Professor McCarter stepped out of the service elevator with Susan Briggs and William Devers at his side. They entered a narrow, angled hallway that ran beneath the hotel toward the chosen meeting room. Bundled pipes and electrical conduits ran overhead and the floor was solid, unadorned concrete. Odd surroundings that left McCarter quietly surprised. His surprise changed to concern when they passed a stocky man with a radio bug in his ear and the bulge of a weapon clearly visible under a dark windbreaker.

The man waved them around a corner, toward their destination.

“Security,” Devers said. “We always have them when we’re overseas. Remember that Russian job I told you about? We had a bunch of ex-paratroopers following us; strangely enough, most of them had no teeth.”

Susan laughed. “Gross.”

“Good people, though,” Devers said. “Very willing to share their vodka. Just didn’t have the best dental plan.” He turned around and studied the man behind them. “We’ll have to see how these guys turn out.”

McCarter glanced over his shoulder. “At least this one has his teeth.”

The hallway dead-ended at Parlor A, and the group entered to find Danielle standing with Mark Polaski.

McCarter chose a spot both front and center, like all his best students. The roll reversal amused him.

As they settled in, Danielle walked to the entrance, signaled the man at the end of the hall and shut the door. “Sorry about the accommodations,” she said, turning back to the group. “I didn’t want to do this in a big hall and this was the only small room available—now I can see why.”

Danielle dimmed the lights and clicked a remote. A picture of a Mayan temple appeared on the screen at the front of the room. “We’re about to embark on a great adventure,” she began. “As some of you already know, we’ll be searching for a branch of the Mayan culture that certain scholars believe may have existed in the Amazon. But to say only that is to sell ourselves short. Our goal is far more ambitious. We’re looking for a place that the Maya considered the land of their own genesis, their Garden of Eden—a city called Tulan Zuyua.”

Susan Briggs turned to McCarter as she realized what Danielle was suggesting. “Are they serious?’ she asked.

McCarter nodded. “I think so,” he said.

Danielle clicked the remote and a photograph of a colorful mural came up. The mural depicted four men in native garb walking fearfully under a midnight sky.

She addressed Professor McCarter. “Feel free to correct me if I get any of this wrong.”

He nodded, expecting to be busy.

“According to Mayan legend, there was an age before the first sunrise, a time when the world was dark, lit only by a gray twilight that lingered on the edge of the horizon. Into the darkness of this pre-dawn world, the Mayan gods created the first humans and then called them to a place named Tulan Zuyua, where they presented each tribe with a patron god. The Quiche Maya, from whom the story comes, received the god Tohil, the creator of fire. And in a world of darkness, this gift set them apart, as they alone now possessed the power to create light and heat.

“Secure in this knowledge, the forefathers of the Quiche tribe set out from Tulan Zuyua in search of a place to call their own. As the legend goes, they left the city transporting their patron deity with them, his spirit contained in a special stone. After a trek across both land and sea they settled in Central America, in areas that became Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, never to return to Tulan Zuyua.”

She clicked the remote and brought up a new photo, a Mayan ruin somewhere in Central America. “Many in the academic world consider Tulan Zuyua to be a myth,” she explained. “And that we’re as likely to find it as we are to locate Atlantis or the Garden of Eden itself. And if it is real, most experts believe it will be found buried under some other Mayan site, the way old San Francisco is buried under the present-day city.

“We, on the other hand, expect to find the great city here in the Amazon, thousands of miles from where anyone would have even thought to look.”

Danielle clicked to the next slide. It displayed a weathered stone with raised markings on it, fronted by a tape measure for scale. “This artifact came to the NRI several months ago, though it was recovered from somewhere in the Amazon some time before that.”

Another click, another photo: a picture of the stone from a different angle. McCarter found himself squinting to make out any details.

“As you can see,” Danielle said. “The surface of the stone is extremely weathered and most of the markings are almost invisible. But through a type of computer-assisted analysis called a micro-density relief, we were able to reconstruct some of the patterns, and the results were surprising.”

The next slide displayed the same stone, this time with a computer-generated outline overlaying it. “These patterns are consistent with only one known writing system: Mayan hieroglyphics. And these two glyphs are well known. One is the name of a person, Jaguar Quitze, one of the original Mayan humans. The other, which was only partially reconstructed, is believed to represent Venus, the morning star.”

McCarter studied the pattern formed by the computer-drawn outline. Clearly Mayan in style, but the underlying rock was so worn down he wondered how they could derive anything from it at all. Well-meaning guesswork perhaps.

While McCarter considered this, Danielle explained more of the NRI’s theory. “Eight months of work has put us in possession of several other items that seem to confirm the existence of the Mayan writing system within the Amazon, but none of them offered proof quite so dramatically as the one stone we do not possess.”

The next image was different from the others, a scanned copy of an old, sepia-toned glossy, complete with a crease running diagonally through one corner and brown discolorations along the edges.

