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A vacationing family becomes pawns in an ancient ritual designed to bring about the apocalypse in a riveting thriller by Wall Street Journal bestselling author Jeff Wheeler.
A prophecy has waited for five centuries to be fulfilled. That time has come. Sacrifices will be made. Let the games begin.
When Jonathon Roth and his family are invited by their neighbors, the Beasleys, to join them at a luxury retreat in Cozumel, who can refuse? It’s the perfect winter getaway. Relaxing on the beach, gourmet food, sightseeing, and free accommodations. But if it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Villa Sara de Calakmul, owned by mysterious tycoon Jacob Calakmul, is more isolated compound than private resort. Armed guards patrol the jungle perimeters. Pictures of previous guests—long disappeared—adorn the walls. And there are whispers of something coming called “the game.” Even in the sweltering heat, the Roths feel a chill—and the fear that they haven’t been invited to Villa Sara. They’ve been lured. But for what purpose? And to what end?
From the ruins, a death cult is reborn. A prophecy to bring down Western civilization is being realized. As a legendary blood sport is engaged, the Roths themselves may need to call upon ancient powers if they’re to survive, escape, and save the world from annihilation.
Release date: July 1, 2023
Print pages: 330
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Maya Biosphere Reserve
The roar of the twin propellers made shouting the only way to be heard, even with the headsets. As it soared over the jungle lowlands, the plane bucked and dipped, causing various components of the LiDAR equipment to rattle, although they were secured with thick straps. The pilot’s face was dripping with sweat, which leaked beneath his sunglasses and into his scraggly beard.
“That’s the last run!” the pilot shouted. “Time to head back to the airport!”
Dr. Estrada shook his head, planting his palm on the cockpit dashboard to brace himself against a sudden lurch. “Let’s go a little farther. We have enough fuel.”
“We did the runs already. It’s time to go back.”
“We have fuel. North. Now!”
Dr. Estrada felt the sweat dripping down his ribs. The twin-prop plane was flying at an altitude of two thousand feet. That was within the ideal range for the LiDAR equipment. But it made for a choppy ride, and the blazing sun was certainly as hot at their altitude as it was down in the jungle below. The LiDAR equipment generated plenty of heat too. The strapped boxes had cables running through the plane like spiderwebs. A hole had been set into the bottom of the stripped-out plane so that the lasers pointed down at the jungle below—a tangle of cedar, ceiba, and cojon trees meshed together, so dense it was impossible to see beneath the canopy.
Data had proven that LiDAR was the next breakthrough in archaeology, capable of digitally stripping away the trees and revealing man-made structures that had been abandoned by the Maya centuries before.
Dr. Estrada was on the leading edge of the research in a joint partnership with UC San Diego in California. The lab, funded by a giant semiconductor company, processed the terabytes of data produced by the equipment in the plane. It would take a hundred years to sift through the vast amounts of data—except thanks to Moore’s Law and the miniaturization of circuits, the servers were getting faster and faster, allowing the data to be mined and mapped much faster as time went on. He was excited about the work. Half of archaeology was knowing where to dig, and LiDAR provided an accurate map of what lay beneath the jungle’s growth and was more dependable than the human eye.
Through the windows, he could see the scenery of the Guatemalan jungle whip below them. The plane had to avoid the occasional blizzard of startled macaws.
The pilot, Miguel Santos, had adjusted course north. The additional time meant more money for him.
“Where we going, boss?”
“We’ll be there soon.”
“How long we going north? We’ll reach the border of Mexico in minutes!”
The northern border of Guatemala was a straight line that ran through an enormous, uncharted jungle in the Yucatán Peninsula. The ruins they’d studied at Xmakabatún were on the eastern border shared by Belize, but that government didn’t care if a plane wandered over the arbitrary line out in the middle of nowhere. The Mexican government, on the other hand, was a bit more testy about sharing their airspace. They looked down on Guatemalans. They didn’t care that the current borders were a modern construct so steeped in history and civil war that they no longer seemed to make sense.
Two thousand years ago, the entire Yucatán Peninsula was ruled by the Maya. The vast jungle below had been ruled by a people who knew about the orbit of planets centuries sooner than their European conquerors did. They’d left behind extensive ruins, many of which had yet to be discovered. An archaeologist’s dream come true.
The plane dipped again, making Dr. Estrada’s stomach lurch, and he slammed his palm against the dashboard.
“We should turn back to La Libertad, sir. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Flying as fast as they were, they’d probably crossed into Mexican airspace already. Miguel wiped sweat from his mouth and began to angle the plane.
“A little farther. I just want to map one other thing while we’re here.” He’d studied the topo maps for years and had always been intensely curious about a certain location in the heart of the jungle. Satellite images showed very little because of the tree cover, but a curious mound rose from the jungle. A mound like that was not natural. The lowland jungles were typically flat. Mounds were man-made, the sign of a pyramid built centuries, or even a millennium, ago.
Estrada believed there was an even bigger pyramid concealed beneath the jungle, the kind of prize that could make a man’s career and ensure his legacy.
