza's Books.
She pushed through the murmuring crowd of people and made her way to the entrance of the familiar old brick building. Greg, the store manager, stood white-faced, holding the door open as two paramedics from Charleston Ambulance Company wheeled her father out on a gurney.
"Dad!" Soledad yelled. She reached for his hand.
A paramedic waved her off. "Stay back, Ma'am."
"I'm his daughter. What happened?"
"He's showing the symptoms of a stroke."
Her throat tightened at the sight of the sixty-five year old man she loved so much. Under the oxygen mask his face glistened with sweat, and his hair, usually peppered with gray, had turned stark white in the two days since she'd last seen him.
"Soledad, it was awful," Greg said between tense bites of his bottom lip. "I went in to do some inventory and found Jorge on the floor in his office and—"
"Are you riding along, Ma'am?" one of the paramedics asked, activating the hydraulic lift that raised the gurney into the ambulance.
"Of course." Her voice sounded strained and high, even to her ears. She began to climb inside, then stopped and turned back to Greg. "My car is parked at the intersection. I left the motor running. Would you mind?"
"Go," he said, waving her on. "Don't worry about a thing. I'll call your mom."
"She's in D.C. so call my brother, Tony."
Soledad sat on a metal bench beside her father. The sharp odor of disinfectant struck her full in the face. She rubbed her nose to keep from sneezing.
The ambulance took off, sirens blaring. The paramedic sat across from Soledad as he attached electrodes to her father's chest. The neon-green line on the cardiograph screen beat slow and steady.
Soledad forced a smile. "I'm here, Dad."
Her father started to pull down his oxygen mask.
"Hold on there, Mr. Mendoza. Let's get you settled in first, "said the paramedic. He hooked up the IV drip.
"Got your message this morning." Soledad took her father's hand. It was cold to the touch. "I was at that conference, remember? The West Virginia English Professors...or Teachers…" She shook her head. "I can't remember the name."
Her father's thick eyebrows creased together, and despite the sagging right eye, she read annoyance in his expression.
"I'm babbling, huh?"
He pulled down his mask.
"Mr. Mendoza that's not a good idea," the paramedic said.
"Give me just…one minute." His eyes were wide and pleading.
The paramedic gave a reluctant nod.
Soledad's father waved her closer.
She lowered her head until her ear nearly brushed his face.
"Mi amor," he slurred through his drooping lips. "I thought I'd never see you again."
"Don't say that."
"I—I don't have much time." He took a deep breath. "I left you the Mendoza family Bible." His eyes moved from the paramedic and back to Soledad. "There's something inside it you need to see," he whispered.
"Give it to me when you're better."
He began to speak, but only managed a cough.
"Dad, maybe you should put on your mask."
He shook his head. "No."
She stroked a coarse strand of hair away from his forehead. For a second she imagined herself a little girl wrestling with her father, giggling as he tickled her ribs.
His cold touch on her arm pulled her back to the present. "This—-this is serious. El Demonio…" He took a labored breath. "He'll come for you next."
Her jaw dropped. "Dad, are you okay?" El Demonio? What the hell has the stroke done to him?
"I was arrogant. I thought—" his voice was hoarse and he cleared his throat." I thought I was the one… Our family has waited for so long… It's up to you now… The Bible..." His jaw went slack. The peaks and valleys on the cardiograph bounced erratically on the monitor. Then his eyes rolled back into his head.
Soledad cupped hands over her mouth. "Dad!"
The paramedic injected something into the IV. Then he grabbed the defibrillation paddles. "Sit back, Ma'am." A second after the machine beeped, he yelled, "Clear," and pressed the paddles to her father's chest. Jorge's body jerked up and fell back against the stretcher.
Soledad sat stunned, unable to move or find her voice. The world fell silent. A bone-numbing chill washed over her. But it was more than cold. Never had she experienced such emptiness and loneliness, not even after her husband's death three long years ago. Her mind drifted back to a memory of her as a little girl, holding her father's hand. He'd smiled down as he handed her a soft-serve ice cream cone, a reward for finishing A Wrinkle in Time. "I would never let the Dark Thing take you away, Daddy."
A soft, mirthful laugh had escaped his lips as he stroked her cheek with a gentle hand. "I would fight the Dark Thing, just like Mr. Murray did. Nothing will ever take me away from you, mi amor."
The machine beeped, drawing Soledad mind to the present. The paramedic lowered the paddles to her father's chest a second time. The neon line on the monitor skipped.