The photo showed two men beside a large rectangular stone. One man had his arms folded across his chest and a foot up on the block. The other man crouched beside it, pointing to something on its face. The image brought to mind a pair of fishermen posing beside a prize catch.

“This photo was taken in 1926 on Blackjack Henry Martin’s first expedition into the Amazon. He left from Manaus in April of that year and did not return until March of 1927, when he was finally chased out of the jungle not by native tribes, wild animals or swarming insects, but by two months of torrential, seasonal downpours.

“Martin, as you may know, was something of a minor celebrity at the time. A wealthy adventurer and a self-described fortune hunter who scoured the globe in search of rare and valuable items, preferably those worthy of a little newsreel footage.

“While he was untrained in any formal way, Martin did record his adventures in a marginally professional manner, and before leaving the stone behind, its dimensions were recorded and this photograph taken.”

She clicked the slide show forward.

“By using another type of computer modeling, one that examines light-source angles and shading density, we were able to enhance the photo, especially this section.” She used a laser pointer to indicate specific parts of the photo and then advanced to the next image—a cropped and magnified view of the large stone with the outline of a new glyph written over it.

As he studied it, recognition hit McCarter in a flash. He’d seen the glyph many times before. During a two-year stint in Yucatan he’d seen it and touched it and traced its outline over and over again. “Seven Caves,” he whispered aloud. “Seven Canyons.”

Danielle smiled. For a moment she was in awe. She looked at the others. “Seven Caves and Seven Canyons are other names the Mayan people use for Tulan Zuyua.”

Susan Briggs opened a notebook and began writing something. “You don’t have to take notes,” McCarter said.

“I know,” she said. “I like to.”

McCarter nodded politely.

“According to Martin he discovered this stone on November 17, 1926, on the side of a prominent rise, a mile from the banks of a secondary tributary they were exploring. The exact location is unknown; the only geographic reference Martin offered was its distance from another landmark he discovered, a place he called the Wall of Skulls.”

The name lingered in the quiet of the room and McCarter glanced at Susan. Her eyes were wide, her face alight with interest. Good for her, he thought.

Danielle continued. “Martin’s notes recall his feelings upon first sighting the wall.” She read from a tattered copy of his autobiography.

“A sight of prominence and order this day, after so many in a land of chaos, disorder and nature in its endlessly tangled forms. The Wall is horrible and yet it is grand. A thousand skulls at least must be part of it. Enemy or friend, it remains unknown, for we were prevented from examining them by the foot soldiers of the tribe known as Chollokwa. Four of whom stood upon its crest when we arrived. Spears they held at the ready and adornment of headdress upon their brow, proud men, all of them with the bearing of Rome’s finest legions.”

“They welcomed him,” she added. “In fact, according to Martin, they insisted that they’d been foretold of his arrival. And they took him to their village in the forest, a few days’ hike from the river.”

She finished up. “By using this information, along with the help of a local trader who claims to have been told of the wall and taken near it, we think we can find it rather quickly. In a week, or perhaps two at the most.”

A week or two. McCarter almost laughed at the timetable. He wondered if she knew how absurdly hard it was to locate anything within the jungle. But then again, that was the least of their problems.

“My interest is piqued,” he said. “Especially by what Martin apparently found out there. But all you’ve really shown us are grainy pictures, a man’s self-serving writings and computer-generated guesses that, with all due respect, might as well be Rorschach inkblot tests. In other words you’re seeing what you want to see. I’m afraid it’ll take more than that to convince me.”

Curt but polite, Danielle replied, “I would expect no less. But then, I’m not finished yet.” She brought up another image, a photo displaying a group of four clear hexagonal crystals.

“These are the Martin’s crystals. A group of quartz objects our intrepid explorer claimed to see during a Chollokwan rain-calling ceremony. The crystals themselves are unremarkable, made of simple quartz with various inclusions. What turned out to be quite remarkable was another object related to them. An object Martin called the cradle.”

Danielle brought up the next image: a golden tray with slots in it, one for each of the crystals, with a fifth slot that went unexplained. “This is the cradle. It’s made of a gold/brass alloy similar to today’s eighteen karat blend. The crystals from the earlier photograph were stored in it—hence the name. That connection was of great interest to Martin, but our research focused on something he largely ignored.”

She switched to a new photo, which showed a design carved into the gold; it almost looked like Braille.

“This is a close-up of the underside of the cradle,” she explained. “It is in fact a highly detailed star pattern. A representation of the night sky as viewed from the southern hemisphere. It is consistent with Mayan art at other ceremonial centers.”

McCarter stared at the picture. It did look like a view of the night sky. He saw a horizon line and what he thought was the Southern Cross. He also realized that the photo had been taken so closely that it showed only a small portion of the underside of the cradle.

