Manaus, Brazil

Danielle Laidlaw sat alone on the terrace of a small café overlooking the great river. In the heat-induced calm of a sweltering afternoon she watched the sun paint traces of gold on the river’s surface. It was a mesmerizing and hypnotic sight, and one she’d gazed at for too long.

She turned her attention to the café, looking past the tables and their bright yellow umbrellas to what she could see of the café’s interior. In the heat of the afternoon the place was all but empty. Certainly there was no sign of the man she was waiting on, a man who was running atypically late.

With quick hands, she retrieved her BlackBerry, checked for any messages and then typed a none-too-subtle text. It read: Where the hell are you?

Before she could press send, she caught sight of him, speaking to a waiter in the café’s foyer.

She spotted his silver hair first, and then his craggy face as he turned in her direction. He walked toward her, as nattily dressed as always, today in dark slacks, a button-down shirt and a navy blue dinner jacket. She wondered how he could wear such clothes in the heat of central Brazil, but then Arnold Moore didn’t do compromise very well, not even with the vagaries of nature.

“You’re late,” she said. “Did you have trouble finding this place?”

He pursed his lips as if the suggestion itself was ludicrous. “Of course not,” he said. “I simply asked where one might find a brooding, dark-haired woman angrily checking her BlackBerry a hundred times a minute. Surprisingly, only seven different people pointed me in your direction.”

As she smiled at his barb, Danielle sensed the eyes of the waitstaff upon them. It happened more often than not. She was thirty-one, tall and fit with high cheekbones and glossy chestnut hair, and he was twice her age, gray and refined, almost continental in his bearing. People who saw them together commonly gawked, assuming her to be his mistress or trophy wife or perhaps, less cynically, a niece or daughter. The truth would have surprised them: she was his partner, his protégé and one of the few people in the world he actually trusted.

As ranking field operatives for an American organization known as the National Research Institute, Danielle Laidlaw and Arnold Moore had traveled much of the globe together. In just the prior year they’d spent time in eleven countries, studying everything from oil field resuscitation in the Baltics to nano-tube production in Tokyo. They’d even been to Venice as the NRI partnered with the Italian government on a plan to protect the island with a band of giant sea gates.

Their stock-in-trade was to examine cutting-edge projects and determine what technologies, if any, could be valuable to the United States. Then, through a combination of relationship building, bribes, or even outright theft, they were to secure for their country what might be of interest.

To that end, she and Moore spent their days in cutting-edge labs or at illustrious seminars. Their nights resembled those of the jet set, attending state functions and elaborate parties thrown by corporations and wealthy entrepreneurs. It was often as glamorous as it was rewarding. So far, however, the mission to Brazil was proving to be an exception.

The NRI’s interest in the country was unrelated to anything being designed, developed or produced there. In fact, it concerned the past as much as the future, beginning with a group of artifacts recovered from the Amazon by an American explorer named Blackjack Martin.

A fortune hunter more than anything else, Martin launched his expedition in 1926, in search of anything that might bring him fame. He returned a year later having mostly failed. The stories he told were laughed off as fanciful exaggerations or outright lies. And the few artifacts he did bring back raised little more than passing interest and were soon consigned to the dusty backrooms of various museums, forgotten if not lost. At least, that is, until a chance encounter with one of them, and an examination with modern tools, had drawn the NRI’s substantial interest.

Since then, Danielle and Arnold Moore had been in Brazil, trying without success to pick up on Blackjack Martin’s trail. After months of fruitless effort, Danielle believed she’d finally found something that would help.

“I have good news,” she said. “And something to show you.”

Moore grabbed a cloth napkin and snapped it open. “And I have bad news,” he said, “straight from the mouth of our director.”

The words were spoken in a tone that Moore reserved for moments of disgust. She sensed a hint of resignation on Moore’s face, the bitterness of another argument lost or some new and bizarre order being implemented over his objection, something that had become a pattern on this particular assignment.

“What’s happened now?” she asked.

Moore shook his head. “You first. Perhaps something positive will take the sting out of what I have to tell you.”

“Fine,” she said, reaching into a small leather bag at the foot of the table. She pulled out a flat gray stone and placed it in front of Moore. “Take a look at that.”

