Something wasn’t right. Isolated, dozing beneath Yucatán’s midday sun, such an unimposing ruin couldn’t possibly hold the treasure Sonrisa Lyons sought. She needed headlines that would knock the arrogance out of the thief who had derailed her life. The adrenaline that had fueled her trek through early wet–season heat fizzled out on a sigh.
“This can’t be the place,” she told the Maya guide who stood with her at the open end of a time–worn trench into the pyramid’s heart.
Juan Cepeda’s black eyes took offense under a brow pouring sweat as rank as that Sonrisa smelled rising from her armpits. “I have fifty years in this jungle, Señora Evans, and mi amigo give very good directions.”
“I’m sorry.” Her smile begged forgiveness. “I’d expect a pyramid important enough to hold fine artwork to be larger and have others around it.” She reminded herself that she’d also doubted this structure’s existence. It wasn’t on the site map
“I do not know about fine artwork, Señora, but my friend say the little pieces of stone came from inside this ruin.”
He referred to stucco fragments he’d shown her in camp. They held portions of hieroglyphic text in the flowing, brush style usually seen in codices and on ceramics. “I hope your friend told you right,” she said. “If enough inscriptions remain on the wall to bring me back with a good camera, I can take photos detailed enough to decipher and replace material I did for my doctoral dissertation.”
Curiosity sharpened the man’s eyes, but circumstances around the plagiarism of her work remained too painful for her to reveal outside her immediate circle of friends and relatives.
“Your friend didn’t bring anything else out of the chamber, did he?”
Fanning himself with his sombrero, the guide shook his head. “Ernesto find only the little stones on the floor.”
Thunder rumbled, uncommon in the region. The sound added worry lines to the man’s forehead. “Mud will be thick on the trail, Señora Evans. Slow going back to your friends. We must hurry or the night will catch us.”
Nodding, Sonrisa retrieved her cell phone from her backpack. There’d be no signal in this remote corner of the archaeological park, but she could shoot preliminary photos. Cicadas ratcheted up their love songs, their excitement echoing in Sonrisa’s veins. Lifting her voice above the clatter, she told the guide to start clearing a path through the trench.
Thunder broke again, followed by a wind gust that cooled Sonrisa through the chambray plastered to her breasts. Fan palmettos applauded the breeze. The guide slung his machete with renewed vigor.
Croton scattered red and yellow confetti; young saplings flew into bits.
Sonrisa hung her hat on a tree branch and ran her fingers under her sweaty topknot before starting to record the site. She worked quickly and then hurried after Cepeda.
“Whoever broke in here had ambition,” she said. “You could drive a Volkswagen beetle into this ditch. And it looks like they carted away most of the rubble.”
“Señora, if I owned such a fine automobile as a Volkswagen beetle, I would not drive it into such a place.” The old man had reached the terminus. To his right on the trench’s wall, liana partially obscured a dark void. He slashed the vines away.
The opening yawned larger than most she’d entered. At five feet, two inches, she could have walked right in, but paused, bathed in the dark chamber’s basement breath. Human nature’s wariness of the unknown shuddered through her light frame.
“Your friend was brave to venture in by himself,” she said.
“Ernesto a brave man.” The guide stepped aside for her to go first.
Holding back a smile, she inspected the entrance for loose stones—cave–ins weren’t unheard of in her profession. “Looks sound enough,” she declared.
The sky muttered for attention. Dark clouds scudded in from the Caribbean.
“We come another time?”
“I can’t lose another day at the dig.” The archaeological project had brought her to Yucatán in the first place. “The wet season will shut us down too soon anyway.”
She retrieved her Maglite from a pocket on her cargoes. “Come on. If it rains we’ll at least be dry when we start back to camp.”
He frowned at the sky, then at the dark hole. “My friend say he feel crowded inside. He feel many others there, hear whispers. But his lantern show no one.”
Aware that modern civilization hadn’t taken the superstition out of Maya villagers, Sonrisa gave him a reassuring smile. “Just inside, out of the rain,” she said.
“If the water is too much for my sombrero I can stand between the wall and the liana.” He waved at the remaining vines draped over the trench’s upper lip.
Leaving him to his fears she beamed the light into the chamber, a space some eight feet deep and half again as wide. There were no bats in the vaulted ceiling, or snakes on the stone floor—at least none visible amid stucco broken from the wall opposite her. There, a shelf–like structure extended about three feet into the room. The hieroglyphic text carved above it sent blood surging through Sonrisa’s veins.
“Bingo!” she cried. She motioned. “You gotta see this. It’s exactly what I hoped to find.”
He leaned in, but glanced around nervously before focusing on the wall. “I see only smoke on the wall. And that table . . .”
“It’s an altar,” she said. “The mottled black stuff isn’t smoke, but minerals leached from the limestone over the years. Look closer. You’ll see a man’s figure, and under it little squares that are actually smaller shapes that represent different sounds in the Maya language.” Some of the shapes stood for words on their own, but she didn’t want to confuse him.
“I see those squares on many old places.”
“On outside walls.” And not so artistically rendered. “As for the figure, that’s a priest or a shaman, you can tell by the turban and the feathers that trail from it in back. And he’s wearing jaguar–skin sandals—”
She broke off and swore under her breath. “Sandal,” she amended. “Damned looters knocked off one of his feet and some of the text underneath.”
“Not mi amigo.” Frown lines competed for space on the guide’s sun–scoured forehead. “Why do you take pictures of the man and not the little squares?”
“The scene itself is important. The text describes what is happening, and when. See the snake rising up from that flat bowl at the man’s feet?”
The guide squinted. “Sí.”