“I’ll get in trouble!”
“You won’t. I will. I’ll throw in a bonus. C’mon. We’re almost there.”
“How much bonus?”
“Enough that you won’t regret it. We’ll just say we got lost.”
The pilot didn’t seem appeased by the thought. “Air traffic control at Cancún can probably already see us.”
“We’re flying too low for radar to pick us up.”
Miguel scratched an itch on his chin and flared his nostrils. “I don’t like this, boss.”
“I don’t pay you to like it. Angle northwest. Toward that mound.” He could see it now, and his heart sped in anticipation.
A hiss of breath came through the pilot’s teeth. “We shouldn’t be here!”
Miguel was right. They’d already entered the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a huge swath of jungle in the southeast corner of the state and municipality of Campeche. The towns in the area were primarily along the coast. Only one highway went through the jungle, farther north. The area they were flying over was a jungle preserve, heavily wooded and almost impossible to reach by land.
Dr. Estrada had petitioned the Mexican government for permission to use the LiDAR lasers to scan the biosphere reserve. His request had been denied with no explanation. A wealthy family funded the research of the area. And since Dr. Estrada was Guatemalan, they’d not even given a sniff before saying no. The Calakmul biosphere contained a great treasure, he was certain, and the Calakmul family was keeping it a secret.
So much was concealed beneath the canopy of the jungle. Satellites couldn’t see anything through the maze of trees and vegetation. Not even drones could penetrate the thick jungle. The LiDAR made all the difference. He’d seen plenty of evidence of it in the work he’d done finding the ruins of Xmakabatún. Even when he and his team were within fifty meters of the location, it was still invisible. But the technology had revealed the ruins from above—dispassionately, a series of light refractions bouncing back to the plane and revealing shapes that were clearly made by man, not by nature.
In some ways, it was like putting together a treasure map, because the Maya rulers had been buried with a wealth of jade, gold, silver, and obsidian. They were like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, only, the Maya had disappeared one day, leaving behind clues for those who were discerning.
He had a feeling one of the richest finds would be in the Calakmul reserve. According to his research, it had once been one of the powerful kingdoms of the Maya—before the jungle had swallowed it. Besides, it was in such a remote location that any ruins were likely well preserved, untouched by modern civilization.
Dr. Estrada had been lost in thought, imagining what they’d find. One pyramid temple could house untold treasures and reveal information about the Maya that had been lost for centuries. Years after Hernán Cortés had conquered the area, a group of Spaniards gathered up all of the Maya documents they could find and burned them. A few precious codices had been preserved—a small handful out of hundreds—and sent back to major cities in Europe. Like Paris, Madrid, and Dresden.
It was Estrada’s dream that one of these ruins might contain an original codex even older than those that had been preserved. One that could help them fully decipher the ancient hieroglyphs. A Rosetta stone for Mayan, if you would.
“What?” Estrada looked at the pilot. Miguel’s arm was outstretched, his index finger quivering.
“There’s something down there,” he said.
There was a gap in the jungle. They were flying low enough that Estrada could see the stone courtyard below. The light revealed ancient structures, a series of ruins hidden beneath the canopy of the jungle. Excitement bubbled inside him.
“I knew it!” he gasped. Then louder: “Fly directly over it. The LiDAR will map this place. Fly directly, then turn around for another pass.” They’d need to make multiple passes so the lasers could produce enough data for the supercomputers to then unscramble. Millions of dots of light were hammering down at the trees below. Some, a small percentage, pierced the edges of the leaves and touched the ground. The varying height of that ground was what would reveal the shape of the structures. Only this time, he didn’t need the LiDAR to see that something was down there. Something the Calakmul family was probably hiding and excavating without anyone else knowing.
“Turn around, make another pass!” Estrada repeated, thrilled with the discovery.
The plane banked sharply and turned, coming around for another sweep of the area, heading south again. It was a beautiful day. Perfect weather to be capturing the data. Not a cloud in the—
The plane bucked. A rumble of thunder came. Colorful jungle birds began to flee the canopy of trees as if startled by a predator.
Estrada peered out the side window of the plane. A swirl of dark clouds was gathering over the surrounding jungle, coalescing above the spot of open ground. Sudden thunderstorms were common in these jungles, but the thunderheads shouldn’t be gathering this fast. The hot afternoon sun, which had been baking them in the cockpit earlier, was now blocked by the anvil-shaped clouds. In the mass of darkness ahead of them, a few flashes of lightning were already starting.
“There’s someone down there!” the pilot shouted.
Estrada rubbed his eyes and saw a man standing in the middle of the courtyard. He was dressed like one of the ancient Maya, like the locals who spent their days in costume at the ruins at Chichén Itzá to pose with tourists for a price. Except there were no tourists.
“Climb, now!” Estrada said, feeling his gut clench with fear. The storm had come out of nowhere, and they were flying straight toward it. The wind shear alone could be fatal at their low altitude.
