Life blood, p.19
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       Life Blood, p.19

          
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  Chapter Nineteen

  "What did he say?" I asked, not quite catching the burst of rapid-fireSpanish from the cockpit. The explosion of expletives had included theword _navegacion_. Something about malfunction.

  God help us.

  Alan Dupre's helicopter reminded me of the disintegrating taxis onGuatemala City's potholed streets. The vibration in the passengercompartment was so violent it made my teeth chatter. My stomach feltlike it was in a cocktail shaker, and the deafening roar could havebeen the voice of Hell.

  I was staring out the smudgy plastic window, where less than threehundred meters below I could just make out the top of the Peten rainforest of northwest Guatemala sweeping by beneath us. So this was whatit looked like. Dense and impenetrable, it was a yawning, deciduouscarpet enveloping the earth as far as the eye could see--if somethingten stories high could be called carpet. I'd been in the forests ofIndia's Kerala and seen some of the denser growth in southern Mexico,but this was like another planet.

  The main problem was, a violent downpour, the leading edge of thehurricane, was now sweeping across the Yucatan, stirring up thetreetops of the jungles below. The rain, which had begun in earnestabout ten minutes after we got airborne, had been steadily increasingto the point it was now almost blinding.

  This was the risk I'd chosen to take, but let me admit right here: Theweather had me seriously scared, my fingernails digging into thearmrests and my pulse erratic. And now was there something else? We'donly been in the air for thirty-five minutes, and already we had somekind of mechanical issue looming? What was left to go wrong?

  "Some of the lights went out or something." Dupre tried a shrug. "I'mnot sure. No big deal, though. This old bird always gets the job done."His pilot, Lieutenant Villatoro, formerly of the Guatemalan Army, hadjust shouted the new development back to the cabin. "Probably nothing.Don't worry about it."

  Don't worry about it! His "tourist" helicopter was a Guatemalancandidate for the Air & Space Museum, an old Bell UH-1D patchedtogether with chicle and corn masa. Surely the storm was pushing it farbeyond its stress limits.

  "Right, but what exactly--?"

  "Sounds like the nav station." He clicked open his seat belt."Something . . . Who knows? If you'd be happier, I'll go up and look."

  I felt my palms go cold. "Doesn't seem too much to ask, considering."

  The world down below us was a hostile melange of towering trees, allstraining for the sky, while the ground itself was a dark tangle offerns, lianas, strangler vines, creepers--among which lurked Olympicscorpions and some of the Earth's most poisonous snakes. If we had toset down here--I didn't even want to think about it. To lower ahelicopter into the waves of flickering green below us would be toconfront the hereafter.

  "It's just the lights, like he said." Dupre yelled back from thecockpit's door, letting a tone of "I told you to chill out" seepthrough. He was peering past the opening, at the long line ofinstruments. He followed his announcement with a sigh as he moved backinto the main cabin. "Relax."

  I wasn't relaxed and from the way his eyes were shifting and hisGauloise cigarettes were being chain-smoked he was on the verge of anervous breakdown. In his case it wasn't just the weather. He wasfidgeting like a trapped animal, giving me the distinct sense he wasdoing someone's invisible bidding and was terrified he might fail.

  "Well, why don't you try and fix it?" Was he trying to act calm just toimpress me? "Can't you bang on the panel or something?"

  "Okay, okay, let me see what I can do. Jesus!" He edged back into thecockpit, next to Villatoro. The wind was shaking us so badly that, evenbent over, he was having trouble keeping his balance. Then hehalfheartedly slammed the dark instrument readouts with the heel of hisopen hand. When the effort produced no immediate electronic miracle, hesettled into the copilot's seat.

  "_Que pasa_? " he yelled at Villatoro, his voice barely audible overthe roar of the engine and the plastering of rain on the fuselage. Thenhe looked out the windscreen, at the torrent slamming against it, andrubbed at his chin.

  "_No se, mi comandante_," the Guatemalan shouted back. I sensed he washoping to sound efficient and unperturbed. Dupre claimed his pilot hadpersonally checked out the Bell and prepped it. Now, though . . ."_Mira_. Like I said the lights. On the nav station. Maybe theelectrical--"

  "How about the backup battery?" Dupre was just barely keeping his cool.

  Villatoro scratched his chin. "I'll tell you the truth. The backup is_muerto_. I tested it before we left, but I couldn't find anyreplacements in Provisiones. I figure, no problem, but now, amigo . . ."

