As exhilarating as the caves had been to begin with, the gray wet walls very soon began to look the same no matter where Nancy turned. Venturing through them proved to be frustrating and unnerving. Not to mention that they had been here for a while. The longer these things dragged on, the harder it was for Nancy to keep her cool. This case had taken longer than most of her others, with lots more waiting time that had her itching for things to get a move on. Maybe this was what she was getting herself into. Maybe most investigations took longer than a day or a few days. She'd heard of some that took years, or, worse, went unsolved. She had little patience for those cases.
She had little patience for this one anymore, now that it began to take on the appearance of trying to untangle something so intricate that it could never fully be solved.
Those types were fine. All sorts of the bigger questions went unanswered, and Nancy didn't have to compete with the universe.
She just hoped that this case wouldn't be as fruitless as her sense was beginning to tell her. Now that the thrill of the car chase had worn off, she wasn't quite as sure that the caves were significant.
Or maybe it was just her fear making itself known, her starting to convince herself of the worst and falling irrationally into paranoia.
The fact that she couldn't tell at this point aggravated her further, and she found herself forgetting to write directions down as they turned, right, left, left, to whichever abstract location they were headed if it could even be counted as a distinct location.
They might have been walking in circles.
"Left." Sonny paused and drew a letter on his hand.
Startled, Nancy looked down at her own. Then she compared to Sonny's and counted.
She was six letters short.
Nancy tried not to be horrified. This was not a big deal. Sonny had them. She just had to be more careful. Cautiously she leaned forward, trying to read the last few letters on his hand. Her chin brushed his shoulder and before she could jump back, he was turning around. "What is it?" he asked.
"I…" her stricken gaze went out to the cave wall in front of them before returning to him. "The last few letters. What are they?"
"The last how many?"
She swallowed. "Six."
Briefly he looked surprised. Then he read off his hand. "Right left left left right left."
Quickly she scribbled these down on her paper and then on her hand before stepping ahead.
"What are you thinking about?"
"Um…" The truth would be disheartening. Oh well. "The possibility that we aren't going to find anything."
"Well, for now let's focus on finding things instead of not finding things," Sonny replied somewhat calmly. "Good to be optimistic."
But his excitement grew over the next few minutes. Soon he had a good deal of difficulty holding it down. His voice shook with it, and he walked more quickly as he muttered to himself. "The way this keeps turning… it's going to end in the center."
"Yeah? And then what?" Nancy wanted to ask. But his enthusiasm seemed so potent that she didn't want to dampen it. If there were cause to dampen it, fine. But for now there wasn't any. She was doing a better job of keeping track of their directions. She had to be; as Sonny felt he was getting closer to something, he began to regard the written directions as a hindrance. His writing became less legible. Nancy was scared that soon he'd forget altogether, so she paid more attention.
As he kept going, Nancy found it difficult to keep up the pace and still make sure she documented all their turns. When at one point she lingered behind to update them, Sonny walked back to her and grabbed her hand. "Come on!" he sang cheerily but with a hint of impatience.
Together they tore through tunnel after tunnel. Nancy thought she noticed the cave ceiling growing in height, but it could've been her imagination. Sonny kept starting again sooner after writing down every turn, taking Nancy along before she'd finished. "We need backup," she kept insisting. "Especially since we're getting so close, and if the ink smears on your hand, we're starting off with no idea of how we got here—"
"I won't smear it. I'm being careful."
"Well, what if the ink on my hand smears? What if I lose this piece of paper?" she brandished the R/L-riddled sheet in front of his face.
He looked over it and continued.
Nancy started to protest. "Sonny, I know you're excited—"
"We're doing everything we need to. And we're close, so we can relax a bit." He himself was far from it, with a set jaw and eyes that glinted with some transcendental meaning.
Okay, maybe she hadn't glanced once at the extra sets except to write more down on them, but it never hurt to be over-prepared. Especially if some water splashed on his hand without him meaning it to. Nancy knew that this underground cave had little ponds in it. She'd even seen a couple of them.
"Whoa," Sonny said suddenly.
She looked up.
They stood in a large, open space. In front of them lay a large section of rock with long white lines etched into it.
