Something was disturbingly wrong here.
Ever since the five of them had arrived in the Valley of the Vanished, they had been treated like royalty. They were presented with native clothing, and Monja had provided them with several natives to act as guides and interpreters.
But what disturbed her most was the attitude of the natives themselves. She had known hospitality from all over the world, but these people went beyond that. They ... loved the strangers from the sky, regardless of knowing who and what they were all about. It was eerie. She was used to the adoration of the public, the love of the people, but this was different. The people in the 'outside world' did so for a reason, to get something. But these people didn't seem to have that motivation. They had nothing to gain. And that's what made it the more perplexing to her.
The others enjoyed the attention, and were taking well to the natives. All but Balboa had adopted the local clothing. That was fine, she agreed, as she looked up at the sky in the direction of the mouth of the chasm. Show yourself, Doc, she thought with impatience.
"Is there something wrong?" asked Grape Vine, her guide. She looked down at his concerned face and tried to smile. She couldn't, so turned her head and dismissed things with a curt, "No. I'm fine."
"Very good, mistress," he acknowledged.
As she continued walking, she noticed a group of children playing. So innocent, she mused. So untouched by the rest of the world. She thought of her own childhood, those many decades ago in Canada with her father. She smiled at the memories.
Suddenly, a brown-faced little boy spotted her and ran to her. He lifted his arms to her, and she didn't need a translator for his intent. She bent down and picked him up. He wrapped his small arms around her neck and gave her a big hug. She paused at the unabashed show of affection, and tried to return the hug. When she did it was a poor effort at best.
The boy's action attracted the attention of the other children, who mobbed Pat and wanted to hug the bronze-haired fair-skinned woman. She found that resistance was futile, so went down to one knee in order to accommodate them all.
Their love brought pain back to Pat, as she reflected on her own inability to bear children. The silphium had been the primary reason, she had told herself. But there were other factors involved that she didn't like to admit. The silphium had made her appear to be half her proper age, but it didn't change the facts of nature. She was now simply too far beyond child-bearing years. Too far gone.
Suddenly feeling a wave of cold from inside, she broke free of the children and quickly moved clear of them. They tried to follow her, but soon tired of the chase.
Twilight came over the Valley of the Vanished. And for Pat, it brought frustration.
Before returning to the palace, she had contacted Daniel from the Osprey. He regretted reporting yet another attack by Apex, on a boutique in Baja. Mumbling curses under her breath, she made her way up the stairs to the second floor, and the room next to Monja's. She quickly entered her room and closed the door behind her.
Drawing a dried reed from a cylindrical holder, she touched it to one of the flames and applied it to the oil lamp on the table in the middle of the room. She felt an admiration for the ingenuity of these simple people, who had taken animal waste and plants and produced a clean flammable gas to provide light, as she walked over to the window and waited for the inevitable knock from her hostess.
Entertainment in the Valley was woefully limited to conversation, some games, music, and a surprising number of reading groups. And every evening since their arrival, Monja had visited her room desiring conversation.
The Mayan Queen had gone on at length about her family, the children she had given birth to, and the joy they had brought to her life. In her own defense, Pat had tried to convey the feelings of satisfaction she had in being the head of a large business, but it just didn't get through to the Mayan queen. In the end, she broke her own vow of silence, and told her of her daughter Caroline, and the distance between them. Monja could see the pain it caused Pat, and diplomatically changed the subject.
Eventually, the conversation came back to Doc. The conversation ALWAYS came back to Doc. Even when Monja asked about life on the outside, Pat had to be creative in order to perpetuate her tale about her 'uncontrollable' cousin.
It was evident that she still cared a great deal for him after all these years. During the years that Doc had been missing, Monja had been able to let go of him and move on with her life. When her father died, she took over the mantle of leadership. She married, gave birth to children, and eventually became a widow.
Then came the call from Doc. Monja spoke about it as if it had been the Second Coming of Christ. It gave the people hope. It gave her hope that somehow, someday, they would be together again. And now, with him on his way, she was literally bursting with excitement.