Before he could ask why, Danielle clicked to the next photograph. And as he stared at the new image, McCarter forgot about his previous question and found himself struck silent. This time the symbols appeared clearly, perfectly preserved in the surface of the non-corrosive metal. No guesswork was involved, no highlight or computer enhancement needed. The symbols were easy to read in the unretouched photograph, and he knew them well.

Danielle explained to the rest of the group. “This glyph represents a place the Mayan people called Xibalba—the equivalent of Hades or Perdition, sometimes described as a dwelling place of the punished and at other times as the dominion house of the Lords of Darkness. Like Dante’s inferno, it was considered to be an underground realm. There’s even a famous relief depicting Xibalba as a mirror world of the earth, with the Xibalbans and the Lords of Darkness walking inverted on the ceiling of their world, their feet directly beneath those of the humans standing around on the earth’s surface above.”

Still staring at the screen, at evidence he could not refute or explain, McCarter realized that Danielle was looking toward him. “Remarkable,” he said quietly, still in utter astonishment.

“We think so,” she said with a grin.

“And you’re sure Martin found this tray in the Amazon?”

“Apparently,” Danielle said, returning to her spot beside the podium. “It seems the Chollokwan showed it to him before a ritual performance designed to bring forth the season’s rains. Not a rain dance, per se, but roughly the same concept.”

“And they just gave it to him?” he asked.

Danielle rolled her eyes slightly. “Well, that’s a matter of some debate—not just in this case, but in many of Martin’s recoveries. According to his log, the crystals and the cradle were traded to him for a telescope, a kerosene lantern and a compass.”

McCarter sat back, crossing one leg over the other. “I find that a little hard to believe.”

“Count me in on that,” Devers added. “To begin with, the Chollokwan are an extremely violent tribe. When I was here ten years ago they’d just been involved in an attack on a BrazCo mining party. Five team members were killed, a lot of others badly wounded. It wasn’t the first time either.”

McCarter nodded. “Makes it doubtful that things went as Martin suggests. More than likely the negotiations were conducted at gunpoint.”

Danielle took the conversation back. “I would tend to agree. One assumes he didn’t get the name Blackjack for nothing. But we’re not here to pass judgment on the man, just to try and determine what he found out there. And it’s our belief that the cradle and the crystals came from a Mayan ruin that the Chollokwan ransacked in their wanderings. Perhaps even this Wall of Skulls itself, which certainly sounds like a place the Xibalbans might make their presence known.”

McCarter turned back to Danielle with excitement in his voice. “Where’s the cradle now? Can we see it?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Danielle said. “The Martin’s crystals and the golden cradle were housed until recently at the Museum of Natural History, back in your home port of New York.”

“Until recently,” McCarter repeated. That didn’t sound promising.

“They were stolen over a year ago,” Danielle explained, “along with five additional crates of Central and South American antiquities. In a theft that made the headlines.”

McCarter recalled seeing a news clipping, but he did not recall any headlines. “It was a backroom theft,” he said, cautiously. “Wasn’t it?”

Danielle nodded. “None of the items had been on display for quite some time. In Martin’s case, never. The prevailing theory was an inside job from someone who picked and grabbed from an unmonitored area. Security was so lax that the authorities couldn’t even determine when it happened. The items may have been missing for several months before the theft was even discovered.”

“Did they catch anyone?” McCarter asked.

Danielle shook her head. “No one was ever charged. Two boxes of items were recovered at Miami International just prior to being shipped out of the country, but neither the cradle nor the crystals were among them. It’s feared that the cradle may have been melted down for its rather marginal value as a precious metal and the crystals were probably sold for pennies or simply thrown away.”

McCarter sighed. Strangely enough he’d seen it before. Discoveries made and then lost, artifacts recovered after a thousand years only to be misplaced or destroyed by accidents. “At times, some hidden things seem to posses an almost sentient desire to remain that way,” he said.

Danielle smiled at him and put down the remote. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Susan closed her notebook. “I can’t believe no one saw this before. It’s so obvious, it’s crazy.”

McCarter stroked his chin, wondering if she meant crazy good or crazy bad. The only thing he knew for sure was that it no longer seemed crazy foolish. In fact, as he thought about it, he found himself genuinely excited, almost giddy at the possibility that they might be right. Stones with the names of the first humans in Mayan mythology, others with Tulan Zuyua’s descriptive name: Seven Caves. It certainly pointed toward something early in the Mayan culture. And even if the stones had been inaccurately morphed by the NRI’s computer program, the untouched golden cradle proved that Mayan writing was being performed in the Amazon. As Danielle had told him the night before, something was out there.

He allowed his gaze to return to the screen. The symbols carved in gold stared back at him and he thought of the contrast: Tulan Zuyua and Xibalba, a form of paradise and the very gates of hell. He couldn’t help but wonder which one they would find.

Black Rain