About two inches thick, the stone was roughly rectangular in shape, with jagged edges on three sides and a face slightly larger than a postcard. It tapered at one end and was covered with weathered symbols, including one that resembled a skull and others that appeared to represent animals.

Moore took the stone from her, holding it out at arm’s length. He squinted hard before giving in to necessity and pulling a pair of bifocals from his pocket. With great precision he placed them in their proper spot at the end of his nose.

“Hieroglyphic,” he noted.

“And clearly Mayan,” she said.

He nodded, angling the piece for a better view. As he did, the edges of the glyphs caught the sun. “My, my,” he whispered to himself. “Now, this is a sight.”

“Take a look at the top right corner,” she said. “Recognize that one?”

Moore studied the glyph, a grin creeping onto his face. “The same mark we saw on Blackjack Martin’s cradle,” he said. “Xibalba: the underworld.”

Her eyebrows went up in triumph. If they were right, this was the first real proof they’d found supporting what Martin had described in his wild journals. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said. “Very hard.” He looked at her suspiciously. “Where did you get this?”

“I bought it from a logger who’d taken his crew up-river for contraband hardwoods. Mahogany, for the most part.”

Mahogany was an important cash crop in the Amazon, but the trees grew slowly and most of those in accessible areas had been felled long ago. Others were protected. As a result, increasing amounts of illegal logging took place far upriver, where the loggers went in search of untouched lands to harvest. As time went by, this trade took them deeper and deeper into the watershed, to places where few others journeyed.

“How far in was he?” Moore asked with renewed enthusiasm.

“Eight days from here, a trip we could make in four or five.”

As Moore examined the stone, Danielle felt a new surge of energy. A reverberation of the jolt she’d felt when first viewing the stone herself—and something sorely needed by both of them.

“Did he know what he was selling you?” Moore asked, flipping the stone over.

“Not the specifics,” she said. “But he knows where it came from and he claimed to have seen a much larger stone nearby, one with similar markings. Too heavy to carry, apparently, so he took this one instead.”

She watched as Moore ran his fingers across the sharp edges on the back of the stone; the rest was relatively smooth and weathered.

“Recent break,” he said. “I wonder if he chipped this piece off of the bigger one.”

“My thoughts exactly,” she said.

Moore looked up. “What else did he tell you?”

“He said they hired some members of the Nuree tribe to act as guides upriver. One of the tribesmen pointed out the larger stone as they were hiking along the banks of a small tributary. They treat it as a marker of some kind, denoting the border of a land they consider to be cursed. Beyond it lie terrible things, apparently: shadows darker than the night, a tribe that converses with the spirits and controls wild animals … and a wall,” she said, “made with the bones of human beings.”

It was local folklore—more often outright false than even partly reliable—but in this case they had reason to trust it, at least enough to hope. One of the few landmarks Blackjack Martin had used in his journal was a place he called the Wall of Skulls. If they could find it, they might be able to trace the rest of his movements and locate the source of the items he’d brought back. And if they could do that …

“A wall made of bones,” Moore repeated.

She nodded.

“Big step,” he said, “if you could find that.”

He placed the stone back on the table.

“And when I say you,” Moore continued, “I mean you alone.”

Danielle glared at him, not certain that she’d heard him right. “What are you talking about?”

He elaborated. “There are changes afoot. Gibbs is calling me back to Washington, and, despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to talk him out of it.”

Gibbs was the NRI’s director of operations. The man who’d sent them here in the first place. Gibbs seemed to have a strong personal interest in what he called the Brazil project—unfortunately, he also had a strong personal dislike for Arnold Moore. And the two men had been clashing since the word go.

“Tell me you’re joking,” she said.

Moore shook his head. “Afraid not. I’m going back, and you’re staying on. It’s going to be your show from here on out. Your team to run, when all the players get here.”

She stared at him, eyes wide with shock. Moore had been her mentor almost since she’d first joined the NRI. He was also one of the few people she trusted in the strange and perilous world in which the NRI operated. The thought of being suddenly denied his assistance in the middle of a critical operation infuriated her.

“Why?” she asked. “Of all times, why now? I mean, we’re finally making progress here.”