Pat turned from the window as the darkness overcame the land, and tried to focus on coming up with a way of keeping the queen from putting a crimp in her plans.
There was a rap on the door. "Come in, Monja," she answered.
Dressed in a dark, floor-length robe and carrying an oil lamp, Monja walked into the room. She placed the lamp near the one Pat had lit, and the two women sat in a pair of luxurious chairs. The topic once more turned to Doc, but Pat was ready. A few minutes in, she stated, "I don't know if I mentioned it, but he has somehow made himself young. He looks about as old as I do."
There was sudden silence. Pat observed Monja's face, and saw the emotion. After a few moments, her voice filled with disappointment, she openly voiced her own conclusions. "He is young? If this is so, then why should he desire an old woman as myself?" She looked at Pat. "Do you know how this happened?"
"I've heard rumors of a special chemical he took that stopped him from aging, but that may be nothing more than hearsay." She shrugged innocently. "I haven't been able to talk to him to ask him."
"Your youth, Pat ... how did you retain it?" she asked, searching.
Pat was ready. "An herb called silphium, used for many years."
"Would-would this silphium work on me?"
"I honestly don't know," she replied.
"Then would you allow me to try it?" she asked boldly.
"I suppose so," she replied, hesitantly. "But there is no guarantee that it will have any effect on you. Realize, I've been using it for years."
"Would you allow me to try it? Please?" she repeated.
"All right," Pat conceded on cue. "But please don't get your hopes up, okay?"
A light returned to Monja's eyes. "Thank you, Pat! How soon can I try it?"
Pat thought a moment. "Well, I will have to go to my airplane. It will take a few minutes."
"I will wait here," Monja responded, barely able to stay seated.
Fifteen minutes later, Pat came back into the room with a small black case. With practiced familiarity, she removed the items and prepared the dosage of silphium. She held up a steel item. "This is a device which uses compressed air to inject the solution into the bloodstream instead of puncturing the skin. It doesn't hurt, but I will need to inject it into the main artery of your neck."
Obediently, she brushed the silver hair away from her neck and waited. Pat located the artery and pressed the nozzle against it. The apparatus hissed as the silphium entered her bloodstream. As she disassembled the device, Monja felt her neck.
"How do you feel?" asked Pat.
"I feel ... a little dizzy. But I am fine. When will I see any results?"
Pat chuckled. "As I said, there is no telling what the results will be, nor even if there will be results. I warned you not to get your hopes up. Now it would probably be good idea if you went to bed. In the morning we shall see."
Monja rose, a little wobbly, and smiled embarrassingly. She gave Pat a sisterly hug, then took her lamp and left the room.
Pat finished dissembling and cleaning the hypo-spray device, and put the bag on the dresser where her clothes were. Spotting her copy of Johnny's book on Mayan culture, she picked it up and had a seat next to the lamp.
The light of the morning had barely arrived when Pat heard the scream from next door. A moment later, the door burst open without warning. "Pat, Pat! Look at me!" she said excitedly.
It was Monja, and Pat instantly understood her excitement.
She was younger. Way younger.
At first glance, she looked forty or fifty years younger. Her silver hair had regained its jet black color, and all traces of wrinkles had vanished. Pat was amazed that the silphium had made such a profound effect on the woman.
She stood at the foot of Pat's bed and breathlessly explained, "I had a fitful time sleeping. When I awoke and looked at myself in the mirror, this is what I saw. Isn't it wonderful?"
"Yes, it is," answered Pat cautiously. "How do you feel?"
"I feel fine. My heart is beating very fast, but I am so excited ..."
"I've got to think this over," she said to herself, then turned to Monja. "Your people are going to be very pleased."
"I must tell my children," she said excitedly.
"You better get dressed first," Pat suggested. "I'll meet you downstairs."
Monja glanced down at her robe and giggled. "Yes. This is fine for an old woman ... but not for a young one," she said with a grin. "Thank you, my friend Pat. Thank you."
