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       Beautiful Sacrifice: A Novel, p.1

           Elizabeth Lowell
Beautiful Sacrifice: A Novel

  Beautiful Sacrifice

  Elizabeth Lowell


  For Matt and Heather,

  who never cease to amaze and please me



  If the covenant be kept on the night of December 21, 2012, then the Great Wheel shall grind the old world to dust, Kukulcán shall blow it beyond the Bacabs, and the followers of Kawa’il will rule in the Age of Kings.




  Title Page



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Author’s Note

  About the Author

  Also by Elizabeth Lowell



  About the Publisher



  Good, she thought in relief. Nearly empty. I can park close to the back entrance. Thank God for winter break.

  In a gesture that had become automatic over the past few months, Lina checked around the area before she turned off her little Civic. Nobody was paying any attention to her. There was no reason for the back of her neck to tingle in primal warning.

  Yet it did.

  Just before she opened the locked doors, her cell phone rang. The tone told her that it was her mother, Cecilia Reyes Balam—Celia to her friends, business associates, and family.

  Is she calling for family or business? Lina wondered, hesitating. Some of both, probably. No doubt my great-grandmother is talking about a bad heart and a great-granddaughter who doesn’t visit often enough and should be long married, hip-deep in children.

  It would be Celia, her mother, who carried the complaint. Celia orbited between family and business like a planet with two suns. Lina wished she could handle the balancing act with half of her mother’s grace. Lina was more like her father, an academic with a deep love of working in the field, discovering ancient cities and temples a single brushstroke at a time. Yet it was being one of the public faces of the Museum of the Maya that paid Lina’s salary, not working on the isolated Yucatan digs she loved.

  For the third time, Lina’s cell phone burbled out its merry little jingle, a hot salsa beat. She thought about letting the call go to voice mail, but decided against it. If Celia wanted to talk to her daughter, she’d track her down in person. With a glance at her watch—plenty of time before she had to teach class—she opened the cell phone.

  “Morning, Celia. Are you in town?” Lina asked.

  “Not unless I have to be.”

  “Is everything all right with the family?”

  “Abuelita complains of her heart,” Celia said. “She calls me daily, asking when you will visit. So does mi primo.”

  “Your cousin Carlos has always done whatever Abuelita wants.”

  “Do not disrespect him,” Celia said. “Without Carlos, you would not be surrounded by the artifacts you love more than anything else.”

  Oh, I don’t know, Lina thought. Hunter Johnston might give the artifacts some real competition…if he ever stayed put.

  Guiltily she yanked her attention back to her mother. “No disrespect intended. I don’t know Carlos as well as you do.”

  “You do not see him enough.”

  Lina couldn’t argue that. Growing up, she had never felt close to her mother’s cousin Carlos. She felt no need to pretend closeness now, despite his recent, repeated invitations to confer with him about Reyes Balam artifacts, and how they might be used to celebrate the coming baktun in a worthy way. The Turning of the Wheel of time was a great celebration among the Maya in general and her great-grandmother in particular.

  If Carlos wants help decorating for the baktun, let him go to Philip. Neither one of them has asked me for so much as a nod in the past.

  No matter how hard she had tried to please her father, she’d never managed that feat.

  “What’s up?” Lina asked, ignoring the past and its disappointments.

  “Was there anything good in the Belize shipment Philip sent? The market is humming with rumors.”

  “Define ‘good.’”

  “Worth a great deal of money at auction, what else?”

  Lina winced. “Please, Celia. Someone could overhear and misunderstand you. After the scandal—”

  “You and Philip,” Celia interrupted, “always harping on what turned out to be nothing.”

  After many thousands spent to grease bureaucratic wheels, Lina thought, and academic reputations ruined. Philip’s and mine. It didn’t do the family export-import business any favors either.

  “Sorry,” Lina said, trying to get the conversation back on track.

  “Yes, yes,” Celia cut in. “You have a reputation to maintain. I understand. So long as Philip keeps discovering artifacts on our land and the Reyes Balam family keeps ‘donating’ some of the artifacts to the Museum of the Maya—and a lot more to Mexican museums—you have nothing to worry about.”

  “Philip also supplies you with artifacts for your export-import business.” Lina’s voice was mild, though she knew trying to bridge the gap between her parents was useless.

  Her parents might still be married, but they lived separately because they fought constantly.

  “Each artifact I receive is thoroughly documented, with proper export papers, and all fees and taxes duly paid,” Celia said as though reciting from memory. “What other shipments have you received in the last few weeks?”

  “It would be faster if you tell me what you’re looking for. Then I can tell you if I have it.”

  “There are rumors. Many rumors.”

  Lina waited.

