Stencil-mustache man didn’t say a word, though. If his buddies were waiting for orders, they were going to have to keep waiting, because he was a hands-on kind of guy. He pulled a pistol from an armpit holster and strode over, lifted the gun, and pointed it at Drake’s forehead.
“Any time now!” Drake called out, his voice shaking.
The little commandant frowned in surprise, apparently assuming that Drake was trying to rush him into pulling the trigger.
“What are you—” Alex began.
A single shot rang out, sending a flurry of colorful birds shooting skyward from the trees around the clearing. The little man with the ridiculous mustache staggered backward, glanced down in confusion and maybe a little regret at the hole in his chest, and then collapsed into the grass.
Only the fact that Drake and Alex had their hands thrust into the air and so obviously empty kept them alive in that moment. The baffled killers spun around, aiming into the trees, trying to figure out who they were supposed to shoot. One of them even fired a few rounds at nothing.
Then the shadows moved, branches swaying as dozens of guns and faces appeared in the trees. Some were above and some below, some were dressed in the style of local tribesmen and others in the plain garb of migrant workers, but they were all armed. There were guns as well as bows with arrows strung and even some knives ready to be thrown. Other than the cocking of the weapons and the rustle of the trees, they made no sound.
One of Valdez’s men started shouting at the others to fire, as if he needed to have someone else pull the trigger so he didn’t have to go first. An arrow thunked into the ground inches away from his mud-crusted left boot. He stared at the arrow for a second or two and then threw his gun into the grass.
A moment later, the rest of the killers started discarding their weapons and the Cuiqawa tribe swiftly emerged from the trees and surrounded them. Several of the tribesmen hurried to Drake’s stolen Jeep, and one of them lifted the burlap-wrapped staff from the backseat, shook it in triumph, and nodded his thanks. Drake hoped the guy realized he hadn’t gone in after the staff just to win the tribe’s gratitude.
He stood and went over to Alex. The girl still looked terrified, staring at the Cuiqawa as though they might be a new threat. Drake helped her to her feet.
“How ’bout now?” he asked. “Does this count as a rescue?”
Drake spent most of the flight from Guayaquil to Chicago catching up on his sleep. After the adrenaline rush of days spent trying not to die, he felt completely spent, yet at the same time he was filled with a rare contentment. He’d set right a wrong Valdez had done him, restored a cultural artifact to its rightful owner—granted, he’d been the one to steal it in the first place—and now was going home with more real money in his pocket than he’d had in a long while.
The tribe had paid his fee for retrieving the golden staff, but the mayor of Guayaquil had paid even more for the pleasure of getting his daughter back alive. The fact that the latter deed had been purely, if somewhat irritatingly, accidental only made the reward that much sweeter. It was the kind of luck that didn’t come his way often, and he couldn’t wait to share the story of his good fortune with Victor Sullivan, his best friend and sometime partner in ventures like this one.
There were several squalling children on the flight, and the sumo-size passenger in the seat behind him didn’t seem very happy about Drake reclining his seat, but he felt impervious to the world’s attempts to disrupt his contentment. With in-flight music quietly piped into his brain through the free headphones, he managed to sleep through the movie, waking up just long enough for the gooey chicken and broccoli dish that might have been dinner or maybe some kind of breakfast omelet if the congealed stuff around the chicken and veggies turned out to be egg.
The flight landed almost fifteen minutes early—just before ten o’clock in the morning—and when Drake unbuckled his seat belt and stood up, obviously content and well rested, he thought he caught several envious glances from other passengers. Most of them looked pale and weary, but he felt good as he retrieved his backpack from under the seat and his duffel from the overhead compartment. The sumo who’d been unhappy about his reclined seat was still trying to unwedge himself from 17D when Drake filed off the plane.
As he traveled from one terminal to another, he smelled cinnamon rolls, and his stomach rumbled. He had managed to keep down the hideous concoction the airline had fed its passengers, but he was definitely hungry again, and cinnamon rolls were one of his lifelong weaknesses. Like kryptonite—if kryptonite was soft and warm and covered in sugar and Superman liked to eat it. Or something, he thought.
