Danielle Laidlaw scrambled up the side of Mount Pulimundo, sliding on the loose shale and grabbing for purchase with her hands as much as her feet.
Passing through nine thousand feet, her legs ached from the effort and her lungs burned as they tried to cope with the decreased level of oxygen in the thin air. But with everything that was at stake, she had no time for rest.
She glanced back at the two men who accompanied her: a twenty-year-old Chiapas Indian named Oco, who was acting as their guide, and an old friend and colleague, Professor Michael McCarter. McCarter was struggling, and she needed him to move.
“Come on, Professor,” she urged. “They’re getting closer. We have to keep going.”
Breathing heavily, McCarter glanced behind them. Imminent exhaustion seemed to prevent a reply, but he pushed forward with renewed determination.
A few minutes later, they crested the summit. As McCarter fell to his hands and knees, Danielle pulled a set of binoculars from her pack. A mountain lake filled the broken volcanic crater of Mount Pulimundo a thousand feet below. At the center, a cone-shaped island burst upward, its steep sides thickly wooded but unable to disguise its volcanic nature. Yellowish fog clung to it, drifting downwind from vents and cracks concealed by the trees and the water.
“Is this it?” Danielle asked.
Oco nodded. “Isla cubierta,” he said. Island of the Shroud.
“Are you sure?”
“The statue is there,” he insisted. “I saw it once. When I came with the shaman. He said the time was coming, the time when all things would change.”
Danielle scanned the terrain. The lake sat a thousand feet below them, down a steep embankment of loose and crumbling shale on the caldera’s inner cone. It would be a hazardous descent, but much easier physically than the climb they’d just completed.
She retied her hair and looked to McCarter. He’d made it to a sitting position, though his chest was still heaving.
“We’re almost there,” she said. “And it’s all downhill from here.”
“I’ve been hearing that load of tripe,” he said between breaths, “ever since I turned forty. And so far nothing has gotten any easier.”
He waved her on. “Go. I’ll try to catch up.”
“We stick together,” she said. “Besides, you’re the expert. You’re the one who needs to see this.”
“And what happens when they catch us?”
She extended a hand, which McCarter eyed suspiciously before reaching out and grasping it.
She helped him to his feet and the three of them went over the side together, skidding and sliding and running where they could.
As reached the bottom, she could hear shouting far up above. Their pursuers had come to the crest.
“Come on,” she said, racing across the last ten meters of solid ground and diving into the cold mountain lake.
McCarter and Oco plunged in behind her. The three of them raced toward the wooded island at its center.
Halfway across, gunfire began cracking from the ridge. Shots clipped the water to her right, and she dove under the surface and kept kicking until she could no longer hold her breath.
She came up shrouded in the sulfurous mist. McCarter and Oco surfaced beside her.
The gunfire had ceased, but another sound caught her attention, a distant rhythmic thumping reaching out across the mountains: the staccato clatter of helicopter blades, somewhere to the east. Apparently, their enemies had a new trick in store.
“Where is it?” she asked.
Oco pointed toward the summit. “At the top,” he said. “Hidden in the trees.”
They climbed the steep angle of the island’s slope, using the trees as handholds. They found the statue at dead center—a great block of stone with the outline of a man carved into it, a Mayan king in full regalia. In his right hand, he carried what looked like a net holding four stones. In his left, he held a shield. Hieroglyphic writing scrawled across the bottom and a great snake twisted across the top, with its large open mouth stretching down as if to devour the king with a single bite.
“Ahau Balam,” McCarter said, reading the title glyphs. “The Jaguar King. Spirit guide of the Brotherhood.”
Oco, who like many of the people in the Chiapas area was of Mayan descent, fell silent in awe. McCarter did likewise.
Danielle was more concerned with the danger closing in on them. The helicopter was growing closer, the men behind them no doubt scrambling down the cliff. They needed to get the information and disappear.
“What does it tell us?” she asked.
McCarter studied the writing, eyes darting here and there. He touched one glyph, and then another. He seemed confused.
“Professor?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
The sound of the helicopter lumbered towards them, growing into a baritone roar.
“We have a minute,” she said. “Maybe less.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “There’s no story here. No explanation. It’s just numbers.”
“No. Just random numbers.”
Her mind reeled. She couldn’t believe what he was saying.
She cut him off. “No time.”
She pulled out her camera, snapped off a shot, and then checked the screen. The stone was so weathered that the glyphs didn’t come out clearly. She took another from a different angle, with a similar result. There just wasn’t enough definition.
The helicopter was closing in. She could hear the men on foot shouting as they came down the caldera’s embankment.
“It’s not clear enough,” she said.
McCarter stared at her for a second and then tore off his shirt, dropped to the base of the statue, and pressed it up against the raised hieroglyphs. Holding it there with one hand, he began rubbing fists full of the volcanic soil against the surface of the shirt. Oco helped him.
The helicopter thundered by overhead. Slowing and turning. Looking for a place to land.
She dropped down beside him to help. The shapes of the carving began to emerge, the edges and the details. It looked like a blurry, charcoal drawing, but it was working.
Pine needles, leaves and chaff began to swirl around them. The helicopter was moving in above them, its downwash blasting everything about.
“That’s it,” Danielle said. “No more time.”
McCarter rolled up the shirt and tucked it into his backpack as she pulled her gun.
Weighted ropes dropped through the trees, unfurling like snakes.
Men clad in midnight blue came sliding down the ropes, crashing through the trees, aiming and firing strange weapons.
McCarter and Oco took off. Danielle wheeled around to fire. Before she could pull the trigger, she was hit in the back. Two prongs penetrated her shirt and a shock racked her body. She fell forward, unable to move or even shout, crashing like a sack of flour, convulsing from the Taser.
Lying on her side, she saw McCarter and Oco running. Wires stretched out toward them as flights of Taser darts were fired their way. Oco went over the side safely and McCarter dodged the metal darts, only to fall suddenly at the hammering of a submachine gun. A thin spatter of blood flew as he tumbled over the steep embankment.
The next moments were a blur. Another jolt from the Taser; men surrounding her and zip-tying her wrists behind her back, while the trees bent and whipped beneath the helicopter’s thunderous symphony.
She glanced up. The dark shape of the helicopter filled a gap in the trees. A Sikorsky Skycrane, a huge beast shaped like a hovering claw, with an empty space for a belly where it could secure incredible payloads. Tractor trailers and small tanks could be suspended beneath it. The thing would have no trouble with the stone monument.
Heavy chains dropped from the monster, and moments later, the whirling blades roaring even louder, the chains pulled taut and the statue that had topped this volcanic rock for three thousand years was pulled free and hauled away.
A radio cackled on the lead man’s hip.
He grabbed it. “Tell Kang we have one of them,” he said. “And better than that, at long last we’ve found the key.”