En route from the volcanic caldera, his uncle had used the helicopter’s radio to alert the authorities and to warn the base camp of the erupting volcanoes. Philip had sounded panicked over the radio. It seemed the Quechan Indians were already evacuating. Henry had ordered the Harvard graduate to go with them; their helicopter’s fuel was too low for another landing and takeoff. Almost crying, Philip had begged for rescue, but Henry had been adamant about getting back to Cuzco as soon as possible.
His uncle had then arranged for a change of aircraft at a small commercial airfield near Machu Picchu, hiring the single-engine plane and pilot for the hop to Cuzco.
Still, for all the expedient planning, the flight there had taken almost an entire day.
As the plane shed altitude for its final approach, Sam sat up straighter in the cramped cabin, careful not to disturb Maggie, who leaned on his shoulder, asleep like everyone else on board. Sam envied their ability to rest. Slumber had been impossible for him. His mind still dwelt on the last twenty-four hours.
He had died.
It was a concept that he could not yet fully grasp. As much as he had struggled, he could not recall anything from that missing hour of his life. He recalled no white light nor heavenly choir. All he remembered was blacking out in the field of quinoa, a bullet wound in his chest, then waking atop the gold altar. The rest was a big blank.
Sam frowned. He could not begrudge the fates for this small mental lapse. He was alive—and moreover, he had a gorgeous redheaded Irish archaeologist sleeping beside him. He glanced over and gently fingered a loose curl from Maggie’s face as she slept. He should wake her. They were about to land. But he hated to do it. It was nice to have her this close to him. Even if he was just a convenient pillow. He let his fingers drop from her hair, dismissing any further thoughts. From here, there was no telling where any of them would end up.
The small plane landed with a bump onto the tarmac of the airport.
The jostling and the whine of the hydraulic brakes had the cabin passengers startling awake. Bleary-eyed faces bent to peer out tiny windows.
“We’re already here?” Maggie said, stifling a yawn. “I would swear I just fell asleep.”
Sam rolled his eyes. The flight had been interminable for him. “Yep. Welcome to Cuzco.”
The mumble of the pilot to the tower could be heard as they taxied toward the tiny terminal. Uncle Hank unbuckled from his seat, stretched a kink, and worked his way forward between the press of seats.
More plans and arrangements, Sam thought.
Earlier, Sam had questioned his uncle’s urgency in getting to Cuzco, but Sam had been gently rebuked. When he had tried to persist, Maggie had warned him away with a shake of her head. “Leave him be.”
Sam glanced to Maggie now. She stared at his uncle with pained eyes. What was wrong? What was being left unsaid?
“Who are all those people out there?” Norman asked behind them.
Sam leaned back to the window. Beside the terminal walkway, a small crowd had gathered. Half wore the khaki uniforms of local police, rifles at their shoulders. A few news cameras were carried on other shoulders, microphones ready. The others were a mixture of locals and men wearing suits too warm for the climate. These last had the stamp of government officials.
It seemed his uncle’s calls had stirred up a hornet’s nest of activity.
The plane pulled near, and the pilot unhooked himself from the cockpit, then crossed to the door. Henry bent his head in discussion with the pilot, then the slender fellow cranked the door open and kicked the latch to release the stairs.
Even from here, Sam heard the machine-gun clicks of camera shutters and the chatter of voices.
His uncle paused at the opening and turned back to them. “Time to face the press, folks. Remember what we discussed… how to answer any questions for now.”
“No comment,” Norman quipped.
“Sin comentario,” Denal echoed in Spanish.
“Exactly,” Henry said. “Until we get things cleared up, we speak only to those in authority.”
Nods passed all around. Especially Sam. He had no desire to discuss his resurrection with the international press.
“Then let’s go.” Henry bowed his head, and the others all followed.
As Henry stepped from the plane, he winced. Even in the brightness of the afternoon, the splash of video lights and the strobe of flashbulbs were near blinding. Voices called to them: English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. The throng was held in check by a line of police.
Henry stumbled forward, eyes searching the crowd. Joan. A part of him had secretly hoped his frantic call to the authorities in Cuzco might have been in time. He had only heard scraps of reports over the radio during the flight there, but they had been sketchy: the military raid on the Abbey, followed by an intense firefight. Many had died, but the details afterward were muddled.
Henry held his hands in clenched fists as he crossed the tarmac. He continued to scan the crowd of reporters, government officials, and onlookers. Not one familiar face.
