Coming from the Midwest, Nancy thought she had felt it all. Air so thick that moving was like trying to run under water, so hot that it became tangible in the way it did when the temperature rose over body temperature. She thought for sure she had felt it all here in Yucatán, that the next day couldn't possibly be hotter than this one. Every day seemed to prove her wrong. But this experience was new in the way all experiences were new. The heat didn't bother her. What bothered her were the things she couldn't see. Here at the site, and there in the future.
A few more days went by before she and the others made their first discovery. Before that the finds had been fragments, so small that the writing on them was not discernable. Beltrán said it had been a slow few weeks for them all, but Nancy could see the heaviness in his step when he thought no one else was looking. The fragments would get a little money on the black market, Nancy guessed, but not much.
Just when she had started to worry that the site was finally running out of artifacts after so many years, something hard clanged against her shovel, sounding almost as if it would start ringing to match the change in the air. She picked up the pace, digging faster and faster until it was completely dislodged. Little chunks of dirt fell off as she knelt and picked it up, but it retained its shape.
This wasn't a fragment.
She pulled a handkerchief from her jeans and wiped away the dirt covering the surface. Several more pockets of dirt chipped off and fell from the center, revealing the find to be a bowl.
A bright pattern of crimson shapes became visible. The color of the bowl itself was lighter, and it looked like wood. Nancy raised and lowered her hand a few times. It weighed about as much as wood.
"What's that you found?" Lou asked, twisting sideways to look.
Nancy held it out to him.
Lou nodded, wiping his brow. "Cool. Might want to let the others know."
"That's it?" she asked. "You aren't excited or anything?"
"This kind of stuff isn't really my bag. Although," the word dragged as he took the bowl from her and turned it around a couple of times, eyes narrowed to shield out the sun, "it's kind of cool how those two shapes look like a sideways 8. Makes you wonder how much modern culture is derived from the Mayans. Not that the sideways eight will actually tell you anything, but it brings the question to mind."
She snatched it from him and traced the shape.
Nancy froze in horror.
Now she was starting to think like him.
This wasn't good.
Not good at all.
"It doesn't look anything like a sideways 8," she said, a little more loudly than she'd intended. "See? The edges are flat so they're almost square."
Almost like lab goggles. Just like the ones she'd used at the lathe the one time she'd needed to make a dowel rod to fix a band organ in a carousel.
By now their discussion had attracted attention. Once the diggers saw what she was holding, murmurs and exclamations rose into the air. All of them started to walk over except Sonny, who ran. His heels slid on some loose dirt at the edge of the pit, and his hands flew out in front of him to stop the impending fall. Fortunately he was able to steer himself away from Nancy and Lou. But his foot jammed into Lou's foot, and Lou tripped into Nancy's elbow. Nancy jerked forward but regained her balance as the two fell to the ground behind her. The bowl started to slide away, and she tightened her grip right before the edge slipped from her hand.
"Sorry." Sonny's arms flailed about in what could only be construed as overstated, panicked apology. "Sorry."
Lou shook his head. "Geez, dude. Chill."
Sonny turned around and called to José. "Don't fire me! It wasn't my fault!"
"Lies," Nancy muttered. Her eyes halted on the bottom of the bowl as she turned it upward to get a better grip on it.
Sonny whipped the other way to face her. "Do you want to get kicked out?" he hissed.
"Pretty sure this is a job you can't get kicked out of," Lou offered.
"I've been kicked out of jobs you can't get kicked out of," Sonny said before other people started appearing at the top of the pit. He composed himself with a wide smile.
"There's something here…" Nancy said as she traced along a faint black horizontal line. There were two lines branching from that one, the first one starting from the edge at an inward angle. The second started a little further in and went outward, toward the first line.
Nancy's finger paused where the lines stopped. She frowned. The shape was so odd. Was it the bottom of a letter?
Beltrán walked past the others and took the bowl from her. "Yes, this'll do quite well."
