he year is 1699 A.D., the place is South America: deepest jungle, green shadows, slanting bars of sunlight, a dark rich overripe smell. Jaguars on the prowl. Orchids in bloom. Little birds and monkeys making continuous little bird and monkey noises in the background.

And here's the Lost City in the middle of the jungle: sudden acres of sunlight and silence in the middle of all that malarial gloom. Red and white stucco pyramids. Steps and courtyards and avenues, straight as a die. Straighter. Really impressive architecture in the middle of nowhere. Gods and kings carved all over the place.

And here's the intrepid Spanish Jesuit, our hero. You couldn't mistake him for anything else. He's got those little black raisin eyes Spanish priests are supposed to have. but with a sort of twinkly expression the masters of the Inquisition usually lack. He's got the black robe, the boots, the crucifix, he's short - well, let's say compact of build - and is of olive complexion. Needs a shave.

He approaches cautiously through the jungle, and his cute little eyes widen as he beholds the Lost City. From somewhere within his robe he produces a square of folded sheepskin, and opens it to study a complicated design in red and blue inks. He seems to orient himself, and proceeds quickly to a wall embellished with scowling plaster monsters whose terrifying rage seems to keep even the lianas and orchids from encroaching on them. He makes his way along the perimeter, then: ten meters, twenty meters, thirty; and comes at last to the Jaguar Gate.

This is a magnificent towering megalith kind of a thing of red plaster, surmounted by a green stone lintel on which two jaguars are carved in bas-relief, upright and rampant in fighting poses, with eyes and claws inlaid in gold. Nay, but there's more: no actual gate occupies this gateway, no rusting bars of iron, oh no. Instead a solid wave of faint blue light shimmers there, obscuring slightly the view of the fabulous city beyond. If you have really good hearing (and the Spanish Jesuit has) you can just perceive that the blue light is humming slightly, crackling, buzzing.

And what's this in nasty little heaps around the base of the gateway? Lots of fried bugs and a fried bird or two, and - gosh, the Spanish Jesuit doesn't even want to think about what the blackened and twisted thing is over there, the one reaching out with a skeletal claw to the blue light. Probably just a dead monkey, though.

Peering at the detail of the pictographic inscription that runs up one side of the gateway, the Jesuit finds what he has been searching for: a tiny black slot in the face of a parrot-diety who's either beheading a prisoner or fertilizing a banana plant, depending on how good your knowledge of pictographs is. After observing it closely, the Jesuit reaches into a small leather pouch at his belt. He brings out an Artifact, a golden key of strange and un-keylike design. How did the Spanish Jesuit come by such a key? Did he read about its fabled existence in some long-forgotten volume moldering in the libraries of the Escorial? Did he track its whereabouts across the New World, following a long-obscured trail through unspeakable dangers? Your guess is as good as mine. Holding his breath, he inserts it into the slot in the parrot-god's beak.

At once there is a high-pitched shrilling noise and the Spanish Jesuit knows, without being told, that Someone has been alerted to his presence there. Maybe several someones. The blue light falters and blinks out for a second. Siezing his opportunity, the Spanish Jesuit leaps through the gateway, moving remarkably quickly for someone in a long cassock. No sooner has he landed on the pavement beyond than the blue light snaps back on, and a mosquito who has been attempting to follow the Spanish Jesuit meets a terrible, though not untimely, death in a burst of sparks. The Spanish Jesuit breathes a sigh of relief. He has gained entrance to the Lost City.

Making his way through this awesome pile of arcane geometry, he finds a shaded courtyard where a fountain splashes. Here are tables and seats carved from stone. He sits down. There's a stiff sheet of calligraphed parchment lying on the table. He leans forward to peer at it with interest. A shadow appears across an archway and he looks up to to see the Ancient Mayan.

Again, this is a guy you identify immediately. Feathered headdress, jaguarskin kilt, silky black pageboy bob. Hooked nose and high cheekbones. A sad and sneering countenance, appropriate on a member of a long-vanished empire. Is this the end for the Spanish Jesuit?

No, because the Ancient Mayan bows so his green plumes curl and bounce forward, and he inquires:

"How may I serve the Son of Heaven?"

The Jesuit looks down at the parchment.

"Well, the Margarita Grande looks pretty good. On the rocks, with salt, okay? And make that two, I'm expecting a friend."

"Okay," replies the Ancient Mayan, and glides away silently.

Boy, I love moments like this. I really enjoy watching the illusion coming into sharp contrast with the reality. I imagine the shock of the imaginary viewer, who must think he's walked into a British comedy sketch. You know why I've survived in this job, year after year, lousy assignment after lousy assignment, with no counseling whatsoever? Because I've got a keen appreciation of the ludicrous, I guess. Also I've got no choice.

So I'm sitting here waiting for the Mayan guy to come back with our cocktails, and I'm understandably a little jumpy, because I'm meeting someone I haven't seen in, oh, a while, and we didn't part on the best of terms. When mortals are nervous their senses are heightened, they notice all kinds of little details they're ordinarily unaware of. Imagine how it is with us.