  I felt another wave of dismay, right into my churning stomach.

  "Well, keep your heading north." Dupre's voice was coming from a placeof extreme pain. "And if you sight the Rio Tigre, then _Baalum_ orwhatever should be more or less due west, according to what I'massuming. Just keep your eyes open." He paused. "Problem is, with allthis rain, the river's going to be tough to make out."

  I redoubled my efforts to peer out the window, searching, my breathcoming in bursts. Still nothing. Dear God, what now?

  Finally Dupre headed back, bracing himself against the firewall as hecrouched and passed through the door into the main cabin. When hesettled into the seat across from me, he was glaring at me as thougheverything was my fault. "You know." He was yelling again. "I'mbeginning to think maybe we ought to try to find a clearing and justsit out this crap till morning." He leaned over and peered down throughthe Bell's spattered side windows at the dense tangle of growth below.After a moment he got up and once more moved the toward the cockpit,still with the same troubled look. This time, however, he was beamingas he shouted back.

  "There may be a God after all. I think we just intersected the RioTigre. We can bear due west now, along the river. We could be gettingclose, if it's where I think it is."

  I turned and stared down again, barely making out the thread of thestream through the rain. Yes! Maybe there's hope. Still, below us thewindblown treetops were a solid mass of pastel sparkles, a dancing seaof hungry green . . . But then I thought I saw something. Hey! It mighteven be a clearing. I quickly unbuckled and made my way up to thecockpit, hanging on to anything I could grasp.

  "Alan, look," I yelled, and pointed off to the side, out

  through the rain-obscured windscreen. "I think we just passed oversomething. Back there. See?"

  "Where?" He squinted.

  "You can still just make it out." I twisted and kept pointing. I wasbiting my lip, trying to hold together. "There . . . it looks like somekind of clearing. Maybe . . . I don't know, but what if we just setdown there and let this storm blow over?"

  He ordered Villatoro to bank and go back for a look. A few momentslater it was obvious there was an opening in the trees.

  "Yeah, let's check it out." He then said something to Villatoro and westarted easing toward it, definitely a wide opening. The billowingocean of trees below us seemed to be parting like the Red Sea as wesettled in. There had to be solid ground down there somewhere. Had tobe.

  "What's . . ." I was pointing. "There, over to the side, it's a kind ofhill or something. It's--"

  "Where?" Dupre squinted again, his voice starting to crack. Then hefocused in. "Yeah, maybe there's something there. Hard to tell what itis, though. But I guess we're about to find out."

  He gestured to the lieutenant, barking an order in quick Spanish. Whilethe Bell kept moving lower through the opening, Dupre flicked on thelanding lights, and appeared to be muttering a prayer of thanks.

  I was staring out, growing ever more puzzled. A "hill" was there, allright. The problem was, it was definitely man-made, topped by a stonebuilding. I could just make it out in the glare of the lights.

  "What do you think that is?"

  "What do I think?" Dupre studied the scene for a moment longer, andthen his face melted into the first smile I'd seen since we left. "Ithink we are lucky beyond belief. God help us, we may have found it.That could be the damned pyramid or whatever's supposed to be up here."He leaned back. "Yeah, congratulations. Look at that damned thing.Either this is the place, or we're about to become the archaeologistsof the year. Cover of _Time_. The Nobel frigging Prize."

  At that moment I almost wanted to hug Alan Dupre, but not quite.Instead I moved farther into the cockpit, trying to get a look out thewindscreen. By then we had lowered well through the opening in thetrees, the helicopter's controls fighting against the blowing rain, andit felt as though we'd begun descending into the ocean's depths in adiving bell, surrounded by thrashing, wind-whipped branches.

  Now, though, I was staring at the ghostly rise of the pyramid emergingout of the rain.

  "It looks brand new."

  "Yeah, the whole place is 'Jungle Disneyland' remember? Except thisdeal ain't about Mickey Mouse, believe me. There's plenty of Armyhanging out around here."

  Lieutenant Villatoro took us ever lower, gently guiding the chopper'sdescent, and now we were only a few feet above the ground. Therecertainly was no mistaking what was around us, even with the blowingrain. The pyramid loomed over one side of a large plaza, a big pavedarea that was mostly obscured from the skies since the swaying treesarched over and covered it from aerial view.