Miguel was struggling with the controls, his mouth and scrappy beard twisting with frustration as he yanked on the yoke.
The craft gave a sudden lurch, much more dangerous than the previous ones. It felt like something from the jungle had reached up and snatched their plane. Both men shouted in fear.
The yoke shook violently. Miguel gripped it hard, trying to turn, but it seemed he was wrestling a crocodile. A force was inextricably bringing them closer to the heart of the gathering storm. Thunder boomed and rain began lashing against the cockpit window.
“Turn! Turn!” Estrada shouted. “Get out of here!”
Miguel began to shout a prayer. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Nngghh . . . Blessed art thou amongst women!” The sunlight had vanished behind bulging black clouds. The plane rocked and dropped again. The rain sounded like bullets against the windows. Another dip made both men gasp. The jungle. If they went into the jungle, no one would ever find them. It would swallow them whole.
“B-Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
Another pitch. Rain lashed the window so fast, it blurred everything except the darkness. Estrada could see the maw of the jungle out the smeared windows. It was rising to bite them.
“Pull up! Pull up!” Estrada screamed.
Miguel continued to fight the yoke. It was going right, left, up, and down as the plane was pummeled by wind. Thunder boomed through the cockpit and lightning blinded them both. It wasn’t rain now. It was hail.
Hail? In a jungle?
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!” Miguel wailed.
The plane pitched violently to the left. Estrada felt his chest straining against the belt. Another lurch and he struck his face against the side of the cockpit. Stinging pain flared on his cheekbone.
“Pray for us sinners . . . !”
Estrada was a passive Catholic, but the words came to him as he waited, any moment, for the plane to crash through the canopy. Their voices joined, quavering in fear.
“. . . now and at the hour of our death. Amen!”
In that moment, Estrada wasn’t thinking about the value of the equipment strapped behind his seat, rattling and shaking along with the groans of the fuselage. He wasn’t thinking about the lease on the plane or the immense server lab at UC San Diego.
He was thinking about dying. His body would be devoured by the jungle, his bones picked clean until they too moldered into paste. He’d seen enough skeletons in his life to know that his remains wouldn’t be preserved like the Maya kings, entombed in stone.
He heard slapping noises against the hull of the plane.
He shut his eyes, babbling in fear, propping his boot up against the cockpit dashboard to brace for impact.
And then the plane began to lift, to soar. The throttle revved, and the noise of the engines drowned out their muffled sobs.
Estrada blinked in surprise. Tears had joined the sweat on his cheeks. They were rising over the jungle, higher and higher, heading south. The yoke was calm once more.
Miguel gripped one of the yoke handles with one hand and scrubbed his cheeks with his other hand, dislodging his sunglasses. He was pale with terror.
“We . . . we almost died!”
The altimeter showed they were at three thousand feet, then four thousand, then five, rising rapidly.
A distant boom of thunder behind them was louder than the props. Estrada wished he could see out the back to look at the storm that had come from nothing and nearly hurtled them out of the sky. His pulse was still running wild.
“Th-The airport,” he stammered.
“Okay, boss.” Miguel glanced back at Estrada. “I’m never crossing into the Calakmul biosphere again. Ever.”
Estrada nodded in agreement. They’d spent hours crisscrossing the jungles of Guatemala for this project. Already they’d found tens of thousands of structures abandoned by the Maya. There was more work than he could do in a lifetime in Guatemala.
He had no idea whom they’d seen in the heart of the jungle. Something told him it would be better if they never knew.
United Flight 1119
Bozeman, Montana to Cancún, Mexico
“Dad, why is the plane shaking so much?” There was a tremor in Lucas’s voice. Worry.
“Turbulence. Pilots often call it ‘rough air,’ but it’s really just sky farts.” Roth noticed the way his son was clenching the armrests, squeezing them until his knuckles blanched, as the cabin jostled. He was grateful only ice was left in his cup, and he watched as the cylindrical tubes bumped around. The turbulence was bad enough to spill a drink. He hated turbulence himself—it terrified him—but calming his son’s fear helped him cope with his own.
Roth’s wife, Sarina, patted Lucas’s hand comfortingly. The tray table in front of her was down, with her copy of the New York Times’s easy crossword puzzles open in front of her, the pencil wedged in the crease.
The seat in front of Roth lowered back sharply, and his daughter Suki’s dyed bangs appeared in the gap, her teal-rimmed glasses partway down her nose. She gave him her typical deadpan expression. “Did you seriously just say turbulence is ‘sky farts,’ Dad?”
“I’m just trying to help Lucas understand there’s nothing to worry about,” he said, giving his daughter a meaningful look so that she wouldn’t aggravate the situation. Being the eldest, she was usually helpful in these situations. But sometimes she liked to provoke the twins.
“Did you know they have categories of turbulence?” he asked Lucas, attempting to distract him from the ongoing bumps. “Like they do for hurricanes or tornados.” Another sharp drop made his stomach flutter. He hated flying sometimes, especially when the plane was descending, as theirs was, toward the airport in Cancún. Out the window, he could see the Hotel Zone with the gleaming paradisiacal resorts nestled along the creamy beaches inside the reef.
