MOKI STEPS excerpt

CHAPTER 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A trickle of sweat slid down her left temple. Mackenzie Campbell swiped at the defiant drop, glad her back was to her students. On the white board in front of her she wrote, “The boy gave her the telescope.”

She turned and gazed at them, or rather, at the clock on the wall behind them. “Okay. Who wants to diagram this sentence?” 

The summer sun picked its way into her classroom through streaked windows that didn’t open, and dust motes floated around her.

Her hand trembled, and she forced it to her side. This is ridiculous, she thought. I’ve been teaching for a year now. These are freshman college kids. I should be able to call on a student without shaking.

Again she urged the class to respond, turning toward the board. “Come on. This is an interesting sentence. Really.”

A few students tittered.

Mackenzie felt her ears turning red and she imagined their words, low and snarky, behind her back. Sticks and stones, she thought. Ignore them.

Swallowing, she said, “Jerry, why don’t you give it a try?”  

A boy with spiky black hair and hipster glasses scanned the room, eyebrows arched over thick black frames. He rose slowly. 

She handed him the marker, avoiding his eyes, and walked to her desk. “You know, Gertrude Stein once said, ‘I really don’t know anything more exciting than diagramming sentences.’ ”

“Then let her do it,” Jerry muttered. The class laughed in unison, like Jell-O wiggling on a plate.

“Who’s Gertrude Sty?” A blonde in the front row asked, frowning.

Mackenzie clamped her mouth shut and sought out the clock again, wrapping her arms around herself in a protective embrace. 

It had happened again. She had lost control of the class. Her heart seized in her chest and it took everything she had not to run. It was her, she knew. She was the problem. She just couldn’t convey the importance of the fundamentals. How diagramming sentences would help them understand the intricacies of grammar. 

The class was Survey of Linguistics, an interdisciplinary course she had created to fulfill one of the English Department’s composition class credits. It was an experiment she had proposed to her Dean. 

And it looked like the experiment was failing.

Her students had complained from the beginning. It wasn’t the easy ‘A’ they had hoped for.

Jerry asked, “Why do we have to diagram sentences?” 

“It helps you learn sentence structure.” 

“It seems pointless,” he countered. “I’ll never use this in real life.”

“Think of it as the foundation. Like a skill you need for your job.”

“And are there jobs like that?”

“Not many.”

“Do they pay well?”

“Uh,” she floundered, “no.” She couldn’t lie to him. That would break the student-teacher trust she wanted so desperately.

“There you go. I’m more into the flow and the bigger picture.”

She tried again. “Diagramming sentences helps you understand the logic of sentences and the function of of words. That will help you write better.” 

Sherry, a brunette in the back of the class said, “I doubt it. Why would I ever take the time to draw little pictures of the sentences I write?”

Mackenzie understood then that arguing would only make it worse. She just couldn’t persuade them to give it a chance. It struck her that she was the one being tested, not the other way around. That trusting your teacher to be an authority was old-fashioned and naïve. There was the Internet, after all. And YouTube.

Ten minutes remained until the end of class. She walked over to the board and erased the offending words. “I’ll see you all Monday.” She exited, not looking at her students.

Once outside she stopped, waiting for her heart rate to slow. Why couldn’t she do this? She was a professor of linguistics at a top university. She had published papers in prestigious journals—and was considered an expert in Uto-Aztec languages. Why couldn’t she motivate a group of 18-year-olds? 

She headed for the parking lot, skirting clumps of students who seemingly rose from the lawn like overgrown bushes. As she walked, her heels punctured the grass, forcing her into an awkward gait.

Safe in her car, she rolled the window down, letting the pungent scent of grass and asphalt and exhaust fumes seep in. She studied her eyes and nose in the visor mirror with dismay and wiped a red slash from her chin. Smudged mascara exaggerated the paleness of her skin, and rebellious strands of coppery hair frizzed about her shoulders. 

She closed her eyes. It was Friday afternoon. No more classes today, but she was slated to be in her office to help the students who rarely came. She thought about the survey class and remembered how her ex-boyfriend, Charlie, had complained that she was too traditional, too rigid. That she never tried anything new.

Well, she had tried something new. She had spearheaded this survey class. 

And it had bombed.

Later that afternoon, she lounged on the second-story deck outside her apartment with her friend, Hillary. 

“You can’t let them ruffle you.” Hillary poured herself a second glass of Cabernet. “They’re just kids. You have to show them you’re the boss. You know, like dogs. Or is it men?”

They laughed. A soft breeze flicked aspen leaves and ruffled the tips of badly mown grass. The deck, although small, faced east and offered respite from the late afternoon heat. A wooden fence separated the tiny yard below them from the alley, providing the illusion of privacy.

