Darkness returned to the Amazon basin. In the Mayan view of things the spirit world had inverted itself, the heavens of the daytime and their powerful lords had fallen beneath the earth, replaced in influence and position by the spiritual forces of the underworld: the Xibalbans and the Nine Lords of the Night.
For the members of the NRI team, however, night arrived with no discernable change from that which preceded it. They remained chained to the tree at the edge of the clearing, watched casually from a distance but mostly unguarded and ignored.
They had struggled and schemed through half a dozen hopeless plans of escape. Verhoven and Danielle had worked the cuffs until their wrists bled, trying desperately to slip their hands free. Whenever one of Kaufman’s soldiers approached, their emotions surged with hope and fear, hope that they might be released and fear that they would be shot and left for dead. But neither event occurred, and as the night arrived they fell into various forms of fitful, uncomfortable sleep.
After dozing for an hour or so, Professor McCarter awoke with a cramp in his leg, tight like twisted bands of steel. He shifted his weight and tried to stretch it, grunting in pain and waiting for the pins and needles.
The air around him was cool and still, the clearing quiet and the skies as lucid as any he’d ever seen. The unseasonably dry air meant hotter days and cooler evenings, and it left the night skies brilliantly clear. The camp ahead of him was black. And as he looked around, the others appeared to be asleep, except for Danielle and Verhoven, who were talking quietly.
As he watched them, a sense of anger welled up inside. They’d led Susan and him here under false pretenses, endangering them without their knowledge or consent.
It seemed so obvious now: armed security, guard dogs, coded satellite transmissions. Of course they’d been in jeopardy, right from the very beginning. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t noticed, but he’d written it off to a general sense of prudence and a healthy fear of the Chollokwan. He stared at Danielle.
“Anything happening?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
Verhoven added, “Not yet anyway.”
There was something ominous about Verhoven’s statement, but before McCarter could say anything he heard voices: the disembodied shouts of hidden soldiers. In the distance, a flashlight came on and then went off again. There was hurried movement, more commands and metallic noises like guns being loaded and readied. In the stillness of the air, it seemed as if he could hear every footfall. “God, it’s quiet.”
“Too quiet,” Verhoven said. “Too quiet, for too long.”
There was a sliver of a grin on Verhoven’s face. “Trouble’s coming.”
McCarter’s hands tingled. He didn’t like the sound of that. “What kind of trouble?”
“Visitors,” Verhoven said, nodding toward the trees. “Been around for a while, but these fools are only just figuring it out.”
McCarter craned his head around and looked out into the darker void beneath the trees. He sensed something, though he wondered if it was a result of Verhoven’s suggestion. “The Chollokwan?”
“They came for us after we went into the temple,” Danielle reminded him. “They’ve left us alone ever since. But these guys have been banging around in there all day long. I fear they may have struck a nerve.”
Staying out of the temple hadn’t been a conscious decision, but the timing of the two events had escaped no one. McCarter looked back to the forest. The thought of being chained to a tree when an attack came horrified him. He remembered the chanting and the fires.
“Where does that leave us?”
“Stuck at the table,” Verhoven said. “With a very bad hand.”
McCarter’s face wrinkled.
Danielle looked over at him; her eyes suggested defiance. “We’re not done yet,” she said. “Stay sharp. We might get a chance, somewhere in all the madness.”
McCarter understood the situation. He’d questioned their odds before, but now he knew what it meant to cling to even the thinnest ray of hope. They couldn’t hold out for a good chance or for even a fair one. It seemed prayers would be wasted on such grand requests. But a hundred-to-one shot, the smallest mistake by their captors, perhaps it was less foolish to ask fate for that, perhaps they’d get that type of chance before it was over.
McCarter tried to stretch his legs. He stared up at the night sky once more. The stars were so ridiculously bright that they seemed to be mocking him.
“The Mayan people cut holes in the jungle like this one,” he said. “Just to see the stars. They aligned their temples with the Equinox and the Solstice and even the very center of our galaxy—though no one knows how they determined that. They carved whole sections out of the rainforest, just to study the heavens, the realm of their gods.”
