[Mysteriousheartland.com] Deep in the Faner Building, in the back corner of the Anthropology Lab, Professor Kenneth Pangloss studied the quintet that eyed, poked, and prodded their way through his office.
Aurelia, Emmet, Davin, and Greg examined the strange bric-à-brac that lined the shelves or hid behind glass doors. In stark contrast, Mike stood still. He fixated his gaze on the professor.
Professor Pangloss was a curious man. In his late 60s, he had a crescent of white hair around an otherwise bald head. He wore brown corduroy pants and a plaid shirt.
“I wouldn’t be asking for your help if I could figure this out on my own,” Mike said, almost pleading.
“That may be so,” Pangloss replied through clenched teeth, “but would you please ask your friends to stop manhandling my artifacts.”
Mike turned to scold his curious companions. “Hey guys, knock it off!”
The others froze. Greg’s smirk vanished as he gently set a fertility statue back on the dusty shelf.
Mike turned his attention back to the professor. “Professor, you are the leading Midwestern scholar on ancient North America. I did some research on this totem, but couldn’t come up with anything useful. Would you please just take a look at it?”
Pangloss squinted. “Where did you say you found this?”
“A construction site up north,” Greg interjected. “We were getting ready to lay the foundation for a house when our friend here dug this out of the sediment.” He slapped Davin on the shoulder.
“You are construction workers?” the professor asked, skeptically. Most of the five young people in his office were pale and thin. That was especially true for Davin and Emmet, who looked like they rarely ventured outside.
Greg, of course, was lying. The Fallen had discovered the artifact at a crime scene in the ruins of an old house along Munger Road. Feathers and the blood of a freshly-executed victim surrounded it.
Professor Pangloss shrugged, pulled on a pair of latex gloves, and removed the totem from a plastic sandwich bag. It was a stone statuette representing a man or monkey with large ears, bulging eyes, and a toothy grin sitting in a squatting position. Its arms were folded across its chest. Dark stains covered much of its surface. He brought it over to his desk and examined it under a large magnifying glass. The anticipation in the room was palpable. The professor made a few sounds, then set the totem on his desk and removed his gloves with authoritative ease. “Well, my friends, someone has hoodwinked you,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Mike asked, taken aback.
“I mean someone played a prank on you,” Pangloss explained. “Probably someone who didn’t want the construction project to continue. Have any tree huggers been bothering you lately?”
“I don’t understand,” Mike said. “What is it? Why do you think it’s a fake?”
“First off, it’s nearly impossible to tell how old it is, but it does not belong to any Amerindian culture north of Mexico. This is an Aztec artifact—specifically Mictlantecuhtli, a god of the dead and the underworld. The only way for this to have gotten to your construction site was if someone brought it there recently. Second, you cannot simply buy a genuine Aztec artifact on Ebay. That makes me think this is a clever copy—not from a souvenir shop necessarily, but someone chiseled this by hand. It is quite good. They spattered it with paint, varnish, or oil, probably to scare you into thinking it’s covered in blood.”
Mike glanced at Aurelia. That was one fact they knew the professor had gotten wrong. All members of the Fallen had seen the victim’s lifeless body and smelled the pungent aroma of death.
“That’s good enough an explanation for me,” Emmet said as he turned to leave.
“Wait!” Mike nearly shouted. He looked panicked, breaking his usual composure. “Is there any other explanation? Are there any present-day cults that use this imagery?”
“Boy, have you lost your mind?” Professor Pangloss replied. He pointed to his doctoral diploma on the wall. “Do you see this diploma? Does it say ‘cult expert’ on it? Now, you asked me to identify this artifact and I did. I have a hundred tests to grade, if you’ll excuse me.”
Mike looked like he was about to protest, but Aurelia clutched his arm and began to drag him away. He used the Ziploc bag to grab the totem and joined his companions as they made a hasty exit. Just before walking out the door, Mike heard the professor mutter something. “Probably just some apocalyptic cult,” he thought he said.
“What was that?” Mike asked.
“It’s the Mayan calendar that ends in 2012, not the Aztec. Idiots.”
The Fallen winced as their eyes hit sunlight on the campus of Southern Illinois University. Across the quad, some students were hurrying to class, while others pulled their jackets tight and snuck a drag off dwindling cigarettes. The sun was going down.
“The professor said something about an apocalyptic cult as we were leaving,” Mike volunteered. “Something about the Mayan apocalypse.”
Greg corrected him. “He said it was an Aztec figure. Why would Mayan cultists conduct a ritual using an Aztec figure?”
“It’s the same thing,” Aurelia said.
Emmet agreed. “Aura has a point. Cultists aren’t usually intelligent.”
Davin, who had been quiet the whole time, rubbed his right arm nervously and stared at a group of coeds as they walked past. “Geez, guys,” he said. “I’m getting tired of chasing psychos, and being chased by them, all over the state. I thought you said we were finally going to settle down? I’m in the prime of my life over here. What if I wanted to go back to college?” Davin’s friends stared, their mouths hanging open. Saying something affirmative about his life—suggesting there was something to live for—was uncharacteristic. He continued. “I’ve been kidnapped, arrested, locked in a trunk, and nearly bitten by a vampire— dhampyr, or whatever. The point is, I’m tired of it, and I quit.”
Before Mike could respond, Emmet spoke. “Davin has a good point,” he said. “You know I’ve enjoyed these little adventures, but I have no desire to spend another year fighting idiots who think they’re summoning some ancient god or bringing about the end of the world. I’m with Davin. I’m out of this one.”
Mike’s face slowly turned a brighter shade of red. “Greg, what do you think?”
“I hate to say it, but both of them have a point.”
Mike turned to Aurelia. “I have nowhere else to go,” she said. “If you think we should pursue this, then I’m with you.”
“Sorry, Mike,” Greg said. “You know you’re like a brother to me, and we’ve been doing this longer than I can remember, but it’s time to take a break. No one ever said we were going to do this forever.”
“Yeah, the world’s not going to end,” Emmet said. “Really.”
Defeated, Mike shoved his hands deep into his pockets, and the Fallen walked slowly into the sunset.
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