The friends had developed a tradition of spending Friday evenings discussing the week over a bottle of wine. On the surface they were a mismatched set. Mackenzie, lean and angular, almost rangy, was nothing like her short, curvy, oh-so-compelling friend. 

Suddenly serious, Hillary continued, “What’s going on, really? I mean you know your stuff. You speak twelve languages, for Christ’s sake. You know linguistics inside and out.”

And I can diagram the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, Mackenzie added silently.

“So, what happened?” Hillary leaned in.

Mackenzie slouched on a slatted Adirondack chair, her legs hanging over the wide wooden arm. “I don’t know. You’re the shrink. You tell me.” 

“I am not a shrink,” Hillary retorted. “I’m a psychology professor. There’s a difference.”

Mackenzie brought her knees to her chest and smiled. It was a long-running feud between them. “Right, I forgot.” She shifted in her chair. “It sounds so ridiculous, Hill. I love everything about linguistics. And I’m good at it. It seems logical I should teach. But I’m not so sure anymore. I don’t know what it is. I just can’t seem to connect with them.”

“You have to hang in there. It’s the first time for a new class. Creating a curriculum is hard. It’s only the second week of the session. It will get easier. You’ll find your stride.”

“I hope so,” Mackenzie said. “All I know is I’m not getting through.” She munched on a carrot stick.

Hillary traced the rim of her wine glass with a bright pink fingernail. “Well, I think it’s particularly hard for you, because you look so young. And, you’re introverted. The world is not easy for introverts.”

“Introverted meaning ‘nerdy.’ I know what you mean.” Mackenzie held up her wine glass. “And you’re right, I must look young. I still get carded at bars sometimes. At thirty-four years old.”

“You’re complaining about that?”

“Well, I guess I should be grateful, but it’s kind of insulting.”

“Just wait till you’re forty,” Hillary said, raising an eyebrow. “Then you’ll be glad you look young.”

Mackenzie changed the subject. “You know, I’m worried about Garrison. He’s been observing my classes this week. I keep freezing.”

“Mac, department heads always try to intimidate new teachers. Don’t let Garrison worry you. Stop being afraid and trust yourself. You just have to give it some time. How the hell did you pass public speaking in college, anyway?”

Mackenzie swirled her wine, taking a long sip before speaking. “I didn’t. I traded my way out of it. Did extra credit for the department head.”

“Figures. You are a nerd, Professor Campbell.”

“It’s hopeless,” Mackenzie agreed, tipping her glass in a toast.

After Hillary left, Mackenzie sat down at her desk, feeling pleasantly drowsy. As she shuffled some papers aside to make room for her laptop, her cell phone rang. She glanced at it and vaulted out of her chair. The display read, C.A. Peterson.

Charlie. Her ex-boyfriend. The phone buzzed around in the papers like a dying insect. She perched on the edge of the desk, watching it.

She had met Charlie while researching ancient Mesoamerican languages at Arizona State University. He was an exchange student from the University of Utah studying art history. They had shared a few graduate seminars and ended up studying together, drifting into dating without even realizing it. After several months, it had ended badly. He had broken up with her over the phone.

She took a sip of wine and clicked on her voicemail, her heart tap-dancing in her chest. 

“Mac, I think I’ve hit on something big. Really big. I need your help. Can you get away for a few weeks? It could mean a lot to your career. Call me as soon as you can.”

She listened to the message again, realizing he hadn’t even asked how she was. It was always about him. Curiosity turned to irritation. How could he call after more than a year and ask for help? After how he had left things? She rose, poured a glass of wine, and called him. 

He answered immediately. “Mac. I’m so glad you called me back. What do you think? Can you come out?”

“Where are you, Charlie?” She gulped wine, dribbling it down her chin, and hoped he couldn’t hear the warble in her voice.

“I’m in Page, Arizona. I’ve been working on my dissertation. On Navajo sand painting.”

“Yes, I heard you were getting your Ph.D. Finally.” A barb, she realized, too late. Oh, well.

But he didn’t miss a beat. “Yup. Well, I found something while I was researching the Wetherills. You remember them?”

She searched her memory, recalling that Richard and Louisa Wetherill had operated a trading post in Utah in the 1920s. Richard had found several cliff dwellings—including Mesa Verde—and was known for exploring the Four Corners area. 

“I remember a little,” She said. “Didn’t the Navajos call her ‘Slim Woman?’ And let her represent them with the government?”

“Yeah. She even adopted two little Navajo girls. Mac, this woman was awesome. She had this unbelievable collection of sand paintings, so I was looking into her, just poking around. I discovered she collected and translated Navajo legends and myths, and I got sidetracked.”

No surprise there. Charlie might be adventurous, but he had a tough time staying on task.

He continued. “She was so audacious, especially for the time period. Fearless. But she never published anything, and the material she collected on her trips was lost. In fact, most all of what she translated disappeared.” He paused.