Moore took a deep breath and pulled the reading glasses from his face. “I’m sixty-three,” he reminded her. “Too damn old to go traipsing around the jungle in search of lost cities. That’s a job for the young—and the foolish, I might add—and you seem to fit at least one of those categories,” he said. “I’ll let you decide which. Besides, Gibbs is well aware of my aversion to snakes, mosquitoes and poisonous frogs. I expect he’s just trying to save me from all that.”

“That’s a crock of shit,” she said. “You’ve been begging Gibbs to send us out there with the snakes and frogs since the day we got here.” Her eyes tightened their focus, as if to prevent him from hiding something. “Give me the real reason.”

Moore faked a smile. “Two reasons,” he said. “First, Gibbs thinks you’re ready, and he’s right—you are. You have been for some time. I’ve just been selfishly holding you back. And second, he’s worried. He thinks we’re getting close, but he fears someone else may be closer. He’s afraid they may already have people in the field.”

She was sick of hearing about Gibbs and his paranoia. The operation was being run so quietly that they had no staff, a shoestring budget and nonstandard channels for basic communications. “Impossible,” she said. “The only people who even know the whole story are you, him and me.”

“Yes,” Moore replied quietly. “The only three.”

As she worked out what he was suggesting, what Gibbs had suggested without speaking the words, her face betrayed her once again. “I’m not going to listen to this. If he thinks—”

Moore interrupted her. “He didn’t say it, of course, but he wonders. He’s not sure about me anymore. We argue too much. Besides, he thinks you’re the stronger horse now. You’re young and full of ambition. He figures you’ll do almost anything to make this work. I, on the other hand, am not so young and might not be as willing to risk my neck—or other, more vital body parts—on what could very well be a fool’s errand. He’s afraid I might even look at this as a chance to retire with something more than a measly pension. And he surely can’t afford that.”

“This is ridiculous,” she said.

“It’s not all bad,” Moore insisted. “He’s got one big carrot to dangle in front of you—one I wouldn’t care about either—promotion. You pull this off and he’ll give you a full director’s position, with a group of regionals working under you.”

As he paused, she looked away—unwilling to answer.

“I know this isn’t how you want it to happen but you should look at this for what it is—a chance to prove yourself.”

“What this is,” she said emphatically, “is more bullshit. No one else would have to do something like this for a promotion.”

Moore’s face turned serious but still kindly. “You’re younger than the other field reps, and you’re the only one at your level who didn’t come directly from the Agency. Those are two disadvantages. The fact that you’re close to me is another. With that kind of background, you’ll always have to do more. You have to beat the others just to draw even with them.”

She didn’t want to listen. Despite her rapid ascent in the NRI, she continued to feel like an outsider. And why not—Gibbs ran the organization like a private club: there were those who could do no wrong, “Gibbs’ Boys,” and those who were looked on as perhaps problems in waiting, staff with loyalties that ran to the organization itself rather than directly to Gibbs. Chief among them was Moore—and by extension, Danielle. Outsiders.

“You have a choice here,” Moore added, not allowing any time for self-pity. “You can take this task and see it through, or you can quit, fly back to the States and confirm everything Gibbs thinks about you in the first place: that you’re a good second but not a first.”

She ground her teeth, the suggestion infuriating her. The project was a long shot at best, setting her up for failure. They had no real budget, no backup and no middle ground. Either they would find what they were looking for or they wouldn’t. And no amount of effort or explanation could make the second outcome acceptable.

She exhaled, visibly frustrated. And yet, as angry as she was at the circumstances surrounding the change, she couldn’t deny feeling a thrill at the prospect of finally being put in charge. For the past few years, she and Moore had worked as almost equal partners. Through no fault of his own, Moore received the lion’s share of the credit, with others seeing her as mostly a beneficiary of his expertise. One thing about a long shot—if she could somehow pull it off, she would prove everyone wrong, prove to Director Gibbs and the rest of them that she was more than a good second, that she was a force to be reckoned with.

“You know damn well I won’t quit,” she said. “But I’ll promise you this, when I get back to Washington with this thing in my hand, I’m going to march into Gibbs’ office and shove it down his damn throat.”

He smiled. “Just make sure I’m sitting ringside.”