McCarter continued to scan the sky above the clearing. “Over time, the jungle crept in and swallowed the other places whole. But the land is still barren here, the stars still shine. A small refuge for the old gods, I guess.”
McCarter glanced at Danielle and then Verhoven, waiting for a derogatory comment or some quip about useless philosophy. But despite what McCarter thought, Verhoven actually smiled. “Then let’s hope the old gods favor us,” he said.
Out in the clearing the activity had stopped.
McCarter let his body grow still. His own quiet seemed to heighten his senses and he soon recognized a soft glow at the center of the camp and the dimly lit outline of a face, bathed in a strange, fluctuating glow. It took a moment before he understood: the soft light came from the perimeter warning system. The screen was flashing.
Verhoven saw it too. “Our friends are here.”
His voice was low, but loud enough to wake the only other survivor from his team: Roemer.
McCarter thought to wake Susan, only to remember that she was gone. Another loss he hadn’t come to grips with.
“Things could get ugly,” Verhoven said. “If you see them, don’t move. If they realize that we’re prisoners, they might take pity on us. Or they might attack anyway. But if we fight, they’ll slaughter us.”
“And if they set the trees on fire?” McCarter asked, voicing his earlier fear.
“Then hope they kill you first.”
As McCarter tried to block out the possibility, he looked toward the command center. He could make out Devers’ face now; he was pointing into the distance.
A flare shot off directly to the west. It carried a half mile into the sky before deploying a small parachute and beginning a gentle float across the camp to the south.
“White flare,” Verhoven said. “Trip-wire flare, not from the console. Something’s in the forest out there.”
The burning flare illuminated the camp. “I see eight soldiers,” McCarter said.
“I counted eight as well,” Danielle said.
“There are more,” Verhoven said. “I know it. They just have their heads down, waiting for the attack.
“Any sign of the Chollokwan?” Danielle asked.
Verhoven twisted around for a better view of the forest behind them. “Not yet.”
McCarter’s eyes went from the clearing to the forest and then back again, as another flare shot upward to the north. This time a red one, triggered by the sensors, or manually from the laptop. A rifle cracked, shattering the silence. A second later other weapons joined in, opening up at full tilt.
Things looked bad, and a minute later, when one of the Germans came bounding over to them, McCarter wondered if they were about to get decidedly worse.
The soldier who approached them had been sent at Kaufman’s bidding. With an attack from the natives or the animals likely, the prisoners had suddenly become a problem for him. Kaufman didn’t want to leave them at the tree, but he had nowhere else to secure them, and he didn’t want them causing any problems in the middle of the battle. He’d chosen a compromise: leave them where they were, but send protection. This soldier had drawn the short straw and the unenviable task of guarding them during whatever was about to occur.
He walked up and kicked McCarter’s legs.
“I’m awake,” McCarter said, pulling his legs back.
“Good,” the guard said. “Now be still.” He waved the barrel of his rifle at the others. “All of you.”
McCarter’s eyes tracked the soldier. He was sick of being a prisoner, sick of being afraid. Verhoven had said something earlier about bringing one of them down to the ground, and from that point, a solid kick to the neck or temple would finish him. Maybe now was the time.
In the distance, Kaufman’s men began firing again, staccato bursts here and there, probing, searching. The soldier guarding them glanced back toward the center of camp, and as he did, McCarter lunged at him, hoping to tackle him and pin him down.
The move surprised the guard, and also Danielle and Verhoven, but it came with too little thought. The chain and the weight of the others slowed him, and McCarter could only inflict a glancing blow. The soldier fell backward, but got up quickly, angrily.
He turned and cursed at McCarter, bringing the rifle up.
McCarter lowered his head. A shot rang out, but it was the mercenary who fell, collapsing like a rag doll.
The other rifles hammered away in the distance as McCarter opened his eyes and stared at the fallen man.
Danielle and Verhoven glanced around as well, and a second later a shape ran in from the depths of the forest. Verhoven spoke, “Bloody hell,” he said.