As the door closed behind the queen, and Pat swung her legs out of bed, she shook her head with amazement.
She'd never known the silphium to have such an ... extreme effect on her. Could it be the environment? The isolation of the Valley to the effects of pollution? After all, this place's all-organic, all natural, and their lifestyle is monastic. But could it be more than that?
Then the answer hit her like a bolt of lightning. The dosage!
Over the decades, she'd developed an intolerance to the silphium, and so had compensated by gradually increasing the dosage. What Monja had been given was far greater than Pat's initial doses. It was that megadose, combined with the virgin environment of the Valley, that had produced this result in her.
"Very interesting," she mused aloud. "I wonder if I could market this?"
Monja's intent had been to first tell her family of the change in her: "They will be thrilled to know that their mother is young again."
However, that was not how it ended.
Both she and Pat knew that Monja just couldn't walk up to the houses of her sons and daughters and announce that she was young again. They would never believe her. So she first had to convince her closest servants that she was who she said she was. Once they understood -- more or less -- they summoned her family and their spouses to the palace for the great unveiling.
Her five surviving children, their four spouses, and her seven grandchildren were initially shocked, with some disbelief. But then she easily presented them with details of their life that only she would know. Her daughters -- Esther, Ruth, and the pregnant Miriam -- were overjoyed at their mother's good fortune. But her two surviving sons -- Mordecai, the first-born, and Matthias -- were more skeptical of the goodness of the transformation. Although she did not fully understand the Mayan language, Pat could still grasp the doubt of their conversation, and kept a safe distance from the family meeting.
Sitting before the computer currently dedicated to Nancy's switchboard program, Clark was still fascinated by this era's technology, surpassing even the marvels he himself had created decades ago.
He felt Renny's feet climbing the steps outside the admin trailer. As the big man came into the room, he said, "Okay, we're ready. I've given express orders that we're not to be disturbed unless a tornado was heading this way."
Clark started making the calls. The numbers had been pre-entered into the system, so it was a simple matter of establishing the connection. One by one they came into the mix: Monk and Lea on Line 1, Perry and Dot on Line 2, Johnny on Line 3, Gumball on Line 4, and Amy on Line 5. Connections were scrambled and made secure. Greetings and small talk were exchanged. Clark looked over the switchboard, and nodded.
Dot and I sat at the table in our hotel room. A speakerphone was plugged into my cell phone. It was just after sunrise; Clark wasn't wasting time.
Clark's distinct booming voice cut through the small talk. "Your attention, please. May I suggest that, before we proceed, we have a quick word of prayer."
We joined in with the chorus of amens and other sounds of agreement. Clark paused, then offered petition for God to bring us all into one accord, and give us wisdom. There was another chorus of amens as he finished.
"Over the last few hours, either Monk or myself have contacted you individually on this matter, providing you with as many details as we can present. However, in order to bring us all up to speed, I'd like to provide a quick overview of the situation to date.
"Let me first start by explaining what the Valley of the Vanished is, and its significance.
"Hundreds of years ago, at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the ancestors who settled the Valley were a clan of the highest class of Mayans, the royalty. They fled from the Spanish soldiers, and have existed there for centuries, set apart from the rest of the world. There have been a few from the outside who have gotten through, including our group ... and, before us, my father. He helped them, and they showed their thanks by providing him -- and us -- with an inexhaustible supply of gold. We were also made official members of their people."
"Don't I know it," commented Monk with a groan. "My knees still ache when I think of climbing that pyramid on 'em to seal the deal." There were sympathetic noises from Johnny and Renny.
Clark continued. "During my hibernation, when things were falling apart on the outside, Ham had the foresight to enact some changes in the way the gold could be accessed. He believed that I would return some day. Perry and I found his notes, and restored contact with the Valley last year."
He paused. "Two days ago, Monk received a mysterious phone call stating that the Valley was in danger. I contacted the Valley at the prescribed time, and was informed that the contract between myself and the people of the Valley had been dissolved by order of ... Queen Monja."