Moore played the good soldier to the best of his abilities, but Danielle could sense his anger and frustration. He clearly hated being moved aside. Not too far down the road, a bigger move was coming: forced retirement. At that point she’d be his legacy. It made her even more determined not to let him down.

As she steeled herself for the work ahead, Moore’s face grew serious. “You must know,” he said, “things have gotten more dangerous. And not just because you’ll be leading on your own. There’s another party involved now, an outside player.”

She listened intently.

“We lost our transportation this morning,” he said. “The guy took another charter. I offered to beat whatever they were paying, but he didn’t want anything to do with us. That makes our porters and our transportation all in one week.”

Danielle thought about the men who’d backed out. At least one of the porters they’d hired had been assaulted and badly beaten, while the rest of the group had just disappeared.

“Not a coincidence,” she said.

“No, it’s not,” Moore said, sliding his glasses into a jacket pocket. “It doesn’t really matter anyway. Gibbs was going to replace them. He’s got a hand-picked crew coming in, and they’re not locals either.”

“Who?” she asked.

“Private security first, led by a man named Verhoven, a South African mercenary. Well thought of, from what I hear. He’ll be arriving the day after tomorrow, along with his crew. Then there’s a pilot Gibbs wants you to meet: an American who goes by the name of Hawker. He’s known in Manaus but he spends much of the year crop-dusting for the owners of a coffee plantation a few hours drive from here.”

“What’s he doing down here?”

“Ex-CIA,” he said. “Black-flagged, apparently.”

“Then why are we using him?” she asked.

Moore smiled like a jackal but he didn’t reply. He didn’t need to.

“Has it really come to that?”

“Gibbs doesn’t trust anyone now. He’s convinced we have a leak and he wants people with no connection to the Institute. He thinks that should make them clean—and he’s right, at least to begin with. It doesn’t mean someone can’t get to them later, but it gives you some insulation.”

As Moore took a sip of water, Danielle realized he’d slipped back into the role of mentor. This was it, she guessed, the last words of advice she’d receive for a while.

“What’s their cover?”

“No cover,” he said. “Hawker’s already here and Verhoven and his group are coming over the fence, not through it.”

“And their clearance?”

Moore shook his head. “No one’s cleared to know what you know,” he said. “Not them or the civilians. They can know about the stones, the ruins, the city you’re looking for. Everything that’s obvious. But beyond that they stay in the dark.”

And that was the rub—the burden of leadership on this particular expedition. They were ostensibly planning to follow Blackjack Martin’s tracks into the rainforest in search of what would be an astounding discovery, a branch of the Mayan race living in the Amazon, thousands of miles from the rest of Mayan civilization; but there was more to it than that, a goal that coincided with the search, one that the others would never be informed of.

“And if I run into trouble?” she asked.

“You’re not to contact the Brazilian authorities under any circumstances,” he said bluntly. “In the case of abduction, coercion or other scenarios which might force your hand, the loss of the entire team is considered preferable to any disclosure.” That was the order in writing. Moore added his own clarification: “If something happens, do what you can. But if there’s no other choice, then you get the hell out of there and leave them behind.”

She listened to the directive, one she’d known was coming ever since Gibbs started jamming the civilians down their throats. She had little doubt that Moore shared her revulsion at the order, but they had a job to do.

As if sensing her hesitation, he said,“I don’t have to remind you how important this thing is.”

“How important Gibbs thinks it is,” she corrected. “If he’s right.”

“He is,” Moore said, bluntly. “One way or another, he’s right about this. You’ve been asked to take it on faith so far, but since you’re now in charge … The test results on the Martin crystals were unequivocal. They confirmed the presence of tritium gas sequestered in the quartz lattice.”

Tritium was a radioactive by-product, one that could only form during a nuclear reaction of some kind. Its presence could mean only one thing.

Moore explained. “Somewhere along the line, those crystals were involved in a low-level nuclear reaction. Cold fusion, almost certainly.”

“And the source of that reaction?” she asked. “Do we have any new thoughts on that?”

Moore squinted into the distance, his blue eyes lit up by the setting sun. “I’ve come to believe that what we’re looking for is out there,” he said finally. “I couldn’t explain how or why, but I believe it exists. And if we can find it—if you can find it—then we have a chance to literally change the world.”

Black Rain