“And what would this one be?” Suki asked with a twinkle in her eyes. “An F1?”
“I shouldn’t have drunk the whole cup of soda,” Lucas said. “I need to pee really bad.”
“You’ll have to wait for the airport. Just . . . hold it,” Roth said. His voice quavered as another jolt of turbulence happened midspeech. Lucas grabbed his hand and squeezed really hard. It was slightly mortifying that a man of his size, girth, and with a formidable beard, should be gibbering in terror on the inside while his sixteen-year-old looked as calm as milk, and the other twin—Bryant, whom they’d nicknamed Brillante, pronounced “bree-ant-ay” in Spanish—was so distracted by his Nintendo Switch he hadn’t even noticed the turbulence.
“This is just Lucas’s anxiety showing itself,” Sarina said. She patted their son’s other arm. “We’re about to land. It’ll be over soon.”
We’re approaching a concrete runway at five hundred miles an hour, wobbling uncontrollably. What could possibly go wrong? Roth thought. But indulging his own fear wouldn’t help the situation. What he needed to do was distract his son.
Sarina picked up her pencil, rubbing the eraser against her bottom lip. Her ancestors were from the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, which was one of the reasons they’d jumped at the chance to spend Christmas in Cozumel. Sarina’s ancestors were from a more rural area, which was much more dangerous to visit because of the extensive influence of the drug cartels. A touristy place like Cozumel should be perfectly safe. As an additional incentive, they only had to pay for airfare and any food or souvenirs they bought outside the resort. The resort they were staying at was free. Another perk of being a New York Times bestselling author and having wealthy neighbors in Bozeman.
The shaking of the 737 felt a little like the earthquakes Roth and Sarina had grown up with in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, although not as bad as the ’89 Loma Prieta quake. Lucas squeezed his hand even harder.
A story. He needed to think of a story to tell his son. It would have the added benefit of distracting Roth himself from the landing. To him, landing was the most terrifying part of flying. The only way he could bring himself to get on a plane was to sit next to the window so he could watch everything. Well, almost everything. He hated being in a seat over the wings because whenever the wings trembled, he imagined they might suddenly fall off.
He could see the jungles of Mexico outside the city limits of Cancún, just a smear of brown trees below, such a different scene from the snowy roads and mountains surrounding Bozeman that they’d left very early that morning. The layover in Denver had been snowy too.
The thought heartened him a little—Mexico was just what they needed, a little escape from the winter tundra they were living in now. He hadn’t realized how much the weather affected him until they’d moved from Fremont, California, to Bozeman two years ago.
“You’re looking a little green, Dad,” Suki observed worriedly. “They have those little bags in the backs of the seats.”
“Is Dad going to barf again?” Brillante suddenly piped in, interested. His face crowded against Suki’s in the gap between the seats. She wrinkled her nose and gave him a little shove. She was off the charts on the introverted scale and didn’t like anyone intruding on her personal space.
Roth frowned at his other son. It was a reference to a recent vacation to Disney World. Roth had lost his lunch after going on the Avatar ride.
“I’m fine,” Roth said stoically. He loosened his grip, glancing out the window again. The Cancún airport could be seen in the distance, to the south of the city, along with the beautiful blue coastline. The ocean had different colors to it, based on the coral reef. It was an amazing sight. They weren’t going to the nearby Hotel Zone since the resort they were staying at was on the island of Cozumel.
They were descending rapidly, the turbulence easing a little, when a story came to him. “Once I flew to Colorado for a grad-school interview.” That was a long time ago. Twenty years ago. Although he’d gotten accepted, he’d decided to stay in California and teach at Hayward State. One of the reasons for that decision was because he’d met Sarina there. While he’d spent eight years getting his undergrad degree because he loved learning everything and kept changing his major, she was more sensible and had gotten her nursing degree and been promoted to charge nurse in the ER in the same amount of time.
“We took a 747 to Denver, and the turbulence was so bad. I mean, really bad. One of the engines fell off.”
“Seriously?” Suki asked, pushing her glasses higher up her nose. She had short-cropped hair, dyed brown to disguise its natural black. The boys didn’t care that they looked like their mom. Suki did. She preferred people to think she was half-Japanese, not Hispanic. She’d seen how Hispanic students in her school in Fremont were treated, particularly the ones with ethnic last names, and the same prejudice existed in Bozeman. It disgusted Roth. His wife had dealt with similar prejudice in her childhood, and they’d both hoped attitudes would be different by the time their children started school.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” Roth said, “but the guy next to me said not to worry. ‘It’s a 747; they have four engines. They can fly just fine with three.’ Sure enough, the pilot came on and said our arrival to Denver would be delayed a half hour, but we were good.”
Sarina knew the story. She smiled and said nothing, looking down at her crossword puzzle. Lucas was staring at him in surprise.