Some of the other diggers looked down as he said this.
José stepped down toward them. Beltrán tossed the bowl to him.
Nancy's eyes widened at the gesture. She turned to Sonny, who looked shocked as well.
They hadn't yet reprimanded Sonny for tumbling in. And Nancy didn't think it was because of his current attempt to blend in with everybody else crowding around.
José whistled. "Wow. This is the best find in weeks."
Beltrán turned his head close to his. "How much do you think?" he murmured.
He was careful that no one else could hear, and no one did. But he was still faced towards them at a slight angle, and Nancy could read his lips. She looked over at Sonny, whose eyes were frozen on the bowl in his hand. She'd have to tell him what Beltrán said later. Maybe Dylan, too, but Dylan was probably already on it.
In fact, he was working in closer proximity to Beltrán and José than he was yesterday.
And the day before that.
They walked away without so much a word to Sonny, though José sent a glare his way. His fingers dug into the bowl in a way that made Nancy nearly cringe. During her internship at Beech Hill she had handled many artifacts, and Henrik had quickly taught her the correct way to hold them. She went to digs like the one in Egypt already knowing a lot of what they taught the volunteer diggers.
And she had never seen the artifacts treated so roughly.
And if this were any legitimate site, Sonny would have been fired for recklessness. For sure.
Nancy looked up to Beltrán, who had spoken. He and José had stopped talking and were now addressing everyone.
"The rest of the day is free," his voice rang out. "Obviously it is still a few hours too early to set up the tents. So instead we will be going to Tekax."
For the most part this was met with quiet indifference. Some exchanged confused glances.
"We can stock up on supplies while we're there, and some of the new people can learn to find their way around when it's their turn to go." Beltrán shielded his vision and squinted at the tops of hats. In a place where there was such little protection from the sun, everybody needed them. "Where is the tour guide?" he asked finally.
Head bowed, Dylan trudged a few steps forward, adjusting his battered fedora on his brow.
Beltrán swept his arm out and inward in a broad, impatient gesture. "Come up here."
"We don't like the heat any better than you," José added with a bark of laughter.
"Coming," Dylan called, exhaustion seeping into his cheery voice.
"This will be good for all of us, I think," Beltrán said as Dylan made his way to the top of the pit. "Tomorrow, we start fresh."
Everyone moved at the same pace as they plodded up out of the pit and up one of the hills. Behind it was a row of six Land Rovers. Dylan followed Beltrán and José to the car in front. Everyone else piled into the other cars indiscriminately. There seemed to be no friends among the diggers, Nancy noted. No small groups or cliques.
Some sensed the attention and looked around. Nancy kept her head down and stayed on Lou's heels. He went to the last car. As she bent down to get in, she paused and looked over her shoulder. Sonny was far behind.
Like Usrique, the dig site, the city of Tekax lay very south in the region. They had to drive practically along the Campeche border to get there.
"Won't it attract attention if we all leave at the same time?" Nancy asked Lou.
"Area's pretty desolate," Lou answered as he slid into the driver's seat, "so I kind of doubt it. And even if it does, I don't really care."
"What about the people who are here?"
"They mind their own business," Lou said with a note of ironic finality.
Nancy sensed it, but it didn't stop her from asking more questions. Any conversational attempts beyond that were in vain, though, so she settled herself in the front seat of the car. Occasionally she watched the back seat occupants through the interior rear view mirror. They didn't talk.
Taking out a pad of paper, she drew the design from the bottom of the bowl and added questions in bullet points below it. It had to have some cultural or historical significance. She bit the eraser of her pencil. If only she could talk to Henrik.
The 40 minutes passed quickly, and Nancy jumped out of the car as soon as it rolled to a stop. Like its namesake municipality, Tekax had many trees, so many that the city was almost hidden under them. Amber-colored light of the late afternoon glanced off the buildings' vivid red hues.