She straightened, feeling a flutter of hope.
Then a flat-line moved across the screen.
The paramedic began CPR.
Soledad gazed down at her father's face. His eyes, normally so full of wisdom, were vacant, lifeless. She gritted her teeth, willing herself not to cry as she watched the man she had admired for thirty years, fight for his life.
Please don't leave me, Dad. Tears welled in her eyes as she stared at the flat-line floating across the screen. No, he's gonna be okay. I have to believe like I've never believed before. He's gonna be okay. He's gonna be okay. Fight the darkness Dad. You promised.
Following the Requiem Mass, the hearse led a half-mile long procession down the boulevard along the twisted path into Springhill Cemetery. On this last day in August, the overcast sky kept temperatures hovering at a muggy ninety-degrees.
Soledad did her best to stifle the lump in the back of her throat as six pallbearers set her father’s casket under a large canopy. Her brothers, Tony and Dominic took up the front, followed by two of her father’s closest friends, Preston Farmer and Senator Earl Edmondson. Greg and Ray, two store employees, brought up the rear.
The four days since her father’s death seemed more like four years. Soledad had never gone this long without talking to him, and she wasn't sure what to do without him. She gazed longingly at the dark coffin, wishing he'd step out of it garbed in his favorite brown tweed blazer. His mouth would be turned up in that typical crooked smirk as he explained that it had all been a big practical joke.
Monsignor Malonzo took his place beside the casket. The few remaining gray hairs on his head had been combed over to the right, and his spectacles were thick as magnifying glass. He brought his hand to the front of his chest and made the sign of the cross. "Let us pray."
The mourners rose.
Soledad bit down on her quivering lip. Her father's absence had left an abysmal hole in her heart. As if he sensed her grief, Matt entwined her hand in his and gave it a quick squeeze. She found comfort in her boyfriend's kindness.
"Lord God, who breathes life into all the faithful…"
Rain began to fall. Drops spilled down the pointed canopy and splashed the parched ground. Trying to maintain what remained of her composure, Soledad looked past the surrounding graves into the adjacent forest.
Not more than fifty feet away, a tall, stocky man stood under a mature oak tree, watching the service. Dark locks fell just below his ears in waves, and his mouth turned down in a frown. Although they'd never met, there was something vaguely familiar about him.
"Accept Jorge Mendoza’s immortal soul in its imperfection, so he may find eternal peace in your Heavenly kingdom."
Soledad continued to bow her head, but her gaze returned to the stranger. Based on the sadness in his expression, he must have known her father. That in itself added to the mystery. She thought she had met all his friends over the years. A handsome guy in his early thirties would have left a lasting impression on her.
A loud sob roused Soledad from her thoughts. She looked at the end of the row. Her mother's shoulders shook as she clutched Earl's arm like a life preserver. Wisps of silver hair had loosened from her chignon and fell freely over her ears.
Soledad's father would have appreciated all the help Earl had given the family, offering his jet so Dominic could make it home without the hassle of booking tickets, taking care of the funeral arrangements and comforting her mother. He had gone above and beyond what was required of a friend. He was a God-send.
She looked toward Dominic. He held the seat in front of him so tightly his knuckles were white. Despite her younger brother's expensive suit and slicked back hair, he still looked much younger than twenty-six. She wiped her tears, wishing she had a glass of scotch to take off the edge.
The priest sprinkled holy water over the casket. "Your providence guides our lives and by your command we return to dust."
Soledad gazed toward the forest once more. The stranger still watched the service.
"We ask this with faith in your son, Jesus Christ, who sacrificed His life so that our sins may be forgiven. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen."
"Amen," the mourners responded.
Matt took Soledad's hand and led her to the front of the canopy. She stood alongside her brothers, behind her mother and Earl. Matt sat across from them in the front row. Some of the mourners placed flowers on the casket, while others offered their condolences to her mother. Earl remained by her side.
Seeing the sadness in the bereaved visitors expressions, and hearing the solemnity in their voices caused Soledad's eyes to tear again. This was it, her father's final farewell. She blinked several times, vowing to keep it together, at least in public. Her family might see her as weak and fragile, like after Victor's death. She stepped away and walked to the edge of the tent, taking in the fresh air. As she started to calm down, she glanced toward the oak. The stranger still watched with interest.
Matt walked up. "You okay, hon?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." She then turned and waved Tony over. "Come here a sec."
"Yeah, Sis, what’s up?" His brown eyes were red and watery.
"Do you know that guy?" She asked gesturing behind her.
