That night, Danielle brought the team together for dinner in one of the hotel’s private dining rooms. The atmosphere was pleasant, the food outstanding and the camaraderie genuine. As far as she could tell, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves … everyone except for Professor McCarter.
She watched him as he grew progressively more introspective, and when he left the table before dessert, stating he wanted to get to bed early, she excused herself and followed him, trailing him to the hotel’s main bar.
A drink before going to bed, she thought. Not a bad idea.
She walked up behind him as the soft music swirled around them and the bartender rushed off to grab a new bottle of whatever McCarter had ordered.
“Can I pay for that?” she asked. “The prices at this place are outrageous and the dollar’s not what it used to be.”
He turned, leaning against the polished mahogany and looking at her with a glint in his eye. “I should be ashamed to ask,” he said, smiling. “But what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
She laughed lightly at the cliché. It was something Bogart might have said, something her own father might have thought would pass for the height of cool. At least it made for easy conversation. “Who says I’m a nice girl?” she replied.
“Vicious rumor,” he said.
“I see,” she said, thinking, If he only knew her better. “I’ll have to do something about that. I’m here for a nightcap, actually. Sometimes it’s the only way for me to sleep. Something tells me you feel the same.”
McCarter sighed. “Just getting used to being alone,” he admitted.
She nodded. The NRI background check on McCarter had revealed many things, most important of which was the crisis he’d been through for much of the last five years. His wife had been in and out of hospitals, battling cancer, eventually losing to it. She could sense in him the emptiness that such a loss brought on, the questioning.
Upon learning this, Moore had suggested they find someone else, but Danielle knew a little bit about what McCarter was going through. She believed that once he reengaged with life he would throw himself into the project more fully than another scholar might. She thought that would be to his benefit and was certain it would be to theirs. And so even though McCarter had turned them down initially, Danielle had convinced Moore that they needed to go after him again. Now here he was.
“I know about your wife,” she said, finally. “For what it’s worth, I know how you feel.”
“My father died when I was twenty,” she explained. “Lung cancer from smoking two packs a day. He was sick for a year and a half before he passed and my mother didn’t deal with it very well, so I left school to come home and help.”
McCarter’s face softened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to … Were you close?”
That was a question, she thought. One she’d asked herself a thousand times. “Yes and no. More so when I was younger. I think he wanted boys, but instead he got stuck with just me. By the time I was ten, I knew how to throw a spiral and hit a fastball. On my twelfth birthday we changed the oil in the family car. But once I hit fifteen he kind of couldn’t pretend anymore. I was wearing makeup and dying my hair … and dating. We didn’t do too much after that. At least until I came back to take care of him.”
McCarter nodded. “I’m sure he appreciated that.”
She shook her head. “Actually, he considered me a quitter for letting his sickness affect me. For walking away from a scholarship, missing out on a year of academics. It made him furious, especially as he was too weak to force me to go back.”
As she spoke, the sting of that day hit her again. To her father, quitter was the worst thing you could call someone. Failing was one thing, quitting was a disgrace. It had always been his most bitter attack.
“He probably just—”
She put a hand on his arm to stop him. “He had a lot of misplaced anger,” she explained. “But he had a right to be angry, even if it was directed in the wrong way. And you and I have a right to be sad … and also to go on.”
McCarter took a sip of his drink. “You know, one counselor told me to accept it. Accept aging, accept dying, even embrace it, he said. That seemed like a bunch of defeatist crap to me. So I said, to hell with that, but I still have this sense of purposelessness. You’re young, you have different goals and drives. But when you get to be my age you’ll realize you do everything in life for the people you love. For your spouse and kids. Now the kids are grown, they don’t need you anymore, they kind of pat you on the head when you offer advice or try to help. And your partner is gone and you …”
He looked more directly at her. “And you can do anything you want to. Anything. But there doesn’t seem to be any point to it. You’re suddenly afraid to die and at the same time acutely aware of your own mortality. But instead of prodding you to live, it just sucks the joy out of life and you’re not really living anymore anyway.”
Danielle nodded. She remembered going back to school and finishing a double major in two and a half years just to prove she wasn’t a quitter, charging forward on autopilot, keeping herself so busy that she couldn’t think about her loss. And then, after graduating, she’d gone in a different direction, entering a profession totally unrelated to all that she’d learned. “You just have to keep looking,” she said. “You’ll find something. And in the meantime you can help me.”
McCarter laughed and then looked at her with a sort of astonishment in his eyes at what she’d said. “How old are you again?”
Laughing lightly, McCarter agreed. “I know how that goes.”
As the bartender returned with her drink, McCarter held up his glass. “To the expedition,” he offered. “May we go on and find the truth.”
They clinked glasses and Danielle thought to herself, he will never know the truth, but perhaps he will find what he needed. “And anything else that might be out there,” she added.
McCarter placed his tumbler back on the bar. “Speaking of that, what exactly will we be looking for anyway?”
She hadn’t given out details yet. She didn’t want any leaks. “You’re not going to wait for the offical briefing, are you?”
“Not if I can help it.”
She pursed her lips and then relented. “I suppose a little sneak preview wouldn’t hurt.”
She took another sip of her drink. “As I told you before, we’ve discovered evidence suggesting the existence of an organized tool-using culture in the Amazon over two thousand years ago. Unlike the current native groups, this culture seemed to use stone as a medium and may have even smelted metals such as gold. What I left out was that we believe they were a branch of the Mayan race.”
“The Maya in the Amazon?” He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“I realize the thought is contrary to what most Maya scholars believe. One guy I talked to called it silly science. But we have some concrete evidence and some local folklore that I think you’ll find interesting in regards to what we’re looking for.”
He furrowed his brow. “Which is?”
