With more of the roof falling behind them, no one argued. They filed quickly past Sam and into the coolness of the natural cavern.
As Ralph slid by, he returned Sam’s Winchester. “I have my own now,” the large man said, lifting a snubby lever-action rifle.
Sam recognized it as Gil’s weapon. “Where?”
Ralph jerked his thumb back at the tile floor. “I picked it up when Norm and I crossed. Gil must have run off in too big a hurry, abandoning it.” Ralph hefted an ammo belt from his shoulder. “His loss… our gain.”
“Hopefully we won’t need either,” Sam said.
Ralph shrugged and continued into the tunnel.
“You’d better try one last time to reach Philip,” Maggie said, glancing back at the crumbling room. “Let him know we’re safe and not to give up on us. With water and shelter, we should be able to survive until help arrives.”
“You’re right. In the caves, I might not be able to reach him.” Sam had forgotten all about Philip Sykes. He pulled the walkie-talkie free, stepped away from the threshold, and switched it on. Static immediately squealed when Sam hit the transmitter. “Sykes, can you read us? Over?”
The answer was immediate and choppy. “… alive? Thank God… the whole hill is gone… We’re… as fast as we can! Over.”
Sam smiled. He quickly summarized their discovery and the miracle of the dagger. “So we’re gonna hole up in the caves here until you can free us. Did you get all that? Over.”
The answer was scratchier as the walkie-talkie’s battery weakened. “… caves? Don’t wander too far. I’ll try and…” Static drowned the rest.
Sam turned to stare at the pale faces of his friends. “Just hurry your ass, Philip!” he yelled into the walkie-talkie. “And get word to Uncle Hank as soon as possible!”
Static was his only response. The battery was too weak to send a signal through all the jumble of rock and clay overhead. Sam swore under his breath and turned off the walkie-talkie, conserving the little juice that was left. He prayed Philip had got all that.
Biting his lower lip, he joined the others. Beyond them lay a well of darkness. Though Sam was relieved at the escape from the crumbling pyramid, Friar de Almagro’s warning still echoed in his head: The Serpent of Eden… may it never be disturbed.
Sam motioned them toward the black caverns. “Let’s go.”
The path through the rock was tight, so they proceeded single file. Ralph took the lead, and Sam brought up the rear. In the cramped space, Sam felt as if the rock were squeezing closed around him. At one point, they had to slide sideways, crushed between two walls of granite. Once through the jam, they could hear the echoing sound of rushing waters growing. The sound whetted Sam’s thirst. His tongue felt like dry burlap in his mouth.
Ralph called back from the lead. “I think it opens up just ahead. C’mon.”
Sam hurried forward, stepping almost on Maggie’s heels. They had been climbing and scraping their way through the passage for close to an hour by then. At last, Sam felt a stirring of the air. He sensed a large space ahead. It coaxed them all to a faster clip.
The passage widened at last. The team could now proceed as a group. Ralph, a step ahead of the rest, held one of the flashlights. “There’s something ahead,” he mumbled.
Their pace slowed as the passage came to an end. Ralph raised his flashlight. “I don’t believe it!” he gasped.
Sam agreed. The others stood silent beside him. Ahead lay an open chamber, a cavern with a river channel worn through the center of the floor. But that was not what triggered the stunned reactions from the others. Pillars linked roof to floor, their lengths carved with intricate images and fantastic creatures. In the stone, embedded silver reflected the flashlight, eyes from thousands of carved figures, sentinels from an ancient world.
Ralph lowered the light. “Look!” Across the floor of the dark cavern, a path of beaten gold wound from the passage’s opening over to the rumbling river and followed the course deeper into the warren of caves. The bright path disappeared around a curve in the cavern wall.
“Amazing,” Sam said.
Ralph spoke at his shoulder. “The other chamber must have been a decoy, a trap protecting what lies ahead.”
Sam stepped forward, tentatively placing a boot on the gold path. “But what have we discovered?”
Maggie moved to his side as Norman snapped a few pictures. “We’ve found a place to rest. And that’s enough for now.”
The others mumbled their agreement, thirst and exhaustion overwhelming wonder and mystery.
Even Sam agreed. The mysteries could wait ‘til morning. Still, as the others moved forward down the curving gold path toward the river, Sam could not help but notice how the shining track bore a distinct resemblance to a winding snake.