“Ma’am, tray tables need to come up,” said a flight attendant, who then took their used cups with her blue-gloved hands. Sarina handed over her empty cup and clicked up first her tray table and then Roth’s, while he continued the story.
“A little later, the turbulence shook us so bad another engine broke loose. Crashed on a house somewhere in Vail. A mansion, I think. No one was hurt, thankfully. Two engines gone. I was really starting to freak out. But the guy next to me said, ‘Don’t worry . . . it’s a 747. It can fly fine on two engines.’”
Lucas’s eyebrows lifted even higher. The mop of curly hair on his head shook a little from another slight bout of turbulence. “Dude!”
This was why Roth loved telling stories. He loved getting people interested and then throwing them curves. History was unpredictable, and so were Roth’s books.
“The pilot came on again. You could hear the worry in his voice. He apologized for the mechanical troubles. This was a long time ago. Planes weren’t as safe back then. He said that we’d be okay, but the delay was now an hour to Denver. We were flying over the Rocky Mountains, right? Imagine crashing there. We would have turned into cannibals before they’d found any survivors.”
“Cringey, Dad,” Suki said, wrinkling her nose. “Utter cringe.”
Sarina shook her head and went back to her crossword puzzle, which was now on her lap.
“Dude!” Lucas repeated, shaking his head.
Brillante had gone back to the Switch. It was probably the soccer video game he loved to play. FIFA something. Sarina and Roth liked to call him their absent-minded professor because of how absorbed he got in whatever he was doing. When he was in the zone, playing a video game or watching TV, not even pizza could yank him out. Roth dreaded the day his son would get his first smartphone.
“Outside the window, I could see the snow-capped peaks. I thought . . . man, this is bad! We’re going to crash in the mountains. Like . . . this is real. I’m going to die strapped in this seat.” He looked at his kids solemnly. “Then the third engine failed. It didn’t fall off. The engine failed. Quit.”
The guy sitting on the aisle seat, across from Sarina, was leaning forward, looking at him too. An older guy with silver hair. Retired probably, heading to Cancún for some downtime.
“What happened?” Lucas whispered.
Roth sighed. “Three engines down. Only one left. The pilot came on again. He was terrified. You could hear it in his voice. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have one engine left. I’ve increased the speed of our landing to compensate, but it’s going to be tight. Denver is still the closest airport. There’s no turning back. Crew, prepare for a crash landing if that last engine fails. We’re two hours out now over rugged terrain. But if that engine holds, we’ll make it there by five o’clock.”
Roth changed the tone and speed of his voice as he told the story, techniques that drew a person in. He paused, looking from face to face. The old guy looked as if he were going to have a heart attack.
Time for the twist.
Roth leaned forward, licked his lips, and stroked his beard. Glancing outside, he could see they were about to land themselves. The turbulence had stopped. “The engine . . . held. We made it to Denver. Hours late. But we made it. When we landed, I turned to the guy next to me. ‘That was the closest I’ve ever come to dying,’ I said. ‘Just think if that last engine had failed. Whew.’” Roth couldn’t stop the grin. “The guy next to me was so relieved too. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘We would have been stuck up there forever!’”
Suki frowned, folded her arms, and turned away. “That was so funny, Dad.”
Lucas looked confused. “What? You would have crash-landed! Oh!” Now he got the joke. Each engine failure had caused a delay. So naturally, the final failure would have stranded them in the sky. Counterintuitive. The kind of punchline that Roth loved.
“Was Dad in a plane crash?” Brillante asked, his game over, his eyebrows wrinkled in confusion.
“It was just one of his stories,” Sarina said. Roth liked the twinkle in her eyes.
The old guy sitting across from her was shaking his head. “I . . . I really believed you!” he said.
“My husband’s an author,” Sarina said to him. “He likes telling stories.”
The captain made the final announcement before landing. Sarina stuffed her crossword-puzzle book into her bag. He caught a glimpse of her insulin equipment there—the extra cartridges and tubing for the pump, some bagged needles, rubbing alcohol packets, and so forth. The accoutrements of type 1 diabetes. She kept the pump in her pocket, the tube hidden beneath her shirt, and it gave her the exact dosage she needed to control her blood sugar level.
The technology to help diabetics was a lot more user friendly these days. Especially if you could afford it.
“You drank a soda,” he told her. “When do you need to replace the cartridge?”
“When we get to the resort,” she said. “I changed it two days ago, so I have another day before I need to refill it.” She was careful about her sugar, but they were on vacation now. It was time to relax and enjoy life. Strawberry daiquiris from a hammock, that kind of thing. They were supposed to go snorkeling off Cozumel on Christmas Eve and eat fresh ceviche and chips while standing in the water. And what he was looking forward to most: they’d be visiting some of the ancient Maya ruins—now tourist locations—San Gervasio, Tulum, and Chichén Itzá . . . unless the plane broke into a bajillion flaming pieces of twisted metal on the runway at five hundred miles an hour.
He turned his face to the window, watching as the airport in Cancún loomed ever larger.
