Ariion Kathleen Brindley
Oxana puffed her Marlboro and gazed out over the pit, toward the edge of the rainforest. The excavation was already the size of a football field and almost twenty feet deep. "Rajindar!" she yelled toward the door of her shack.
Rajindar ambled out onto the porch, giving her a contemptuous glower as he wiped his hands on a dirty rag. He was a small man, with a complexion much darker than Oxana's creamy tan. His head was disproportionately small and his features delicate, like a young girl.
"Bring the scorpions, mon petit provocateur." She flipped her half-smoked cigarette over the porch railing. "And the new specimen too."
The door banged shut behind Rajindar.
Oxana suppressed a ripple of anger as she returned her attention to her male guest. When she picked up her cigarette pack, it was empty. She crushed the pack and tossed it on the table. Her hand moved with a snake-like motion, restraining a damp curl of auburn hair behind her ear as she forced a smile for her visitor. At forty-one, she was slim, almost athletic. Some men had described her as dainty or even elegant.
Oxana studied her guest for a moment as one might size up a nuisance.
The man sat on the opposite side of her rickety table, grinning as if expecting her to do something for him.
She pinned him with an icy stare. "What do you think of this wretched Amazon heat?"
"It sucks." He sipped from a small glass of Scotch, and then removed his Panama hat to fan himself. The heavy, humid air hardly moved from the motion of his flimsy hat. Trickles of sweat stained the collar of his baby-blue guayabera. When he set his drink on the table, heavy drops of condensation rolled down the sides of the glass to pool on the stained mahogany. "But at least I'm not down there with those poor bastards." He pointed his chin toward the railing of the porch.
The sounds of picks, shovels and human agony drifted up from below. The pit grew larger by the day under the eyes of six guards armed with AK-47s and side arms. Towering trees with their mantilla of clinging vines tilted over the edge of the sweltering hole as the dirt fell away from their roots. The heavy scent of freshly turned earth and rotting vegetation filled the air.
Oxana laughed at the man's remark. She reached for her drink, and then scowled at the diluted bourbon. "Alginon," she said, holding the glass out for her servant to freshen it. She turned back to the visitor. "You are safe, Mr. Chase, up here with me."
She watched the smile fade from his weasel face and wondered how long he would last in the pit. His mouth was small and weak, his dark eyes hidden behind slitted eyelids. She knew Raymond Chase was a procurer for the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the Theodore Roosevelt Museum in Wovenbridge, Virginia, and several other institutions. His purchases were kept off the records and took place on black markets anywhere in the world where contraband fossils and artifacts could be bought and sold without governmental interference. He called himself a collector.
Rajindar returned, carrying a tray. He placed it before Oxana and stepped back. She reverently folded away the white cheesecloth, uncovering the items.
Chase tossed his hat on the floor and leaned his elbows on the table.
The tray held two objects. The first was approximately the size of the fresh pack of cigarettes Alginon had quietly placed at Oxana's elbow. The second piece was larger than the first. Both items were a deep yellow-brown color.
Oxana picked up the small one, turning it from side to side. She smiled and handed it to Chase.
He examined the stone, which resembled a hardened block of honey. At first, he seemed unimpressed, but when he turned it to the light, his eyes widened. There, embedded in the mineral, were two scorpions, frozen forever in the act of copulation.
"Holy shit," he whispered.
"Exactly." Oxana took the glass of bourbon and water from Alginon's hairy hand. She watched the bowlegged little man's black eyes dart between her face and the drink, and then stare down at his bare feet. "Fossilized golden amber," she said, glancing at Chase. "Now turned to stone. A gemstone containing a pair of loving scorpions."
Rajindar had cut the stone into a perfect rectangular prism, and then polished all the surfaces to a fine satin finish.
"Fascinating," Chase whispered.
"Do you know the value of that piece?"
Chase shrugged a shoulder and turned the amber to see the scorpions from the other side.
"Let me tell you a little story," she said, "so you will understand the price. Over 140 million years ago, when the Mesozoic ended and the Cretaceous began--"
"Jurassic," Rajindar interrupted her. "Not Mesozoic."
Oxana turned to glare at her geological expert in semiprecious gems.
He held her stare and slouched against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. "Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous," he said. "What is so difficult in keeping the order correct?"
"It is not difficult at all," Oxana said, "for an exiled Hindu Brahman with nothing in his head but geologic eras and naked little girls." She watched the cords of Rajindar's neck tighten.
"Periods," he mumbled. "Geologic periods. Not eras."
"When the Jurassic period…" she paused, glaring at Rajindar for a moment before turning back to Chase. "When the Jurassic period ended and the Cretaceous began, those two scorpions met and fell in love. In their first act of passion, they lost their inhibitions and their balance. They rolled into the fresh resin at the base of one of the giant Hymenaea trees that covered this region at that time. Even though the two of them became stuck in the gooey sap, they continued their rapports sexuels. I like to think they were at their peak when a fresh glob of resin rolled down and encapsulated them forever in the last throes of their sexual release."
Chase raised an eyebrow.
"Their fossilized exhibitionism is worth 30,000 Brazilian realis, at least."
Chase whistled through the gap between his two front teeth. "Over fifteen thousand dollars!"
"Ounce per ounce, more valuable than gold. Closer to diamonds, to be more precise."
He returned the amber to the tray.
Oxana picked up the second item, using both hands because of the weight. It was much larger than the first one-about the size of a wrestler's fist. The outside texture was rough, with one side flat. Rajindar had cut and polished the flat surface, leaving the remainder in a natural state. She admired the smooth side for a moment, and then handed it to Chase.
He caught his breath. Encased in the solid stone of amber and preserved in a state of suspended animation, was a beautiful red-spotted salamander; its eyes open, tongue sticking out. The stunning creature's petrified gaze held Chase's eyes as if the 110 million years of its imprisonment had been compressed into a single second.
Oxana shook a cigarette from her pack and Alginon grabbed the box of matches. "If the fucking scorpions bring me 30,000 then the lovely lizard will go for 50,000, perhaps more." She tilted her head and puffed the cigarette to life. "Pretty good for two days labor in the sucking Amazon, wouldn't you agree, Mr. Chase?" She took the burning match from the mesmerized Alginon's fingers and blew it out.
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