No. 254

Elmer Ebbet brushed the dirt off of the artifact.
“Is it a clue?” asked his assistant, Paige Smith.
“No,” said Ebbet. He picked up the ceramic coffee mug he’d just unearthed and threw it away over the steep cliff at the edge of the dig site. The cup smashed on the rocks at the bottom. “We’re no closer.”
Ebbet and Smith had been searching for the Tomb of the Ancients every season for the last six years. Guided to the approximate area by a hand-drawn map they’d found in the national archives, they’d continually been able to the raise the funds they needed. This time, however, the investors had drawn their line in the sand. If no solid evidence was found on this trip, the money would be cut off, and there would be no hope of ever finding the legendary source of the Ancients’ power.
“Was that the last target on the survey?” Smith asked quietly.
“There’s nothing else here,” Ebbet confirmed. He sat down in the dust and bowed his head. “We’re finished.”
Smith sat beside him. “We’ve still got three days. We should keep digging.”
Ebbet didn’t hear her. He was talking mostly to himself when he spoke next. “I don’t understand why the map was wrong. I did everything I knew how to verify it.”
A dark figure watched the old man and his partner from the tree line just north of the cliff-side campsite. He’d been well paid by his employers to keep an eye on Ebbet’s every move. After four deployments, he was almost beginning to feel bad for his mark’s failure.
Not bad enough not to do what would have to be done when the time came, but something, anyway. As for Smith, he’d be glad to see her go.
The observer slowly pulled a radio from his belt. He turned it on and whispered to his contact. “This is Broadsword. The Digger has admitted defeat. Is Protocol A in effect? Over.”
There was a slight delay in a reply. When it came through, the radio hissed and popped first. The agent ducked quickly out of sight in case the noise was overheard.
“Negative, Broadsword. Negative. Dreadnaught says they’ve still got time. Over.”