Richard Kaufman glanced around the confines of the small hospital room. The walls were covered in a muted green. A pair of ancient beds, complete with rusting iron frames and tall IV stands, sat opposite and parallel each other, while a wilting, forgotten plant spread its thin arms in a corner near the window.

He waited there as a nurse helped the room’s sole patient return from a trip to the communal rest room. The man entered, struggling with a crutch under each arm.

Stooped but still over six feet tall, the man was broad-shouldered, thin and bony, appearing almost emaciated. A ragged nest of tangled dark hair sat on his head, while dark circles hung from his eyes and his skin looked a sickly color. He reminded Kaufman of a house that had caught fire but remained standing: hollowed out, discolored and lifeless.

A look of surprise appeared on his face as he studied Kaufman. “You’re not a doctor,” he guessed.

“I would have thought you’d seen enough of doctors.” Kaufman replied.

The man nodded slowly, then hobbled to a new position with a smile covering his ragged face. “Yeah, I have,” he said. “Which means you must be Helios.”

“That’s right,” Kaufman replied, sarcastically. “I’m the Greek god of the sun, and I spend my time visiting patients in small hospital rooms.” He stood. “The real question is who you are and how you came to know about Helios, considering that you can’t remember your own name.”

The man tried to smile, but it seemed to cause him pain and he quickly gave up. “Give me a second. I’ll explain.”

He crossed the room, struggling with the crutches in the narrow space. He reached one of the beds and leaned the crutches against the wall. When they started to slide, he grabbed them and slammed them back into place. Anger and bitterness, Kaufman thought. Here was a man who hated his current predicament. Then again, who wouldn’t?

The patient looked up at Kaufman, his legs sticking out beyond the hem of the gown; one leg was white, the other a dark tan color.

Noticing Kaufman’s gaze, the man explained. “They took it off,” he said. “Didn’t even ask me. Just took it off and gave me this one to replace it.” He glanced down at the dark prosthetic. “I guess there aren’t too many light-skinned Caucasians in these parts, so the legs all look like this, and in the end, they just give you what fits.”

“You were going to explain some things,” Kaufman said. “Let’s start with Helios.”

“Right,” the man replied. “But first I have something you might want to see.” With great effort he retrieved a small backpack from beside the bed, rummaged through it and then tossed something to Kaufman.

Kaufman studied it: a hexagonal crystal resembling those the NRI had been examining; the erstwhile Martin’s crystals. The meeting’s importance grew.

“Interested in talking?” the patient asked.

Kaufman closed the door. “Who are you?”

“I’m Jack Dixon,” the man replied.

Kaufman had seen photos of the NRI’s team, including Dixon, and he now recognized the man, a shell of his former self, perhaps fifty pounds lighter, not including the leg.

“The NRI is looking for you,” Kaufman noted. “Not interested in getting in touch with them, for some reason?”

“Not particularly,” Dixon said. “Not if I can do better.”

“What makes you think I can help you with that?” Kaufman asked.

“Because a two-faced son of a bitch stole something from me,” Dixon said. “Stole what we were fucking dying for out there.” The burst of anger seemed to come from nowhere. “My guess is he did it for you.”

As Dixon paused to calm himself, Kaufman considered what he’d said. Futrex had two moles within the NRI. Out of prudence, he’d tried to split them up, and as luck had taken its course, one had ended up on the current field team while the other had joined Dixon on the first effort.

When the NRI had stopped receiving reports from Dixon’s field team, Kaufman had taken it as a good sign, thinking his man had made some type of move. From Dixon’s comment, it was apparent that he’d done so, only something had gone wrong. There had been no radio call requesting extraction, no communication of any kind, and for several weeks no sign of either Kaufman’s mole or the NRI team.

“You caught him,” Kaufman guessed.

“No,” Dixon said bluntly. “But something else did. The natives skewered that son of a bitch and then let some animal feed on him. When I found him he was missing half his body, but he still had his pack. He had that crystal and some other items. He also had a piece of paper tucked into his ID packet with a list of frequencies on it, and the word ‘Helios’ circled a few times.”

Dixon paused to scratch carefully at one of the sores on his face. “The thing is, no one in my unit touched the radio except me. And Helios … not our code word. Sounded more like a buyer or a corporation. Some big shot waiting for delivery. Maybe a Greek god among men.” He nodded toward Kaufman. “So what do you think, big shot? You still want to buy?”

