Danielle stood atop the roof of the newly discovered Mayan temple, gazing out over the clearing around her. She could see the remnants of a procession of small buildings aligned directly with the temple’s stairs and a causeway that ran between them and off into the jungle to the west. She could see outcroppings of stone and sunken areas that had once been buildings and plazas. The clearing covered at least ten acres, but the temple was the center. In her heart she believed the source of the crystals would be found here, but they needed to hurry.

There were many reasons to push; openly, she worried about the rains. They would only hold off for so long, and when they did come, work would have to cease for several months. But the real problem was their as yet unknown competitor.

Gibbs’ latest satellite call had informed her of the computer breach, and though he insisted that the temple’s location remained secret, Danielle could not shake the feeling of an enemy growing closer with each passing moment.

She glanced over at Professor McCarter, who was working with Susan and the porters. Their lives were in danger, and they didn’t know it in the least. Certainly, they watched Verhoven and his men patrol, listened as Hawker flew in with a load of defensive equipment, including motion sensors, computerized tracking devices, lights, flares and boxes of ammunition—and the pack of trained dogs Verhoven had insisted upon—and in all likelihood they considered it only a precaution. A little bit of the government’s heavy hand when a lighter touch would have been fine.

Danielle knew better. Somewhere out there an enemy sought them, and despite the time they’d bought by racing up the river, eventually that enemy would find them. She wanted the civilians long gone when it happened. To make sure that happened, she had to keep pushing.

She looked to Professor McCarter, crouched on the rooftop, running his finger down a seam in the stonework and explaining to the group what he’d found.

“Tell me again what this means,” she said.

“You see how precise the fit is?” he said, pointing. He waved the others closer and then used his knife to scrape at the moss. The stonework was so tight that the moss hadn’t grown into it, just covered it over like a tarp. “You couldn’t get cigarette paper between these stones. All the great sites that have stood the test of time show this type of craftsmanship. In the Yucatan, in Egypt, in Mongolia.

“This structure must be remarkably stable to look like this, perhaps built onto some bedrock like the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan. I have seen some damage on the north side,” he admitted. “But the foundation itself can’t have subsided too much or these seams would be loose and jumbled. I’m quite excited about that.”

“You said you might have found a way inside,” she reminded him. “Can we skip ahead to that part? That’s what I’m excited about.”

“You’re not one for slow cooking,” McCarter replied, only slightly bothered.

“Microwave,” she replied. “Or faster.”

He smiled and moved to another section of the roof, waving the group over. “This stone tells us another story. The connection here is less precise, the workmanship less exacting.” He dug at the moss, pulling it loose where it had burrowed into the cracks, clearing the seam all the way to its corner. The exposed edge was gouged and chipped, dozens of hairline fractures revealing damage yet to come. He looked up. “Of all the stones on this roof, only this one appears in such condition. That can mean only one thing—this stone has been moved … repeatedly.”

At last. “You think this is the way in,” she guessed.

“If there is one,” he said. “Most Mayan temples have nothing inside except an earlier temple.”

Puzzled looks came his way.

“The kings and Ahau of Maya wanted monuments to themselves like all the other leaders of the ancient world. But in a surprisingly pragmatic twist, they would often commission a new structure to be built over the existing ones, a sort of pre-Colombian municipal rehabilitation project, one that enabled them to leave behind a greater temple than their predecessor. The result is something like those Russian nesting dolls, where each larger doll covers the smaller one. At places in the Yucatan some temples have half a dozen underlying layers.”

He returned to his original thought. “But other Mayan temples are stand-alone structures, some of which contain inner chambers, rooms for the kings and the priests to meditate and communicate with their long-passed ancestors. A process usually accompanied by the letting of blood, as they passed barbed ropes and stingray spines through their lips and their earlobes and, um … through other parts considered more sensitive.”

Hawker winced. “Kind of puts a damper on that whole being a king thing.”

Danielle laughed and looked back at McCarter. “So you think this is one of the latter types?”

“It looks that way,” he said. “And that could help us determine if this place is Tulan Zuyua or not.”

“How?” she asked.

“Remember how Tulan Zuyua had other names,” he said. “The stone Blackjack Martin found contained one of those names. Seven Caves. Other Mayan writings refer to it as the Place of Bitter Water.”

“Seven Caves,” she said, running the scenario through her mind. “So you think there might be a cave under here or a group of them?”

“Possibly,” McCarter said. “But I’m thinking on a less dramatic level. Other Mayan sites linked to the word ‘cave’ have been found to contain inner chambers. And why not? After all, what is a cave? A dark place with walls of stone. It’s only semantics that differentiate a stone-walled chamber from an actual stone cave. Spelunkers even call the open chambers of a cave a room. The Mayan description probably follows a similar line of thought. And if this temple was to have a set of inner chambers, seven of them, then that would support our theory that it is Tulan Zuyua.”

“Our theory?” Danielle said.

“I’m co-opting it,” McCarter said, smiling. “Besides, there’s another reason to go inside as well, a more important one perhaps. Anything that’s inside will have been protected from the sun and rain for all these years. The walls out here have been worn smooth by the environment, but in there, we might find writings, murals or pottery. Even ritual objects with information on them. The best and quickest way to gather information is to get inside, and that means we start here.”

It would take the better part of four hours, a rash of strained muscles and one broken pulley, but eventually the slab was dislodged and forced upward by the leverage of the pry bars. A nylon rope was passed beneath it, and with a jerry-rigged tripod they managed to raise the stone and move it backward an inch at a time. It had traveled almost two feet before the contraption collapsed and the stone ground to a halt.