“Go on.” 

“Well, I found some of her notes.” His voice rose, cracking slightly.

 

She held the cell phone away from her ear. “O-kaaaaay.” She was intrigued, but annoyed, by his stop-and-go storytelling.

“You won’t believe it. Hear me out. I pieced some things together, and I think I’ve found her translation of a legend about a store of gold. Gold the Aztecs hid from Cortés back when he was wiping them out.”

She laughed. “Gold? Aztecs? Charlie, I think you’ve been in the desert too long. This sounds like a bad movie.”

“Funny. Listen, she wrote about some sort of document, a map or something, that points the way to the gold. The Navajos told her it was hidden in a cave out near Rainbow Bridge. You know, by Lake Powell.”

She put her glass down and sighed.

He surged on. “You see, there’s this Navajo legend about gold hidden by an ancient people.’ Louisa never looked for it, probably  out of respect for the Navajo. But her notes tell where to find it, or really, where to find the map.”

He stopped to take a breath. “If it’s really Aztec, the map’s got to be written in classic Nahuatl. That’s why you have to come. You’re the expert.”

He was right. She had written her dissertation about vowel shifts in Nahuatl. “I don’t know,” she said. “Tell me more.” 

“Come out to Arizona. I want to leave in two weeks. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”

She glanced at the calendar hanging above her desk. “Charlie, I’m teaching two summer sessions. I can’t possibly leave.” Besides, she thought, I don’t know where we stand.

The phone was silent. 

“Are you still there?” She looked at it, wondering if they’d been cut off.

“Yes.” One word. She could hear the disappointment. Her heart constricted again. 

Charlie, true to his nature, pressed on. “Come on, Mac. This is right up your alley. Think of how important it could be for your research. You can always get someone else to take your classes. This is momentous. It could lead to gold, for God’s sake. Montezuma’s legendary gold.”

It would be an extraordinary find, and it would help her research. She felt queasy, though, and manipulated. “It sounds interesting. It does. But can’t it wait? I can’t leave until after the sessions.”

There was another long pause. Then, “I thought this would be good for us. And good for you. It’s in your field, after all.”

Her thoughts collided. Us? There was no ‘us.’ Was he saying he wanted to get back together? She said, “Let me call you after finals. Maybe we could get together and talk about it.” 

“Never mind. I’m sure I can find someone else to go.”

“It’s waited this long. Can’t it wait a few weeks longer? It’s too last-minute. I need more info. A little more time. Why the rush?”

But the line was silent. Her ex-boyfriend, once again, had hung up on her.

That Monday, she headed back to her office and found Robert Garrison, her department head, sitting in the chair beside her desk.

He was an imposing man, even when seated. Six-foot-six and powerfully built, he had a ringing bass voice and graying hair he wore a little too long. Although he was a linguistics scholar who ranked among the best, he looked more like a thug. Or a basketball player.

Garrison stood up when she entered the room and remained standing after she sat down at her desk.

“Ms. Campbell. How are you today? And Linguistics 101?”

Mackenzie carefully placed her book bag on the floor next to her, hoping to hide her expression. “The Survey class?”

“Yes. I wondered how you felt about it. In general.”

“It’s all right. Not bad.” She sounded like an idiot. He had to know from the website’s feedback page that her students didn’t think much of the class.

Pacing in front of her desk, he said, “I’m sorry to say this, but it hasn’t been going very well. Your teacher approvals are low. I know you’re a first-year teacher, and so we must be patient. But I want to give you a bit of advice.”

She nodded, not trusting her voice. She stared at a small spider web in the corner of the ceiling.

“Standing in front of the class is not teaching. It is merely the tip of the iceberg.” He paused, and she groaned inwardly. Tip-of-the-iceberg speeches were never good.

“I went out on a limb for you with this new course. It was a bold idea, but I’m afraid you’re just not the one to carry it out. You simply haven’t taken the time to prepare. All good teachers are relentless in their preparation and planning. They know their subject intimately and succeed because they put in the hours.” 

He hesitated for effect. “Their iceberg is solid because it is built on the rocks of focused hard work.”

Mackenzie ignored the mangled metaphor and nodded again.

“I want you to spend more time, Campbell. I want you to focus. I don’t want to worry I made the wrong decision backing you.”

She hoped he wouldn’t require a response and resisted the urge to argue with him.

Garrison pulled his lips back, creating the  semblance of a smile, and turned, ducking slightly while walking through the doorway. He didn’t say good-bye.

She jumped up and closed the door, pulling down the shade. Specks of dust fell silently to the ground.

“Spend more time,” she exclaimed. “Spend more time?” Collapsing in her chair, she let her head fall on the desk. The ticking of her wall clock beat a subtle rhythm, and she found herself counting. One-uh, two-uh, three uh, four—

Rat-a-tat-tat. A tat. Startled, she raised her head, afraid Garrison had returned. But when she peeked through the narrow opening between the windowsill and shade, Hillary waved at her.