He watched the little flaps on the wing go up and down. At the back of the wing, a section detached and started to slide down with a mechanical groan. He could see the strange-looking houses and yards between the gaps, all cramped and odd-shaped—each one unique, not carbon-copy groupings of houses like the suburban neighborhoods he’d grown up in. Definitely different from the part of Bozeman where they lived, where the houses were spread far apart, nestled in the hills beneath the mountains, separated by trees and land rather than fences. They’d visited during a trip to Yellowstone for a family reunion a few years previously and had fallen in love with the raw beauty of Montana and the way it coexisted with nicely developed cities like Bozeman. The area was referred to by the locals as Sourdough, after the canyon and creek that provides water for a large portion of its inhabitants. They hadn’t learned about the nickname until they’d moved in. As they were from the San Francisco area, “sourdough” had a totally different meaning for them and referred to bread, not a land feature.
Unable to look away from the view of Cancún, he stared, watching the traffic rush by. So many minibuses. Then he saw the runway. His heart was beating fast. Sweat trickled down his brow to be lost in his majestic beard.
Yes, this moment was the worst part of flying—the anticipation of the huge rubber tires meeting the unforgiving concrete.
Once, he’d flown out of San Jose International to attend Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, his first, and they’d hit some ducks on takeoff. There’d been a noticeable thump, and then the smell of cooked fowl had filled the cabin. Because it had happened at takeoff, the pilot had no choice but to go in a circle and land so that the engines could be inspected. Roth had needed to switch planes, and he’d barely made it to the Washington State Convention Center in time for his panel and book signing. Even though it was his first, there had been quite a crowd waiting for him. That part of the memory brought a smile.
Now it felt like it had happened a long time ago, back when the book had first come out. He’d gone from being an adjunct history professor at a state college in California to a bestselling author overnight.
The distracting thoughts lasted just long enough. The tires hit the runway, and everyone lurched forward against their seat belts as the pilot applied the brakes. Roth was amazed by the physics of slowing down such a massive hunk of metal, wires, and disposable electronics.
The pilot’s voice buzzed over the intercom. “On behalf of the flight crew, we’d like to welcome you to Cancún International Airport. It’s 85 degrees outside, with late-afternoon clouds. Expect a little rain this afternoon. It’s December 23, and local time is 2:37 in the afternoon. We’re at Terminal 3. Welcome to Mexico, and thanks for flying with us. We hope you enjoy your stay in Cancún.”
Suki had already unclipped her seat belt and stood and stretched. Her metallic-rose earphones hung around her neck. Her short hair would be an asset this week.
“Feeling better?” she asked Lucas.
“Still need to pee,” he said, wincing.
“I’ll help you find a bathroom once we get off. It’s okay.”
Roth smiled and gave her a nod of appreciation.
“Dude, you’re starting another game?” Lucas demanded of his brother. “Come on. We gotta go!”
Brillante lifted his head from the screen. “Just one more game.”
“Once we get to the resort, I want all of you kids to hand over your electronics,” Roth said. “We’re taking a vacation. We’re climbing to the top of Chichén Itzá—if they let us—and visiting Maya ruins. Remember, there will be no cell service where we’re staying on Cozumel. It’s a tortuga sanctuary,” he said, displaying his limited Spanish vocabulary.
“Sounds like you said torture sanctuary,” Suki said with one of her eye rolls. They were practically a work of art.
“The beaches!” Brillante and Lucas said, giving each other a fist bump.
Sarina looked a little tired.
“Are you feeling okay?” Roth asked her.
“Didn’t sleep well last night. I’ll be okay.”
All their luggage was stowed in the overhead bins. Roth didn’t trust airline logistics. Each kid had a backpack and a suitcase. That was it.
“It’s almost our turn. Let’s go. As Grandpa says, ‘You snooze, you lose,’” Suki said to her brother Brillante, who had the seat by her. The rows in front of them were nearly clear.
Roth was a little worried about getting from the airport to the island of Cozumel, but the Beasleys had promised the process was simple. They’d made all the arrangements, down to the bus that would take them from the airport to Playa del Carmen, from which they would take the ferry. Another bus would take them to the eastern half of Cozumel, away from the other resorts. The place belonged to Jacob Calakmul, a wealthy tycoon whose family owned many hotels and resorts throughout the Maya Riviera. The Beasleys had already visited it several times, and they’d raved about the amenities. They’d intended to vacation with another family this year, from Texas, but their friends had canceled at the last minute, leaving an opening the Roths had felt grateful to fill.
The invitation to Cozumel really had been too good to refuse.
Although the Roths hadn’t known the Beasleys for long, their new neighbors had been surprisingly welcoming. That fact gave Roth some private amusement because there were a copious number of warning signs posted outside their property gate, from “Beware of the Dog” to “Private Drive,” “No Trespassing,” and a sign bearing an image of a video surveillance system saying “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.”
