A spill in the rapids drags two strangers into a harrowing adventure.
Chuck Borgas is ready to get back in the jungle. A lost city and a team of archeological students are waiting for him in Guatemala. He is waylaid at the airport by a bizarre woman who latches onto him like they are long-lost buddies. Finally ditching the stranger, he realizes she has left a bag behind. One glimpse into that sack and Chuck knows he has stepped into a heap of trouble.
Faith Sanders is part of a small task force returning smuggled artifacts to the Guatemalan government. Her team is ambushed by members of a drug cartel, but she manages to escape. Alone and determined to get the artifacts to their destination, she is forced to improvise as the cartel closes in on her.
Realizing that she has jeopardized the stranger at the airport, Faith has to decide which is more important…saving his life, or completing her mission.
Nearly three years had passed since he was last here. Red tape. Politics. Authorities. There were a host of obstacles to prevent his return, but now Chuck Borgas was back. It was bittersweet in a manner of speaking. Last time he was here, he was a graduate student escorting a team of archeology students across the border into Guatemala to work for the esteemed Professor Alexandra Langley.
That had gone to hell quickly.
Now, he was a colleague of Alexandra’s—co-curators for the Museum of Historical Art and Antiquities. Shortly after that debacle three years ago, Alexandra returned to Guatemala with her husband and discovered the potential site of the lost city she had been searching for. They affectionately referred to the site as the Red City. The color red was associated with the direction east in Mayan culture. And this sector was at the easternmost point of her grid in the jungle.
In the time that they waited for approval from the Guatemala Ministry of Culture to return to the site, Alex had given birth to a bouncing future historian. Chuck was now the lead archeologist on this venture. A team of students was already in place, awaiting his arrival.
Slinging his backpack over one shoulder, Chuck passed through customs and headed towards the sliding glass doors to wait for a Chicken Bus to take him across the border. An archeologist’s budget didn’t exactly call for limo service. The crowded, chaotic local transport would have to do.
“There you are!”
Chuck felt a hand slide through his crooked arm. Startled, he looked down at the slim tanned limb before his eyes vaulted up to take in the rest.
A student? He knew everyone on his team. This woman with the tawny lopsided bun was definitely not in his group. She wore a navy blue polo shirt with an insignia he couldn’t quite catch.
“I’ve been waiting for you. Come on, let’s go. We’re going to be late.”
This little pistol of a woman was corralling his six-foot-plus field-rugged frame towards the doorway. Momentary surprise allowed for it, until he snapped to attention and locked his feet.
Unaffected, she beamed up at him. “I missed you too. Your flight was late. I almost got a taxi, but I promised I’d be here when you got off the plane. It’s stifling out there today.”
She leaned in, and for an irrational moment he thought this stranger was going to kiss him. Hell, it wasn’t often that beautiful women threw themselves at him.
“Look,” he said. “You’ve made some mistake.”
Her head tipped back and a husky laugh brushed across glossless lips. There was not a shred of makeup on the heart-shaped face that glistened slightly from the heat.
“You’re always so funny. Remember that time with the margaritas? You blew through a straw to make bubbles and ended up splashing the drink all over the guy at the next table.”
There it was. That tiny revelation. Not anything about her story. She was, as his grandmother would say, a real card. Audacious. Flippant. Bubbly. And she was like syrup pouring over his arm.
But there was some serious shit going down in her eyes. Fear. Anxiety. Desperation. Mostly fear. That registered foremost in the shadows of her pupils.
Clearly this was an act. And if it was an act, then the audience had to be nearby. Chuck lifted his eyes over her head and scanned the possibilities.
Was she running from an abusive boyfriend? From the police?
The crowd was thin here. Everyone was congregated down at the baggage claim. A family with two kids in tow scrambled by with their wheelie carts screeching. A taxi driver stepped through the sliding glass doors, sizing them up as prospects. A man was engrossed with the airline schedule monitor, while some people sat on the wooden benches, seemingly preoccupied—none returning his searching gaze.
“Listen ma’am—” God knows what trouble she was into.“I’m in a rush here.”
That much was true. He could see the colorful Chicken Bus waiting out in the parking lot. It was an old school bus modified into a party on wheels, earning its name from the days of transporting live animals along with human passengers. Public transportation with flair.
To his surprise she casually punched his arm and snickered. “You’re a hoot,” she remarked. “Like an owl. Hoot. Hoot. Hoot.”
Okay, where’s the camera? Surely this was some stint for a reality show.