Mackenzie opened the door, and her friend sailed in. 

“Hey, Hill. Don’t you have a class now?”

“No, I gave a pop quiz. It was either too easy or too hard. I let them out early.” She raised her eyebrows. “What’s up?”

 

“Garrison. Not happy with my teaching. Wants me to spend more time preparing. I got an iceberg lecture.”

“Iceberg? You mean, nine-tenths of it under water?”

“Right.”

“Oh, Mac, shake it off. He’s just that way. A bit of an arrogant ass, that one.”

“I can’t afford to shake it off. He’s not a fan of the new class. He thinks I’m slacking off. It sounded like a warning.”

Hillary tilted her head. “You’re not taking him seriously, are you? No one spends more time preparing than you. I don’t think you need to prepare more—I think you just need some time off. What are you doing after this session? You’re not teaching the second summer session, are you? It’s only a three-week mini-session. Skip it.”

“I can’t. I already told Garrison I would teach a basic Grammar class. It’s in the catalog.” She sank into the chair next to her desk. “I’d only be teaching one class, so I could get ready for fall at the same time.” She studied her friend. “Hill, I need your opinion on something. Something else.”

“What?” Hillary angled one hip on the edge of the desk. 

“Well, Charlie called Friday. Right after you left, actually. He wanted me to check out something he’s been researching. In Arizona.” She recounted Charlie’s request.

“Aztec gold?” Hillary’s deep voice rose half an octave. “You’ve got to be kidding. Oh, Mac, I don’t even know Charlie, and I think he’s lost it.”

“I know. That’s what I thought, too. So, of course I said no.” 

Hillary cocked her head. “It’s probably just Charlie’s way of stringing you along. He knows you’re still hung up on him.”

“Me? I’m not still hung up on him. It’s been more than a year.”

“Please. I can see it in your face. You said he broke your heart, remember?”

Of course she remembered—how could she not? He had broken her heart. But he’d also made her laugh, and he’d held her, and she had loved him. And for a while he had loved her back.

“Mackenzie?”

“Sorry. Sorting it out in my head.”

“Nothing to sort. Don’t glorify it. From what you’ve told me, he was a selfish bastard.”

Mackenzie nodded. She knew she should be angry with him, but at the moment all she could remember was the way his voice cracked and grew raspy when he was excited. The way he knew a little bit about everything. His brilliant blue eyes and blonde hair. And how he had pushed her to do new things.

Hillary broke the silence again. “I know you think he was fun. Of course, that’s seductive. But you told me he was never there for you, that he was more of a playmate. I just don’t think he could be serious long enough. Or stay in one place.”

“I know,” Mackenzie agreed. “But, well, some of what he said makes sense. After he called, I Googled Louisa Wetherill. Everything he told me—about her lost notes, I mean—was true. She was going to publish a book, but her health gave out.”

“I’m sure there’s something to it,” Hillary said. “Maybe not Aztec gold, but something. But do you want to get involved with him again?”

Mackenzie let it drop. She was tired of arguing. 

Hillary switched to discussing her Abnormal Psych class and the difficulty of designing a good pop quiz. Mackenzie hoped she looked like she was paying attention.

Pausing, Hillary continued in a softer voice. “Listen to me. Put this Aztec stuff out of your head. It’s crazy.”

Yup, Mackenzie thought, it was. “You’re right, Hill. I know you’re right.”

CHAPTER 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charlie’s proposed trip date passed by unnoticed, and Mackenzie redoubled her efforts to impress Garrison. She had never been called unprepared in her life.

On the last day of the session, she returned from lunch to find a single cardboard envelope on her desk. There was no return address, and the label didn’t tell her anything. She picked it up, but it appeared empty. Probably a clever ad campaign for underarm deodorant.

 

Covering it with a pile of final exam books, she dumped everything into her canvas book bag.

 After locking up her office, Mackenzie trudged across the campus green. With less than half an hour before the final exam she had to give that day, she wanted to arrive early.  

The final went smoothly, and her mood lifted. She was finished with teaching until the next summer session. She thought of Charlie and the trip. She had wanted him to be the love of her life. When he told her he wanted to break up, it had crushed her. 

Her steps were heavy as she slogged across campus. She headed for the library to learn more about Charlie’s story. 

Crossing the threshold, she inhaled the earthy smell of books and paused. Amber light filtered through leaded glass windows, and a card catalog with monitors stood in the center of the room, flanked by rows of bookshelves. Two rows of computers hummed in the alcove on her left. 

After tracking down a few references, she found a cozy chair in a corner. When she looked up, it was eight-thirty. Although the library remained open until midnight, her office building shut down at nine o’clock on weeknights. 

