The conversation and introductions carry on briefly before the maitre’d interrupts the party to inform them that Mister Larkin and his other guests await them at their table in the dining room. The follows the staff across the tile floor, enjoying the smells of seafood and fried beef wafting from the heavy wooden tables. Thanks to the tall ceilings, the room feels open and inviting despite the dark wood. As the group approaches their table, they take note of three men. A thin almost forced smile passes across the face of a thin, pale man seated at the head of the table. He steadies himself as he rises and after brushing his greasy hair from his temple he extends his arms to the group, “Welcome friends, do sit down, I am Augustus Larkin and I’m very excited to finally meet you all. This is my assistant Luis de Mendoza, and our companion explorer…”
“The name’s Jesse Hughes, real pleasure to meet you all. Can’t tell you how happy I am to have you along,” says the African-American man as he rises from his chair to address the group. “I’m a travel writer, and I’m hoping to make a name for myself with this expedition!”
Despite friendly greetings from Hughes and Larkin, Irina immediately senses a tense, hostile atmosphere at the table emanating directly from Luis de Mendoza, who has refused to stand for introductions. She notices that he will not break his glowering stare from the friendly Jesse Hughes as he smiles and shakes hands with everyone.
At Tip’s insistence, the whole table is brought a round of Pisco sours, and Larkin begins to explain his plan,
“We shall begin on Monday at 8 am Traveling in trucks to the highlands by way of Puno. From Puno, I have arranged for pack animals. We shall be amply supplied and outfitted for the journey. Between myself and de Mendoza, we shall be able to navigate a route to the pyramid in two to three days at the most. Once there, we shall begin to recover the many artifacts from the site. I have consulted with several experts on methods to ensure safe retrieval and methods, and I will be certain to instruct you once we arrive at the pyramids. If we succeed in removing well-preserved artifacts, we shall all benefit most generously, my friends.”
“You consulted with experts, Mr. Larkin? Am I to take that to mean you are not an expert yourself? How do we know this whole expedition we traveled down here for, at some expense, is not a snipe hunt?”
“Excellent question, Mr. Sloane. For a young man, you demonstrate substantial wisdom. True, I am no expert, but I have conducted serious research and…”
He then lifts a bag from beneath the table and produces two objects. One a golden pendant in the form of a man, decorated with rectangular shapes, and holding two intricately worked staffs. The other is a carved golden cup featuring geometrical patterns inlaid with turquoise. The group is impressed by objects, unaware of their origin from two distinct cultures. John and Tip notice a greedy look pass over de Mendoza’s gaunt face as he begins to shift nervously in his seat.
“I purchased these items from an alpaca farmer, who claimed that his grandfather recovered them from the pyramid we will be searching for. The locals refused to investigate the site due to their primitive superstitions, and so the treasure has remained undisturbed. It is ours for the taking, thanks to my research.”
Irina remained skeptical, “Yes, but can we see the research?” Tip busied himself with his Pisco sours and side questions to Jesse Hughes about the potential worth of these items. Dr. Dibden, while intrigued by the items, began to notice an unhealthy sweat accumulating on Larkin’s brow, as the expedition principal became more pallid.
“Sadly, my dear, I had to destroy my notes to prevent any other archaeologists or criminals from taking advantage of the discovery. Now that I have advertised the expedition, there could be any number of competitors afoot and we must preserve every advantage.”
As the ceviche and escabeche arrive at the table, Lucia and Irina whisper to each other their suspicions that Larkin has clearly obfuscated the truth concerning the farmer, as well as his purported research. Their furtive conversation draws a suspicious, hateful glare from de Mendoza. Shortly after the meal begins, a fork clatters loudly to Larkin’s plate as several of the group notice his increasingly shaky hands and sweat-soaked dress shirt.
“I apologize to you, my friends, I must depart. I’m feeling under the weather. A touch of the malaria I picked up back home in Africa. Rest assured, I’ll be back on my feet by Monday. Enjoy your meal, we shall handle the tab. If you need anything, we shall be at the Hotel España.”