Kaufman listened to the man’s words, their abrasive quality seemed false, a forced effort as the man’s voice wavered ever so slightly. Kaufman wondered what he was hiding.

“Maybe,” Kaufman said. “First I need to know a few things, beginning with what happened out there.”

Dixon went quiet for a moment. He gazed at the floor before looking back at Kaufman. “I took eight men out into the jungle,” he said finally. “And I left all eight of them behind, dead,” he said. “Most of them ripped to shreds by some animal we never saw.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We were the rover party, our job was to cover a lot of ground, talk to the locals and categorize what we found. Sinkholes, caves, anything that might have once been a stone structure. For the first three months we didn’t find anything that wasn’t just shit. But then we hired on these two native guides, and after jerking us around for a week, they got all liquored up and told us about this place no one was supposed to go. To go there was death, they said, but for enough whiskey and the promise of a couple of rifles, they told us how to find it. And so we did. A big-ass temple, just sitting there out in the middle of nowhere. We cracked it open and I found that crystal in there, along with some metallic-looking stones, the kind that set off a Geiger counter, if you get my drift. And just then everything started going straight to hell.”

“In what way?” Kaufman asked.

“The first night we heard sounds in the forest. Weird little scuffling noises and bird calls. The next day we found some poor bastard covered in dried-up mud and all slashed and cut. Looked like they tried to burn him but it only caught on his arm and his neck and part of his head. You should have seen his face, frozen in agony. He might have been alive when they burned him, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean some poor bastard?” Kaufman asked, concerned.

“Not one of us,” Dixon replied. “Don’t know who he was. But the next night we heard these screeching calls, like a carrion bird, only a hundred times louder. And then one of my men disappeared. Went out to take a piss and never came back. We looked for him, but we never found him.” Dixon shrugged, as if he was still baffled by the disappearance. “No sign of struggle or anything. Then we started hearing the natives, a different tribe from the guys who led us there. I think they called them Chollokwan or something. They started hounding us at night.

“We planned to break out the next day, but by dawn two more of my men were gone. I found a trail this time. Me and a guy named McCrea followed it, while the others held tight.” He looked up at Kaufman. “You don’t want to know what we found.”


“Torn apart,” he said unevenly, “and stuck up in the trees.”

Kaufman listened, concerned with the man’s state of mind. Dixon’s voice had begun wavering, changing pitch and cadence.

“That was it,” Dixon said. “Time to fucking go. Only your little friend had already made that decision and by the time we got back to that clearing he’d bugged out with the last of my people. So we got on his trail and hauled ass until we caught up to him. Seems we interrupted something making a meal out of him, and then … well, then it came after us.”

Kaufman had heard from the doctors that this patient was unstable. They’d warned him not to ask too many questions, but he needed more information.

“What the hell are you talking about? What came after you?”

Dixon looked out the window, the light filtering through the leaves seemed to calm him. It was a strange sight, a man of Dixon’s background and reputation, gulping at a lump in his throat, trying to fight off what seemed like waves of fear.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said finally, turning back to Kaufman. “We heard those calls in the mist and I stepped forward to take the point. There was something moving out there. I couldn’t see it, but I heard it, sensed it. I moved forward to take a shot, but it went for McCrea. It moved so fast. Like a barracuda in the water, or that spider that jumps out of its hole to get you. Bang!” He slammed his hand against the wall. “Now you’re dead.

“I took off running, but one of them caught me. I blasted the damn thing dead center. But it didn’t fall, it just changed direction a bit, snapped my leg and left me there for the natives to finish off.”

“And yet you’re still alive.”

“I couldn’t tell you why,” he said. “A squall line came through a little while later and I crawled out of there in the downpour. Maybe they couldn’t follow my trail. Maybe they figured I was as good as dead, why not let me suffer.”

“Interesting story,” Kaufman said, leaning back. “Sounds a little strange, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t say it made sense.”

Kaufman shook his head. He decided to be direct. Either the patient would crack or he might be jolted back into reality. “What really happened to you out there, Mr. Dixon?”

“I told you.”

“You’ve told me gibberish. Animals and natives killed eight armed men? Ex–Green Berets like yourself?”

