The land was rugged, arid, the heat of the sun fierce in an azure blue sky. The only sign that mankind had once ruled supreme here was the large stone pyramid that rose out of the red dust. At its foot, the man paused in his job of setting up the expensive camera on its tripod, dragging the back of his hand across his forehead to wipe away the sweat that gathered there.

Phew, but it was hot.

He straightened and glanced around, his eyes taking in the red rocky terrain that surrounded him. There was no sign of life, either animal or human. He could be the last man on earth, out in this sun-baked wilderness.

The stone pyramid, worn by ages, towered over him. With a sigh, Luke Farrell turned his attention back to getting the camera angle exactly right. This was the bit of his job that he didn't like. He was a journalist, not a photographer. OK, so he could take half-way decent photographs to illustrate his work if he had to, but he would far rather employ the services of a professional photographer. Especially when he was researching so fascinating a subject as the Aztecs.

Satisfied at last, Luke used the entire film shooting the pyramid, then he sought a shady spot to grab a much needed drink of water. He left the camera where it was. There was nobody for miles around, and unless the fierce heat of the sun succeeded in melting it, the camera was perfectly safe.

No sooner had he sat down, in full view of the camera, when there was a distant sound from somewhere way up the pyramid. Dust and rocks tumbled down, and Luke shot to his feet as the camera disappeared beneath them.

'Damn and blast!' he exclaimed aloud as he surveyed the mangled remains of the camera and the tripod. His eyes, almost as deep a blue as the skies above, peered at the higher reaches of the pyramid. What had dislodged that mini-avalanche? An animal of some kind? Shaking his head and struggling to curb his flash of bad temper at such a terrible turn of luck, he crouched down by the smashed camera, swiftly confirming that, just as he suspected, there was nothing left to salvage from amongst the mangled remains.

'Er - are you all right?'

The concerned female voice brought his head up, and there, perching some twelve steps or so up the pyramid, sat a woman.

'Good lord,' he muttered, 'a red-headed imp!'

'I'm not an imp,' the redhead said tetchily. Proving that she had very sharp hearing indeed.

Luke ignored her words and gestured at the remains of his camera, asking tersely, 'Are you responsible for this?'

'If by 'this' you mean the small rock fall, then I'm afraid so. It was an accident though. I don't make a habit of rolling rocks down the side of pyramids.'

Luke stared at her. 'I'm delighted to hear it. Look, who the hell are you and if it's not too much to ask, what the hell are you doing up there?'

The redhead climbed lightly down the remaining steps. 'I'm Mandy Parrish,' she told him, thrusting out a tiny hand, 'and I'm doing some research.'

Her eyes, he noticed somewhat irrelevantly, were the most vivid green shade he had ever seen. Her hair, fine and red as the Mexican dust underfoot, was short with wispy tendrils curling into her nape and framing her small face. He ignored the offered hand and gestured at what was left of his camera. 'Well accident or not,' he said sharply, 'you're responsible for totally destroying my camera.'

'Oh my,' Mandy Parrish breathed, peering at the debris. 'I really am sorry. But at least you weren't hurt.'

'What were you researching?' Luke asked, frowning.

'What were you photographing?' Mandy asked in return. She gestured toward the pyramid. 'You'd have got a much better picture from the top.'

'I didn't need to climb to the top,' Luke snapped. 'I merely wanted to take a shot angled upwards to indicate height.' He cut downwards with one hand. An impatient gesture. 'But why am I explaining this to you? And you still haven't answered my question.'

'Sorry.' Mandy looked distracted. She was sorry about his camera, but really it had been an accident. There was no need for him to adopt such a terse tone. 'I had to climb to the top to identify the pyramid,' she said mildly.

'To identify-' Luke shook his head in disbelief.

'Yes, I wanted to be sure which God this one was dedicated to.'

'Quetzalcoatl probably,' Luke snapped. 'He was the Aztecs main God, was he not?'

