The lights of Los Angeles twinkled in the dusk and I wondered if the insignificance that I felt from my vantage on the Hollywood Hills was all mine, or inspired by that landscape's feature in so many poignant movie moments. My eye watered, an unfinished tear that I wished I could wipe away but couldn't while the zip ties locked my bound hands to my belt. I wanted to do something about the blood drying on the back of my neck too. Alas.
Behind a far off cloak of low hanging cloud the sun was descending into the deep end of the Pacific Ocean and I felt a melancholy as I pondered if I would ever see it above me again.
Tyres crunched on gravel from behind and I hopped about-face to see the headlights of Hewey's Prius pointing at me. It stopped at the side of road and the cab light turned on. Hewey looked pissed. Shuk, who was comically squished into the passenger seat of the hatchback, looked as neutral as he always did. He was the biggest Chinese dude I'd ever seen. He didn't show any kind of emotion as he unfolded out the passenger door, reached through the open back seat window and came out with the shotgun. Hewey got out and they approached me.
"Was it worth it?" Hewey said.
"I felt like I had to see it," I said. "Once."
Hewey looked out over the sprawling sea of living lights like an uninterested teenager studying a Matisse, just for a second, then he turned to Shuk and waved his hand in a dismissive signal. The stock of the shotgun cracked into my temple and I vaguely recalled being dragged away. Shuk's thick hands wrapped under my armpits and I think I wondered if a Chinese guy would call it a boot or a trunk. Then there was nauseating darkness as the car drove back up Mulholland Drive towards the I-10 and, eventually, the California border.
Hours later, when the had car stopped and two sets of feet had stepped away there was no other sound. I waited for minutes, hearing no traffic, no air conditioners. I fell asleep. I woke when the trunk lid lifted and the two of them loomed above me. Behind them, lit up by only moon and stars, was a whole lot of desert. Shuk's omnipresent shotgun barrel was pointed at my chest. Hewey used a pocket knife to slice the zip ties around my ankles and then stood back to let me expand out of the car. I flopped onto the freezing sand. I tried to stand, then tried to lie down, having little success at either. My legs hadn't straightened for three and a half hours. The first living creatures to ever leave the ocean would have looked more coordinated than I did.
"Stand up," said Hewey.
I could actually feel the blood trickling back into my feet. I shook my head. Hewey rolled his eyes and Shuk brandished the shotgun.
I managed to lift my torso off the ground and hooked my head around the tail of the Prius using my jaw as a grappling hook. Then I tried to stand up. With the car's support I managed verticality, leaning against the chassis. I glanced at Shuk for sympathy, or at least admiration, but he showed nothing.
"We're in Arizona," Hewey told me. "If you're thinking about yelling, there's no one who'll hear it. If you're thinking of running again you won't find any pretty sights out here."
I disagreed with that assessment. The milky way was visible beside us, along with every single other star on this side of Earth at that point. The blue glow on the hills that lined the horizon was pretty, but I grasped the isolation he was trying to convey.
Hewey opened the back door of the car and retrieved a serious looking shovel and a portable floodlight.
"Walk," he demanded, pointing. Without much confidence I put one foot forward and gingerly staggered along. Fifty metres beyond the car the soil sloped down into an ancient, dead creekbed and my legs handled the descent with returning grace. The ground below me was still cold, but softer than before. Hewey joined me in the depression while Shuk stood sentry above it, the floodlight beside him. The knife reappeared in Hewey's hand and he sliced my wrist restraints away and handed me the shovel, then took two quick steps back to Shuk's side.
"Start digging," Hewey said.
The next moment stretched out. All of us facing each other, waiting to see what would happen next. I could actually hear the grains of sand grinding together in the light breeze. Hewey's face showed slight apprehension. Shuk's shotgun showed steely resolve. The shovel in my hand was cold and their objectives made sense to me then, the pieces clicking together in my soupy concussion. Shit.
"No, no way. No. Not going to happen," I said. "No."
"Dig," said Hewey.
I let the shovel fall to the ground. "Screw you. You can shoot. Then, you can dig."
Shuk pumped the shotgun.
Hewey said, "Shoot you? Shoot your family? Shoot, hmmm..."
For a minute of silence I deliberated. He knew he had me. I picked up the shovel. I extracted the first scoop of sand and flicked it behind me. Then, repeat.
"Glad you see it my way," Hewey said. He clambered up out of the creek-bed and turned the floodlight on, it's LED beam pointed at the growing divot in front of my feet.
When I was two feet deep the opening was wider than my stance and morbid perspiration was clinging to my back. Another foot down and I had to jump into the hole to widen it further. The ground here was firmer and harder to dig. The stars drifted as I threw each shovel load of dirt out of the pit.
At the point when I reached about five feet deep the hole filled with light from above. Hewey had climbed down to the edge of the hole and pointed the floodlight at my feet. The shovel was knifing into clag, pockets of rock-hard clay amongst it.
From his pocket Hewey pulled out a phone and checked the time. "You six feet deep yet?"
"In a rush?"
"Don't be a smart arse."
The shovel handle vibrated as the tip struck a solidified patch of clay.
"I can't dig much deeper," I said.