A golden serpent.
Henry sat by his computer and watched the on-screen phone connections whir through their internet nodes, the modem buzzing and chiming in sync. “C’mon, Sam, pick up the damn phone,” he muttered to himself. It was at least the tenth time he had tried to reach the camp in Peru.
Various scenarios played in his head—from the mundane, such as a glitch in the site’s satellite feed, to the more frightening scene of an armed attack on the camp by looters. “I should never have left.”
Henry glanced to the clock in the upper right-hand corner of his laptop’s screen. It was after eleven. He took a deep breath, calming his war of nerves. There might even be a simpler reason for the lack of response. Because of the burglary and the ensuing paperwork with hotel security, Henry had been over twenty minutes late in making his call. The students probably gave up on him and were already sound asleep in their bunks.
Still, Henry waited one last time for the line to feed through to Peru. He watched the screen icon appear, indicating the satellite had been reached. The signal leaped for the metal transmitting dish at the Andean site. Henry held his breath. But again the signal died, no connection.
“Damn!” Henry slammed his fist on the desk as the modem switched off. Though there were a thousand other excuses for the lack of connection, Henry knew in his heart something was wrong. A creeping dread. Once before, he had experienced a similar fear, the day his brother Frank—Sam’s dad—had died in the car crash. He recalled that phone call at four in the morning, the cold sensation of terror as he had reached for the receiver. He now felt a similar dread.
Something had happened down in Peru. He just knew it.
Henry reached for the computer once again, but before his hand touched a key, the phone beside the laptop rang loudly, startling him. His heart in his throat, he stared at the receiver, flashing back to that horrible morning years ago. He clenched his fist. “Get ahold of yourself, Henry,” he said, forcing his fingers to relax. Closing his eyes and girding himself, he picked up the phone and raised it to his ear. “Hello?”
A woman’s voice answered. “Henry? It’s Joan.”
Though relieved it was just his colleague, Henry recognized the stress in her voice. This wasn’t a casual call. “Joan, what’s wrong?”
His sudden worry must have caught her off guard. She stuttered for a moment, then spoke. “I… I just thought you should know. I dropped by my office after our date… um, evening together… and discovered someone had tried to break into the morgue where the mummy’s remains are stored. The security guard startled them off, but he was unable to catch them.”
“It’s fine. The thieves never even got through the door.”
“It seems that Herald reporter’s story drew more flies than we suspected.”
“Or maybe the same ones,” Joan added. “Maybe after failing to find anything in your hotel room, they came here next. What did the police say?”
“Not much. They didn’t seem particularly interested since nothing was stolen.”
“Didn’t they dust for prints or anything?”
Henry laughed. “You’ve been watching too many cop shows. The only thing they did was check the tapes from the security cameras in the hallway.”
“No help. The camera lenses had been spray-painted over.”
Joan was silent for several breaths.
“They did the same here. That’s how the guard was alerted. He noticed the blacked-out monitor.”
“So you think it was the same team of thieves?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, hopefully the close call with the security guard will keep them from any further mischief.” But Henry was not convinced.
Joan sighed loudly. “I hope you’re right. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
“It was no bother. I was up.” Henry avoided telling her about his inability to reach Sam. Though it made no sense at all, Henry had a feeling that tonight’s events were somehow intertwined: the burglary at the hotel, the attempted break-in at the morgue, his difficulty in reaching Sam. It was nonsense, of course, but the small hairs on the back of Henry’s neck stood on end.
“I should let you go,” Joan said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Henry frowned in confusion, then remembered his schedule to meet with Joan at the lab. After the night’s hubbub and his nagging worry over his nephew, Henry had momentarily forgotten about the planned rendezvous with Joan. “Yes, of course. I’ll see you then. Good night.” Just before he hung up the phone, he added a quick, “Thanks for calling,” but the phone line was already dead.
Henry slowly hung up the receiver.
He stared at his computer screen, then clicked it off. There was no further reason to keep trying to reach the camp. He knew he would fail. Snapping shut the laptop, he made a whispered promise to himself. “If I can’t reach the camp by tomorrow night, I’m on the first red-eye out of here.” But even that decision did not calm his twanging nerves.