Squadrons of bloodthirsty insects dive-bombed Charley Underhill’s head. The tropical heat felt like a sauna on overdrive. Okay, so maybe this spontaneous visit was a lousy idea. Unfortunately, she was committed for the next seven days.
She blamed her rash decision on the trio of tequila shooters she’d downed in a smoky Mexican bar. At the time, an excursion to Dr. Alistair Kincaid’s field camp to sniff out the archaeological scoop of the decade had seemed like a brilliant solution to her problems – almost as if someone or, more accurately, something, had taken control of her thoughts and actions. Now, broiling on a wooden dock in the jungles of central Oaxaca, her optimism wavered.
“Ow. Dammit.” Charley squashed the sparrow-sized mosquito attacking her forearm. Shading her eyes, she peered at the sky until the tiny speck of a floatplane disappeared into blue infinity. When the last engine-throb died away, she scanned the shoreline, searching for signs of habitation.
A wall of sweetgums and cypresses lined a Mexican lagoon the color of liquid amethysts. So, where were the buildings, the roads, the people? More to the point, where was Dr. Kincaid’s welcoming committee? Surely someone had heard the plane.
She cleared her throat. “Hello-o-o,” she yodeled in her most ladylike tone.
Only the whine of insects broke the silence.
Louder, more assertive, she tried again. “Anybody home?”
A mocking echo boomed back. “Home … home … home.”
She rolled her eyes, sucked in a lungful of air, and yelled, “Is everybody in this hell-hole deaf?”
Thankfully nobody replied. Her tendency to spout her innermost thoughts before her brain kicked into censorship mode often landed her in trouble.
“Idiot,” she muttered. A temper display, as good as it might feel, would only increase Dr. Kincaid’s displeasure. There was no doubt in Charley’s mind that the archaeologist would be far from pleased when he found an eager investigative journalist camped on his doorstep, uninvited and panting for a story.
To boost her spirits, she visualized the headline, “Journalist Proves Existence of Ancient Olmec Curse.”
A frosty feminine voice intruded on her musings. “If I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a welcoming committee.”
Charley whirled around to face her only fellow passenger. Exotic Ice Queen had sauntered into the floatplane terminal, sweet-talked a ride from the pilot, and topped it off by wheedling an immediate departure.
“I’m sure someone will come,” Charley said.
Exotic Ice Queen’s knowing little smile broadened. She checked her watch. “The plane landed an hour early. At this time of day, everyone in camp is taking a siesta.”
The superior tone set Charley on edge. “I can wait,” she said with forced cheeriness.
“Suit yourself. I’m heading to the dig. That’s where Alistair is sure to be.”
Alistair? How well did the woman know Dr. Kincaid? Charley feigned disinterest with a dismissive shrug. “You can’t possibly know that.”
Exotic Ice Queen cast a sharp glance in Charley’s direction. “Just make sure you don’t follow me.”
Charley suppressed a smart-mouthed comeback, and settled on, “I wouldn’t dream of intruding. I’ll head for the camp.”
“Don’t get lost. Jaguars live out there.”
Charley frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous. Jaguars don’t attack humans.”
“Some do.” Exotic Ice Queen smiled. “The New York Times reported a jaguar attack in this area.”
Although Charley had read the same article, she shrugged off the cold shiver trickling down her spine, and injected her voice with optimism. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Charley wriggled into her backpack, looped a camera around her neck, and hoisted a duffel bag over her shoulder. Without a backwards glance, she staggered down the dock toward the palisade of trees festooned with hanging vines.
At the end of the dock, Charley followed the pilot’s directions, turning left onto the footpath along the shoreline. Jungle enclosed her in a symphony of honking, chirping, clacking, screeching, rustling, and croaking. She inhaled deeply and grimaced. The sweet scent of orchids did little to mask the odor of decaying vegetation and stagnant water. After ten paces she faltered, lurched to a halt, and eyed the dense greenery with a shiver. Sure, she’d visited exotic locations for travel articles, but this one was – different. Undercurrents of pulsing energy prickled her skin.