She checked out a few books on the electronic pad and jogged through the stacks.

 

Bounding down the steps, she narrowly avoided the bronze sculpture guarding the building.

 

The University of Denver was small for a university. She ran into several students she knew on her way to her office and nodded at each. She must look ludicrous, with her overstuffed book bag and disheveled pile of papers. A true cliché. She slowed her pace and finger-combed her bangs before entering the building.

She headed to the garden level, a large space with a rabbit warren of cubicles and offices. Her office was in the back, and she navigated the aisles in the dim light. 

Leaning against her office door to fish out her keys, she toppled backward into the dark office. What the hell? She scrambled up to flick on the light switch. And froze. 

Something was wrong. Someone had broken into her office. 

Mackenzie never left the door unlocked, much less slightly ajar. Although she wasn’t exactly a neatnik, the mess she encountered wasn’t hers. Books were strewn on the floor, desk drawers left open. Files were scattered about, and papers carpeted the floor. Her heart rate doubled. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself. Relax, she told herself. No one was in the office now. 

The wastebasket under her desk lay on its side, with crinkled papers and a cardboard coffee cup next to it. Somehow it was too much. Tears flooded her eyes. She had to report this, but she had to get out of there first. Pulling her book bag back onto her shoulder, she turned. And screamed.

“Are you all right?” A uniformed campus security guard stood there, blocking the way. 

She looked up into small button-eyes behind thick glasses. A tall man with sparse gray hair stood before her. She didn’t recognize him, but she didn’t know everyone on the security staff. She pressed the bag to her chest, flushing. She had bumped into him, not the other way around. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought…”

“Ma’am. Everything okay?”

“Uh, yes. I mean, no. Someone’s been in my office. Someone’s broken into my office.” 

“Yes, ma’am, that’s why I’m here. Heard a report of someone hanging around the building earlier.” He strode past her into the room, trampling books and papers alike. “Did you see anyone? Is anything missing?”

“I didn’t see anyone. And I haven’t checked if anything is missing.” She gazed at the mess. It would take forever to go through it all.

“How long have you been here?” He stood in front of the window, which she noticed wasn’t quite shut. Had she left it open?

“Ma’am?”

“I left Penrose at half-past eight to get my grade book.”

“Your office was locked?”

“It should have been. But it wasn’t when I got here.” 

“Why don’t you look around to see if anything’s missing. I’ll be here. You’ll be safe.” He crossed his arms and smiled, revealing yellow teeth. A faint odor of stale garlic assaulted her, and she coughed.

She scanned the room again. Kneeling, she picked up her grade book and placed it in her bag. 

“What are you taking?” 

“Just my grade register.”  

“You didn’t leave your mail here, did you? No packages or deliveries?” 

Mackenzie shook her head, watching as he continued to study the room. She pressed her back against the doorway, looking over her shoulder into the outer room. “Shouldn’t we call the police?”

After observing her for a moment, he shrugged and turned to leave. “Probably frisky students. I wouldn’t worry.”

It occurred to her then she didn’t know his name. Didn’t security guards wear name badges? She couldn’t remember.

“Could you, I mean, would you walk me to my car?” She struggled to keep up, but her stride was no match for his.

He called back over his shoulder, “Ma’am, you have a good night. Don’t you worry about a thing.” 

 

 

 

 

An hour later, she sat on her sofa with a peanut butter sandwich. It’s nothing, she told herself. Probably a prank of some kind. Students did crazy things during finals. 

She sighed. It would be better to stay busy.

 

She sorted final exams into different piles on the cushions with one hand, holding the sandwich in the other. At the bottom of her book bag, she found the oversized envelope she had received earlier. Stuffing the rest of the sandwich into her mouth, she wiped her fingers on her robe and ripped the envelope open.

A folded sheet of smudged notebook paper, much too small for the envelope that contained it, fell to her lap. It was a pencil drawing of what seemed to be mountains connected to a large stone arch. At the top of the peak were two X’s, with a dashed line drawn parallel to the sheer cliff face. The line ended with a large arrow pointing to a hole, or cave, in the rock. Another arrow pointed to a place at the bottom of the cliff with the words “Painted Rock, near Rainbow Bridge. Codex.”

“This is from Charlie,” she muttered to herself. She turned the sheet over, looking for a note or explanation. Nothing. 

Rainbow Bridge. Charlie had mentioned the place, but she blanked on the details. Was it in Arizona or Utah? Leaning over the stack of finals, she picked up one of the books on the Wetherills and flipped through the index to the entry. 

Ah, it was actually on the border, she found. She glanced at another reference over on the desk and rose awkwardly, knocking the envelope off the coffee table. It fell to the floor next to the sofa. As she bent over to pick it up, a very small camera memory card fell out.

Frowning, she blew on it. What was this?