While waiting in line for his cinnamon roll and looking forward to American coffee, he reached into his pocket and took out his cell phone, which had been off for the duration of the flight. He turned it on and saw that he’d missed some calls during the flight and had some messages. The first one consisted of a woman’s drunken rambling, and he decided it must be a wrong number. The second message was from Vivian, the woman who operated as his travel agent whenever he needed to make a journey that kept his movements off the grid. Drake did a little too much improvising for Vivian’s taste and she often chided him for not using her services more often, but this call was to admonish him for flying from Ecuador to the USA using his own passport. He didn’t like to do it, afraid to draw any scrutiny from Homeland Security, but he was just a guy visiting South America, not some jihadist taking flying lessons and then spending a few weeks training to blow himself up in some secret mountain stronghold in Afghanistan.
The third message was from Sully.
“Nate, it’s me. Call me as soon as you get this. Something’s up, and I could use a second set of eyes. Another brain wouldn’t hurt ei—”
The phone beeped, and he glanced at it, surprised to see that it was Sully calling again. He thumbed the button to switch over to the incoming call.
“Sully,” he said, frowning. “What’s so important?”
Motion out of the corner of his eye drew his attention, and he flinched, on edge after the last few days, but it was just the girl behind the counter handing him a bag that exuded the delightful aroma of cinnamon.
“You on U.S. soil, Nate?” Sully asked.
“I’ve got a layover in Chicago,” Drake said as he made his way to a small table where he could sit with his back to the corner.
He could hear Sully pausing and thought he heard the man exhale. Smoking a cigar, Drake thought. Sully quit about once a month and spent a lot of time chewing the end of an unlit Cuban, as if daring himself to light it. This morning, he had obviously needed a smoke.
“Chicago,” Sully said, his gruff voice even raspier than usual. “How fast can you get to New York?”
Nate paused with the sticky cinnamon bun halfway to his mouth.
“What’s in New York?”
He could hear Sully blow out another lungful of cigar smoke before answering.
Just after three-thirty in the afternoon, Drake sat in the back of a New York City taxicab, breathing in smoke from the incense the cabbie had been burning and watching the green street signs go by on the way to Grand Central Station. He could have taken a shuttle bus directly from JFK International Airport in Queens to Grand Central in the heart of Manhattan, but Sully’s urgency had been clear, and for once Drake was flush with cash.
He wished only that Sully had been more forthcoming over the phone. Drake had spent his whole life learning how to roll with the punches, and a big part of that had been Sully’s tendency to spring things on him at the last minute. But he didn’t think Sully’s reluctance to go into detail had anything to do with the aging treasure hunter’s usual games. Just before Sully had rushed off the phone, Drake had heard a woman crying in the background. If his old friend and mentor didn’t want to talk about murder, he figured it was because someone else in the room was grieving. Sully would never be accused of being the sensitive type, but neither was he heartless.
A grieving friend also would explain why Sully hadn’t come to the airport to meet him when his plane landed. If he needed Drake for backup for some reason, normally Sully would have wanted to brief him as soon as possible. Instead, he had just asked Drake to meet him under the clock on the main concourse of Grand Central Station.
The cab dropped him off in front of a restaurant called Pershing Square that was practically hidden beneath the elevated Park Avenue Viaduct. Drake paid the cabbie but barely looked at the man, his thoughts running ahead of him. He’d been lucky enough to catch a flight from Chicago within half an hour of talking to Sully on the phone, and throughout the nearly two and a half hours in the air and the duration of the cab ride, he had mostly been able to let his mind drift or focus on other things. But now that he had arrived, he couldn’t help being worried.
Victor Sullivan had practically raised him from his early teens and taught him everything—or nearly everything—he knew about staying alive in the “hard-to-find-acquisitions” business. They’d been all over the world hunting for treasure and antiquities for pretty much anyone who could afford to pay the tab. And in all that time he had never heard Sully sound as grim and weary as he had on the phone.