Now it was time to relax, unwind, soak up the scenery, and learn more about the ancient civilization that had once occupied the peninsula. It was hard for his mind to relax. His imagination could always conceive the most horrible twists and plot devices to torment his characters. His latest book, the conclusion of a trilogy, had been turned in a week ago.
They all needed some relaxation. He was eager to get off the plane and find the Beasleys, who had flown in the first-class cabin and already deplaned.
He had no idea why a wealthy man like Calakmul was inclined to let the Beasleys and their friends stay with him for free, but the prospect was in no way displeasing.
This was going to be exactly what his family needed.
Roth startled awake when Sarina shook his shoulder. “We’re almost there,” she said softly.
He’d been dreaming about the first time they’d gone to the Beasleys’ eclectic mansion in their Sourdough neighborhood. The Beasley boys were both into sports and had invited Brillante and Lucas to a game of poison in their indoor basketball court. Their daughter, Jane Louise, was eight and loved dolls and Disney princesses—a phase Suki, who’d always been more drawn toward anime, had never gone through. The invitation to Mexico had come after several months of getting to know each other.
Roth usually suffered from motion sickness too much to fall asleep in a moving vehicle, but the ferry ride from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel had nearly made him heave his guts out. He’d taken a Dramamine, and the heat inside the shuttle that picked them up in San Miguel had made him fall asleep. San Miguel was the main city of the island of Cozumel on the western side of the island, and the resort they were staying at was on the eastern shore.
Rubbing his eyes with the backs of his knuckles, he looked around, disappointed he’d missed most of the drive. The large Mercedes van held both families, and all of their luggage was stacked and crammed in the back. Eric sat next to his wife, Kendall, a skinny blonde who could have been on a Real Housewives episode. From what Roth understood, they’d met and married before Eric made his millions in a private hedge fund after working a few years as a Wall Street banker. It made him wonder whether the money had changed them, or they’d always been like this—sleek and fastidiously well groomed. Their boys were horsing around on different seats across the aisle. Their youngest, Jane Louise, sat next to her mom.
Roth turned his head and saw Suki in a row by herself, pushing her glasses up her nose and giving him a nervous look. She would have preferred spending the holidays back in Montana. But he’d promised that the trip would be very relaxing. Other than a few sight-seeing trips and excursions to the ruins, they’d have a lot of downtime. The twins were on the bench behind her, pointing out the window.
The road led to an isolated part of the island. Roth had looked the resort up on his browser several times prior to leaving. Cozumel was a huge part of the turtle migration, so there was no wired electricity on the eastern part of the island. Everything had to be powered by solar. Cars weren’t even allowed to drive on the eastern shores after dark because the headlights could damage a turtle’s eyes. The resort was on the northern half of the island near an archaeological preserve that the Calakmul family owned and ran.
Roth pulled out his phone and checked the screen. No bars and the battery had run down to less than half. They were off the grid, just as Eric had promised they would be. It would be good for them all to get away from their screens for a time.
The van stopped at a security gate. Jungle crowded through the fencing, the trees thin and narrow, the trunks speckled. That marked them as a kind of cedar. Because of the dense vegetation, they couldn’t see the private resort.
A man with a uniform and automatic weapon hanging from a strap came to the driver’s window and spoke to him in Spanish.
Two more guards stood at the gate. All were armed. That made Roth furrow his brow. He’d heard Cozumel was much safer than Cancún. When he’d asked Eric about it, his friend had assured him, saying that the locals resisted drug trafficking, knowing that it would seriously harm the much-needed tourist economy. At least the armed guards were on their side. But the large weapons were intimidating.
“What are they saying?” he whispered to Sarina. Her throat glistened with sweat, and he was sweating profusely himself. The humidity was bearable, but even with the air-conditioning on full blast, it was definitely warmer than what they were used to. And it was December, the coolest time of the year for this part of Mexico.
“I can’t hear them very well.” The air-conditioning in the van was pretty loud.
The security guard backed up and motioned for the driver to enter the compound while the other two opened the gate. Just inside the gate stood a windowed guardhouse. A mustachioed man, also in a uniform, watched as the van crept in. Roth’s eyes met his as the van crept past, and he gave the man a polite nod.
The van lumbered down the long driveway and began to accelerate. Palm trees could be seen out both windows, along with the dense vegetation of the jungle. The fencing and guardhouse quickly disappeared from view.
“Can we play soccer here?” Lucas asked from behind them.
Roth was about to answer that he had no idea, but he realized his son had been talking to one of the Beasley boys.
“There’s a different game we play down here,” answered the teenager.
“Colter,” said Eric coldly. There was an unspoken rebuke in his tone.
Roth turned his head and looked at Eric. His eyes were fixed on the road ahead of them. Kendall was looking down at their youngest, who was lying on her mother’s lap in the shared seat. A tingle of misgiving worked through Roth when he noticed the fear in her eyes.
As they continued through the compound, passing more jungle, Roth’s nerves began to worry him. He didn’t know what was setting off his amygdala, but he felt hyperaware of everything around them and watched the bends of the road as if expecting armed men to jump out of the jungle with machetes and machine guns.