If Nancy was honest, it made her a little jealous that Sonny had seen it first. She had been too worried about directions to move forward.
"What's that pattern?" she advanced. Sonny was too stunned to move.
Then she jolted back and grabbed his elbow, dragging him forward. "Sonny, look at this!" she exclaimed. "The lines!"
"I can't believe it!" Nancy breathed. Her whole body filled with joy, joy that it had just been her fear after all. Something was here.
And they'd found it.
"This is history," Sonny said pensively, still rooted to the spot where she'd set him. "Something, isn't it?"
She turned to him, laughing, speechless, and upon finding that her arms were extended for whatever reason, threw them around him. "We found it!"
"So it was time," he said. "A find as big as this. They want this."
"And what do you want?" Nancy asked.
"I… I don't know," he admitted.
Frowning in surprise, Nancy nonetheless decided to leave it for now amidst her own growing excitement. Finding something at the opposite end of the area, she pulled away. "Something to work on, then?"
"Sure." Sonny dropped to his knees and examined a faint drawing in the center of the ground. He traced it with his finger and then, without looking away, pulled his notebook out of his backpack and began to recreate the image. Then he pulled out his camera and started snapping pictures for 30 seconds straight.
Nancy shifted. "How much longer are we going to stay here?" she asked. She was able to keep her voice level although she couldn't control bouncing on the balls of her feet a little. "We've got to tell someone about this! What we've found, what we've found here…"
Sonny turned to her with a little smile.
It wasn't a completely happy smile, not from the excited Sonny a minute before. It was wistful. Nancy frowned. "What is it?"
"They're not going to believe us, Nancy."
"What?" she sputtered. "But there's proof—"
"People are going to keep on believing what they believed yesterday. This is too big for them. The important thing is that we know."
"So you don't want to tell anyone at all?" she asked incredulously.
"Tell anyone you want."
"Then what's the problem?"
"For me, there isn't one." He stepped toward her. "I've been used to this all my life. It's new for you."
"What about all your talk about people believing you as we found the artifacts?"
"Eventually. They'll believe us eventually. When I talked about getting people to believe us, I meant as a step. It's not going to happen right away, with just this."
Nancy paused. "I don't understand," she said finally.
"You found this. You have the right to tell anyone you want. But I know that you're a detective, and a successful career as a detective depends on your credibility. If you talk about what we found here, it might make things bad for you."
"But I don't—I don't believe any aliens were here," she said. "You know that, right?"
"I think that this is a remarkable cultural phenomenon. That's it. That's how I would talk about it."
"Even as a remarkable cultural phenomenon, it's too big. Do you think people are going to believe that Sumer's myths somehow made it to Mayan culture? We might even get accusations of faking it."
"You're just saying that. You just want to keep this precious information to yourself and S.P.I.E.D., don't you?"
"No," he said quickly, "I want to share it when I think people will listen."
"The longer you're silent about it, the less likely they are to believe you."
"I know. But the drawings will be here for a long time, years after we're gone."
She turned away. "You're being selfish."
For a few seconds he went silent. "You're being unrealistic," he said quietly.
She snapped back toward him. "I'm being unrealistic?" she said. "I'm not the one who's been going on about aliens this whole time!" She paused and breathed in the dank air, gathering her patience. "I want to help. I want to be a part of this."
"You've always been a part of this. You might always be a part of it. But it's my life, not yours. And I know if you go out there and talk about what we found and share the backlash for it with me, you're not going to be happy. And you might be stuck."
She thought about this. "Fine," she said stiffly. "Have we seen enough now? I think it's time to go."
"Wait." Sonny held up two fingers. "There's something else here."
"Hmmm," said Nancy. She walked forward to where he stood in front of the drawing of the pyramids and the ziggurat. She sank down to a crouch and began tapping the stone to see if any of it was hollow, which would probably mean a hidden room behind it. Tapping probably wouldn't work for stone—it was best for wood—but at least it was worth a shot.
Then she noticed more white lines below the drawing, even fainter than most of the rest of it. "There's text here," she said abruptly. She recognized the pictographs.
Sonny, who was walking around the area, skidded to a stop and darted back to the drawing. "Where?" he asked eagerly.