"Who? Tony asked while removing his sport coat.
She turned around and the stranger was gone. "A guy was there, under that oak just a second ago. You saw him right, Matt?"
He shrugged. "I didn't see anyone, but I wasn't looking that way either."
Tony rolled up his shirt sleeves, revealing a Frogman tattoo on his right forearm. "Maybe he’s paying his respects to someone buried here."
"Makes sense," Matt said.
"He was watching us, watching me. I'm sure of it. There was something—he seemed familiar like—" she stopped herself after noticing the uncomprehending looks on their faces.
Tony combed his fingers through his curly hair and said in a dismissive tone. "Look, Sole, I'm not trying to be a jerk, but we should focus on Mom right now, not some guy at a cemetery." He folded the coat over his arm and joined the family under the canopy.
Matt took her hand. "He didn't mean anything by it. He's upset"
"I know." Peeling her eyes from the vacant tree she added. "Guess I needed a distraction. Let's get back to my family."
The house phone rang high and tinny on the night table. Soledad fumbled for the device and held it to her ear. "He—Hello?"
"Is this Soledad Mendoza-Web?"
"Uh-huh." Soledad squinted through the glare of the digital clock. It was ten in the morning. Her mind fog started to lift when she spotted the remains of the bottle of Glenfiddich on the bedside table.
"Yes, I'm here. Who's calling?"
Dad's friend. Soledad sat up slowly. The walls of her bedroom pulsated and the bitter taste of bile had worked its way to the back of her throat. As she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, she realized the only good thing about the call was it had woke her in plenty of time to complete the departmental audit by that night's deadline. Oversleeping would have put her way behind, and the last thing she wanted was to piss off the dean.
"Sorry for calling so early on a Saturday, but I have some urgent legal business to discuss with you."
"Me?" Soledad asked with more inflection in her voice than she'd intended. Although her father trusted Preston's legal skills, on the few occasions she had talked to him, he struck her as a fast-talking shyster who spewed more horseshit than the Kentucky Derby.
"My secretary left a couple messages at your home, even tried your cell."
"Sorry, my voice mails messed up and I rarely check my messages here at the house. Is this about dad’s bookstore?"
"No, I’m taking care of the deed. Ownership will be transferred to you soon. But there's something else we need to discuss."
Soledad’s brow furrowed. "Okay, shoot."
"I know this seems odd, but I have a letter from Jorge. He wanted me to deliver it to you in the event the worst…"
"A letter— I—"
"The address I have on file is 107 Carriage Street. Is that right?"
Soledad rubbed her temples. "Uh-huh." Did he intend to deliver the letter in person? The thought of having to deal with Preston Farmer transformed the fire in her nauseated stomach into a full-blown inferno. Still, if he had a letter from her father it was worth a few minutes of discomfort.
"I'll drop it by this morning."
It took a second to process his words. "Now?"
"Yes, or you can wait until I have enough time to drop it off again, "Preston said. "That'll be a couple of weeks away."
"Can you come in an hour?"
"See you in fifteen."
"Wait-I'm not dress—." Silence followed."Mr. Farmer?" No answer. She returned the phone to its cradle and slid out of bed. Staggering to the bathroom, she wondered what the letter was about and why Preston had to deliver it in person. Her father’s will had been specific. He bequeathed the bookstore to her, and left Tony and Dom its value in cash. No one felt cheated. Her mother handled the rest of the estate, so what else was left?
Groaning, she grabbed a bottle of Tylenol from the medicine cabinet and downed a couple of pills. Her mouth tasted like sewer water. She took pride in her ability to out drink the best of them, but a half bottle of scotch in one night was excessive. In fact, it was concerning. Over the past week since her father's death, the amount of alcohol needed to get through the night kept increasing. Despite the painful morning after, sober sleep meant endless nightmares. Her father used to refer to them as premonitions or visions, but she called them a curse. All the tragedies in her life, ranging from her cousin's death to her late husband's car accident, had been accompanied by visions.
The doorbell rang. Soledad jumped, almost spilling the bottle into the sink. Shit! He’s already here.
She ran to the bedroom and grabbed an old t-shirt and sweats off the floor.
The doorbell rang impatiently again.
"Coming," she yelled, hopping on one foot as she tried to pull the last pant leg on.
Another ring echoed through the house.
"Be right there!" She slipped on her fuzzy slippers and ran through the dimly lit living room to the front door. She opened it a crack, keeping the chain latched, suppressing the urge to tell Preston off. The face staring back at her was just as she remembered, round with bushy eyebrows and a gray handlebar mustache.