She shuddered and started walking again, picturing the unseen creatures, all swarming, scurrying, and writhing through the underbrush. She could feel beady eyes boring into her back. Keeping a wary eye peeled for hungry, hairy predators, she picked up her pace. Hey, all natural noises ceased when big trouble crept up. Didn’t they?
The duffel bag gained weight with every step. Halfway up a steep incline, she dropped her burden and plopped down to wait until her breathing slowed to normal.
At first the resonance was almost imperceptible. She concentrated on the sound. Sure enough a familiar buzzing, reminiscent of a swarm of wasps, filled the air. She clamped her teeth together to prevent them from chattering. The gesture of defiance did nothing to dispel the sound that heralded another panic attack.
“Not again,” she whispered. “I’m supposed to be cured!”
The humming intensified, drowning out all other noises. Her skull throbbed. Icy wind buffeted her body, sucking her breath away, stifling the howl lodged in her throat. Helpless, she surrendered.
She had a sense of minutes ticking by. Little by little, peace descended leaving her clammy and trembling. She opened her eyes to an unfamiliar world. Footpath, trees, and rocky incline had all disappeared, replaced by columns that soared toward a carved wooden roof. Something hard and pointy jabbed her lower back sending pain shooting up her spine. Her paralyzed body refused to obey her brain’s command to shift to a more comfortable position.
In an attempt to conduct a self-survey she cast her gaze downward. A granite armrest supported an unfamiliar arm encased from elbow to wrist in jade-studded armbands. The hand attached to the arm, bronzed, elegant, and dainty, appeared smaller than her own. Artificial nails curved into elongated claws.
Fighting the panic bubbling in the back of her throat, she sucked in a shuddering breath. The other hand – she had difficulty viewing it as her hand – cradled a human skull. Not just any skull, but a work of art made of volcanic glass overlaid with a mosaic of turquoise and coral. Inlaid mother-of-pearl eyes gazed back, and what looked suspiciously like human teeth grinned in a permanent rictus of a smile.
The skull signifies the continuation of life after death.
How did she know that?
She took a long, deep breath and dredged up every ounce of mental strength she possessed to vanquish the horrifying hallucination.
And slid into a dark void.
A songbird’s call penetrated the blackness clouding Charley’s brain. She stretched out one arm, then the other, rotating her wrists. Swallowing hard, she twisted the turquoise ring on her middle finger, comforted by its familiar weight.
Oh, God! She was losing her mind. Whatever she’d experienced, it hadn’t been her typical panic attack. This time she swore she’d been inside another woman’s body – someone powerful and ruthless, someone, well … evil. Perhaps the correct diagnosis of her condition should be multiple personality disorder.
Several inventive and unpleasant punishments for her shrink flashed through her mind. Three months ago the therapist had nodded wisely and handed her some psychobabble about hallucinations, visual distortions, and panic attacks. The episodes, he informed her, would disappear, given enough Prozac, a change of scenery, and adequate rest. Bottom line – the quack hadn’t a clue. Whatever their origin, the continuing attacks had baffled specialists and ended her career.
She gave herself a silent pep-talk. It would take more than a few hallucinations to put this investigative journalist out of commission. All she needed was one kick-ass exposé to salvage her career. More to the point, a healthy cash advance would secure the treatment her mother needed to overcome her habit. A few weeks in rehab and Mom would be better than new.
Once her heart rate returned to normal she heaved herself to her feet in preparation for the final push to the summit. A snicker of semi-hysterical laughter bubbled from her lips. She was climbing a puny incline, not scaling Everest.
Hefting the duffel bag to her shoulder once more she plowed up the steepest part. At the top she sucked in a deep breath. A scrutiny of the path ahead revealed a jumble of roots and rocks. Picking her way down the slope she progressed slowly at first, then faster, gaining momentum under the weight of her luggage until her feet moved in a frenzied step dance.
Chirping their alarm, a flock of black and white birds burst from the jungle. Still concentrating on her footing she crashed into a warm, unyielding wall of muscle, and bounced backwards. A startled squeak popped from her mouth.
“Oomph,” the intruder said, clutching his stomach.
She teetered, lost her balance, and sprawled backward into a mossy depression, using both hands to clutch her precious camera. The backpack anchored her to the ground as effectively as a ball and chain.
A dark form blocked the sunlight.