When all this was over, she needed to come back here. She'd work in the time.
Nancy smiled wanly. She said that about all of her cases. Usually she did work in the time before heading to the airport, but it was never much.
Everyone else filed out and followed José onto a nearby street. Beltrán and Dylan hung behind, talking about something or other.
Walking briskly, Nancy wove through the diggers and hovered over Dylan and the team leaders. The conversation stopped before she was able to hear anything.
The street opened up to a square. Foot traffic was slow as crowds formed around various shops with their wares. Flashes of color on fabric swatches and pottery stole her eyes. There were so many different types of food that the aroma changed everywhere she stepped.
José passed through quickly, heading toward a street on the other side. Nancy followed him, pushing and apologizing as the space between people grew narrower.
Without warning someone appeared in front of her.
Nancy stopped short.
There stood a petite woman craning her neck around as she looked at the street, paying little attention to people in her path. Her light brown hair blew away from her face for a second, allowing Nancy a glance at her in profile. High cheekbones, and her eyes were wide and haughty.
She looked more than vaguely familiar. And yet, it wasn't from any of the cases she had taken in the past two years. At least, Nancy didn't think so. Had she been a suspect? Or had she been a background face from one of the many towns Nancy had visited?
Nancy had seen her somewhere; she was sure of it. And she had never been to Mexico. If she, Nancy, didn't belong here, then this stranger definitely didn't.
Now as their eyes met, Nancy didn't dare look down. She had nothing to hide.
Just when she thought the woman would place her, her nostrils flared, and she turned away.
She looked to the side.
"Are you all right?" Dylan asked.
The other diggers twisted around and started muttering, recognizing the loud sound of his voice.
Nancy bowed her head and inhaled sharply. "I'm fine, Dylan," she said in an undertone. If the stranger could place her and the diggers were able to witness that, then she was as good as dead. She trudged past him to join the others. She felt eyes. "Just exhausted from the heat."
"Are you sure? 'Cause you look—"
"I'm fine," she repeated through gritted teeth.
He raised his hands and turned away. For a second or two he looked around blankly, not clear on where everybody was. Then he caught sight of José and Beltrán and trotted ahead to join them.
"Heat exhaustion?" barked a voice from behind.
Nancy turned her head.
Holly clucked her tongue. Sounds of shuffling ensued, and her hand tapped Nancy's elbow, holding a wet wipe. "Here. Use this on your forehead. Always works for me."
Nancy nodded her thanks.
Nearby, Dylan looked on. He was too conspicuous, then, apparently. He needed to work on that.
Everything else was going swimmingly, though. He sensed he was very, very close to earning admittance to Beltrán and José's much-elusive inner circle.
"First, food and water," José muttered to Beltrán. "We're running low on fresh vegetables. We need the diggers to keep their health. And some of the tools need replacing."
Beltrán nodded. "Good place to start. We should also drop by the Pit."
Although his stomach recoiled at the name, Dylan leaned forward. The Pit?
"Claire would have told us if things aren't going smoothly, but it never hurts to check."
Hmmm, Dylan thought. Needed to keep that name in mind. And for now, he had his own questions.
"Hullo." He popped up between the two. "There's a woman," he said innocently. "Petite, long curly hair. Looked at all of us kind of funny."
Beltrán and José exchanged glances. "Claire Warwick," José said.
"Do you know her?"
Beltrán answered with a cutting laugh.
Tentatively Dylan joined in. "Who is she?"
"Claire most graciously opened the site to us. She comes to visit from time to time. The rest of your people will meet her soon."
"So she's not out to kill us then?" Dylan grinned. "Well, I'm chuffed."
"Yes, there's no making her happy—only making her less aggravated, it seems. A fact you'll soon see for yourself."
"Oh," he said mildly. "She'll be visiting?"
"She very seldom comes to the dig. But you," José inclined his head, "will be seeing quite a lot of her, since we do."