"Good to see you again, Soledad." Preston flashed a set of yellowed teeth.
She pushed her untamed curls behind her ears and said in the most condescending tone she could muster, "Excuse my appearance. I didn't have time to get ready. "
"Don’t fret about it. No one looks good in the morning."
Still a charmer.
She unlatched the chain and opened the door. "Come on in."
The ashen smell of cigarettes and cheap cologne wafted past her nose as Preston entered the foyer. She coughed to avoid gagging. He followed her to the kitchen. She bumped the door jamb as they entered the room.
"Dangerous suckers aren't they?" Preston sniggered under his breath.
She rubbed her hip. Jerk
"Long night grading papers?"
"Nope, that’s the T A’s job." Soledad took a seat at the square pub table and waved toward a chair. "Take a load off. Can I get you something to drink?"
Preston set his briefcase on the table. "No, I already had coffee. We working guys don't get the luxury of sleeping till noon."
Soledad fought back a sneer. She'd never know how her father could have been friends with such a douche bag. "Can we get down to business? I have things to do today."
He keyed in the combination and the case opened with a slight flourish. "It’s the damnedest thing. Jorge paid me a visit the morning—" he cleared his throat. "Of his, er, stroke, and asked me to give you this in the event of his death." He pulled out a manila envelope and handed it to Soledad. "Made me promise to deliver it in person. At the time, I thought he had a lot of years left in him. Who knew he’d go so suddenly?"
"This whole thing’s odd," Soledad said more to herself than her visitor.
Preston twisted the end of his mustache reflectively. "Couldn't agree more. I knew Jorge a lot of years. He was never the Secret Squirrel type."
Soledad eyed the envelope in her hand. "Why did you wait a week to get this to me?"
"Obviously the funeral wasn't the right place to hand it over, and I've been swamped with clients. This is the first chance I've had to deliver it," he said, annoyed.
Beggars can't be choosers. At least he got it here. "Do you know what’s in it?"
Preston closed his briefcase. "He didn’t say and I didn't ask. I'm just glad I was able to do this final thing for him. He was a good friend. A while back he restored an old painting of the house my grandmother grew up in for free."
"Doesn’t surprise me. You probably did him a favor. He loved restoring art. Would have done it full-time if he could have made a decent living at it."
Preston's eyes flickered toward a full bottle of scotch on the table. "Who’d have thought such a big bookworm could golf like he did? Jorge beat the hell out of me even when he was drinking."
Soledad smiled. "Dad loved the game."
He tapped the liquor bottle with his index finger. "But he always stayed on top of things, never let his drinking get out of hand."
Soledad bit her bottom lip, trying to hold back her sarcasm. Based on that basketball of a belly hanging over Preston’s Dockers, she doubted he had room to judge anyone’s vices. If men could get pregnant, he would have passed for full term. "Well, I don’t mean to be rude but…" She pushed her chair back and stood up, hoping the judgmental schmuck would take a hint.
Preston glanced at his watch. "Golf waits for no man. You take care now."
"I will, Mr. Farmer."
He grabbed the briefcase and waved her back to the seat. "I'll see myself out."
Soledad waited until the front door shut, then she tore open the envelope, yanked out a single sheet of paper and unfolded it. Immediately recognizing her father's slanted penmanship, she held the letter to her heart a moment before reading.
There comes a time in every man’s life when he must confront the possibility of death. Though I cannot say with certainty when my end will come, I need you to know that I cherish you.
My children have always held the key to my heart. That sunny September morning when you were born was one of the happiest in my life. Then after God blessed me with Tony, I had the best of both worlds, a smart princess and a strapping soccer player. What more could a man ask for? But when Dominic came along, I was humbled beyond words. It's still hard to believe that I have a son who graduated second in his class at Yale Law. He'll make one hell of an attorney someday.
Although I have several wonderful memories with all my children, the ones we shared in the bookstore over the years meant more to me than words can say. The boys never appreciated the old place like you did. The way you used to rummage through all the old books, looking for that perfect classic to read, still brings a smile to face. For this reason, along with countless others, I'm leaving the store to you when I'm gone. Many of the relics in the archive room are precious to me. I have no doubt you'll give them the same care and respect that I have.
Since I won't be around to offer guidance and help during the tough times in your life, I’ve left the next best thing, my family Bible. My father passed it to me, and now it’s yours. Once you've looked inside the book you’ll understand its significance. Please keep this communication to yourself. I wouldn't want your brothers to feel cheated because I left it to you instead of them.