Hewey left wordlessly for the car. I was shoulder deep in the hole and lost sight of him. Shuk never took his eyes off me. When Hewey reappeared he was carrying a pick. He handed it to me and I chipped into a rock. It was a big stone, watermelon sized. I used the pick to dig it out of the surrounding sand and it rested between my feet. It was too big to throw out of the hole, but the way it curved inwards at the centre like someone's discarded arse made me think I could crack it into liftable halves with a well-pointed swing of the pick.
The clink the stone made when I struck it was different in note to what I'd expected, and the tip of the pick sparked. The stone fractured and through the crumbs that broke away I saw darker flint, the tip of an arrowhead.
"Hewey?" I called out.
More light filled the hole as Hewey leaned over with a head torch on.
"Arrowhead," he said. "Apache?"
Hewey's light faded and he returned a minute later with a rock hammer from the Prius. He dropped it to me and I chiseled out the arrowhead roughly and passed it up.
Another foot down I found the skeleton. The skull was as one with the stone, the overbite extruded. I used the chisel on the rock hammer to roughly expose ribs and knee-caps.
"Is this one of yours?"
Hewey looked down into the pit. The opening was half a metre over my head.
"I'm not that ancient," he said. "I'll get the winch."
"Can I have a break?"
Shuk moved his watch to the edge of the pit, his face black against the backdrop of stars. I sighed. My arms ached as I lifted the pick to dig a berth around the forgotten Indian. I didn't hear the Prius, but when I next looked up I could see its tail lights gleaming off Shuk's shotgun. A rope was lowered down the pit. I fed it through the holes I'd dug beneath the skeleton and criss-crossed a knot around the top of the rock. I tugged the rope three times and I heard the whine of the winch motor. I had to step to the corner of the pit to avoid the shifting soil as the body was lifted slowly. The encasement of rock bashed the dirt walls as it ascended and little avalanches covered me with soil and pebbles.
"Is this far enough?" I called up after the body was extracted.
"Keep digging," Hewey said. I heard the car door open and shut, then he lowered down a jackhammer. A handful of cracked glowsticks followed, lighting up the walls with a green phosphorescence.
I ripped the ignition cord of the jackhammer and it thundered to life. It made quicker work of the compressed Earth beneath my feet. It only took thirty minutes for me to hit the next skeleton, then another hour to chisel out around it's flat, long face. It was a giant peccary. I told Hewey as much. He made me dig it out and then I watched it be winched to the surface.
"Far enough?" I asked him, once it had disappeared from view three metres above my head.
I jackhammered for hours until the stars in the sky blurred into lines. I cut the engine and Hewey loomed over again.
"Water," I begged him.
He left, saying nothing. After the next load of limestone had been winched out the net came down with a water sack, a head-torch, fuel for the jackhammer and an energy bar. I stopped the engine again, clutched the soft flask to my chest and dropped onto the freezing earth. I must have been twenty metres deep. I sucked down the water from my foetal position, ignoring the protrusions digging into my side.
"No rest," Hewey told me. "You get to drink, but keep digging."
I rolled onto my back, arms and legs splayed, completely submissive. I could have lied like that until I died, but the ground was so lumpy.
"You listening to me?" Hewey asked.
I sat up, head bowed. Between my legs my head torch was illuminating a two-hundred-million year old rib cage.
"Come on, Hewey, I'm dying. I'm digging my own grave here and I'm coming up with fossils."
"Just keep going, dig that dino up. You can stop when you get past the Triassic."
"Then what?" I had to yell for my voice to be heard at the surface.
"Then you can choose."
"What are my choices?"
"Shuk shoots you, or you keep digging some more."
"If I keep digging I'm going to end up in Qinghai. No offense Shuk."
Shuk did not appear to take offense. He was still brandishing that shotgun.
"Keep digging," said Hewey.
Once I was below the Dilophosaurus the fossils started to get smaller. I could only make out a few stars above when I started digging up the trilobites. The stars flickered in and out of focus at the other end of my hole that was drowning in darkness. The light from my head torch wasn't even reaching to the opening anymore, but I knew Hewey was there. I could feel him, and also the winch never ceased its flushing of my excavations.
I'd started to dig a spiralling ramp around the edges of the pit as I dug deeper. Hewey would send down small charges that I would plant and then detonate from higher up, just enough power to clear the stubborn chalk and limestone that jackhammer chewed out on. The flash of the explosion would light up the walls of the pit and for the briefest of moments I would see the fossils that I missed on display like paintings in a gallery. Imprints of shells and fish, the edge of a thighbone of a mid-sized sauropod, blotches of protichnites that hung like abstract art. Everything that had ever lived showed up as I went down. The deeper I dug, the further the relics of those complicated collections of cells became until I was unearthing nothing but stromatolites on top of stromatolites and my heart sank.
Hewey heard the echo of the jackhammer end and he wasn't happy.
"You dead?" he screamed.
I looked up and I couldn't even see the stars anymore. I switched off my head-torch and there was only blackness. I'd hoped, through the hours of monotonous excavation, that maybe I was buying myself time. Not time to live on, but one more chance to see the sun or at least see its light. After each dead organism I had unburied I had looked up and had mentally urged the sky to turn purple, mandarin, lavender. It had never changed.
"Keep digging," screamed Hewey.