"Monja's queen now?" exclaimed Johnny.
Clark continued. "I was informed that I would have to reestablish the contract in person. Now, this is obviously a snare to lure me outside of the United States. The most likely suspect in this is my cousin Pat. It's already been established that she harbors a great deal of hate towards me, and would like nothing better than to see me dead." He paused. "The Valley would offer an ideal opportunity to do this. Also, the gold of the Valley would be a strong temptation, to refill her coffers in light of the current reign of terror by Apex against her company and others. With these two facts in mind, it seems most likely that Pat is behind this."
"I also did some snoopin'," added Monk. "I called around, tryin' to get a message to Patty -- um, Penelope. One secretary in L.A. said she was out of the country. Another in New York let it slip that she was going to be gone for a couple of weeks. It may not be conclusive evidence, but it sure helps the case."
"Agreed," replied Clark. "So I think that we can safely assume that Pat is behind this, and she's somehow deceived or persuaded Monja into siding against me."
"Our plan is for Gumball and I to fly in with the Osprey. That direct action will divert attention away from a second group, who will enter the Valley covertly. This second group will determine the nature of the threat, and neutralize it."
I tapped the star key on my cell as a signal, like raising a hand for attention.
"Yes, Perry?" he acknowledged.
"Non-lethal, of course. But we're rushing things a bit. I need to know who will be participating in this mission."
"I'm in," said Monk.
"Don't have much choice, do I -- considerin' I'm your ride," added Gumball.
"I'm afraid I'll have to pass," said Johnny, punctuating his statement with a sneeze. "Flu bug."
"I'm out, too," added Renny, looking over at Clark apologetically. "Amanda needs me."
I looked over at Dot. We made eye contact and she nodded her head. "We're in," I said.
"I'll see what Father may have left behind to help us," said Amy. "I will do all I can."
"Very well. Thank you," concluded Clark. "Since Gumball and I have the easy part, so to speak, we should concentrate on the actions of the covert team. Gumball tells me that the term SOG is usable here -- Special Operations Group."
"What ways are there of getting into the Valley?" asked Dot.
"It's extremely limited. More than likely, we would all be riding in the Osprey, then the SOG would separate at some point along the way."
Dot leaned towards the speakerphone. "Granddad, you'd be the only one of the SOG that would know the terrain. Can you brief the rest of us?"
"Sure thing, Dottie," he squeaked back. "In fact, I've been sketchin' out some rough maps for ya to study."
"Next question," I spoke up. "Once we're in the Valley, we'll need to be able to move about unseen. Any suggestions?"
"We'll come up with something," hedged Clark, sensing we were moving off-track. "Remember, this is a planning session, where we get things out in the open, determine what we have and what we need. We can work on the problems as we go."
He paused and shifted gears. "Now, presuming that Pat has a small army accompanying her, we will also need a way to neutralize them."
"Well, we've always got the anaesthetic gas," said Monk. "But it's real limited against a large group. We'd have to catch them just right in order for it to be effective."
"Can you modify it?" asked Amy. "Compress it, perhaps, or make it last longer in the air?"
"I think so, but I'd have to check into it first." He paused. "Even if I can do it, I'm real limited with regards to production facilities."
"Okay. Renny has been able to find an old superfirer, but that's it. So we're limited when it comes to personal weaponry."
"What about hand-to-hand?" asked Dot.
"Too open to make it practical, unless you're trained jungle fighters," answered Renny.
"So we'll need some non-lethal firepower to use against unknown numbers," observed Clark. "Amy, wasn't Long Tom working on that?"
"Yes," she replied, thoughtfully. "But many of them are impractical due to a lack of production facilities. Working alone, it could take weeks."
Clark summarized, "So we need production facilities. Any ideas?"
Dot whispered into my ear. I grinned. "Clark," I said. "What about our man in New York?"
"An excellent idea. For the rest of you, we're talking about Douglas Martin. He worked in Ham's old law firm while Ham was alive, and now he's a senior partner. He also has ties to the intelligence community."