Although there's so much more I need to say, want to say, there's simply not enough time. Take care of the bookstore, mi amor. Read my Bible soon!
Soledad's mind flashed back to the day of her father's stroke. In the ambulance, he had been adamant about the Bible. At the time, she passed it off as a dying man's admonition to get closer to the church. Now she didn't know what to think. She read the letter once more, wondering why he didn't share the Bible's location. Hell, he went into more detail about Dominic's achievements and his precious archive room then he did about—she sat forward as the answer came to her. Maybe he stored it in the archive room. The only way to know for certain was to check the bookstore.
She started toward the bedroom, anxious to see if her hunch was correct, but then she froze. The store would be teeming with customers this time of day. Even worse, Greg would be bugging her every five minutes. She'd go tonight after hours so she could have some privacy.
Three descending chimes tolled from a bell above the door when Soledad entered the bookstore. The familiar scent of aged leather and paper lingered in the air and awakened her senses. She flipped on the light switch, turned off the alarm and headed to her father’s office at the back of the shop. Oak floorboards creaked as she passed bookshelves lined with new releases and original classics.
She loved the old place. To her brothers it represented unpleasant chores: stocking shelves, working the cash register, and making coffee for customers. To her, it was so much more than chores. It was filled with memories of a little girl and her father. Tears welled in her eyes as she passed the corner where she had spent her summers curled up with her nose in a book. Back then, the only thing better than visualizing a duel between D’Artagnan and Cardinal Richelieu’s guards or hunting whales with Captain Ahab, was the ice cream and candy her father used to treat her to after she finished each story. During those times, they discussed plot twists and character scenes they liked best. No wonder she became an English professor.
After a long cleansing breath, she entered the office. It was just as her father left it, down to the tinges of Burberry cologne and cigars. Papers and books cluttered the top of his oak desk. His favorite novel, Moby Dick, lay open in front of the computer. She picked it up and thumbed through the pages, recalling her father's words to mind.
Ahab’s unyielding need to avenge the loss of his leg is what killed him. The lesson lay in letting go of hatred and anger. It’s the only way a person can think clearly. Never hate or underestimate your enemy. Soledad never understood the reason her father emphasized such a thing. Everyone loved him.
After returning the book to the desk, she pulled a key from her pocket and walked to the tall metal door at the back of the office. As she appraised the steely entrance, this would be the first time she entered the room without her father's direct supervision.
She nervously turned the key in the lock. A slight click followed and she stepped inside. Dim lights automatically came on. A small wall-vent covered with a fluttering rubber flap released cool gusts of air into the area. Soledad shivered. She should have worn more than a flimsy t-shirt.
She forced herself to move forward. The room was just as she remembered. A long work table lined the wall. Jars of chemicals, several tools and brushes were scattered across the surface. She walked to a metal bookshelf filled with paintings, vases and other antiquities, then removed each of the items until the shelves were bare. Nothing.
That would have been too easy.
Frustrated, she pulled the letter from her pocket and read it, noting her father's emphasis on the archive room. The Bible had to be in there. She looked around once more and stopped short when she saw the safe sitting inconspicuously in the far corner.
His letter said, my children have always held the key to my heart. He'd spoken the same words the day he told her the combination to the safe. It must be there.
The safe's digital thermometer showed an internal temperature of sixty-five-degrees Fahrenheit and forty-five-percent humidity. She anxiously keyed in the combination, nine for her birth month, nineteen for Tony's birthday and thirty-six for Dominic's perfect ACT score. A second later, an error message flashed across the dark red screen. She tried it again, assuming she accidentally hit the wrong number the first go round. Another error message followed.
She read her father's letter a third time, trying to figure out what she missed. He'd failed to mention her position as an English professor at Marshall University or Tony's record as a former SEAL and restaurant owner. She'd initially dismissed those omissions because of the hurried tone of the letter, but maybe they were intentional. Maybe only Dom's class rank was significant. He probably changed the combination after Dom finished his third year at Yale Law.
She tried again, carefully depressing nine, nineteen and this time, she keyed in the number two for Dom's class rank. A muted beep followed, and the door clicked open with a hiss. Her eyes immediately gravitated to a black archive box labeled Soledad on the middle shelf. With the nervous anticipation of a child on Christmas morning, she pulled it out and set it on her father’s work table. She removed the lid and discovered the Bible, a manila envelope and a pair of white gloves.