Like I notice: the sound of tennis balls, far off, rebounding. Leisure. The sound of toilets flushing, wow, think of all that expensive plumbing. The smell of the jungle isn't any worse than, say, a terrarium overripe for cleaning and pretty much blocked out anyway by the dominating aromas of this place: colognes. Anti-perspirants. Cultivated flowers. Refrigerated food all nice and fresh, I can even smell fabric: starched napkins and tablecloths and bed linens, and not one spot of mildew on anything, and this is in the tropics, yet.

As I sit marvelling at the beauty of New World One, she comes into range. I pick her up about twenty-five meters to the right and two meters down, steadily ascending, must be stairs beyond that arch. She's moving at four point six kilometers an hour. I hear the footsteps on the staircase now and through the arch I see her rising up: head, then shoulders, then the white brocade of her gown.

She paused on the top step and looked at me.

She'd been one of those Galicians with white skin and red hair; could have passed for an Irishwoman or English, until you saw her eyes. They were black. They had a hard stare, an expression of ... disdain is too mild a word. Disgust, that's it, whether at me or the world or God I could never tell.

But it had been a long time, and maybe she'd even forgotten about what's-his-name. I took a deep breath and smiled.

"Well, well, little Mendoza." And I stood and summoned every ounce of belief in the scene we presented. Father confessor extends welcome to young noblewoman.

"Jesus Christ," she said.

"No, sorry," I said. "The robe's got you fooled."

"What a little pudding face you have with your beard and moustache shaved off."

"I missed you too," I said gallantly, gesturing to a seat. After a moment's hesitation she approached and sat down and I sat too and the Mayan very providentially brought our cocktails.

"You got my transmission, then." It's safe to begin with the obvious.

"I did." She arranged the train of her gown, not looking at me.

"So." I leaned back after the first sip. "Been a long time, hasn' it?"

"One hundred and forty-four years." No, she hadn't forgotten about what's-his-name. "Since Portsmouth. I'm taller than you are, too. I wonder why I never noticed that before?"

"You're wearing high heels."

"Could be." She raised her glass and considered it. She was being too much of a lady to bite the lime, but she did lick the salt.

"I like your ensemble. Bonnet a la Fontagnes, isn't it? Hey, they really keep up with fashion here, don't they? That's the exact style they were wearing in Madrid when I left."

"I should hope so." She sneered. "You think courtiers fuss about their clothes? Hang around here a few years."

"If I remember right, you used to like new fashions."

"Less important there. I don't know why. I'm very comfortable here, actually. Sanitation, good food, peace and quiet. Nothing to disturb my work but the social occasions and I manage to get out of most of them."

"So you don't party much?"

"I hate parties."

I reached out and took her hand. She looked at me in swift surprise. Then she relaxed and said: "You're back with the Church again, obviously."

"Have been. I'm about to change roles."


"Yes. Yes, I died heroically in an attempt to carry the Word of God to a bunch of Indians who weren't having any, thank you very much. Even now faithful Waldomar, my novice, is telling Father Sulpicio why he was unable to recover my arrow-studded body from the jungle. Anyway, I've just hiked in and I haven't even reported for debriefing yet. Can't wait for a shower and a shave."

"I would have thought you'd go for them first."

"Wanted to see you." I shrugged and had another sip. Her eyes narrowed slightly.

"What exactly are you doing here, Joseph?" she inquired. This time she bit the lime. "If you don't mind?"

"Recuperating!" My eyes widened. "I've just come from ten years as part of a Counter Reformation Dirty Tricks squad in Madrid, doing stuff that would make a hyena queasy. Then I had a sea voyage here, which was not any kind of a luxury cruise, and two weeks on a stinky jungle trail. I'm a little overdue for a vacation, wouldn't you say?"

"Overdue for a shower, anyway."

"Sad but true." I looked into the bottom of my glass. "What does one do to order a second round here?"

She waved a negligent hand, two fingers extended. The Mayan appeared from nowhere with two new drinks. He went through the whole business with the new napkins and the old glasses and swept away. I stared after him. "What does he do, stand there just out of sight listening to us?"

"Probably." She raised her glass. "So after your vacation you're going back out into the field?",

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact."

"Going to play with politics at Lima?"

"No. They're sending me up North."

"Mexico? What on earth are you going to find to do up there?"

"Farther north than that. California."

"Ahh." She nodded and drank. "Well, you'll enjoy that. Great climate, I'm told. On the other hand -" She looked up suspiciously. "Nobody's there yet. No cities, no court, no political intrigues. So what could you possibly ..."

"There are Indians there," I reminded her. "Indians have politics too, you know."

"Oh, Indians." She gestured as dismissively as only a Spaniard can. "But what a waste of your talents! They're all savages up there, Joseph. Who did you offend, to draw an assignment like that? What will you do?"

"I don't know. I haven't been briefed on it yet. The rumor is, though, that Dr. Zeus is drafting a big expedition. Lots of personnel from all the disciplines. Big base camp and everything. No expense spared."

"And you're probably going to go in there and collect little Indians for study before they're all killed off by smallpox."

"I wouldn't be surprised."

"You slimy little guy." She shook her head sadly. "Well, best of luck."

From Sky Coyote: A Novel of the Company, by Kage Baker.@ 1999 by Kage Baker.

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