He studied the room. It would be cleaned up by nightfall.
Satchel in hand, he left the room and its cool breezes for the moist heat of the narrow corridor and the stairs. Sweat quickly broke across his forehead. He ignored it. He had grown up in these moist highlands and was well-accustomed to the swelter. Born of mixed blood, Spanish and local Indian, he was a mestizo, a half-breed. Neither Spanish nor Quechan. Despite carrying this mark of dishonor among the highland people, he had managed to fight his way to a place of respect.
Once through the hotel’s small lobby, he crossed into the midday sunlight. The steps outside were blinding in the bright light. Shading his eyes against the glare, he worked his way down the steps and almost stumbled over an Indian woman and her babe near the foot of the stairs.
The woman, wearing a rough-spun tunic and shawl, was as startled by him as he excused himself. But she fell to her knees before him, snatching at his pant leg and raising her baby, wrapped in a brightly colored alpaca blanket, toward him. She beseeched him in her native Quecha.
He smiled benignly at her and nodded in answer. Placing his bag on the last step, he reached to his throat and slipped out his silver pectoral crucifix. It stood stark against his black raiment. He raised a hand over the babe’s head and gave a quick benediction. Once done, he kissed the baby on the forehead, collected his bag, and continued down the village street toward his church, the steeple overhead guiding him home.
The small Indian woman called after him, “Gracias! Thank you, Friar Otera!”
In the darkness of the collapsed temple, time stretched. Maggie was sure entire days had passed, but if her watch was accurate, it was only the following morning, close to noon. They had been trapped for less than half a day.
Arms across her chest, Maggie studied the others as she stood a few paces down the main corridor. With his rifle slung over a shoulder, Sam stood by the rockfall, the walkie-talkie glued to his lips. Since dawn, the Texan had been in periodic contact with Philip, conserving the walkie-talkie’s battery as much as possible but trying to aid their fellow student in his appraisal of the ruined site.
“No!” Sam yelled into the walkie-talkie. “The debris pile is all that is holding up this level of the dig. If you try to excavate the original shaft, you’ll drop the rest on top of us.” A long pause where Sam listened to Philip’s response. “Shit, Philip! Listen to me! I’m down here. I can see how the support walls are leaning on the blockade of stone. You’ll kill us. Find where those looters had been tunneling into the dig. That’s the best chance.”
Sam shook his head at the walkie-talkie. “The bastard is spooked up there,” he told her. “He’s looking for the quickest fix as usual.”
Maggie offered Sam a wan smile. Personally, she was looking for the quickest fix, too.
Ralph and Norman were huddled around their only light source, Denal’s flashlight. Ralph held it for Sam to survey the destruction and the state of their crumbling roof. Norman had snapped a few photographs after the short naps they had managed overnight. He now stood with his camera hanging by a strap, clutched to his belly. If they survived this, Norman was going to produce some award-winning footage of their adventure. Still, from his pale face, Maggie was sure the photographer would gladly trade his Pulitzer for the chance to escape alive.
The call from behind startled Maggie. She froze, but a hand suddenly shoved her off her feet. She stumbled a couple steps forward just as a large slab of granite crashed to the stones behind her. The entire temple shook. Dust choked her for a few breaths.
Waving a hand, Maggie turned to see a dusty Denal crawling to his feet. The chunk of loosened rock stood between them. Maggie was dumbstruck by how close she had come to being crushed.
Sam was already beside her. “You need to keep an eye on the ceiling,” he admonished her.
“No feckin’ kidding, Sam.” She turned to the boy as he clambered over the slab. Her voice softened with appreciation. “Thank you, Denal.”
He mumbled something in his native tongue, but he could not meet her eyes. If the light were better, Maggie was sure she’d find him blushing. She lifted his chin and kissed him on the cheek. When she pulled away, his eyes had grown wider than saucers.
Maggie turned to spare Denal further embarrassment. “Sam, maybe we should retreat down another level.” She waved a hand to the fallen rock. “You’re right about the instability of this area. We might be safer a little farther away.”
Sam considered her suggestion, taking off his Stetson and finger-combing his hair as he studied the ceiling. “Maybe we’d better.”
Ralph stepped forward, raising the light toward the ceiling. “Look how all the roof slabs are out of alignment.”
Maggie studied the roof. Ralph had keen eyes. Some of the square stones were tilted a few centimeters askew from the others, displaced by the explosion. As they watched, one of the stones shifted another centimeter.