Henry forced back tears. Please. Not again. As he searched futilely for Joan, an ache grew in his chest, a burn of bile and guilt. It was a familiar pain. He had felt it before—when Elizabeth had died. He had thought he had reconciled his wife’s death long ago, but his fear for Joan had awakened it all again. In truth, it had never gone away. He had just walled it off, cemented and bricked it over with his need to care for Sam.
But what now?
His heart was ash and cinder.
Joan was not there.
A man in a conservative grey suit stepped forward, blocking his view, hand held out. “Professor Conklin, I am Edward Gerant, protocol officer with the U.S. embassy. We have much to discuss.”
Henry forced his fist to relax and raised his hand.
Then a voice rose from the throng, cutting through the background chatter: “Henry?”
Edward Gerant reached for the professor’s hand, but Henry pulled away, stepping to the side. He saw a slender figure push through the barricade of police.
Henry’s voice cracked. “Joan…?”
She smiled and approached, slowly at first, then as tears flowed, more hurriedly. Henry met her with open arms. They fell into each other, lost in their embrace. Never thinking to feel such joy again Henry murmured, “Oh, God, Joan… I thought you had been killed. But I had prayed… hoped…”
“Uncle Hank?” a voice said behind him. It was Sam. His nephew knew nothing about Joan. Henry had been too guilty to discuss aloud the choice he’d been forced to make earlier. Guilt and fear had kept him silent until he could discover Joan’s fate himself.
As Sam came up to them, Joan and Henry pulled slightly apart, but Henry would not take his eyes from her… never again. Without turning away, he introduced his nephew to Dr. Joan Engel. She smiled warmly and gripped Sam’s hand. Once they had shaken hands, Henry again laid claim to her palm. “But what about you?” Henry asked. “What happened?”
Joan’s smile faded a few degrees. “I escaped just as the police raid began. And lucky I did. As the authorities breached the Abbey, the monks triggered a fail-safe mechanism built into their laboratory. The entire facility was incinerated, including the vault of el Sangre.” She pointed toward the distant horizon.
Henry stared along with Sam. Smoke as thick as that of another volcano climbed into the sky.
“The resulting explosion took out the entire Abbey. It’s still smoldering. All that remains are the Incan ruins beneath.”
“Amazing,” Sam commented.
Henry leaned closer to Joan. “But thank God, you escaped. I don’t know if I could have lived with—”
Joan snuggled into his embrace. “I’m not going anywhere, Henry. You drifted away from me once in my life. I won’t let that happen again.”
Henry grinned and tugged her tighter to him. “Neither will I.”
Sam stepped away, smiling sadly, giving them their privacy. He had never seen his uncle lose himself so fully in someone else—and clearly the feeling was mutual. While he was happy for his uncle, Sam felt oddly hollow as he backed away from the couple.
Nearby, Norman was talking to the jilted embassy official, relating some part of their story. The photographer’s boyish laugh carried far over the tarmac. To the side, Denal hung in Norman’s shadow. Norman had offered to sponsor the boy as an intern for the National Geographic–and with the death of his mother, Denal had nothing holding him here but a life of poverty. The two had already made plans to return to New York together.
Across the tarmac, cameras continued to flash.
Sam wandered farther back, near the wing of the plane, away from the crowds. He needed a moment to think. Ever since his folks had died, he and Uncle Hank had been inseparable. Their grief had forged bonds that had tied their two hearts together, allowing no one else inside. Sam glanced over to his uncle. That is, until now.
And Sam was not sure how he felt about it. Too much had happened. He felt unfettered, loosed from a mooring that had kept him safe. Adrift. Old memories intruded: the screech of tires, crumpled metal, breaking glass, sirens, his mother, one arm dangling, being hauled from the wreckage on an ambulance’s backboard.
Tears suddenly sprang up in his eyes. Why was he dredging all this up now? He could not stop his tears.
Then he sensed a presence behind him.
He turned. Maggie stood there, staring up at him.
Where he expected ridicule or some scathing retort at his reaction, he found only concern. One of the paramedics had given her a bright yellow rescue blanket. Maggie stood wrapped in it against the cool afternoon breeze. She spoke softly. “It’s your uncle and that woman, isn’t it? You feel like you’re losing him.”
He smiled at her and wiped roughly at his eyes. “I know it’s stupid,” he said, his throat constricted. “But it’s not just Uncle Hank. It’s more than that. It’s also my parents, it’s Ralph… it’s everything death steals.”
Sam struggled to put into words what he was feeling, staring up at the sky. He needed someone to listen. “Why was I allowed to live?” He waved an arm toward the distant Andes. “Up there… and back with my parents in the car wreck…”