  “The rumors whisper of an obsidian mask carved from a single piece of stone, a god bundle never opened, a sacred scepter with obsidian teeth, a foot-long jade Chacmool, an exquisitely made obsidian knife created solely to let the blood of kings. Even an unknown codex. All and more, of the very highest quality, appearing and then disappearing again, like ghost smoke.”

  Mind ablaze with possibilities, Lina could hardly speak.

  “Separate artifacts?” she managed finally.



  Celia laughed. “Not impossible. But very, very expensive. You’ve heard nothing?”

  “No. Even one of those artifacts would create a sensation in the archaeological world. All of them together? A dream. Just a dream.”

  “If you hear of anything, you will call, yes?”

  “Call? I’d scream it from the rooftops.”

  “No! You would keep it very, very quiet and call me.”

  For a moment Lina didn’t say anything. She was remembering the feeling of being watched. Followed. Perhaps her mother wasn’t the only one who thought Lina had an entrée to some incredible black-market Maya finds.

  “I’ll show
you everything in the museum,” Lina said. “You’ll see that there’s nothing like what you’ve described. Please tell everyone you know.”

  “Nothing at all?”

  “Not one thing,” Lina said distinctly.

  “Then I won’t waste any more time. I have other sources to check, but you were my best hope. Promise you won’t miss Abuelita’s birthday. Only a few days.”



  “Yes, I’ll be there,” Lina said. “I can’t stay long because I have a lot of work to—”

  “So do I,” Celia interrupted. “Good-bye, see you soon.”

  The line went dead.

  Lina laughed in the empty car. Celia in pursuit of exceptional artifacts was a force of nature.

  After a glance around the parking lot—still alone—Lina popped the locks and got out of the car. Beginning a class at seven in the morning wasn’t Lina’s first choice, but many of her students worked for a living. The museum scheduled its classes accordingly.

  Lina locked the car and headed quickly for the staff entrance. As she walked, she looked over her shoulder.


  There was nothing to see in the shadows and early sunlight, no visible reason for the haunted, hunted feeling that made the skin on the back of her neck prickle. There was no one behind her, no one on either side, nothing but a hot, lazy wind stirred on the grounds.

  Maybe I’m getting paranoid, like my father.

  But Lina didn’t feel crazy. She felt watched.

  Hurriedly she entered the code on the electronic pad beside the staff door. It clicked open, a loud sound in the hushed acreage surrounding the museum’s ziggurat building. Such land was very expensive in metropolitan Houston, but the Reyes Balam family was nothing if not smart about where to put its money for maximum business impact.

  She walked quickly through the open door and closed it firmly behind her. The second security door ahead of her was heavy glass, reflecting a young woman of medium height, dark hair, large dark eyes, full lips, and a black silk business suit that struggled to hide her curves.

  Lina barely noticed her reflection. She had accepted long ago that she would never be tall, skinny, and blond. She punched in a different sequence on the number pad beside the glass door. It opened softly, closed with a solid sound behind her.

  Slowly she let out a long breath. She didn’t feel as watched now. Or maybe it was just the two security doors between her and the city outside.

  The inside air was cool, dry, comfortable for humans, and excellent for the artifacts that were the heart and soul of the museum. She glanced at her watch. She would be barely on time. She hurried toward the small wing that held meeting rooms and a cramped lecture hall.

  She told herself that her bubbling impatience had nothing to do with the chance of seeing Hunter Johnston again, then admitted that it had everything to do with hurrying. The man was both fascinating and exasperating. In the past few months they had talked after her classes—when he managed to show up—occasionally shared coffee, and circled each other with equal parts desire and wariness.

  Then two weeks ago Hunter had disappeared. He’d missed classes before, but not for so long a stretch. Maybe he’d tired of the subject matter. Or her.

  She shook her head and told herself that Hunter didn’t matter. She had a class to teach. She was down to the homestretch, racing toward the coffee and time off waiting at the finish line.



  Frowning, ignoring the fatigue that kept dragging at the edges of his vision, Hunter Johnston listened to the message. He had known Jase for a lifetime, yet he’d never heard quite that sound from his friend. He prayed it didn’t have anything to do with Jase’s wife or kids. Especially his children. Kids were so innocent, so fragile.

  The thought made Hunter open the apartment window with a vicious snap. It was the eighteenth of December, and Houston had to be seventy-five degrees already in the simmering morning. Summer simply hadn’t given up.

  Better than the Yucatan, he told himself. No one shooting at me.

  Hot air bathed him, bringing with it the smell of the city—gas, diesel, asphalt, concrete, dust, a whiff of stuffed Dumpster, and dueling Mexican and Chinese take-out joints. Hunter preferred the mixture of odors to his stale apartment and food that had been forgotten in his rush to get to Mexico in time to keep a young woman from being bought and sold like tamales on a dirty street corner.