“Seems like it,” Hawker replied, grabbing the dead soldier and dragging him back behind the tree.
“You keep coming back from the dead, mate.”
Danielle smiled. “Thank God. Can you get us out of here?”
“I’ll try,” Hawker said.
McCarter barely heard them. He was silent, virtually catatonic. He stared at the dead soldier: another life taken, in exchange for his own.
As the firing in the distance ceased, Hawker crouched beside the tree and began searching the dead man for keys. “Where are the others?”
“Dead,” Danielle said. “Except Devers. He’s with them.”
“That explains a few things,” Hawker said. He rolled the dead man over and dug into his back pockets.
“And Polaski?” Danielle asked.
The radio beside them began to crackle.
“They might have heard the shot,” Verhoven said. “They’ll be coming. Get me out.”
Hawker had finished his search empty-handed. “No keys.”
Verhoven looked at the dead man. “Wrong bloke,” he said. “Doesn’t matter. Get me out.”
Hawker weighed the consequences of Verhoven’s request, while the demands from the radio increased.
“Come on!” Verhoven shouted. “Get me off this damn chain!”
The others could only guess at the subject of their discussion, but Hawker and Verhoven understood each other. Hawker stood up. “Which hand?”
“Left,” Verhoven said, shifting position, resting his left hand sideways against the base of the tree, thumb up and smallest finger against the tree’s roots. He pulled his other hand as far away as the cuffs would allow.
The others watched in confusion before turning away as Hawker lifted up a heavily booted foot and brought it crashing down on Verhoven’s outstretched hand, crushing the bones and tearing the tendons and ligaments in the process.
Despite his obvious agony Verhoven didn’t shout. He clenched his teeth and rolled to the side.
Hawker dropped down on him, pinning him and grabbing the wounded hand, crushing the fingers together in a way that would have been impossible moments before. He forced it through the cuff and out.
Verhoven spun away in agony, writhing in pain, crawling on his knees and cradling the wounded hand. It would be useless now, but it no longer held him captive. Grunting and gritting his teeth, he turned toward Hawker, his eyes the slits of a mad dog.
“You’ll need this,” Hawker said, holding out the forty-five caliber gun.
Verhoven could not hold a rifle, but the black pistol fit in one hand. He snatched it from Hawker then watched as Hawker grabbed the dead German’s rifle. “Two men armed,” Verhoven said. “Better odds than I’d even dared to hope for.”
“I’ve been watching for a little while,” Hawker said, “but you’d better explain the situation.”
“They’ve dug some foxholes in a circular pattern,” Verhoven told him, pausing to fight off a wave of pain. “Six or seven, two soldiers in each, maybe fifty meters apart, sixty degrees of arc between each one. My bet: this bloke came from the closest one,” he pointed. “Which might leave only one man there.”
The radio crackled again and Hawker grabbed it. He caught only part of the call, but it was orders, not questions. The man talking wasn’t looking for a response.
The clearing remained lit by the red flare up above, but it had drifted lower and southward on the wind, floating out beyond the tree line and over the forest. The angle of light left the prisoners in the shadows, but thirty yards out those shadows ended. There was too much light for a sneak attack and not enough time to wait for the flare to go out. “We’ll get only one shot at this,” he said. “Wait here.”
“You must be mad,” Verhoven said.
Hawker didn’t reply. He’d already started into the clearing.
As he moved, a call came over the radio asking him what he was doing. Why was he coming back? Hawker put the radio to his mouth and clicked the switch on and off as he replied in his best German. It was a bad bluff, but he had no choice.
The calls from the other Germans stopped momentarily and Hawker continued toward the foxhole. A figure there waved at him to hurry up and he broke into a jog.
With the flare sinking low behind him, Hawker knew the mercenaries could only see his silhouette. He hoped they’d see their fellow soldier.
Thirty feet from the bunker, Hawker slowed. There were two soldiers in the foxhole, not one as Verhoven had guessed. Both had rifles in hand.