  "Okay, we're about to touch down." Dupre was clawing at his pocket,yearning for a cigarette. "So if you still want to get out, move overby the door. I'll disengage the main rotor once we're on the ground."

  As we settled in, the rotor began to cause surface effect, throwing aspray off the paving stones, which now glistened under the cold beam ofthe landing lights. And looming above us, off to the right, was astepped pyramid in the classic Mayan style. We all lapsed into silenceas the Bell's skids thumped onto the stones. The ex-Army pilot,Villatoro, kept glancing over at the pyramid as though he didn't wantto admit even seeing it. Did he know something Alan and I didn't?

  This was the moment I'd been bracing for. I was increasingly convincedsomebody wanted me to see this place, whatever it was, but now whatshould I do?

  Well, the first thing was to dip my toe in the water, do a quickreconnoiter on the ground. If this really was _Baalum_, Dupre's MayaDisneyland, could it also be part of Alex Goddard's clinic of"miracles," the location Sarah called Ninos del Mundo? If I knew thatfor sure, then I could start figuring how to find out if she washere--as I suspected--and get her out of his clutches. Maybe thesee-no-evil embassy might even be prodded into helping an Americancitizen for a change.

  "I'm getting out, to look around a little, but not till you turn offthe engine. I want to be able to use my ears."

  "All right, but don't take all day. This kind of weather, I want tokeep it warm." He turned to Villatoro and shouted the order. In thesheets of pounding rain, I figured that no one could have heard us comein. That, at least, was positive.

  When the rpm's of the engine had died away, I clicked open the Bell'swide door, slid it back, and looked around. In the glare of the landinglights I realized at once that the stones were old, weathered, andworn, but the grout that sealed them was white and brand new. The plazawas free of moss, clean as the day it was done--which did not appear tobe all that long ago. Above me, the pyramid, continuous recessed tiersof glistening stones, towered into the dim skyline of trees.

  I stepped out onto the pavement, holding my breath. The plaza wasalmost football-field in size, reminding me of an Italian piazza.Around me the rain was lessening slightly, and as my eyes adjusted . .. my God. There wasn't just a pyramid here; through the sparkle ofraindrops at the edge of the helicopter's lights I could see whatlooked like a wide cobblestone walkway leading into the dense growthjust off the edge of the square, probably toward the south, away fromthe river, connecting the plaza with distant groups of small,thatch-roofed houses, set in clusters. . . .

  Could Alex Goddard's "miracle" clinic be in some collection ofprimitive huts? It made no sense.

  But I decided to try to get a closer look. I'd walked about thirty feetaway from the helicopter, across the slippery paving, when I saw aflash of lightning in the southeast, followed by a boom of thunder thatechoed over the square.

  At least I thought it was thunder. Or maybe the Army was holding heavyartillery practice somewhere nearby. Abruptly the rain turned into arenewed torrent, and the next thing I heard was the helicopter's enginestart up again. Then I sensed the main rotor engage, a sudden "whoom,whoom, whoom" quickly spiraling upward in frequency.

  Hey! I told him not to--!

  When I looked back at the Bell's open door, Dupre was standing there,frantically searching the dark as he heaved out my tan backback andwhat looked like a rolled-up sleeping bag, both splashing down onto therain-soaked paving.

  What! For a moment I thought the thunder, or whatever it was, must havecompletely freaked him. Then what was actually happening hit me with ahorrifying impact.

  "Alan, wait!"

  I started dashing back, but now the main rotor was creating a powerfuldowndraft, throwing the rain into me like a monsoon. By the time Imanaged to fight my way through the spray, the rotor was on full powerand Alan Dupre and his Bell were already lifting off. I reached up, andjust managed to brush one greasy skid as he churned away straightupward into the rainy night.

  "You shit!" I yelled up, but my final farewell was lost in the whine ofthe engine. My God, I thought, watching him disappear, I've just beenabandoned hundreds of miles deep in a Central American rain forest.

  Then it all sank in. Whoever had gotten to him was playing a roughgame. They didn't want me just to see _Baalum_, they wanted medelivered here. Probably to secure me in the same place Sarah was.Colonel Ramos, or whoever had frightened Dupre into bringing me, hadwanted us both. So what now? Were we both going to be "disappeared"?Staring around at the pyramid and the empty square, I could feel myheart pounding.