God forbid I touch his precious books without them.
Since it would be difficult to read under the scant lighting of the archive room, Soledad carried the box to her father’s office and took a seat behind the desk. After donning the gloves, she pulled the Bible from the box. The gold cross inlay on the worn leather cover was simple but beautiful. She shuffled through the pages with her fingers. Aside from some yellowing, the book was in good condition. She turned to the cover page. On the upper left-hand corner was a note written by her grandfather.
To my son Jorge Mendoza IV. When I’m not with you use this for counsel and advice. God be with you my son.
Love always, Jorge Mendoza III.
Touching, but otherwise normal for a family Bible, she thought. Setting the book aside, she opened the envelope and pulled out an elaborate sketch of a horned serpent eating its tail. Although she had never been a fan of snakes, there was something oddly fascinating about this one. She traced her finger over the beady eyes and large head, then down the horned neck around the circular body to the area where the fanged mouth inhaled the tail.
Ouroboros De Maya, passed to Domingo Delacruz Mendoza by Chilam Balam in 1562, was noted below the picture.
She read it once more. Her father never mentioned Domingo before. Probably a relative since they shared same last name, but who was Chilam Balam and why did he pass the ouroboros to her ancestor? She grabbed the Bible again, hoping the family tree could provide some answers. Much to her disappointment, the book of Genesis followed the section containing her grandfather's note.
What kind of family Bible doesn't have a family history?
Though this goose chase was interesting, she didn't think it deserved all the secrecy her father had insisted upon. She suddenly felt silly for allowing herself to believe this was some big mystery. She glanced at the wall clock. It was nine in the evening, time to throw in the towel and let go of all the drama. Morning would come soon and she had a long day ahead of her.
After returning the sketch to the envelope, she stuffed it inside the New Testament of the Bible and stood up. Then she froze and stared at the cover. She glimpsed something between the pages. The ink was darker, different. She opened the Bible to the section where she had placed the envelope and collapsed into the chair, astounded by what she saw. Several pages written in her father's hand were inserted where the Book of John should have been. It appeared to be some sort of journal but she couldn't be sure because he'd written in a formal, antiquated version of Spanish.
Why would he do this? Books had always been sacred to him. The fact he'd desecrated a Bible suggested that his words were very important.
She attempted to read the first entry and gave up about three lines in. Her skills were simply not up to the task. Translating such a formal version of Spanish required a dictionary to refresh her memory. If Tony was there he could easily interpret the pages, but that meant disobeying her father’s final request for secrecy, and she wouldn’t do that. She considered Google translator, but immediately dismissed the thought. She used it once in college and regretted it. The software screwed up the verb tenses. Better to do this the old fashioned way. She'd purchase a translator the next day.
With so many unanswered questions it was going to be a long night. She quickly returned the items to the archive box and headed toward the door. Just before stepping out, she took one, wistful look around the office, wondering what the ouroboros and the Mayans had to do with her.
The Yucatan 1562
Friar Miguel’s heart filled with joy as he appraised his chapel. New believers laid each stone and carved every statue by hand. Such a show of faith renewed his devotion to God and His church. For years he had questioned the sacrifices he made to become a man of the cloth, but after converting hundreds of pagans to Christianity, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had made the right decision.
His thoughts were interrupted when Lieutenant Domingo Mendoza pushed through the front doors like a charging bull. His flushed face spoke to the urgency of his mission. "Padre, we must make haste. The bishop and Capitan Hernandez are delivering their punishment for the incident in the jungle. I fear they will show no mercy."
"You’ve been misinformed," Friar Miguel said. "I spoke to the bishop about it and we agreed prayer would serve as sufficient penance."
Domingo shook his head. "Your trust blinds you, Padre. The Bishop has no tolerance for pagan rituals." He patted the friar's shoulder. "Prepare yourself. Your vicar intends to make an example of those poor souls."
"Not while I still draw breath." Friar Miguel gestured toward the doors. "Lead on."
Soon, they arrived at the center of the village. Hundreds of native onlookers were gathered in front of the grey stone pyramid of Becal. Shrill screams echoed from the front of the structure.
"I must stop this before it is too late." The friar's voice trembled with emotion. "Help me, Domingo. I beg you. I cannot move past the onlookers without your assistance."
Domingo’s brow creased as he considered the friar’s request. At last, he unsheathed his sword. "Step aside. Make way for a soldier of the armada." The mass of people split in a simultaneous wave, leaving an opening wide enough for the pair to pass.