A taxi driver laid on the horn as Drake hustled across the street. A chilly October wind blasted him, and he shivered, wishing he had a coat. He had left his bags in a locker at JFK, figuring he would be headed back to the airport on his way out of the city, but nothing in there would have helped. Ecuador had been warm and humid. Drake had spent too much time in hot and sticky locales in his life, so he didn’t mind the chilly autumn wind, but it was a rapid shift, like stepping through a door to the other end of the world.
Wouldn’t that make my life easy? he thought. But of course that kind of stuff happened only in science fiction and fantasy stories, where the heroes were all noble and dead wasn’t always forever. Real life had less convenient rules.
Drake hauled open the heavy glass-and-brass door and walked up the pebbled incline between the outer and inner doors. A man with a long, filthy, matted beard and sunken eyes stood to one side wearing a sign announcing the arrival of the End Times, but there was no way to tell if he was celebrating or regretting the moment.
When he stepped into the main concourse—the enormous, ornate chamber that came immediately to mind when he thought of Grand Central Terminal—he made a beeline for the huge clock. He spotted Sully standing beneath it, but the older man was turned away, watching the stairs across the terminal, probably thinking about the baby carriage scene in De Palma’s Untouchables, a homage to the Russian flick Battleship Potemkin. They’d passed through Grand Central together a few times, and every time Sully had to tell him about those stairs. Sully saw him coming and perked up, shaking off whatever he’d been thinking about. From the haunted look in his eyes, Drake decided maybe it wasn’t old gangster movies, after all.
“Nate,” Sully said. “Thanks for coming.”
“I was already traveling. Just had to take a detour,” Drake replied. Their rapport mostly consisted of banter, but for once he thought maybe the lighthearted approach wasn’t appropriate. “What’s going on, Sully? You said ‘murder.’ One look at you and I’m guessing this isn’t some cozy mystery.”
Sully frowned, smoothing his gray mustache. “I’m not my usual jovial self, huh? I guess not. But you look more than a little like crap yourself, so maybe you shouldn’t judge.”
Drake raised his eyebrows. “Great to see you, too.”
A tired smile touched Sully’s face and a bit of the usual mischievous twinkle lit his eyes, but then the smile faded and his gaze turned dark. He nodded his head toward the row of arched doorways that led through into the train tunnels and platforms.
“Come on. This way,” he said.
Drake followed without asking any more questions. If Sully had a particular way he wanted the answer to unfold, Drake would indulge him. He’d earned that, and far more, in the years they’d been friends. He studied Sully as they reached a staircase and started down to a lower level. A drinker and an inveterate ladies’ man, he looked, as always, as if he would have been more at home gambling in 1950s Havana than dealing with twenty-first-century America. His graying hair looked a bit unruly, and dark circles under his eyes implied he hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep the night before. He wore a brown leather bomber jacket over one of his guayaberas—linen shirts that were most popular in Latin America and the Caribbean. Both the shirt and the khaki pants he was wearing were rumpled, indicating that whatever sleep he had gotten, he’d been wearing the same clothes since the day before.
It had been almost two months since Drake had seen Sully, but they’d spoken on the phone less than a week ago, and at the time there’d been no indication that anything was amiss. But murder gave no warning.
Sully led him through the lower-level concourse and past the arched entrances to a warren of underground railway tunnels until at last he turned through one of those archways and walked down a dozen steps to a train platform. Lights flickered unreliably in the darkness of the ceiling above them. The rumble of trains both near and distant made it feel like at any moment the world might shake itself apart. The noise reminded Drake of counting the seconds between thunder strikes as a child, trying to figure out how far away the storm might be and if the lightning might be coming his way.
No train awaited them at the platform. Drake had half expected that they were about to embark on a journey, but if they were, it apparently wouldn’t be by train. The tracks were empty, and other than themselves, the platform looked abandoned—except for the yellow line of police tape that had been used to cordon off the end of the platform from the public. Drake didn’t have to ask; he knew where they were headed now.