A tug on his arm arrested his attention. Although the woman was oozing mirth, her brown eyes were soulful and pleading as they looked up at him. Even as she forced another laugh, one truthful breath squeezed across her lips.
In a blink, the glib smile was back, making him wonder if the plea had all been in his mind.
“Will you look at that thing!” She nudged her head at the vibrant bus parked outside. “It looks like a bag of Skittles threw up on it. I can’t even imagine what the inside looks like. Do you really think there will be chickens like in the movies? It’s gonna smell like chicken crap, isn’t it? How long will it take to get there?”
All this time, she was tugging him. Subtle, but forceful enough that if he resisted it would draw attention. He played along. Last thing he needed was to be drawn into someone else’s problems, but the look of desperation in her eyes was enough to propel him through the door with her in tow. At least get her outside. Maybe she could catch an Uber or something.
Clearly, she wanted whoever was watching to think they were together. He got that. He even nodded once or twice in response, but kept scanning the parade of vehicles loitering in front of the airport for the source of her performance.
The Chicken Bus was literally bouncing already, the chassis swaying under the weight of the line of people now climbing inside the cabin. Hesitating just outside that queue, he looked down at the animated leech attached to his arm.
“This bus is going across the border,” he mentioned, not sure if his words made it through her non-stop chatter.
“Yes.” She nodded, coaxing him into the line.
Okay. Whatever. Let her get on the bus. There was bound to be a hundred other passengers with equally eccentric backgrounds.
They shuffled on board and the woman edged down the aisle looking for a free bench seat. He detected the discreet bob of her head as she searched out each window. Finally she threw her canvas bag on an empty seat and then stepped out of the way, allowing him to sit.
Chuck remained standing.
“I—” she stammered, “I dropped something. I’ll be right back.”
Before he could react, she was swimming against the tide of passengers, dodging each one in an attempt to get off the bus. Colorful outbursts followed in her wake.
“Hey!” he called, starting after her.
Stuck in the throng, it was then that he noticed the two men stalking towards the bus. He ducked his head close to someone’s shoulder for a better view out the window. Instead of joining the line to board the bus, the men walked in tandem with the woman’s progress against the flow. Pursuing her. Waiting for her.
“Hey,” Chuck called to her.
There was a flinch of her shoulder, as if she heard his call, but refused to turn around. Then with one final push, she was off the bus. She stepped onto the curb and stood still, facing the bus, locking on his gaze through the window. Even from here he could see her staged levity was gone. Resignation joined the shadows in her eyes as the two men in cargo shorts and black t-shirts reached her, each seizing one of her arms.
Chuck struggled against the last-minute throng of passengers as the squeal of the door closing made him cry out.
The Chicken Bus lurched forward with the aisle still crowded full of people searching for seats. In the mud-streaked window, Chuck caught one last glimpse of the young woman now being roughly hauled away.
He fumbled into his back pocket for his phone and took an off-balance photo, which from this distance and angle would show nothing more than three stick figures.
Disturbed by the sequence of events, he tried to shake it off. Trouble came in all shapes and sizes in Central America. Not even off the airport property, and already he’d encountered some. Trying to cast away the shadows of the stranger’s glance, or the soft plea from her lips, Chuck slumped back into his seat, feeling each bounce of the bus jar his spine. Clutching the seatback in front of him, he noticed the woman’s canvas bag lying on the cracked vinyl surface.
He didn’t even want to chance a glimpse. What had she planted on him? Was he that susceptible to a woman in distress?
Chuck’s head wobbled as the bus shimmied. A constant ebb and flow of brakes, gas, brakes, gas echoed his thoughts. Look. Don’t look. Look. Don’t look.
Flapping his hand down on the bag to keep it from sliding onto the floor, he dragged the canvas sack closer. After a discreet glimpse around, he was assured by the laughter and steady din that no one was focusing on him.
Just leave it.
Just leave the damn bag alone.
Let the next hapless soul who sits here deal with it.
What if it’s just her clothes?
What if it has her passport?
She’s going to need that.
Growling out a curse, he slid the zipper open, casting one last glance at the closest passengers. Satisfied that they were busy, he slid the bag closer to his lap and peered inside.
Son of a bitch.
Keeping the gap of the bag as narrow as possible, he slipped his arm inside and let his hand confirm what his eyes had just glimpsed.
Texture. Shape. Size.
One last peek and he hauled the zipper closed on the bag full of human skulls.