“You all right?” Sarina asked in an undertone, squeezing his hand.
She knew when he was out of sorts. All her life, she’d been sensitive to other people’s feelings. It made her a great nurse. It was one of the reasons he’d fallen in love with her.
“You know how it is. Even if there’s nothing to worry about, I try to find something. I’ve read that the beaches on this side of the island are more dangerous. There are crocodiles. We need to remind the boys to be careful. No wandering off.”
“Okay. We’ll tell them.”
The jungle opened up, and they finally reached the hidden resort. There were two more Mercedes vans parked in the circular drive, both smaller than the one they were in. Roth looked up at the private resort outside the van window—white and boxy-looking, with so many windows. The van stopped in front of a huge, rectangular pool with an overflow waterfall reflecting the sunlight. Patio cushions, wide and thick, were gathered by the pool, and decorative trees lined the perimeter of the pool yard. Although it was late afternoon, the interior lights were already on.
The driver came around and opened the van door, and the Beasley kids—except for the girl—were already rushing ahead to get out. The smell of a sea breeze met Roth’s nose. It was a familiar smell for one who’d grown up not far from the beaches of Santa Cruz.
Roth’s nerves began to settle when he saw the resort looked exactly as it had in the photos on its website. He knew behind the resort was a series of planks and stairs that went down to the sea, where there were sitting areas and paddle boards and a view of the yacht that would be part of their transportation for excursions.
He scratched his bearded chin and rose. Sarina edged into the aisle. The back of the van was opened, and workers started to pull out the luggage stacked back there.
“You’ll love it here,” Eric said, gesturing for Roth and Sarina to leave first. “We’re staying on opposite sides of the building. The office is in the middle if you need anything. We’ll each have our own kitchens and cooking staff, but there are common areas too. Whatever your kids want to eat, they can get. Just order like it’s a restaurant, and the cooks will make it. There’s a tiny little town called Ixpalbarco not far from here, so if you need anything, the staff can go pick it up for you.”
There was a certain dismissiveness to his words, as if he were saying he’d prefer to keep their vacations separate. Roth didn’t mind per se—he wanted to unwind with his family—but it was a shift from the way Beasley had spoken of the trip back in Bozeman. Back there, he’d spoken of the things they’d do together. Had Eric and Kendall had some sort of argument before the trip?
“Thank you so much, Eric and Kendall,” Sarina said. “It was so generous of you to invite us to join your family for Christmas this year.”
Eric flashed them a warm smile. His polo shirt was literally sticking to his massive chest and shoulders. “Like I told you, it’s no big deal. Our friends couldn’t make it. Glad we could convince you to come on such short notice.”
“I haven’t been to Cozumel since I was a teenager,” Sarina said. “In ’97. It was very different back then. My family used to come to Cancún when I was little.”
“You tried climbing Chichén Itzá and got scared halfway up,” Eric said, nodding. “I remember. Your boys will love it here. But no one can climb the ruins now. Too many tourists.”
Suki was ready to get off and gave Roth a look that said, Keep Mom from talking, or I’ll embarrass you both.
“Let’s go,” Roth said.
They climbed out of the van, watching as the staff began dragging their luggage toward the spacious, white-walled resort. Roth had some peso bills in his pocket. Tipping was the norm in Mexico, but he wasn’t sure how much was proper, and he hadn’t seen Eric tip the driver. He offered the driver a hundred-peso bill, but the man held up his hand and shook his head, rejecting the offer. That was unusual, wasn’t it?
He tucked the bill away, shrugging it off, and took in the resort. The smell of the ocean hung in the air, and he could hear the sound of crashing waves from the other side of the building. The wind was blowing steadily, but it was a pleasant sensation.
Suki squinted through her glasses and then shrugged as if to say it was no big deal.
“Can we go to the beach?” Brillante asked.
“Let’s settle in our rooms first, then you can go,” Sarina said.
“Who’s the dude?” Suki muttered under her breath.
Roth turned and saw a well-dressed man approaching them. A woman holding an electronic tablet strode next to him. He was probably in his midthirties, with scruff on his face and a full head of dark brown hair that was playfully spiked and arranged. He wore glasses with no frames, or nearly invisible ones, a gray custom-made suit with a silk shirt open at the collar, and fancy leather shoes. He smiled at them, but it was a slightly predatory smile, his head tilted just a little.
“Jacob!” said Eric. The two men embraced each other, and while Eric’s size dwarfed the smaller man, there was a health and vitality to the newcomer that made him every bit as intimidating if not more.
“Welcome again, old friend,” said the new arrival with a Hispanic accent.
The woman next to him looked to be an assistant. She had bleached-blond hair, or so her dark roots attested, and glasses similar to Suki’s, except the frames were dark brown instead of teal. Her lips and face were done up with makeup, and she wore a form-fitting business dress that went down to her knees. She was probably no more than twenty-five years old.
After the two men embraced, the newcomer approached Roth and extended his hand. “Jacob Calakmul. Bienvenidos.”
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