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Historical Novels

In the Shadow of the Pyramid

In the Shadow of the Pyramid cover

The whaling vessel Niantic picked passengers with Gold Fever off the beaches of Panama in 1849 and took them to San Francisco. The crew jumped ship. Niantic was hauled ashore and planted at the corner of Sansome and Clay as a hotel. Present day, Don Worthy discovers its hulk and claims the right of salvage.

The story takes place in the past and present in San Francisco.

an excerpt from this historical novel …

CHAPTER ONE
THE EXCAVATION

A battered Dodge pickup turned down Merchant alley and stopped beside the marble clad facade of a modern office building. A vacant lot covered with a pile of rubble, mostly broken chunks of concrete and bent rebar, lay in stark contrast to the contemporary structure.

Across the alley was an open pit half a football field in length and four stories deep. The driver of the Dodge switched off his engine and the vehicle backfired loudly. One piston caught in after-burn while the other five ran to catch up, the motor wheezing like a tired old horse before it quieted.

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The driver’s door opened after a moment of silence and the lanky man behind the wheel stepped down. “Be still Boomer,” Don Worthy said pointing a finger at the windshield and using a slightly menacing tone in his voice. He squinted over the hood of the truck as if it were capable of acting on its own volition.

To prove it could, the truck gave out a final rumble and shook with the agitated rattle of a castanet.

“I’ll get you a tune-up just as soon as Gus gets out of jail,” he said soothingly. “I promise.” The engine gave one more sigh before it fell silent. Worthy waited some seconds before he decided it was the last gasp, walked around the front bumper toward the chain-link fence that surrounded the excavation. He gripped the fence high up and it seemed at first as if he intended to climb over. Instead, he bent at the knees and hung like a monkey behind bars, nose poked through a link, eyes peering intently between the holes in the barrier.

It was mid-afternoon on Black Friday, the last weekend of the month. Don Worthy knew the union construction crew knocked off early that day, but he stared in silence until he satisfied himself no one stayed late. He returned to the truck, popped open a tool carrier behind the cab where he rummaged around inside until he produced a large bundle of keys attached by a thick wire ring. Then he marched over to the padlocked gate.

For several moments Worthy attempted to match keys and lock. At last, he inserted one that fit perfectly. The lock sprang open.

“Not bad for a novice,” he muttered as he unwrapped the chain from the post and swung the gate open. He returned to Boomer. Front door open, he leaned inside without sitting in the driver’s seat and gingerly turned the key in the ignition. He listened as the engine cranked. It would not start. He turned the key off, frowned, tried again. The starter motor operated and forced the flywheel to spin, but the engine would not catch. Worthy jumped inside and pumped the gas pedal, cranked the engine again.

“You’re starting to piss me off,” he said with rising inflection in his voice. This time the truck did not even back-fire. It just coughed and choked on the fuel in its system. “Gus gets out in two weeks,” Worthy said with promise. The motor spat exhaust through its carburetor. “Tune-up in two weeks.” The engine rumbled to life. “That’s more like it.”

Worthy backed the vehicle up and aimed toward the open gate. Why walk when you can drive? He wore a self-satisfied smile. As soon as he cleared the mouth of the fence he set the emergency brake, let the engine idle and returned to swing the gate closed. Re-wrapping the chain around the post, he was careful not to snap the lock shut.

“Have to remember which key that was,” he said to himself as he settled into the seat behind the wheel. Boomer’s engine ran smoothly which surprised him. He hoped it would not find out he lied about Gus being available in two weeks. More like two months if the county considered good behavior toward early release.

Don Worthy guided the creaking old Dodge down a wide dirt path cut against the side of the immense excavation site. This was the only entrance into the pit, a temporary path that dropped at a sharp angle like a switchback mountain road that had only one switch. Worthy wondered if his brakes were as tired as the engine but decided not to dwell on that thought.

The bottom of the pit was muddy in places. He maneuvered Boomer around several large pieces of heavy equipment — a steam roller with stegosaurus spikes on its weighted front canister and a back hoe that had been shut off in mid rise — taking care not to scrape the truck against their metal sides and giant tires. A crane, not yet one story tall and still well below grade, was being pieced together in the northern corner of the cavernous hole. The construction crew used it hoist long, wide steel plates into place flat against the earthen wall. The plates would become support for a wood frame into which cement would be poured to form a foundation, sub-basement and multiple level parking garage well below street level of the completed high-rise.

Worthy was impressed. “Hundreds of underground stalls, layer on layer in here I betcha,” he said to the crisp, cool air. At that moment, the only thing parked down there besides Boomer was a Dynapac bulldozer, its open scoop lying in front of it. Worthy imagined it as a captured wild animal staked to the ground about to be flayed before it was carved to pieces and carted away by primitive hunters. The excavation covered half a block and was so large he drove Boomer around on the flat floor like a racecar driver tearing up the road. After one quick tour, Worthy parked the truck with its grill aimed at the upward incline he just drove down, set the emergency brake and switched off the ignition. He was a few feet away from the tread marks his arrival had left in the soft earth.