"CIA? NSA?" asked Gumball.
"Anything's possible," he answered. "We've discovered he's a man of many talents. Let me get him on the line. Please stand by."
There was sudden silence from the speakerphone. Dot stood and stretched. "So ... what do you think?" she asked.
I looked at her. "Not sure yet. I'm a preacher, not a commando; the only warfare I'm used to is more spiritual than physical."
"You'll do fine. Remember, the battle is the Lord's."
I nodded. "True."
A few minutes later, Clark came back on the line. "I apologize for the long delay, but I was explaining what the situation was, and what we needed. He has a friend he believes can handle our needs. Martin should be calling me back soon. When he does, I'll include him in the mix."
We passed the time with small talk. We expressed our sympathy at Johnny's flu, and our expectation at the construction of the Institute. There was no 'if' while we talked about the building; we were fully confidant that God had His blessing on this project, and He would cause it to happen, regardless on any 'setback.'
Clark suddenly said, "Martin's calling. I'm going to join him to us."
There was a pause while Clark brought Douglas Martin into the conference call.
"Douglas?" said Clark. "You're in and secure."
Martin's voice, tinged with age but full of life, came through the speakerphone. "My great thanks to you all for allowing me to participate in your endeavor." He paused. "Mr. Mayfair? It's an honor to meet you once more. And Mr. Renwick, what a pleasure to speak to you at last."
"Ditto. I hear you helped them track me down," said Renny.
"That I did, sir. I trust that there are no hard feelings."
"Naw. Besides, if they hadn't found me, they would'a never found Long Tom."
"Yes. My condolences, by the way, on your loss. Especially to you, Miss Roberts."
"Thank you," replied Amy cordially.
"You've contacted the armorer?" asked Clark.
"Yes, and he will help you. His name is Mitchell Drake, and he runs a company called Waverly Arms; it operates out of Miami, Florida. It may appear to be a small company, but they are quite capable of exceeding your needs. I gave Mitch your cell phone number, Clark. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. Did you tell him who I am?"
"No, sir! He will know you only as Clark Dent, a friend and client of mine."
"Thank you, Douglas. When will he be calling?"
"Knowing him, I'd say within the hour."
"Very good. Thank you."
Martin's voice was rejuvenated. "The pleasure is all mine. It feels marvelous to be of use once more beyond my legal expertise. Good luck in your endeavor, and please don't hesitate to call."
We all gave our encouragements, thanks, and farewells. Then he disconnected from the conference call.
"There you have it," concluded Clark. "I would say we're on our way. Please consider what you have and what you will need, and I'll contact you individually as soon as possible."
Dot and I gave our goodbyes and disconnected.
Monk was looking out at the lake when the cordless phone in his hand rang.
"Clark?" he said expectantly.
"Yes, Monk. I had a most fascinating talk with Mr. Drake. He is indeed who we are looking for, and his facilities will be more than sufficient."
"Great!" he exclaimed. "I've also got some good news. I found my notes for the anaesthetic gas, and there IS a way of expanding its capabilities. All I need is a good chem lab to make it work."
Clark's tone lowered. "I believe that time is of the essence. I've already spoken to your son, and he's willing to transport us all to their facilities in Florida, arriving by this evening. Can you be ready?"
"Yeah, sure. I'll start packing. Have him give me a call when he's near."
"Will do. See you later."
Monk looked down at the well-worn leather flight bag he had recovered from storage, and carried it into the bedroom. As he packed, he suddenly noticed his wife standing in the doorway. He looked at her and gave her a toothy grin, then returned to his task. A few moments later he stopped and looked at her again. She was very quiet, a dead giveaway.
"You're worried about me," he said, more statement than question.
"And why shouldn't I?" Her soft features mirrored her pain. "You're not a spring chicken anymore, Andy. And if Pat is behind this, she won't make the same mistakes she did in Lincoln City."
Monk walked over to her, took her in a tender embrace, and kissed her. "I'll be all right. I won't be alone."
Lea was quiet. "Do you still love her?"