“A very old place,” she said. “Ancient even in comparison to the classic sites of the Maya. You would know it as the Citadel, or by the name Tulan Zuyua.”
McCarter’s eyes grew wider. Tulan Zuyua was a name out of Mayan mythology. It was the mythical birthplace of the Mayan people; their version of the Garden of Eden, a legendary city once shared by the different Mayan tribes before they went off on their own.
“Well,” he said, almost dumbfounded. “You don’t think small.”
“Never,” she said. Certainly, there was nothing small about the goal. And that was only the half of it.
“What evidence do you have suggesting Tulan Zuyua actually exists—let alone down here?”
“We have a chain of artifacts, none conclusive but all suggestive. We believe they show evidence of Mayan writing in a more ancient hieroglyphic style than found at the classic sites in Central America. An older culture with a single starting point, and we intend to find it.”
She noticed McCarter lean a little closer as she spoke. His interest seemed piqued.
“I’d share the details with you tonight,” she added, “but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”
He frowned and leaned back. “Well, then,” he said, as if making some tough decision, “I choose not to pry, though I must say I’d like to.”
“A gentleman,” she said. “As I’d been told to expect.”
“I admit, it does sound interesting,” he said. “At least to someone like me. But what’s your interest in all this? I thought NRI was a big lab of some kind, a research house working with all the high-tech companies.”
She nodded. “We are. We do industrial design and tech research, for the most part. But we also grant endowments to other sciences. And we do a lot of PR work, things that all our member corporations can claim to be part of.” The words slid from her mouth with ease, unforced and completely believable. She’d said them before in different forms, different places. Neither McCarter or the others would ever know where the money really came from, or what it was for.
“So this is a PR job?” he asked. “I suppose that means we’ll end up with Nike logos on our equipment and a Budweiser sign over our camp.”
“Nothing that drastic,” she said. “Though you may have to dress up as a giant cheeseburger for a series of interviews with the BBC.”
“Honestly,” she said, “there are no strings attached. Except that you do the best you can. And in that vein, I’ll tell you all that I know tomorrow. It’ll be up to you to take us from there.”
McCarter promised not to be late and Danielle said good night before walking off toward the elevators.
As he watched her go, McCarter had to admit that she’d somehow brought out the optimist in him—a quality he wasn’t sure he still possessed. He turned back to the bar and put his hand on the tumbler, tilting it toward him until the ice swirled to the low point. He was fairly certain that the NRI’s crazy theory would be nothing but a gigantic bust, but what the hell, even proving that could be a great deal of fun.
After leaving McCarter, Danielle returned to her hotel room, where the message light on her phone blinked silently in the darkness. A man named Medina had called; another name from Arnold Moore’s inexhaustible supply of contacts. Medina captained a small riverboat and it had been Moore’s intention to meet with him and secure the charter prior to leaving for Washington. But Medina had been delayed and Moore had left without getting the chance.
Danielle dialed and a voice answered on the first ring. “Hello, Medina speaking.”
“Señor Medina, this is Danielle Laidlaw. I work with Mr. Moore.”
“Yes, hello,” Medina said. His English was heavily accented. “I was told to contact you. Señor Moore has gone back to the States, then?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I’ll be your contact now.”
“Okay, no problem,” the man said. “Señor Moore wanted to inspect the boat before we go out. Will you be wanting to see it?”
“Yes, of course. When would be a good time to look it over?”
“Tonight is okay,” he said.
Danielle almost laughed; it was nearly midnight. “Tonight is not okay,” she said. “How about tomorrow, around noon?”
Danielle had no desire to make a late-night trip to the waterfront, especially after what had been a long and grueling day. Before she answered, Medina made another suggestion. “Or we could do it in three days, when we return.”
That wasn’t going to work. If the boat proved to be inadequate, she would be delayed further while they found a replacement. “It’ll have to be tonight, then.”
“Okay,” he said. “Fine. We’re on the west side of the harbor, in the old section, beyond the Puerta Flutante. There are no numbers out there, but we are closest to the dezenove: pier nineteen. If you meet me there, I take you to the boat.”
“I can be there in forty-five minutes,” she said. “Is that soon enough?”
“Yes,” he said. “We’ll still be unloading then, so I’ll wait for you.”
“Forty-five minutes,” she repeated. “I’ll see you then.”
“Buena,” he said. “Ciao.”
The dial tone returned.
“Ciao,” Danielle muttered, unhappy at the options ahead of her.
She walked to the balcony and looked out over the city. Manaus was gorgeous at night, with the city lights blazing. But the danger remained, lying out there hidden in the shadows. This trip to the waterfront would expose her to it. She thought of calling Medina back and canceling, but it would quickly reach Gibbs, and that would just give additional ammunition to her detractors.
The hell with it, she was going. But proving yourself and being foolish were two different things; she would bring help. Verhoven or one of his men seemed a natural choice, but they were bunked down on the north side of the city near the airstrip they’d flown into, too far away to reach her in time. Besides, she’d barely met them and didn’t feel any level of trust there yet. Another face came to mind.
She grabbed her cell phone and dialed. An American voice answered.
“Hawker, this is Danielle. How fast can you be at the hotel?”
“Ten minutes,” he said. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“Not yet,” she said, hoping that the status quo wouldn’t change. “But I have to meet with someone and I’m not interested in doing it alone.”
“All right,” he said. “I’ll see you in the lobby.”
Danielle hung up, took a last look at the city lights and walked back into her room. She changed into dark slacks and a black sweater, then opened the safe in her closet. From beneath some papers she retrieved a Smith & Wesson revolver. Out of habit, she opened the chamber to make sure it was loaded, then snapped it shut and slid it into a trim holster strapped around her right ankle. If trouble came, whoever brought it would find out just how nice a girl she was.