After making a rubbing of the drawing, he knelt next to her and started taking pictures.
"Wait," she said. "Some of it's covered by dirt."
"That isn't dirt," Sonny said as she reached to brush it off. "It's some special material."
Once Nancy's fingers made contact with that part of the stone there was a sudden movement.
She jerked her hand away.
A compartment below the text began to slide open.
She must have activated a release.
Sonny set down his camera. When he leaned forward to see what was inside, she lay an arm across his path for caution.
Some rust-colored sticks and a round object appeared when the wall had slid halfway down.
Then she saw two black holes and knew what she was looking at.
Sonny leapt back with some unintelligible utterance of disgust.
Nancy's eyes widened.
What was a skeleton doing here?
A short silence passed.
"The Mayans didn't do sacrifices," Sonny finally said, lips still twisted in a grimace.
"Then what is this?" Nancy asked. "Is this Mayan?"
"It's got to be. The other signs are there and…" Sonny trailed off. He scuttled forward. "Nancy!" he shouted suddenly while right next to her.
She jumped. "What?"
"Look at the indentations in the cloth!"
Nancy squinted. He was right. Two depressions in the cloth, each an inch wide, running up and down like suspenders.
"Inanna!" Sonny continued. She saw his hands were shaking. "The seven things! She was wearing straps like that to carry a box! And then her dress was the last step!"
At first Nancy thought Sonny was shouting because he was excited, but she realized then that she hadn't ever heard the stone stop sliding even when the skeleton compartment finished opening.
Sonny's own eyes widened. His head jerked backward to where they'd come in as if he heard something, sensed something. A moment later he pulled Nancy to her feet.
"What?" she snapped. She wanted to look at the skeleton.
Speechless, he held her chin between two fingers and pointed her head at the entrance.
Which was just about to finish sliding shut.
A moment after that the ground started to shake.
"What's happening?" Nancy asked.
"Earthquake?" Sonny guessed. They glanced at each other, sharing their fear.
The center of the room with the pattern began to crawl upward.
As soon as it became clear what it was, they both got moving.
Sonny scrambled onto the rising part of the ground, shoe skidding on the stone. "Come on!" he raised his voice over the noise.
"Yeah, I'm coming!"
"Nancy, you don't need to know the answer to this!"
Something at least made her stop and almost listen, maybe the fact that he got right to it, knew right away why she wanted to stay.
Almost like he understood.
But he didn't need the answers, she reminded herself—or he didn't think he needed the answers when really he did because otherwise no one would believe him or he'd have no reason to believe—and if he wasn't responsible enough to want to know the truth, she'd take care of it. Nancy squared her shoulders and knelt down next to the skeleton to examine it. "It's okay! Tell them to come find me!" she said. Her fingers froze over the cloth behind the skeleton. If she touched it, it would turn into dust. But was there anything behind it?
"Nancy, it's too deep in the caves and you're going to be locked in by that." He gestured at the tall stone slab that blocked them off from the way they came. "They won't be able to find you! Come on!"
She couldn't concentrate with him yelling like that. He really did freak out way too much sometimes. "I have to stay!" Her voice rose with her annoyance.
"If you stay, you are Inanna. Folklore. Zilch. That's it." He reached farther for her hand with this last word, nearly falling off.
Nancy stared long at the skeleton. Then she looked up at him.
Sonny's face tensed in the shadows. "Nancy," he said again.
She didn't move. After a moment, she opened her mouth to speak.
Sighing, Sonny leaned forward and swung his feet over the side.
Then she bolted over and climbed on. For a second they both lost their balance, and Sonny's glasses slipped off. They shattered on the ground now ten feet below.
Sonny's arm went around her as the cave ceiling slid open, revealing a wide white light. Their outside arms, his right and her left, skidded against the stone of the walls. Nancy winced. There went her carefully-marked directions. When the pedestal continued past the ground, they both tumbled off instinctively. Silently they watched as it stayed, for a few minutes, though neither remembered exactly how many. Their eyes followed it when it retreated back into the ground, leaving an indentation.
Nancy turned away. "At least now I have no misgivings about not taking cases anymore," she said stiffly.