 

She crossed to her desk and inserted it into her laptop. A folder with fifty or more numbered image files filled the screen. Clicking on an image, she sat back to wait for it to load—and immediately sat up when the image came into focus. Squinting, she enlarged it to get a better look. 

The images on the screen appeared to be photographs of pages with pictures or symbols. Most of the figures were drawn in black on a white background. Large square symbols bordered the edges of the pages—dates and page numbers, she knew. The centers of the pages were covered with drawings and smaller symbols.

She quickly scanned the remaining images. Leaning back, she stared unseeing at the ceiling. It seemed to be a complete pre-Spanish Aztec codex. If it was authentic, it would be the only one left in the world.

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hi, This is Charlie. I’m here. Are you there? Please leave a message after the beep.” 

Mackenzie grew more and more irritated by Charlie’s voicemail message. “Charlie, this is my fourth message. I am here. Where the hell are you? I need to talk to you. Please, please call me back.” 

She rested the cell phone on the car seat beside her. Glancing at it, she checked the sound for the third time and then moved it to her lap. She wasn’t going to miss his call. 

Pushing her bangs back, she glanced down at the phone, then swerved to avoid hitting a median. She was tired and distracted—not a good combination—and she grew more and more worried with each tick of the clock. She would call him again when she got to school, she thought. Why wasn’t he answering her calls?

She sped down Evans Avenue, passing under the glassed-in skyway that spanned the street. As she pulled into the parking lot next to Hillary’s building, her tires squealed, and she glanced nervously around. No one seemed to care.

Five minutes later she sat in Hillary’s office. 

“Now, what’s this about?” Hillary arched a perfectly tweezed eyebrow and fingered the pearl necklace resting above her ample chest. She wore an electric blue silk blouse and black skirt that flounced when she sat down. 

 

Mackenzie dropped her bag on the floor and paced. She wasn’t sure where to begin. “Well, remember how Charlie claimed he had discovered something big?”

“Is this about Charlie again? Are you still obsessing over him?”

“Wait. Yes. No. I mean, yes, it’s about Charlie. He sent me something.”

Her friend leaned back in her chair, arms crossed. “What?”

“A memory card with images of the codex.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I’d have to study it further, but the codex seems complete. If it’s real, it would be an amazing, history-changing discovery. We have no complete records of the Aztecs written by them­—just stuff the Spanish wrote, which we know was biased and probably riddled with errors and omissions. A genuine codex that showed how the Aztecs lived would be worth millions.”

 

“Still sounds fishy to me.”

“There’s more. The first part of the codes is like a history of the Aztec people. But the last part seems to be a map to the ancient homeland of the Aztecs. They called it Aztlan.” 

She paused, gauging Hillary’s expression. “I’m still working on it, but it fits the legends. Like I said, the story is that the Aztec king Montezuma hid a stash of gold there to keep it from Cortés. In a cave in Aztlan.”

 

Hillary frowned.

“But I’m worried. I can’t reach Charlie.”

“He could be out of range, Mac.”

“Maybe. But it feels like something’s wrong.”

“Give it a few days. I’m sure he’ll surface.”

Mackenzie nodded. That would be the logical, reasonable thing to do. She tried to ignore the feeling of dread in her gut.

The next morning Mackenzie stood by her desk, letting the sunlight warm her shoulders. Her back ached. She left another message for Charlie, again with no response.

Stuffing everything into her book bag, she left for school. She wanted to clean up her office and check her mailbox for a letter from Charlie. Maybe he had sent her something else.

When she walked out to her car, a man leaning against a black sedan glanced up and then down quickly, turning his face away from her. She quickly got into her car and locked the door. Her neighborhood, although quickly becoming gentrified, was not exactly safe yet. 

As she pulled out of her parking space, her phone rang, and a number she didn’t recognize appeared on the display. Thinking Charlie might be using a different phone, she answered, but the caller hung up. She slowed down to check the display, and a car behind her honked. A dark sedan slid into traffic a few cars back. 

She wrinkled her nose. Her sweat stank. She glanced in her rearview mirror. Was it the same sedan that had been parked outside her house? She couldn’t tell. 

She pulled into the drive-through lane of her favorite coffee shop. Two cars idled in front of her, and she noticed a dark sedan parked on the street a few yards from the shop. She hit the accelerator automatically and had to brake to avoid ramming the car in front of her. Calm down, she told herself. There were probably thousands of dark cars in Denver.

When she exited the drive-through, the sedan pulled out from its spot on the street into the lane behind her, slowing down. She couldn’t quite make out the license plate. It abruptly switched lanes again, and she couldn’t see it. 

She turned onto Evans, heading toward the faculty parking lot. Instead of turning in, she drove under the glass skyway. She turned into a narrow alley behind a frat house and coasted into a small parking space next to a large evergreen bush.