  Then I tripped over the rolled sleeping bag and sank to my knees therein the middle of the rain-swept plaza, soaked to the skin and so angryI was actually trembling. Up above me, Alan Dupre, king of two-timers,had switched off his landing lights, and a few moments later the hum ofthe Bell was swallowed by the night sounds of the forest--thehigh-pitched din of crickets, the piercing call of night birds, thebasso groan of frogs celebrating the storm.

  And something else, an eerie sense of the unnatural. I can't explainit. Even the night songs of the birds felt ominous, the primeval forestreasserting its will. It was haunting, like nature's mockery of mydesolation. I pounded the sleeping bag and felt . . . shit, how did Ilet this happen?

  Get a grip. I finally stood up and looked around. Maybe when God wantsto do you up right, She gives you what you want. You used Alan Duprejust like you intended: He got you here. But there's more to the planof whoever's holding his puppet strings. So the thing now is, don't letyourself be manipulated any more. Get off your soggy butt and starttaking control of the situation. . . .

  That was when I sighted a white form at the south, forested edge of theplaza. What! I ducked down, sure it was somebody lurking there, waitingto try to beat me to death as they had Sarah. Did Ramos intend to justmurder me immediately?

  But there was no getting away. If I could see them, they surely couldsee me. And where would I escape to anyway?

  I dug my yellow plastic flashlight out of my backpack and my handshaking, flicked it on. The beam, however, was just swallowed up in therain. All right. I strapped on the pack and taking a deep breath, threwthe rolled sleeping bag over my shoulder and headed across the slipperypaving toward the white, which now glistened in the periodic sheets ofdistant lightning.

  Meet them straight on. Try and bluff.

  When I got closer, though, I realized what I was seeing was actuallyjust the skin of a jaguar, bleached white, the head still on, fearsometeeth bared which had been hung beside the paved pathway. Thank God.

  But then, playing my light over it, I thought, Bad sign. My firstencounter at _Baalum_ is with a spooky, dead cat. It felt like achilling omen of . . . I wasn't sure what.

  I studied it a moment longer with my flashlight, shivering, then turnedand headed quickly across the plaza toward the pyramid now barelyvisible in the rain. If there were jaguars, or God knows what else,around I figured I'd be safer up at the top.

  When I reached the base and shined my light up the steps, I saw theywere steeper than I'd thought, but they also looked to be part of somemeticulous restoration and brand-new, probably safe to climb. And thereat the top was a stone hut, complete with what appeared to be a roof.Good. If there hadn't been anything taller than it around I think Imight have just climbed a tree.

  On the way up I began trying to digest what the place really was. Thepyramid was "fake". . . or was it? A hundred years ago the eccentricBrit archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans whimsically "reconstructed" thePalace of Minos on Crete with his own money, and it's still a touristhighlight. So why couldn't somebody do the same with a reclaimed Mayanpyramid in Central America? Still, this was different, had the feel ofbeing somebody's crazed obsession.

  As I topped the steps, I realized the building that crowned the pyramidwas also a "restoration" like everything else, including a decoratedwooden lintel above the door that looked to be newly lacquered. Bizarre.

  I moved through the door and unloaded my gear, then extracted my waterbottle, now half-empty, for a pull. Finally I unrolled Alan Dupre'ssleeping bag on the (dry) stone floor, removed and spread out my wetclothes, peed off the edge, then took a new pair of underpants, jeans,and shirt out of my backpack, donned them, and uneasily crawled in. Iwas shivering--whether from the soaking rain or from fright, I didn'tknow--and my teeth were trying to chatter. Was I hidden away enough tobe safe? I didn't know. All I did know was, I was in something deeperthan I'd ever been in my life, and I had no idea how I was going to getout. And I was both scared to death and angry as hell.

  Sarah was here, though, I was certain. Like a sixth sense, I could feelher presence, out there somewhere in the rain. For a moment I wastempted to just plunge into the storm looking for her, but a splitsecond's reflection told me that was the stupidest thing I could do.Instead, I should try and get some rest, till the storm cleared, andkeep periodic watch on the plaza in case somebody showed up. Then, theminute there was light, I'd hit the ground and go find her.

  I suppose nothing ever happens the way you plan. My mind was racing andmy nerves were in the red, but I was so exhausted from theteeth-rattling trip in the Bell I couldn't really stay alert very long.In spite of myself, I eventually drifted off into a dreamless doze, avictim of the narcotic song of wind in the giant Cebia trees and theinsistent drumming of forest rain on the roof.

 
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