Sam must have seen it, too. His voice was shaky. “Okay, everybody, down another floor.”
Ralph led the way with the flashlight.
Norman followed. “Right now, I’d love a large glass of lemonade, filled to the brim with ice.”
Sam nodded his head. “If you’re taking orders, Norm, I’ll take something with a bit of a head on it. Maybe a tall Corona in a frosted mug with a twist of lime.”
Maggie wiped the dust and sweat from her forehead as she followed. “In Ireland, we drink our pints warm… but right now, I’m even willin’ to bow to your crass American custom of drinkin’ it cold.”
Ralph laughed as they reached the ladder. “I doubt the Incas left us a cooler down there, but I’m willing to search.” Ralph waved his flashlight for Maggie to mount the ladder first while he lit the way.
Maggie’s smile faded from her lips as she climbed away from Ralph’s light and into the gloom of the next level. Their banter in the face of their predicament did little to fend off the true terror; the darkness beyond the brightness was always there, reminding them how precarious their situation was.
As she awaited the others, she considered Ralph’s last words. Just what had the Incas left them down there? What lay within the chamber beyond the sealed door, and what had happened to Gil’s two companions?
By the time the others had regrouped at the foot of the ladder on the second level, Maggie’s curiosity had been piqued. Also by focusing on these mysteries, her fear of being buried under fifty feet of collapsing temple could be somewhat allayed. If the anxiety grew too intense…
Maggie shook her head. She would not lose control again. She watched Sam climb down the ladder with a twinge of guilt. After her attack last night, she had not been totally honest with him. She had failed to explain that the onset of her “seizures” had begun after witnessing the death of Patrick Dugan in the roadside ditch in Belfast. Afterward, the doctors had not been able to find any physiological cause for her attacks, though the consensus was the seizures were most likely a form of severe panic. She shoved back the growing guilt. The details were not Sam’s business. After the initial entrapment, she had come to grips with their situation. As long as she could keep herself distracted, she would be okay.
Nearby, Sam tried his walkie-talkie. The radio still worked, but the static was a bit worse this much deeper. He let Philip know about their repositioning.
Once he was done, Maggie crossed to Sam. She wet her lips. “I’d like to borrow your ultraviolet lamp.”
“I want to go see what damage Gil and the others did to the dig.”
“I can’t let you go traipsing about on your own. We need to stick together.” He began to turn away.
She grabbed his shoulder. “It wasn’t a request, Sam. I’m going. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
Denal stood a few steps away. “I… I go with you, Miss Maggie.”
Sam faced them and seemed to recognize her determination. “Fine. But don’t be gone longer than fifteen minutes. We need to conserve our light sources, and I don’t want to be hunting you both down.”
Maggie nodded. “Thanks, Sam.”
“I’m coming with you two,” Norman said, snugging his camera around his shoulder.
Ralph also had a gleam of interest, but Sam squashed it. “The three of you go on. Ralph and I will go through this level with the flashlight and assess the structural integrity.” He dug his lamp out of his pocket and held it toward Maggie, but he did not release it without a final word of caution. “Fifteen minutes. Be careful.”
She heard the worry in his stern voice, and that dulled the annoyance in her own response. “I know, Sam,” she said softly, taking the Wood’s lamp from him. “You needn’t worry.”
He grinned, then returned to his walkie-talkie and ongoing argument with Philip.
Maggie clicked on the ultraviolet light and signaled for her two companions to follow her to the next ladder. As they abandoned the brighter light, the darkness of the temple wrapped close around them. Ahead, the purplish glow lit up the quartz in the granite blocks, creating a miniature starscape spreading down the passage. Maggie led them onward, the others sticking closer to her side.
As they traversed the series of ladders to the deepest level of the dig, Maggie’s heart began thudding louder and louder in her own ears. Soon her heartbeat seemed almost to be coming from beyond her chest.
“What’s that noise?” Norman asked as he stepped off the rung of the last ladder.
Denal answered, his voice a whisper. “I hear it before. After Señor Sala crawled through that doorway.”
Maggie realized the beating in her ears wasn’t her own heart but the external thudding of something deeper in the temple. It even reverberated through the stones under her feet.
“It sounds like a big clock ticking,” Norman said.
Maggie raised her light. “Let’s keep going.” Compared to the sonorous beat from below, her own voice sounded like the squeak of a mouse.