Part Nineteen

Shadows retreated as the ancient lamps flared to life. Sydney and Nigel stood in awe, taking in the incredible find. It was truly a relic hunter’s dream come true. They were standing inside a pristine archaeological site, its stunning portrait of history virtually untouched by the centuries.

Sydney’s practiced eyes took in every detail. Earthen walls preserved the marks of trowels and picks. Scattered across rough stone pavers, animal pelts and colorful wool rugs comprised the sixth-century’s answer to wall-to-wall carpeting. Furnishings were simple and functional, sized to accommodate a smaller race of people. Fifteen hundred years into Europe’s past, it was a very rare man who stood over six foot tall.

Age darkened the wood and painted a patina over every object in the room. Beneath a layer of tarnish, silver bowls and steins boasted the fluid lines of exquisite workmanship.

"Well?" she asked, her voice hushed. "Do you know where the journal is?"

"Ummm…. Sydney?"

Something in his tone captured her attention. She turned her head to see him frozen in place, his eyes wide. Her gaze traveled down his slender form, finally resting on the huge serpent coiled loosely around his ankle. The creature was dappled in shades of bronze and black and cream. Sydney instantly recognized the timber rattler by its distinctive pattern.

To his credit, her teaching assistant didn’t attempt to run. If he startled the snake, he could be bitten. The female relic hunter searched frantically for a tool to withdraw the animal – preferably without harming Nigel in the process.

She moved slowly, deliberately, hardly daring to breathe. Finally she collected a heavily carved walking stick, using her dagger to slice off a length of rope. The rope circled the smaller end of the staff, looping around and hanging down in a hurried but careful noose, sized only a little larger than the snake’s triangular head.

Sydney turned and walked forward, careful not to spook the rattler. It seemed hypnotized by her, its gaze fixed, its muscles frozen in place.

She nearly had it captured when Nigel burst out laughing. Then, to her horror, he actually reached down and slapped the creature’s head to the floor!

She lunged forward, dagger extended, in hopes she could stop the snake in mid-strike, but Nigel picked the thing up, extending his arm upward. The animal was at least eight foot long, maybe more. Its tail coiled double on the floor.

"Nigel, are you crazy?" she shrieked. It was a rhetorical question. He’d just picked up a rattlesnake like it was a jump rope!

"It’s a fake, Sydney. It’s the snakeskin and head, but nothing left of the snake inside. I just thought about it. I mean, we’re in the middle of New York City. There aren’t any rattlesnakes here. Not live ones, except in the zoo."

Shock faded quickly as the obvious sunk in. It was a prime piece of early taxidermy, or perhaps the early European idea of a toy: but Nigel was right, it wasn’t alive. Upraised, the snake’s belly displayed a neat row of stitches from stem to stern, marking the place where it had been stuffed.

"You knew!" she accused, suddenly aware of the mischief in his eyes. "My god, Nigel! You knew it was fake! You jerk!"

Go to Part Twenty.

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