Sonny looked around, trying to follow the sound of her voice.
"Here," she supplied.
"Thanks." He took a few steps in her direction. "What do you mean? About misgivings—"
"I've never not solved one before." Nancy's eyes darted frantically around for Sonny's camera and her extra slip of paper with the directions. She had to get back at that cave.
Unfortunately Sonny had forgotten to pick up his camera after setting it down. And the piece of paper...
Nancy checked both pockets.
Could it have slipped out?
"You weren't sure about the artifact at Pacific Run," Sonny quietly pointed out.
Still searching for the piece of paper, Nancy didn't respond right away.
"Well?" Sonny prodded.
Frustration would not help matters now, Nancy decided as her back went rigid with stress. She'd just have to look for it later. "What?" she asked irritably.
"Artifact. Pacific Run."
"And I never found Dwayne Powers again! The point is," Nancy looked past him, forcing her hands at her sides so she wouldn't continue to check her pockets for the paper, "well, the rest was out of my hands."
"This was out of your hands!" Sonny said, beginning to get frustrated.
"I could have stayed."
"Do you honestly still wish you were down there?"
Nancy blinked. "They would've found me."
"They wouldn't have found you." Sonny's eyes hardened. "The entrance is blocked. There are miles' worth of cave down there. They didn't know where we were. We didn't know where we were."
"What do you care?" Nancy looked up, eyes impaling his. "You're more attracted to danger than anyone I've ever met."
"I don't need to know what it is we found down there. Neither do you."
Her eyes widened in astonishment. "Are you serious? After all the time we've spent here trying to figure things out?"
"And yeah, the danger is cool. Dying, not so much. We found what we came here to find," Sonny continued, addressing her next question.
"So you don't even want to know?" Nancy scoffed. "That's irresponsible."
"No." His voice rose. "What's irresponsible is staying in a situation you know you can't escape when there's an escape route available."
Nancy laughed wryly. Her father had said something very similar when she'd been to Scotland.
Seeing her distress, Sonny softened. "We did the best we could."
She shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. Then remembered. Turned slowly to him. "What did you mean earlier? When you called Inanna folklore?"
"Exactly what I said."
"You mean you don't believe in the myt—"
"I mean that she is a figure in a set of stories. Doesn't mean that she isn't real."
"Then what does it mean?"
"Means that nobody knows her; they only know of her."
Nancy's eyes showed her confusion.
Sonny sighed. "If you stayed down there, people would know you as the idiot who wandered off and got herself killed. Or, if you're luckier, as the hero who tried to sacrifice herself for knowledge which isn't a great thing to do, because may I remind you, knowledge isn't really useful to someone who's dead."
"Knowing doesn't stop after death." Nancy's eyes smarted as she thought of her mother.
"Know becomes knew, which is a type of know of. It's distant." He moved closer. "And you're not a story. At least, not yet. It isn't time for that. You matter to me because I know you."
Nancy looked down and twisted her hands.
"Can you not go into situations where you're going to get yourself killed for sure?" He asked. "You're too important for that."
A small smile grew on her face. "I thought you said you didn't worry about me."
"Yeah, well, I can't help it. You piss me off."
"Well at least now you know how it feels."
He shook his head in exasperation, eyes going to the side. "Don't you get it? Why you can't do things like that?"
"Will you stop freaking out? Nobody's dead."
"No. Not until you know what this means."
"What what means?"
"You and I." He bit his lip and looked back up. "You're more than just an assignment, obviously. I care about you." His eyes burned through her as he spoke. "If we do this again, you're more important than anything we find. You're a person, not a giant magnifying glass."
Nancy laughed at the last part. She couldn't help it.
Sonny rolled his eyes. "Usually people don't have to be told that. You damned overachievers. I meant it, though."
"About not being a magnifying glass? I hope."
"No." He smiled wanly. "About you being the most amazing person ever? Yes."
He pulled her to him and hooked his forearms behind her waist, tucking his head in just slightly over her shoulder. Their cheeks touched softly.
"You... you think I'm amazing?" Nancy asked, unable to speak above a whisper. Even after all the cases she'd solved and all the people she'd met, Nancy had never quite gotten used to hearing that.