As McCarter got down on his stomach to peer through the slot, he began coughing and then turned away. Danielle could smell acrid fumes in the air escaping from the temple’s innards. A sulfurous and wretched stench.

McCarter looked up, his eyes watering. “That’ll clear your head.”

As he moved back toward the entrance, Danielle took a deep breath and got down beside him, the beams of their flashlights playing across a flight of wide steps that dropped into the darkness beyond.

“Let’s get in there,” she said.

McCarter caught her eye and seemed to realize there would be no point in arguing. He took a fluorescent lantern from her hand.

“Anyone else?” he asked.

As a few of the others backed away to unvolunteer, Hawker stepped up. “What the hell, another hole in the ground. At least this one has stairs.”

McCarter nodded then looked at his student. “Susan?”

Susan had backed away from the entrance, coughing and wheezing from the sulfur smell. “I can’t,” she said. “I won’t be able to breathe.”

McCarter nodded. “I’ll give you a full report.” He turned to Danielle. “Okay, boss, let’s go.” With that McCarter squeezed through the gap, disappearing from view. Danielle followed, with Hawker right behind her.

Once inside, they were soon able to stand, descending a flight of stairs while pungent sulfur fumes assaulted them, stinging their eyes and burning their throats. The thick stone walls deadened the place to outside noise and distorted their voices with strange reverberating echoes. When the others spoke too loudly or too quickly, Danielle noticed that their words became unintelligible.

She stopped next to McCarter at the bottom of the stairs, pointing her flashlight in various directions. Despite their lights it was hard to see any details. The sulfur in the air had condensed into a yellowish fog and was scattering the light from their torches.

Hawker spoke. “Twenty steps. Mean anything to you, Doc?”

“Not particularly,” McCarter replied. “But there are twenty named days in the Mayan Short Calendar. Then again, that might have been how many stairs they needed to reach the top.”

Danielle shined her light along the floor. It was made of the same gray stone as the exterior, cut and laid in precise blocks. “Amazing,” she said. As she stepped past McCarter and into the darkness beyond, her foot hit something and sent it rolling across the floor. The object came to a stop near the far wall and one of the flashlight beams soon found it: a skull, weathered and discolored with time, now laying beside a large pile of similar skulls. There were dozens of them, perhaps fifty or more, some intact, others smashed and broken.

McCarter walked up to the jumbled pile, set his lantern down and picked up one of the skulls. He examined the damage then placed it down, exchanging it for another.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Trauma on all of them,” he said. “Damage from heavy blows and edged blades.” He held up another skull and shined his light on it. “I could be wrong but these look like teeth marks to me. Makes me wonder just what kind of rituals were being practiced here.”

“Let’s not dwell on that thought,” she said.

McCarter stood and the three of them continued on through a wide doorway and into an apparently empty room. The new room wasn’t entirely dark, however. A thin ray of light filtered in from somewhere up above. Danielle strained to see the source of the light but it was hard to make out. In the dust the beam of light resembled a curtain.

“Crack in the structure,” McCarter guessed.

“We’re on the north side now,” Hawker said.

They proceeded through the curtain of light and back into the darkness. Another doorway took them to the left through a small foyer to a much larger rectangular room. The shafts of their flashlights cut through the haze and darkness and touched on a platform centered at the far end. It appeared to have markings on its face.

Danielle crossed the room to the platform and bent to inspect it. Impact marks from some heavy object were visible all along the platform’s face, repeated strikes that had destroyed and distorted much of what had once been carved there. Crumbled bits of stone rested in a pile of sloping dust at the base of the platform.

“It looks like vandalism,” McCarter said. “I wonder if grave robbers have been in here.”

She scooped up a handful of dust and fragments and let them slide off her hand and back onto the pile. As McCarter continued to examine the ruined markings, Danielle stood up and studied the platform: ten feet wide with a shallow depth, it seemed to be an altar of some kind. Its front edge and sides were straight, but the back line curved inward where it formed part of the circular rim at the edge of a deep well.

She placed her torch on the platform, scaled it and gazed into the pit beyond. “Look at this,” she said.

McCarter climbed up beside her.

They directed their flashlights into the well and the beams were partially reflected.


Hawker peered over the edge. “Why would they have a well down here?”

McCarter spoke reluctantly. “More sacrifices, I’m afraid. The ancient Maya had a nasty habit of drowning people too.”

“I hate to say this,” Hawker replied, “but I’m kind of glad they’re gone.”

In the darkness it was hard to judge the depth of the well. At least a hundred feet to the water’s surface, Danielle guessed. She picked up a small stone and released it over the edge.

“One thousand one, one thousand two, one thous—”

The splash interrupted her, but it was the next occurrence that surprised them. A moment after the impact, bright, phosphorous foam began to bubble up and the odor of sulfur became instantly more pungent.

“It looks like …” Danielle began.

“Acid,” McCarter said, finishing the sentence.

“Acid?” Hawker asked.

McCarter turned to him. “The sulfur in the air had to come from somewhere. Looks like it’s coming from down there. The gasses are bubbling up through the water like the carbonation in a soda can. Sulfuric acid.”

Hawker’s face wrinkled. “Do I even want to know what they used that for?”

“Probably,” McCarter said, “to get rid of the bones.”

As Hawker looked into the pit, Danielle turned to McCarter.

He spoke her thoughts aloud. “Bitter water,” he said. “Bitter water, indeed.”

Black Rain