Danielle Laidlaw sat alone on the terrace of a small café overlooking the great river. In the heat-induced calm of a sweltering afternoon she watched the sun paint traces of gold on the river’s surface. It was a mesmerizing and hypnotic sight, and one she’d gazed at for too long.
She turned her attention to the café, looking past the tables and their bright yellow umbrellas to what she could see of the café’s interior. In the heat of the afternoon the place was all but empty. Certainly there was no sign of the man she was waiting on, a man who was running atypically late.
With quick hands, she retrieved her BlackBerry, checked for any messages and then typed a none-too-subtle text. It read: Where the hell are you?
Before she could press send, she caught sight of him, speaking to a waiter in the café’s foyer.
She spotted his silver hair first, and then his craggy face as he turned in her direction. He walked toward her, as nattily dressed as always, today in dark slacks, a button-down shirt and a navy blue dinner jacket. She wondered how he could wear such clothes in the heat of central Brazil, but then Arnold Moore didn’t do compromise very well, not even with the vagaries of nature.
“You’re late,” she said. “Did you have trouble finding this place?”
He pursed his lips as if the suggestion itself was ludicrous. “Of course not,” he said. “I simply asked where one might find a brooding, dark-haired woman angrily checking her BlackBerry a hundred times a minute. Surprisingly, only seven different people pointed me in your direction.”
As she smiled at his barb, Danielle sensed the eyes of the waitstaff upon them. It happened more often than not. She was thirty-one, tall and fit with high cheekbones and glossy chestnut hair, and he was twice her age, gray and refined, almost continental in his bearing. People who saw them together commonly gawked, assuming her to be his mistress or trophy wife or perhaps, less cynically, a niece or daughter. The truth would have surprised them: she was his partner, his protégé and one of the few people in the world he actually trusted.
As ranking field operatives for an American organization known as the National Research Institute, Danielle Laidlaw and Arnold Moore had traveled much of the globe together. In just the prior year they’d spent time in eleven countries, studying everything from oil field resuscitation in the Baltics to nano-tube production in Tokyo. They’d even been to Venice as the NRI partnered with the Italian government on a plan to protect the island with a band of giant sea gates.
Their stock-in-trade was to examine cutting-edge projects and determine what technologies, if any, could be valuable to the United States. Then, through a combination of relationship building, bribes, or even outright theft, they were to secure for their country what might be of interest.
To that end, she and Moore spent their days in cutting-edge labs or at illustrious seminars. Their nights resembled those of the jet set, attending state functions and elaborate parties thrown by corporations and wealthy entrepreneurs. It was often as glamorous as it was rewarding. So far, however, the mission to Brazil was proving to be an exception.
The NRI’s interest in the country was unrelated to anything being designed, developed or produced there. In fact, it concerned the past as much as the future, beginning with a group of artifacts recovered from the Amazon by an American explorer named Blackjack Martin.
A fortune hunter more than anything else, Martin launched his expedition in 1926, in search of anything that might bring him fame. He returned a year later having mostly failed. The stories he told were laughed off as fanciful exaggerations or outright lies. And the few artifacts he did bring back raised little more than passing interest and were soon consigned to the dusty backrooms of various museums, forgotten if not lost. At least, that is, until a chance encounter with one of them, and an examination with modern tools, had drawn the NRI’s substantial interest.
Since then, Danielle and Arnold Moore had been in Brazil, trying without success to pick up on Blackjack Martin’s trail. After months of fruitless effort, Danielle believed she’d finally found something that would help.
“I have good news,” she said. “And something to show you.”
Moore grabbed a cloth napkin and snapped it open. “And I have bad news,” he said, “straight from the mouth of our director.”
The words were spoken in a tone that Moore reserved for moments of disgust. She sensed a hint of resignation on Moore’s face, the bitterness of another argument lost or some new and bizarre order being implemented over his objection, something that had become a pattern on this particular assignment.
“What’s happened now?” she asked.
Moore shook his head. “You first. Perhaps something positive will take the sting out of what I have to tell you.”
“Fine,” she said, reaching into a small leather bag at the foot of the table. She pulled out a flat gray stone and placed it in front of Moore. “Take a look at that.”
About two inches thick, the stone was roughly rectangular in shape, with jagged edges on three sides and a face slightly larger than a postcard. It tapered at one end and was covered with weathered symbols, including one that resembled a skull and others that appeared to represent animals.
Moore took the stone from her, holding it out at arm’s length. He squinted hard before giving in to necessity and pulling a pair of bifocals from his pocket. With great precision he placed them in their proper spot at the end of his nose.
“Hieroglyphic,” he noted.
“And clearly Mayan,” she said.
He nodded, angling the piece for a better view. As he did, the edges of the glyphs caught the sun. “My, my,” he whispered to himself. “Now, this is a sight.”
“Take a look at the top right corner,” she said. “Recognize that one?”
Moore studied the glyph, a grin creeping onto his face. “The same mark we saw on Blackjack Martin’s cradle,” he said. “Xibalba: the underworld.”
Her eyebrows went up in triumph. If they were right, this was the first real proof they’d found supporting what Martin had described in his wild journals. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said. “Very hard.” He looked at her suspiciously. “Where did you get this?”
“I bought it from a logger who’d taken his crew upriver for contraband hardwoods. Mahogany, for the most part.”
Mahogany was an important cash crop in the Amazon, but the trees grew slowly and most of those in accessible areas had been felled long ago. Others were protected. As a result, increasing amounts of illegal logging took place far upriver, where the loggers went in search of untouched lands to harvest. As time went by, this trade took them deeper and deeper into the watershed, to places where few others journeyed.
“How far in was he?’ Moore asked with renewed enthusiasm.
“Eight days from here, a trip we could make in four or five.”
As Moore examined the stone, Danielle felt a new surge of energy. A reverberation of the jolt she’d felt when first viewing the stone herself—and something sorely needed by both of them.
“Did he know what he was selling you?” Moore asked, flipping the stone over.
“Not the specifics,” she said. “But he knows where it came from and he claimed to have seen a much larger stone nearby, one with similar markings. Too heavy to carry, apparently, so he took this one instead.”
She watched as Moore ran his fingers across the sharp edges on the back of the stone; the rest was relatively smooth and weathered.
“Recent break,” he said. “I wonder if he chipped this piece off of the bigger one.”
“My thoughts exactly,” she said.
Moore looked up. “What else did he tell you?”
“He said they hired some members of the Nuree tribe to act as guides upriver. One of the tribesmen pointed out the larger stone as they were hiking along the banks of a small tributary. They treat it as a marker of some kind, denoting the border of a land they consider to be cursed. Beyond it lie terrible things, apparently: shadows darker than the night, a tribe that converses with the spirits and controls wild animals . . . and a wall,” she said, “made with the bones of human beings.”
It was local folklore—more often outright false than even partly reliable—but in this case they had reason to trust it, at least enough to hope. One of the few landmarks Blackjack Martin had used in his journal was a place he called the Wall of Skulls. If they could find it, they might be able to trace the rest of his movements and locate the source of the items he’d brought back. And if they could do that . . .
“A wall made of bones,” Moore repeated.
Excerpted from Black Rain by Graham Brown. Copyright © 2010 by Graham Brown. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.