  A world away from Dr. Lina Taylor’s safe, well-lighted classroom.

  Dream on, fool, Hunter told himself. I had to run out on our last sort-of coffee date. I’ll be lucky if she speaks to me.

  Business and apartment lights glimmered against the hazy sky. Across the city avenue, Jase’s apartment already had the windows open and the blinds lifted to catch every breeze. A woman’s silhouette paced past one window, holding an arm-waving toddler. Ali, Jason’s high-school sweetheart and his wife, mother of his children.

  Hunter both envied and feared what Jason had. The pain of losing what had once been part of his soul would always haunt him.

  In the faint breeze, the gauzy privacy curtains by Hunter’s face did a shy and languid dance, like the last girl watching the last boy from across the gymnasium, that tantalizing moment of will I or won’t I?

  He’d met Suzanne’s mother on a day like this. Seven years after that day, both mother and daughter were dead.

  Get past it. The world sure has.

  It had ended almost eight years ago, and it still cut like broken glass.

  The breeze danced over Hunter like laughter, like memories, burning. He slammed the window down. The curtains hung, lifeless. No more dance, no more shyness.

  No more.

  He picked up his cell phone and punched in a text message to Jase. Border Patrol types stuck together, even when it was officially called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even though Hunter had quit years ago. He hadn’t liked having his hands tied by orders from on high while the bad guys ran free. ICE’s ropes were covered in velvet benefits, but they still cut his wrists after a while.

  Are your wrists bleeding, Jase?

  Somebody knocked on the apartment door. Hard. Jase’s voice came in, low and urgent.

  “Hunter, you in there? I saw lights.”

  Three long strides took Hunter to the door. When he opened it, Jase stood there, a thick manila envelope under his left arm. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, his feet in worn leather sandals, his thick, short hair standing on end. His broad face looked tired. From the amount of dark stubble on his jaw, it had been at least a week since his last shave.

  “Hey, bro,” Hunter said, grabbing him. “I was just texting you. I’ve been in the Yucatan for two weeks.”

  Grinning, Jase stepped into the one-armed hug and mutual back whacking. “Figured that. Haven’t seen the blinds open until a few minutes ago.”

  “Ali and the kids okay?”

  “Colds, spit-ups, Christmas gotta-haves—the usual.”

  Hunter let out a silent sigh of relief. The kids were okay. Anything else that was wrong could be dealt with. He motioned Jase in and shut the door behind him.

  “You home for a while?” Jase asked.

  “Until the phone rings. The family business is exploding like popcorn. All the narco violence has people on both sides of the border checking under the beds.”

  “I don’t blame them.” Jase threw his manila envelope on the kitchen counter. “The crap going down now has to be seen to be believed.”

  “That why you need me?”

  Jase’s smile faded and his face looked years older than thirty-four. “They’re going to fire me on the twenty-second. Merry Christmas, mope.”

  Hunter went still. “What the hell?”

  “Some stuff went missing from ICE’s warehouse. You know what that place is like—lockers crammed to the ceiling with guns and goodies, drugs and money.”

  “Brubaker thi
nks you’re selling drugs out of evidence lockers?” Hunter asked, not hiding his shock.

  “No.” Jase sighed, poured himself some coffee, and took it to the small café table. He slumped into one of the two mismatched chairs. “I’ve never flipped an investigation or taken a drop of all that black money pouring through our hands and he knows it. But if I don’t find this missing stuff before the twenty-first, I’ll be cleaning bathrooms at Mamacita’s. With my tongue.”

  “Three days?” Hunter demanded, unbelieving.

  Jase nodded. He was counting down the minutes. Hell, the seconds.

  “What went missing?” Hunter asked. “Guns?”

  “Maya stuff. Or Aztec. Or what’s that early one?”

  “Moche? Olmec? Mixtec?”

  “Whatever. I don’t know diddly or squat about that stuff. That’s why I need you.” Suddenly Jase put his face in his hands. “Ali told me she’s pregnant. I was grinning at the moon. Then this. I don’t know what to tell her. It’s not like the missing stuff is gold or coke or anything, but Brubaker’s dick is in a knot and it all has to do with politics. How do you explain politics to a pregnant mother with children to feed and a husband who’s about to get sacked?”

  And I’m your Hail Mary option, Hunter thought unhappily. Damn, Jase, no wonder you’re halfway to panic.

  Hunter took the remaining chair at the tiny kitchen table. Their knees knocked. The men automatically shifted to make room. They had been raised around small tables in small kitchens.

  “Walk me through it,” Hunter said. “How did ICE come across the artifacts?”

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