But somehow she'd never been as pleased.
"When I first heard about you I couldn't get you out of my mind." Feeling wove through his voice.
Underlying regret distilled the warmth in Nancy's stomach. She ached to stay with him here, make full time of the minutes they finally had where they didn't have to worry about covers being blown, getting caught not digging, pushing themselves right up against investigation deadlines without missing them, where she could just be Nancy and he could just be Sonny. Time could have kept on going. She had just solved this case. Well, sort of—no, she corrected herself. This was something she'd have to get used to. Not every case was solvable.
There was one last deadline, though.
Sonny had to get back to his grandfather.
Soon all the problems of their lives would come back. And she didn't want that for him, not in the way right now his thumb stroked back-and-forth patterns on her cheek or he firmly held her to him, and decided that they could have it for a few seconds longer, at least. For as long as he'd been able to forget that things weren't as rosy a few thousand miles north of here.
Pulling back just enough to see her, Sonny lay his forehead across hers and slowly closed his eyes, exhaling deeply. Nancy stroked his hair and tried to keep her thoughts from racing, her worries from spreading, her sudden countless feelings from exploding her head. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and then they were kissing. Nancy couldn't even tell who had initiated it.
She leaned snugly into him, and his other hand slid up to her neck. After several frantic attempts to keep track of the time, she let go of the task against her better judgment. In the end she only knew it was way too soon when he loosened his arms and placed them at his sides. "We have to go," he said, looking at the ground.
"I know," she replied. "Right now."
"Do you know which way?"
Nancy looked at the scab now forming on her arm where there used to be marked rights and lefts, cleanly ripping away a little skin and some writing with it. She laughed. "I have no idea."
"Well." Sonny pulled out his phone. "Maybe we'll have signal now." He narrowed his eyes until they were nearly closed. "I can't see my phone. Can you find Jamila in the contacts and then call?" He blindly held it out.
Nancy leaned so she could reach it and took it from him, doing what he asked. She found his hand and placed the phone in it, and he held it up to his ear, mouthing his thanks to her. After a few rings he held it away and mouthed to Nancy, "sounds good so far." Then: "Hey, Jamila."
Nancy heard some garbled heated response.
"Yeah, I know," Sonny said. "We made it out of the cave. Sort of." Pause. "I don't know." He looked at Nancy and smiled. "Yeah, she's fine."
In the meanwhile Nancy reached into the bottle compartment of her backpack and pulled out a compass. She knew which direction they'd gone to get in the cave. She knew approximately which direction they took when they were actually inside.
And the sun was high in the sky. Northwest.
She smiled as she figured it out. "Come on," she said to Sonny. She took his hand. "So you don't have to worry about bumping into anything or getting lost."
"Wait. Hang on. I think she's figured it out. I am hurrying." Then, as he remembered the gravity of the situation, "Thanks. For everything."
It didn't take them long to cover the same distance on open terrain, especially since they could walk directly over what had been in the cave many sharp twists and turns. Even if they were tired enough to walk past it, they couldn't have. Something marked their destination.
Last time they'd been at the cave entrance, nobody else was there. Now the place was teeming with reporters, diplomats, police officers, and tourists.
"We're there," Nancy announced, nudging Sonny's shoulder.
Sonny turned clumsily to her. "So. You detectives and your covers. Are we a couple of people who wandered off on the first tour or what?"
"We were never on the first tour, and that can be verified by other people who were." Nancy replied thoughtfully. "I say we wandered in right before the first tour group did. We wanted to see some of it ourselves and then planned on making it back. Only we got hopelessly lost."
"We'll go with that," Sonny agreed. As they burst into the crowd they repeated this story. Nancy couldn't help but smile at everybody. She hated reporters, but today she was able to forget about that.
A young couple from the front saw Nancy and both waved wildly. "Hi, Nancy!" they shouted in unison.
Nancy smiled at them. They must have read about her in the papers or something.
Each turned to the other and said in perplexment, "You know her?"
Then she took another look.
"Nick Falcone?" she asked, approaching them. "Jenna Deblin?" Normally she didn't recognize former suspects so quickly, but these two were both standouts.