Dylan's spirits soared. Sometimes he was wrong in assessing people's views of him, too optimistic. But this proved his feelings had been right.
"As a matter of fact, we will be paying some friends a visit very soon now. You should accompany us."
Perhaps it was the friends in the Pit!
As for Claire…
Dylan started to turn. Nancy would want to know.
But in the middle of the motion he stopped, rolled his shoulders, and instead kept pace with the two team leaders.
Nancy watched them intently, looking for a way in. She needed to get involved on every level she could to get the best understanding of the situation here.
But she had to do so without overreaching.
Sonny tagged behind, head turned back as far as it would go. As they walked past a row of restaurants, his eyes followed the smoke streams to the sky.
José turned around. "You!" he bellowed. "Sunspot!"
Startled out of his reverie, Sonny looked around and then grinned at him, touching his orange hair in a flattered manner. "Sunspot? Never heard that one."
Nancy wasn't sure, but from José's burnt face and string of suspect Spanish words, and the sweat pouring down all their backs, she didn't think it was a term of endearment.
People turned off into buildings as soon as the sun began to set. Gradually the streets emptied until only the diggers remained, a dark and tired parade through the city. Beltrán, José, and Dylan made a few stops for food, water, and tools. Then they made some other stops into suspicious locations, some of them dilapidated almost beyond utility. Nancy kept apace with them, always five steps behind. The rest of the diggers were slow to stop, and a few had walked past the three by the time they figured out that they were the only ones walking.
One such stop was made to a tiny building that leaned to one side. Nancy kept one eye on it and kept Beltrán, José, and Dylan in her peripheral vision, careful not to let the three out of earshot.
Unfortunately, they didn't say a word. Every time José turned, she smiled. For all they knew, she was just a quick walker. Impatient, eager. Beltrán seemed to sense this immediately. After a while, José accepted it.
Beltrán and José conversed briefly in Spanish. Then José took Dylan's elbow. "Come," he said. The three walked down the cracked sidewalk and disappeared inside.
While they were stopped, Lou made his way to the very front, thinking. A few weeks without working his own agenda, and he got withdrawals. It was worse that they wouldn't let him leave the site at night; he didn't really need sleep, he had told them. He had no problems working all night and then working all day; he'd done that both in college and for so many nights when he first came out here. Their continuing refusal made him think that their concerns lay elsewhere.
If Lou was watching his back, then maybe that should have worried him. But he had higher priorities. And, all things considered, the sooner he got out of here, the better. Not because he was working for two creeps who might blow his head off in his sleep but because he couldn't stay away from his project forever.
Also, this dig paid its workers too highly. Much too highly. That was apparent enough in everybody else looking the other way every time Beltrán and José did something suspect.
Something was odd about Dutchman, that Henrik guy. Obviously he had his own interest in finding things for Lou to do and keeping him in the area, but usually the interest was low-intensity. Henrik wanted all these things done, but he didn't necessarily need all these things done.
This was different. This was dangerous and secret. This was not something that Henrik just wanted. Henrik wouldn't have chanced sending anybody out here for information he didn't need.
He had something else going on with this and with the other team he sent out here. Lou didn't know what it was, but he wasn't stupid.
And what was that Nancy Drew person doing here?
She was still way too chatty and inquisitive; that was for sure. In fact, she sounded like some of the girls at Mel's school, from what she had told him about them—particularly the gossips.
She would have fit in really well there.
Lou closed his eyes, feeling strangely exhausted.
He was probably going to be stuck here for a while.
Dylan, José, and Beltrán reappeared at the door. Nancy immediately started walking and met them as they reached the end of the sidewalk. "Supplies?" she asked brightly, knowing that it was nothing of the kind.
Beltrán offered a smile. "Yes, supplies. Supplies of a sort."
"Special supplies," José said, looking less amused. "Why don't you go talk to your friend, the sunspot?"
Dylan sent her a glance corroborating that general sentiment.