This time the truck did not backfire or after-burn. A remarkable silence surrounded Don Worthy as he sat in the cab and leaned out his open window. He lived in a city that was never asleep, was always noisy and alive with an ethnic soup created by several hundred thousand people eating and defecating, breathing and perspiring and all the while constantly traveling, moving between places where they did these things, starting and turning off diesel engines, making tires squeal, horns honk, radios blare, alarms sound and being forced to raise their voices loudly above their own deafening roar so they could be heard.

Finding such solitude as he now had demanded Don Worthy’s attention. He was introspective enough to know this was an illusion that could not long be sustained so he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, smelled the aroma of fresh-dug earth clinging to the air. The moment passed and he opened the door with a sigh. He stepped down and leaned toward the open cab.

“All out,” he said sharply. Then he clicked his tongue in the roof of his mouth a few times making a sound like a cricket, whistled once long and loud. “End of the line. C’mon, c’mon, snap it up there. Let’s go.”

A few polite seconds passed before a small furry head appeared on the floorboard under the passenger seat. The cat looked quizzical as it tried to make out its surroundings. Worthy slapped his forehead in mimed dismay but left the door wide open as he made a tour around the truck to the passenger side where he opened the door.

The cat took the hint and leaped to freedom. Its paws stuck in the ooze and he shook them as he walked.

“Very good, Mac. I’m pleased you could put in an appearance,” Worthy said sarcastically. He slammed the door, went back to the driver’s side and slammed it closed as well. The sound of metal hitting the frame rumbled around the bottom of the well before fading into sky. Worthy heard the echo as if from inside a bell or deep in a ravine.

There was a brightness, a tang in the air that magnified noise. He yelped just to hear it. He popped a finger in his cheek. He made a farting sound. Then he became suddenly serious and stood at attention. He raised the flat of his right hand to his forehead and saluted smartly.

“We got work to do, boy,” he said to the cat which had turned to investigate a dirt clod. “Find me something I can sell at the market and I buy you nice hunk of fresh fish. Deal?”

Worthy made another mock salute into thin air. “Yes, Sir!”

He bent down toward the animal and stared the creature straight in the eye. “We’re looking for a flea market special down here. Unnerstan? He’p me, MacArthur, he’p me look ‘round this here hole Mister Mac.”

The cat shook a paw which made the pebble caught between his claws take to the air. Then Mac turned his back and wandered away from the crazy man.

Don Worthy was used to such disdain from humans. Perhaps it was his peculiar calling which caused almost everyone he met to eventually turn and walk away from him. Scavengers, it seems, do not get high marks for social interaction.

Worthy frequented junk piles, dumpsters, and digs like this to pick up items he could sell at the open air market or hawk from out the back of his vehicle. He held a perennial garage sale on the sidewalk near his apartment though he had no garage of his own. He knew all the “antique” stores that were interested in “found” art. He re-sold discarded copper wire from union electrical jobs, telephones and chairs left over from office moves, carpet and linoleum when it was in decent condition. His most recent discovery was old bricks. He collected braces of these which he cleaned of their mortar and sold at significantly higher prices than new ones would fetch. Used bricks were prized by home builders and renovators over new ones for aesthetic reasons. They became decorative fireplace frames inside, added a tastefully textured look to an exterior.

He did not understand this at all because, for the most part, old bricks were old. They were already in a state of crumbling decay but, still, he went along with a trend as long as it proved lucrative to him.

The excavation where he was trespassing began with a demolition two months ago. Worthy retrieved several lengths of conduit from the alley of the office building up above and picked up half a pallet of bricks lying around this very site. They were the residue of an old hotel that had stood on the corner of Sansome and Clay since the quake of 1906. The building weathered nearly a century of neglect and numerous sordid tenants but at last fell victim to the vicissitudes of finance and the demand for office space. It was shattered by the wrecking ball.

Worthy remembered the structure with an anonymous sort of regret. There were so many buildings that had met a similar end in the recent past that it made little sense to be emotionally attached to any of them. He accepted their passing philosophically, more concerned with his own future than that of an inanimate object, let alone an un-reinforced brick hotel. He would grieve for his truck before he concerned himself with a building brought low by progress. Besides, their passing meant new projects which gave him an opportunity to live off their leavings just as he had for the last twenty years lived off their predecessors.

Worthy looked around at the dirt which had turned to clay at this level. Tooth marks in the light-ochre ground revealed where the ‘dozer driver had been working. The machine was settled directly inside two curved black formations, one behind the machine and one in front, which might be geologic and which the driver had scrupulously avoided. Instead of crushing them outright, the machine had raked the top of both arcs flat, then scooped six inches of yellow earth from inside each without hitting them.

He walked over to stand inside the deepest part of the excavation, next to the bulldozer, within the framed confine of the two curves. They had the bend and shape of Indian bows, and ran exposed along the surface for 30 or 40 meters on either side of the digging tool.

The arcs piqued his curiosity and, as Don ambled over to the nearest one, he pulled a small Swiss Army pen-knife from his pocket. He knelt beside the belt of black which was wider than the fingers of one hand could spread, pressed the point in and felt the material yield. He dug a bit of pulp from the spongy surface. Wood. This discovery made Worthy laugh aloud.