Maybe she shouldn’t go into her office today. Maybe she should just turn around. She sipped her coffee, trying to sort out her thoughts. 

“No, I’ve got to do this,” she said aloud. In one jerky movement, she grabbed her things and jumped out of the car, making for a gap between the bushes and the frat house. She ducked, waiting. A moment later, the dark sedan glided slowly past her, like a shark on the prowl. The windows were deeply tinted.

Without thinking, Mackenzie dashed the opposite way down the alley and crossed the street to the community center, which provided access to the skyway.

The cool passage of mirrored aqua glass threw a blue cast on the street below. A long bench ran along one wall, and tables and chairs were scattered about randomly. A coffee kiosk stood under a mounted flat screen TV near the opposite door. A few students lingered near the kiosk, gazing up at the news on the screen. 

She sat down at the first empty table and stared down at cars threading their way through groups of students. No sign of the sedan. Minutes passed and nothing disrupted the scene below. Her heart returned to its normal rhythm, and her breathing slowed. 

She had almost talked herself into going to her office when she spotted a dark sedan. With a sickening fascination, Mackenzie watched as it turned into the faculty parking lot. A tall gray-haired man in a suit got out. She draped herself over her table, trying to see his features. He looked directly at her.

It was the security guard who had been in her office.

 

Mackenzie ducked, even though she knew he couldn’t see her through the glass. She slammed her shoulder on the table edge and swore loudly. Several students looked over, then went back to their conversations. 

The man walked toward the skyway and gazed up for several minutes before entering the sedan. It left immediately, swerving silently through traffic and pedestrians.

Shit. She retrieved her laptop. She decided to stay put for awhile. 

She searched for hotels in Page. Maybe she could find out where Charlie was staying. He usually camped out, but she wanted to be thorough. 

In the search engine findings, a headline stood out:

Man Lost in Canyons Near Page, Arizona. Feared Dead.

 

She clicked on the story.

 

Page police have been searching the area of Navajo Mountain for a missing Utah man.

 

Charles E. Peterson, 36-year-old graduate student attending the University of Utah, was last seen four days ago at the Holiday Inn in Page. According to hotel desk clerk Stephen Andrews, Peterson left the hotel to camp overnight near Navajo Mountain. When Peterson failed to return, Andrews notified the police.

 

Because Navajo Mountain is on Navajo land, Page Police and the Navajo Nation Patrol will conduct the search jointly. A command post has been set up in that area.

 

Peterson is described as being 5 foot 10 inches tall, 160 pounds, with blond hair and brown eyes. He was last seen wearing a red t-shirt and gray or khaki cargo pants. Police ask that anyone having information contact officer George Cardiff, who is handling the investigation.

 

She read the words again. They swam into one another, becoming meaningless symbols. Charlie missing? Lost in the canyons? 

She should have gone with him. She should have taken the risk. It had been a simple decision with simple words: Yes or No. If she had gone with him, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten lost. Now, it might be too late.

 

 

Mackenzie forced herself to drive the speed limit  to the airport. She was jittery and nervous. The airport, twenty-five miles east of the city, sat alone on the plains like a clump of white circus tents. It was almost five o’clock; her flight left at seven. In the previous three hours she had purchased new clothes, a rolling duffle bag, a one-way ticket to Page, and depleted most of her savings. And had either been fired or quit. She wasn’t sure which.

She trolled for a close-in parking spot. The airport itself wasn’t busy; the security lines were short, and she made it to the gate in plenty of time.

 

She let her thoughts drift back to her last conversation with Garrison.

“Had you been with me for, say, ten years or so,” he had boomed, “I would consider your request to not teach the summer semester. Had we ample time to get to know one another, I would take it under advisement. As it is, you are without tenure, with a mere year’s worth of teaching experience, and no research to speak of. You are still on probation and have yet to prove yourself. We are not family yet. If you refuse to teach an assigned class, I must emphasize your standing at this university would be in jeopardy.” He smiled then, lips curving into a thin line. “Of course, it is entirely your decision.” 

She had felt like a child, and the blood had rushed to her face. Surprisingly, instead of wanting to cry, her anger had flared. She sat up straighter. “Professor Garrison, I’d only miss the mini summer- session class. I’d never ask to take time off during the regular school year. I will prove myself. I just need a few weeks.”

“The length of the class or when it is scheduled is irrelevant. All classes at the University of Denver are important. I must reiterate that not teaching would place you in a precarious place. However, it is up to you.” He stood in front of her, staring down his  broad nose. “Remember, if you leave you may find yourself without a position when you return. And you will have lost credibility among your peers.”

It was unreal. She was hot and tired. Her office had been rifled, Charlie was lost in the canyons, and someone was following her. She forced her face into an expressionless mask.

 

During her silence, which he took as acquiescence, Garrison sat down behind his desk, a satisfied smile on his lips.