Nancy shrugged and backed off. She wasn't going to get anything from them. As frustrating as it was that Dylan wasn't letting her in, at least he was doing his job.
Everybody got moving again. Although Nancy's toes itched to get closer, she stayed at least twenty paces in back of the trio. She passed Lou, whose stride had become more deliberative. By now they had to be almost done here. The sun was close to setting.
Suddenly she heard a quicker clatter of footsteps. They grew closer and closer.
Probably somebody trying to catch up after failing to pay attention to the motion of the rest of the group.
And she thought she knew which somebody.
Sonny ran up to her, placing a heavy hand on her shoulder and leaning forward to catch his breath. "Caught you," he huffed triumphantly.
"Well, good." He nodded at Dylan talking with the two team leaders. "That seems interesting."
"It could be interesting. Give it time."
"What I mean is," he began thoughtfully, "do you think he can resist temptation?"
Nancy looked around. "You mean, can we trust him after he's really in?" She muttered. "I really don't know."
"I figured, but what do you think?"
"I think…" Nancy paused.
Sonny's eyebrows rose inquisitively.
"I think I don't know."
Sonny rolled his eyes. "Unhelpful," he said.
"Sorry?" Nancy offered.
"No, I mean it. I really kind of need to know what you think."
Nancy tried to walk faster, which didn't do much. Being taller, Sonny kept up easily.
"Because I've got no idea," he concluded.
"I haven't seen him in quite a long time. Yes, I want to think he's changed, but I wouldn't want to bet my life on it."
"What does your gut tell you?"
"I get the feeling he's changed. I've dealt with black market dealers before, and he doesn't seem to have the disposition for it."
"And that is all I wanted to know. You could have just said."
Nancy fought back a frustrated sigh. "As if you ever just say."
"Say whaaaaaat?" Sonny quipped, head tipping sideways on the second word. He grinned at her.
Nancy laughed a little despite herself. Most of the time she didn't know what to expect. She'd taken notice of his eclectic charm and promptly shoved it so far to the back of her mind that she never saw it coming anymore.
Sonny set his eyes forward, gazing thoughtfully at the near-deserted street. "So," he said quietly, "what do you make of the triangle-looking thing on the bowl?"
Nancy paused. He had seen it too. And, come to think of it, part of it did resemble the bottom of a triangle.
A triangle on a line.
Was the line its shadow?
"It's obviously some sort of symbol," she answered. "There were all sorts of shapes on the bowl, plus the two circles or ovals next to each other." The sideways eight, she thought. "Those could be decorative or ceremonial. I suppose the bowl could have been used for a ritual; I don't remember anything about Mayan rituals. But I did notice that it's made of wood, not stone. You'd think that they'd use a special, more permanent material for ritual objects."
"You never know."
Nancy glanced his way. "You think it is a ritual object?"
"Maybe. Those two circles you mentioned looked like eyegoggles. That was the first thing I saw."
"They can be a lot of things, you know."
"I know. But to me, they look like eyegoggles. The really thick type that aviators used to wear."
"Whoa, slow down. You don't know that that's the case."
"As long as you don't know what something is, any theory is fair game."
"Any plausible theory."
"What's plausible? Plausible is just a set of rules we thought up based on what little we know. Things happen every day that aren't plausible."
"Maybe so, but there's a pattern. Once facts show a certain indication, we can predict other facts. And then those are proven. Knowledge grows that way."
Sonny shook his head. "Too slow. If we wait for things to be proven, we'll be dead before our magnum opus. By the time we get close to finding anything significant, we will have destroyed the world for most living things."
"That's a pretty grand claim."
He stopped walking. "Look around you. Can't you see it?"
"Yeah, I see it, okay?" She said flatly. "But maybe it's not quite as bad as you think."
"We always have to reach farther. It's the only way we'll ever be able to do enough."
Nancy looked up at the sudden firm line of his jaw. That she believed.