“It’s the truth,” Dixon said.

“Is it?” Kaufman asked. “The doctors don’t think so. They think you cut your own leg. That the gash was so clean it was done with a blade.”

Dixon shook his head. Looking at the ground he mumbled, “It was one of them.”

“Them what?”

“I don’t know!” he shouted. “I don’t know what they were. Why the hell does it matter? Why the hell do you care?”

The man was bordering on a nervous breakdown. If he went over the edge he might never return. “Maybe you don’t know,” Kaufman offered. “I’ve seen your toxicology report—your body’s chemical levels were so far off you were hallucinating when they brought you in. Your temperature was one hundred and six degrees, high enough to cause brain damage. You had a massive infection where your leg had become septic and you’d lost a lot of blood.”

Dixon looked away.

“You screamed at the doctors,” Kaufman added. “Do you remember that? Do you remember calling the nurses demons, threatening to kill them if they put you under?”

Dixon shrank back slightly. “I didn’t … I didn’t want to sleep.”

“Terrors,” Kaufman guessed.

Dixon turned slowly toward Kaufman and when he spoke this time, his eyes were flat, unblinking, his voice gravelly and low. “My men,” he said. “I see them when I sleep. Their faces, their bodies.”

Kaufman paused. Whatever had happened, Dixon seemed to believe it. And for certain the NRI had taken preparations against the possibility of a native attack. Perhaps he could turn Dixon’s fear to his advantage. “Then maybe you want revenge?”

Dixon looked up at Kaufman. “What?”

“Take me back there,” Kaufman said. “I’ll bring an army with us. And we’ll wipe those natives from the face of the earth.”

Dixon blinked a few times but remained silent. “I’m not going back,” he said finally.

“If you want a big check, you will,” Kaufman said.

“No. I’m not going back,” Dixon repeated, sounding more like a man admitting to a newly discovered reality than one making a conscious decision.

“You’ll be safe. I promise you. We’ll all be well protected.”

Dixon started to laugh, but it was a sad laugh, a nod to the irony of life. He looked Kaufman in the eye and shook his head: the shipwreck survivor, unwilling to reenter the sea.

“I hope you understand what you’re throwing away,” Kaufman said.

The emotion drained from Dixon’s face and when he spoke again his voice had dropped. “Most people are born afraid,” he said. “But some of us only learn how to fear along the way. I spent half my life spitting on the weak and gutless. But now … it’s worse for me than it is for any of them, because I remember what it was like to be different, I remember a time when I didn’t know what it was like to be afraid.”

He choked back the lump in his throat once again. “I don’t eat much and I never sleep. And sometimes, even when I’m wide awake, I hear those things calling to one another, stalking us.” He shook his head emphatically. “I’ll sell you what I have, the crystals and the rest of the artifacts. But it don’t matter how much money you got. It ain’t enough to get me back out there.”

Frustrated, Kaufman glared at the man. “Then you can give me the location,” Kaufman said. “The spot on the map. That might be good enough for a partial payment.”

Dixon hesitated for a moment and then turned his gaze to the floor and Kaufman began to realize the truth. “You don’t know,” he said. “Do you?”

“It’s not clear,” Dixon whispered. “The natives took us there. The GPS went out.”

As Dixon answered, he seemed like a different man from the one who’d greeted Kaufman so glibly from the doorway. Kaufman sensed overwhelming disappointment from him, directed mostly at himself, at what he’d become: fearful, weak.

“I can give you the general area,” he offered.

“How general are we talking about?”

Dixon did not quickly reply and Kaufman knew it would be all but worthless. Perhaps it was the fever, the blood loss and the trauma; and if not the physical pain, then perhaps the mental damage he’d incurred had done the trick. But it seemed as if the facts had been erased from the man’s brain.

Kaufman pitied him, but also focused on his own concerns. He felt the opportunity slipping away. Despite all his efforts, despite having two moles in the NRI’s operation, despite hacking into their database and now grilling one of their former employees who had actually been there, the temple’s location still eluded him.

Time was running out. If the new NRI field team was on the right track they would soon find the temple and the prize, if it existed. And in that case all of Kaufman’s efforts would be for naught.

He stared at Dixon and realized there was only one option left to try, one that would be far more dangerous than any move he’d made yet.

Black Rain