That did it. Not looking at him, she bent down to get her things, and then unfurled to her full height. Seated, in his charcoal suit and Jerry Garcia designer tie, he was much shorter than her. She no longer felt like a twelve-year-old. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’ve got to help my friend. If you decide to fire me for that, well, that’s up to you. I won’t be teaching the class. I’m going to Arizona.”

Turbulence brought her back to the present. Tugging the window shade down, she closed her eyes and let the hum of the engines to lull her. Her eyelids closed, and she didn’t resist. In her half-sleep, Aztec symbols turned into graffiti on dirty city walls, and gray smog produced plumes of fire.

An hour later, she rolled her head from side to side, rubbing her neck. She lifted the window shade. The landscape below had changed dramatically. The earth was streaked by tans and grays, and she could see long blue fingers reaching out from a larger azure body. Lake Powell and its side canyons, she guessed. Next to it stood a dark volcanic mountain. She settled back, checking her seat belt. 

Thirty minutes later, the plane bumped down the runway on a mesa near Page, Arizona.

The small airport was dilapidated and seedy. Descending a set of stairs that creaked in protest, she stepped directly onto the tarmac. An acrid odor assaulted her. In the heat, the soft asphalt sucked up the heels of her shoes, forcing her to tip-toe. It was like walking on black taffy.

Even at almost nine o’clock in the evening, the sun still shone brightly. Mackenzie lifted her bangs off her forehead and plodded after the straggling group of fellow passengers toward the terminal. After a few minutes her mood was as dark and gummy as the surface she crossed.

But small airports, she found, had their advantages. When she entered the building, she could actually watch her bag arrive on the cart. There were fewer guards than at most airports, and even a few smiling faces. The pastel Southwestern theme calmed her.  

She leaned gratefully against the information counter. “Where can I get a taxi? Or do you have a shuttle to the Holiday Inn?” 

The short, tanned man behind the counter shook his head. “It’s just a few blocks, ma’am. Take Sage Avenue and turn right on Navajo. Hardly worth a taxi. Most folks walk.” He handed her a photocopied street map.

Muttering to herself, Mackenzie folded the map, stuffing it in her bag. Walk. Okay. She could do that. Shit

In ten minutes she was out in the heat again. She trekked the half-mile to the Holiday Inn, her new red tweed duffle tottering along behind her on the narrow sidewalk. She fought to keep sweat out of her eyes and dust out of her nose. Pickup trucks crunched when they passed, flinging sand and gravel and dirt, and she had to stop every few feet to right her overturned bag. Her grimy and matted hair felt like a squirrel’s nest.

She looked down, her sunglasses slipping to the tip of her nose. Her brand-new celery-green linen pants, which she had hoped would be cool, were now wrinkled like an old woman’s skin. To top it off, her shoes were ruined. 

Mackenzie continued down Sage Avenue. “I must be crazy,” she informed a tumbleweed, kicking it savagely out of the way.

Turning on South Navajo Drive, she spotted the hotel. Surrounded by small adobe houses and shops, it stood like an oasis in the deepening sunset. The place looked unnatural: green grass covered rolling hills, bougainvillea fluttered like tethered butterflies, and palm trees waved a welcome.

 

She hoped it was a good omen.

One of the strengths of MOKI STEPS lies in its ability to build fine tension right from the start with a series of logical events.

 

Take a self-proclaimed "nerdy" professor who feels stuck in both career and personal choices, take her out of her familiar world of academia and on the field trip of her life, and add romance into escalating intrigue. Stir. Then capture the culture and sense of place of the slot canyon lands of Arizona and add an elusive enemy. The result is an exploration that excels in vivid descriptions of place as it leads readers step-by-step through Mackenzie's adventure.

 

The physical challenges of a rugged journey are well described, the psychological makeup of a band of explorers is probed, and tension escalates into ambushes, gunmen, and confrontations between different special interest groups.

 

The result is a fast-paced, vividly realistic adventure story that tests character connections, motivations, choices, and chance. It's never a good idea to go into the canyons alone. But MacKenzie has an entire support group behind her: J. Reed Rich's readers of MOKI STEPS.

—Diane Donovan

MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW

In the tradition of Clive Cussler and Thomas Perry comes an adventure that will keep you up all night and make you wish you could escape to the canyons of Lake Powell.

 Like reading about:

  • escaping to paradise?  >>Check.

  • Discovering hidden treasure?  >>Check.

  • Finding true love?     >>Check.

Then, MOKI STEPS is the book for you!

Rich’s tale inserts intriguing and obscure aspects of Aztec culture into the plot (“They didn’t write like us, using a line of text. It was much more complex….Symbols usually just floated around. Not in order, more like a comic book”).

–KIRKUS REVIEWS

© 2017 Arête Book Group

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