It was a skull.
By the time that Markoff had pulled into his driveway he could already see a crowd of the neighborhood men gathered off to the side of Biggs’ house. The computer programmer had removed a panel of fencing at the corner between their yards to allow him to drive the backhoe from the street into the area where he was digging. Now Wells, Kinkaid and Grey were all lined up between the two vacant posts scratching their heads over something hidden beyond its borders.
Markoff went directly from his SUV over to the scene. “Where is it?” He asked easing past his neighbors.
In the backyard, Biggs was standing over a small mound of dirt wearing a sickly expression on his face. “Here.” He said pointing down to the base of the heap.
The builder went to the pile and knelt. Between the caked clay and soil he could see a row of teeth and two eyeholes.
Kinkaid was the first to give his opinion on what it was. “I think all of our homes are built on a damned Indian graveyard.” He said motioning towards the skull with a beer can in his hand. “That would explain why all of my lights burn out constantly. This is cursed land.”
Dan Wells shook his head. “It could be Native American but I doubt that’s why your lights are burning out.” He said amicably. “Maybe you should use those new fluorescent bulbs that are supposed to save so much energy. We started using them and those things never burn out.”
“I hate those bastards.” Kinkaid spat. “I get migraines just thinking of them.”
Thom Grey sighed. “I started using them and I didn’t see any energy savings on my bill.”
Ignoring them, Markoff reached over, picking up a stick. Gently he used it to push the object free. It was old, brown and cracked along the top.
Biggs leaned over to get a better look. “Do you think it’s something that I need to worry about?” He asked Markoff.
The builder shrugged. “Well, you’re definitely going to have to call the police.” He said rising to his feet with a grunt. “I don’t think that this is no murder victim or anything like that but you never know. The problem is that they’re going to want to do some more excavation just to be sure. It’ll probably shut down your digging for a good week or two.”
Biggs groaned. There was a moment of silence as they all considered the artifact that was lying on the ground.
Everyone had been in Biggs’ backyard plenty of times over the years. There had been cookouts and parties held in almost all of their homes but it never failed to strike Markoff what an odd waste of time and energy that the computer programmer devoted to his weird hobby whenever he saw it first hand. Three large ponds stretched around the property bordered by rocks and falls that had been stacked up at their edges.
In the gently circulating waters huge golden koi swam back and forth under bridges and through makeshift streams. There were no trees but Biggs had done the best that he could to landscape the area like a Japanese garden. Scrubby little maples and big leafy ferns hid a network of pipes that linked everything together leading into a huge filtration system that hummed underneath the back porch decking.
“Texas revolution.” Kinkaid offered suddenly. “This could be a skull from the battle of San Jacinto.”
Wells shook his head once more. “That was fought east of here.”
“Not too far east.”
“Far enough east for it not to be a battle casualty.”
Biggs looked out mournfully over the yard. “I’ve never found a skull before. I mean, I’ve never gone down this deep so maybe this is really, really historic and we don’t need to call the police.”
“You’ve got to call the police.” Markoff sighed. “If you don’t call the police and they find out that you found a skull in your yard then they’ll arrest your ass and mine too. I’m an accomplice now. You asked me what you should do and I’m telling you to call the police no matter how old the damned thing looks.”
“What if it is Indian?” Kinkaid mused. “Wouldn’t that mean that we’re living on sacred land?”
Grey shook his head bitterly. “The government will probably kick all of us out and set up some reservation out here or something.”
Wells laughed. “I doubt they can do that over one little skull.”
The builder turned to face them. “We don’t know what this is.” He warned. “Even if it is Indian they ain’t going to kick us out. Heck, all of the tribes who were once in this area are extinct now. It’s probably just some Mexican who wandered up here near the turn of the century for work at the ports or something and he got lost in a storm.”
“1900 storm victim.” Kinkaid suggested as raised his beer in the skulls direction once again. “Probably got washed up here from Galveston.”
“Give me a break.” Wells scoffed. “We’re 25 miles away from the coast.”
“It was a big God damned storm!” The older man barked.
Markoff turned his attention to the new hole that had been started near the fence line. It was deep and narrow, barely the size of his downstairs guest bathroom. The bottom of it was muddy from the shallow water table of the area. “Is this going to be your shelter?” He asked Biggs pointing down at the excavation.
“It’s the beginning.” The programmed nodded. “I still need to put the walls in and some wooden steps leading down.”
“It’s too small.” The builder quipped. “Where are you going to put your cans of food and stores of water?”
“Can’t I just put them in a box?”
“What are you going to use as flooring? Do plan to run a generator because you’re going to need space for that and an exhaust pipe if you do?”
“It’s just for my family.” The man answered sounding surprised to have his methods questioned.
Markoff shook his head. “It’s barely big enough.” He said. “What if you guys get down in there and say my house falls on top of the door and you can’t get out? You’re going to need a place to go to the bathroom and a place to cook and prepare meals until the rescuers find you.”
Wells cocked his head. “This isn’t another fish pond?” He asked.
“It’s a place to go if we get hit by a meteor.” Biggs answered. “I know it’s crazy but I’m worried and I’d just feel better if my family had a place to go to be protected.”
Markoff walked around the edge of the hole towards the stack of cinder blocks that had been lined up along the fence. “This ain’t enough.” He said pointing down at them. “You can’t even cover the little puny-assed area that you’ve got with these.”
“Like I said, it’s just a start.”
“Are you going to use rebar on the walls? With the rains that we get out here you’re going to have to reinforce them with something or they’re going to cave in with the weight of the mud.”
“I hadn’t even thought of that.”
“You really should ask me about crap like this before you go off and do it all half assed.” The builder chided. “Bomb shelters are probably one of the easiest things in the world to build but you can’t just go and dig a hole and put one in. You’ve got to think about the soil that you’re digging in and drainage. Why do you think that they don’t dig basements in this area? You’re going to have to run a pump or you’ll end up drowning sooner than any asteroid will kill you.”
Kinkaid seemed to be thinking. “I wonder if we all shouldn’t build a bomb shelter?” He mused. “Just because we defeated the soviets is no reason not to have one. You never know.”
Wells smiled. “Wouldn’t a safe room be the same thing?”
Markoff shook his head. “A safe rooms pretty much just a vault in a home. They use the inner walls for support and back them up with concrete and blocks. They’ll protect you from tornados and thieves but they won’t do squat against anything that’ll lay waste to the entire structure of the building. For a meteor you’d probably want to be underground.”
“I always figured that if anything bad went down a safe room would be fine.” He said sounding suddenly concerned.
“They’re harder to put in once the home is finished.” The builder continued. “You’ve got to find an inner room on the first story and then isolate them with all sort of special power and piping. You might as well just dig. It’s safer and easier if you do it right.”
Wells looked down towards the skull. “We already have a safe room.” He muttered.
Kinkaid turned to face the man with genuine surprise. “God damn!” He exclaimed. “What the hell do you need a safe room for?”
“Clara keeps her files in there.” Wells answered defensively. “I keep some of my trophy catches in it too. These things can’t be replaced you know?”
The builder reached over, giving the skull another nudge with his stick. “Look.” He said turning to Biggs. “If you don’t call the police then I’m going to. It’s best just to get this over with quickly. Once they’re gone and they’ve cleared you to start working on your shelter again, I’ll help you build it.”
Kinkaid nodded. “I’m building one too God damn it.”
Grey looked at the hole. “It’s not a bad idea.”
Wells sighed. “I’ll just take my chances with the safe room.”