"Yeah!" Nick laughed. "How's this for coincidence?!"
"What are you doing here?" Nancy asked.
"We were in the first tour group and figured we'd better stick around," Jenna said. "We were about to give the police the slip and get in there to save you guys, isn't that right?" She turned to Nick.
"Actually, I meant, what are you doing in Mexico?"
"Sort of a vacation, sort of not," said Nick.
"I suggested we come here for a vacation," Jenna explained. "He wanted to check out Dzibilchaltun because it's supposed to be this huge Mayan amphitheater."
Nancy chuckled. "I'm sorry… just… I don't… how did you two meet?"
"I was sick of working at the Hot Kettle and had talked about razing the place, and Nick rounded on me about what a beautiful building this was and how lucky I was to own it." Jenna beamed. "And when I didn't get mad back because I heard what he was saying, I knew I had found a friend."
"H.A.D.I.T. had just broken up due to lack of activity, and I was disillusioned. Traveled the whole U.S. of A." Nick readjusted his arm around her shoulder. "I stuck around Snake Horse Harbor for a few weeks, and then Jenna and I founded People for Upholding the Security of Habitats and Included Tenants, nicknamed P.U.S.H.I.T.—I had wanted to go with something closer to S.H.O.V.E.I.T., but that might alienate a few people I figured. Anyway, we decided to go a little more broad. That way there will never be a lack of activity."
"It goes for the living spaces of people, whales, or anybody," Jenna added.
"Hi," Sonny fluttered his fingers at them.
"Oh, this is Sonny Joon," said Nancy.
An expectant silence followed.
Laughing, she turned to him. "Are we dating yet?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think so."
"We're dating," she repeated to Jenna and Nick. Before either of them could reply with something saucy (and both looked like they wanted to, Nancy jumped back in. "I met them on a couple of past cases," she explained to Sonny.
"Wow, you're amazing," Sonny said without surprise.
"Isn't she?" Jenna said as Nancy blushed.
The conversation ended abruptly when a LandRover sped into sight. It screeched to a stop. The window rolled down, and Jamila's head popped out. "We haven't any time left!" she shouted.
Before Sonny could register what was happening Nancy was tugging him past all the people. "Where are we going?" he asked, looking behind him.
"That's Jamila in the car. Can't you see anything?"
"Oh!" he scampered ahead of Nancy.
"Wait!" Nancy shouted.
"I can see a big gray blur!"
"Good to know!" She caught up with him, pulling him back just before he crashed into it. Reaching for the handle, she wrenched the car door open and hopped inside, pulling Sonny along.
"Airport!" Jamila ordered. Dylan sped off.
Now Sonny looked stressed and sad about all the things on hold for him back in the States. But he was so tired his eyes started to close.
A second later, though, he opened his eyes wide, trying to stay awake. "Can't sleep," he muttered to himself, blinking. "Too many problems to take care of."
"Sleep," Nancy advised.
"Sleep now," Jamila said from the front. "You won't get a chance now for a while."
Watching his eyelids win the battle, Nancy worried for him amidst the joy of having him around, of him wanting to have her around. She scooted closer to his side, and he closed her in with an arm around her shoulder.
She pulled out a pad of paper.
Without warning her mind returned to the paper she'd lost upon leaving the cave. The last place it had been was in her hand. Now that things had calmed down a bit, the memory flooded back. She didn't have a chance to put it away before escaping.
Must have dropped it, Nancy concluded. If only she hadn't torn that page out before writing on it, she might still have it! If she reconstructed those few minutes in her memory she was fairly sure she could figure out what happened to it.
But then she remembered—forced herself to remember—that it didn't really matter.
A few minutes ago, she might have thought it did. She'd do anything, short of hurting anyone else, to get to the answers. She never thought that'd change. None of the lectures she'd gotten from her father and friends about this had made sense to her. Getting all the answers mattered, she would reaffirm afterward without fail. It always mattered.
But sitting there, next to Sonny, and sitting in spirit next to all those who inspired and supported her, including her parents, she knew now that it didn't. Moving forward was all she had to do. All she could do.
So instead she flattened the new page against the pages behind them and felt around in her backpack for her extra pen.
Dear Bess, she began.