“That face carved in the serpent’s open mouth represents an ancestor who’s relaying a message from the afterlife.” She glanced at Cepeda, whose attention had wandered to the chamber’s dark corners again. Explaining further, Sonrisa said, “The man pictured is a trance brought on by drugs and spilling some of his own blood.”
Wide-eyed, the guide crossed himself and edged away.
“Where are you going?”
“I do not like this place.”
“But . . .”
He practically leaped out into the trench.
Sonrisa smiled and turned back to the inscriptions. She was photographing the text at the carved figure’s feet when lightning cracked overhead. Thunder shook the ground. Sonrisa yelped and dropped her cell phone; remembered Cepeda out there, and rushed to the exit.
The storm broke before she could lean out and call his name. Rain sheeted from the sky. Lightning flashed. Expecting him to leap inside at any minute, sheltering vines be damned, she backed away.
He didn’t appear, and soon water echoed the thunder, a cascade pouring off the ruin’s higher reaches into the trench beyond. Where was Cepeda? What is that coming down in the water? A small stone bounced into the chamber. Croton leaves swirled down, followed by entire plants.
The exit’s upper edge collapsed, pouring dirt and stones into the chamber.
Driven backward, Sonrisa curled onto the altar and hugged her backpack. Terror ripped from her throat, animal sounds all but lost in the roar of falling debris. Covering her face with her hands, she clamped her mouth shut. A tooth stabbed her lower lip; blood, warm and coppery, bathed her tongue. The stone beneath her vibrated; pebbles pelted her shoulders.
At last, only the pulse hammering in her ears broke the silence. Airless heat pressed down, rekindling fear as a quiver in her stomach. Soon, she trembled so violently she could no longer hold her hands over her face.
A mere wraith of light broke the darkness. It came from somewhere high up. A whimper forced itself from between her lips. Feeling around for her Maglite, she found only pebbles. On the floor she crawled over sharp stones, patted debris that rose higher, and higher. Scrambling up, she ignored shards that tore her fingernails to the quick. A blob, prickly with roots, gave way beneath her right hand. Dumped face down she pounded with both fists and then levered herself into a handstand.
“Damned stinking mud. Damned stinking—”
The light that had caught her eye draped a silver chain across the darkness. No more than a crack, it drew her closer. Her mouth against the break, she shouted “Cepeda! Juan Cepeda!”
She called out a few more times, before giving it up. But he was out there somewhere, sheltered by the jungle he knew so well.
“He’ll come,” she declared. “He will come.”
Back on the altar she reclaimed her backpack with its precious bottled water, snacks, drawing, and first aid supplies. Not so necessary, except to her pride, she’d packed a foil–wrapped condom, not expecting to need it but to defy her ex’s claim she was too ambitious to interest a man, much less keep one. Anger burned in her chest. She squelched it by feeling around on the wall behind her, admiring the scribe’s artistry.
“Well, hell’s bells, what are we thinking here, Sonrisa?” On crossed legs, she sat facing the wall and retrieved her drawing supplies. She’d vowed to report the jerk for stealing her research once she’d found something better. This was it.
She needed no light to make charcoal rubbings. Feeling her way and without thought of translation she filled sheet after sheet from her sketch pad until her fingers distinguished the words lu Bat—“he of the writing.” Excitement skittering through her veins, she paused. Had the shaman portrayed here been a scribe as well, sculpting his ritual in stucco instead of painting it in a bark paper book?
The idea drove her relentlessly. Her fingertips grew sticky with fresh blood. Dizziness swept over her. No longer able to remain upright, she dropped the charcoal stub and curled around her backpack once more. A soft rustle trapped her breath in her lungs and raised gooseflesh along her spine—the Vision Serpent slithering down from millennia of slumber on the wall? Had the priest felt a similar floating sensation in his hallucinatory state? What had she stumbled onto?
Sensing movement, as if the walls closed in, she flung wide her arms; one struck the wall behind her, exactly as it should be, the other arm fell into open space. Light flickered at the edge of her consciousness, and then disappeared. Darkness swirled around her, a vortex that sucked her toward its dwindling base.
“Madre de Díos!” The man’s exclamation jerked her to a stop.
Wide—eyed, Sonrisa blinked into a kerosene lantern’s golden glow. A man stood in the exit, two others peered over his shoulder. They vanished a split–second later.
Sonrisa threw aside her backpack and flung herself toward freedom.
“Tener cuidado—take care!”
Whether she knocked the lantern from his grasp when she crashed into her rescuer, or he threw it aside, Sonrisa didn’t know. But caught in his arms as he fell backward into the trench, she heard glass shatter, smelled kerosene and glimpsed flames to her right.
He lay flat, she spread–eagled atop him. Boneless with relief, she rested her head on his broad chest.
How real the thunder of his heart against hers; how wonderfully sensate the coarse fabric of his shirt beneath her cheek; how heady the musk of flesh heated by sunshine and physical exertion.
Of all things amazing, the most unexpected came in her rescuer’s next breath—a whiff of summer grasses.
“Gracias . . . gracias,” Sonrisa whispered.
“De nada.” The Mexican response, “for nothing,” or “you’re welcome” was usually delivered in an off–hand manner. He sounded truly astonished.
Lifting her head, she stared through straggled auburn locks into brown velvet eyes that could undress a woman and make her tingle when she should slap his face. The look worked on her, even before a questioning, half–smile dimpled his right cheek. Sonrisa’s mouth grew slack.
His eyes widened.
“Adrenaline overload,” she explained the inexplicable, and then uttered a shaky laugh. “It feels damned good to be out of that tomb.”
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