Monk's expression turned to surprise. "Is that what this is about?" he exclaimed. Then he looked her in the eyes and said softly, "Lea, you are the only woman in my life. You've put up with me all these years. You're the mother of our kids. Pat's not even in your league."
He gave her a squeeze. "Just don't do anything stupid. You know I look awful in black," she commented with a smile.
"Okay, Clark. We'll be there by ten."
I hung up the cell, and walked into the bedroom. Dot was packing. Approaching her from behind, I wrapped my arms around her, and she leaned into the embrace. "We meet Gumball this morning at Portland Airport, then on to sunny Florida." I softened my tone. "Sorry about cutting the honeymoon short."
"He needs us," she replied, placing a hand on my forearm. "We can't stay away."
I kissed the side of her head and loosed my grip around her. As she continued packing, I walked back into the front room. Picking up the telephone, I called down to the lobby and informed them that we would be checking out within the hour, asking for a taxi to be waiting to take us to the airport.
Standing at the window, watching as the sun tried desperately to penetrate the overcast pall, I paused a moment, then picked up my cell phone. The tones of the buttons caught Dot's attention. "Who're you calling?" she casually asked.
"Mark," I replied, pressing the send button. "We're going to need prayer coverage."
"Yeah?" came the groggy voice after three rings.
"Mark, it's Perry."
"Perry, do you know what time it is?"
He sensed the sobriety in my voice. "What's wrong?"
"Dot and I are leaving Portland this morning. We're going on a ... a mission."
"And you need prayer coverage," he deduced. "What's the scoop?"
"Remember when I told you about where our funding comes from?"
"Well, it looks like Pat is there. And she's setting a trap for Clark."
There was a long whooshing sound on the other end. "Oh, boy. I've been seeing her on the news lately, and I've thought about you two."
"Anyhow, we're heading for some training and supplying in Florida, then into Central America. We're the strike team. If everything works, we'll sneak in and catch them off guard. God willing, nobody'll get hurt."
"Say no more," interrupted Mark. "Let's pray."
I closed my eyes and Mark led the prayer for protection and guidance. Afterward, I thanked him, and promised that I would contact him once we were safe again.
"Thanks. Relax, brother ... you'll be covered."
"Thanks, Mark. Bye."
I ended the connection, thought a moment, then dialed another number. "Jack ... ?"
That evening, as Pat settled into her bed, she wasn't as comfortable as last night.
There was a force of Mayan guards patrolling the palace, protecting Pat and her people from those who saw Monja's transformation as 'sorcery', 'witchcraft', or 'black magic'. They had made their point very clear, declaring that 'this act was a predecessor to bad times for the village', that it would 'bring destruction to the people', and that 'only through purging it from the Valley could peace return.'
Therefore the palace was guarded while they slept. And also the Osprey, a potential target for vandals. They were all safe and sound ... just like prisoners.
She heard footsteps approaching, and she reached for the six-shooter she had loaded and ready. It would only take one fanatic getting past the guards, she thought.
And yet, she had to remind herself, it wasn't the whole village that had turned against her, but just a few dangerous radicals. Most of the people were with either cautiously neutral, or had seen the transformation as a 'good omen', a 'sign from heaven for increased prosperity'.
Hearing the footsteps waning away, she retracted her arm under the covers, relaxed and closed her eyes.
"KILL THE WITCH FROM THE SKIES!!" suddenly yelled several voices from outside the window -- and in English, no less. This was for HER ears to hear.
In an instant, Pat's eyes were wide open, her sidearm was in her hand, and she had rolled out of her bed and crouched catlike on the floor. Her breathing came in short gasps. Moving carefully, she quickly scrambled to the window and peered over the sill. She expected to see pitchforks and the glow of torches, like some old monster movie. But all she could see was the night, and the jungle. But she knew her enemies were out there, too.
She crouched there for several minutes, until her legs started to ache. Then and only then did she slip back under the covers, returning the pistol to its holster.
But she knew that sleep would not come easily this evening.