Green eyes skated over his face, coming to a halt when they met his. 'Wrong,' she said simply, 'on both counts. Quetzalcoatl was inherited from the Toltecs. Tezcatlipoca was the Aztecs main and most powerful God. This was probably a pyramid devoted to him.'

She spoke with such absolute confidence, Luke's eyes narrowed. 'How can you be so sure it wasn't Quetzalcoatl?'

'Because I climbed to the top of the pyramid,' she told him, her tone a touch exasperated now. 'At the top I found the sacrificial altar.'

'So what does that prove?' Luke was intrigued despite his annoyance over the broken camera.

Mandy sighed and perched on the bottom step. 'You don't know much about the Aztecs, do you?'

'That's why I'm here,' he said shortly, not denying it. The assignment had been very much a last minute thing, and his knowledge of the past peoples of the African and Asian continents made him the obvious choice. 'We want a piece on the Aztecs, the Editor had said. I know it's short notice, Luke, but can you do it?'

Not having anything else on and intrigued by the idea of learning about people whose civilisation had collapsed so totally, people whose history he'd never had cause to investigate before, Luke had agreed.

'OK, a brief history lesson,' Mandy said, smiling faintly. 'Tezcatlipoca was the Aztecs main God - as I said, Quetzalcoatl was widely believed to be inherited from the Toltecs. Tezcatlipoca encouraged human sacrifices, Quetzalcoatl and his followers weren't so keen on this.' She gestured at the pyramid towering over them. 'At the top there lies a sacrificial altar. Therefore this pyramid was almost certainly dedicated to Tezcatlipoca.'

'Not Quetzalcoatl?'

'No, definitely not Quetzalcoatl. Though I've not investigated enough yet to be sure it's dedicated to Tezcatlipoca either. It might well be one of the other Aztec gods.' Her smile widened, revealing even white teeth. 'My hunch, however, is that it's Tezcatlipoca.'

Luke stooped again and picked up what remained of his camera and the tripod, depositing the broken pieces in a bag, which he then placed in his backpack.

'So what are you going to do to compensate me for the loss of my camera?'

'Do? I told you, it was an accident. Surely it's insured?'

'Oh, it is, but that hardly helps me now, does it? I was depending upon photographs to convey atmosphere.' He straightened.

'As a photographer, don't you carry a spare camera?'

'I'm not a photographer, I'm a journalist.' He brushed the dust off his hands and slanted her a look. 'And you've just made my job very difficult indeed.'

She glared at him. Anyone would think she'd broken his camera on purpose, the way he was carrying on!

'Are you a specialist in the Aztecs?' he suddenly asked, surprising Mandy.

'Well, yes, I suppose so, but-'

'Then you can compensate for the problems you've caused by helping me on my assignment. I'm writing an article on the Aztecs for a magazine which specialises in ancient cultures, and although I am very familiar with certain ancient cultures, the Aztecs unfortunately aren't one of them.'

'You haven't even given me your name,' Mandy pointed out. Her green eyes were troubled now. He was vaguely familiar, and she'd been trying to put a name to the face.

'My apologies,' he replied politely. 'I'm Luke Farrell. The magazine is called Past Civilisations. However, I normally write under the name Liam Kelly.'

Her grandfather would have recognised him straight away, Mandy thought ruefully. Yet to her he'd been no more than a rather handsome man with a short temper. His real name had meant nothing to her, but now she had had his pen name, she knew who he was. She loved his work. Read anything written by him avidly. He'd even written books, and she'd been riveted to the most recent one, about ancient Tibet. He brought things to life so well, her only real regret had been that he'd never written a novel set in some of the places and times he had learned so much about.

'It's either that or pay for a replacement camera.'

She forced her attention back to him. Disturbingly handsome, all the more so when he was smiling, she thought. And she had to be honest - she would love to work with Liam Kelly. She had her own agenda though. Her own reason for being here in Mexico, and her grandfather's words still rung in her ears.

'Trust no-one, Mandy,' he'd told her. 'If I'm right, then this will be one of the biggest finds of the century. There are those who would seek to become wealthy out of it, so trust no-one.'

Back to where you came from...

©Dee Smith