“This guy thought he was going to have to call for help,” he said to Mac who had wandered over to investigate. “He avoided hitting these because he was afraid to bend the blade. He probably didn’t climb down to look at them up close, thought they were rock formations. He’s gonna be surprised come Monday to find out they’re only made of wood. And rotten wood at that!”

Worthy straddled one black barrier and bent to examine its inside more closely. He scraped off a thin layer of clay, carved his knife into the coal-like surface which revealed a white sub-surface. He poked at this but the blade was unable to penetrate.

“Oak,” he said with such conviction it rang like a gong against the dirt walls. “Dense, first growth stuff seems to me. Don’t see much of this now a’days.”

A fragment pried loose where the point struck. He held his knife blade up to examine what it retrieved. Stuck to the sharp end was a square peg. One side was dark and cracked, the other the lighter color of the natural wood. He rotated it in the now fading late afternoon sunlight.

The darkest side of the peg, the side that had been lying on the surface of the earth, was as black and foreboding as a starless night. He pressed a fingernail into it and dented the surface. He rolled the caked powder against his thumb and sniffed.

“This side’s been burned,” he said to no one in particular, not even his cat. “Now what do you make of that?”

Don removed a cigarette from a half-empty pack and cast about for a place to assume his thinking position. He considered the yellow machine where it lay with extended scoop. He had wandered far enough away from his truck that the nearest comfortable raised spot was the red plastic seat of the bulldozer.

“They must’ve knocked off work about the time this got uncovered,” he mused and waved his arm toward the two belts of wood on the surface of the fresh dig. He began to feel like a sleuth, an archeological explorer. In his excitement he forgot that night was about to sit on his shoulders and he should probably start heading home. He wandered over to the earthmover and clambered up its side. He slipped into the contours of the curved plastic seat, leaned on the steering wheel and struck his lighter. He sucked the flame onto the tip of the tobacco stick.

“So why in hell are there swaths of charcoal at the bottom of a twenty-five foot hole in the middle of San Francisco?”

MacArthur delicately picked his way through the wasteland of small rocks and clay clods until he stood looking up from the foot of the machine. His human companion had found a clean place to sit. He mewled.

“C’mon up, you whiner,” Worthy said exhaling smoke. “There’s nothing to eat here, your food’s in the back of the truck so don’t keep that noise goin’. C’mon, boy, jump.”

The cat leaped onto the earth mover’s lowest foot rail, recoiled to spring again, obviously planned to complete his jump into Worthy’s lap. Just as Mac fell back to make his move, the huge machine gave a shudder and began to shift out from beneath them both.

“Jesus, Mac,” Don shouted, “what the hell did you do?” Worthy tumbled from his perch reaching frantically for anything secure, the lighted cigarette crushed between his fingers as he grabbed one of the ‘dozer’s steering levers and held on to it with all his strength. There was a moment of weightlessness as the heavy machine dipped backward and slid into the ground amid the loud sounds of splintering wood beams.

The cat, already airborne, changed direction in mid-flight. Mac chose to reach for the solid floor that came up to meet him rather than claw for Don’s back.

The lights went out for Don Worthy. For an instant he thought he was unconscious or dead. He held the lever tightly in his grip which confirmed he was alive, up to the moment without pain. He felt around in the darkness and realized he was wedged in the area below the seat. A mournful cry reached his ears. He glanced skyward to see faint light and the outline of his cat dangling from an open ceiling. What had been the bottom of the pit was now the roof of a musty smelling cavern.

The machine gave one more lurch and Worthy was certain it was about to fall over the edge of a cliff. But it was just settling to rest with its front end pointed toward the heavens.

Overhead MacArthur cried loudly as he dug hind feet into empty air. Worthy saw the cat get a rear claw on the ledge and then the entire rear paw. The animal scrambled over the thin lip of roof. Don decided it was time to make the same run for safety and began carefully to extricate himself from his position on the metal floorboards.

There was no more movement, no earth tremors as he worked his way to the front of the machine. The scoop, larger than two bath tubs, had become hung up on broken timbers near the surface and was pointed away from the hole that Worthy had fallen through. The earthmover now looked even more like a trapped animal lumbering in its death throes, trying to untangle itself from a well-laid snare.

Worthy used the machine’s outstretched arms connected to the scoop as a walkway to safety. He climbed these until he was able to reach his hands up to the floor/ceiling, then to hoist himself back up onto the excavation site.

He did not look for Mac until he stood securely back on solid ground a full minute. The cat was nowhere to be seen until Worthy’s gaze followed the line of the ramp he had driven down into the pit. The animal was half way up the dirt trail and making excellent time toward the top.

“Come back here, you coward!” Worthy yelled at the fleeing tail. But Mac never wavered in his flight. Worthy watched him scramble through a hole in the fence and disappear. Eventually the cat took cover under a block of broken concrete that was part of the pile of debris in the alley.

This novel is 275 pages long. Purchase e-book for $3.99; hardcover for $24.99; paperback for $14.95.
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