The Drop-Dead Temple
“JJ’s in trouble,” a familiar voice said.
I put down my e-reader and focused on my husband of nearly a year, six-foot-two Gurn Hanson, a honey of a man with sun-streaked brown hair and a square jawline. My own personal Adonis looked worried. This was surprising. It takes a lot to rattle my man.
JJ was Gurn’s cousin. Only a few months younger, JJ was in nearly every childhood picture I’d seen of him. Adult life may have sent them their separate ways, but when growing up, they were practically joined at the hip.
Hubby continued to stare at me. Uh-oh. I took a deep breath. This was not going to be the relaxing Sunday morning I’d hoped for. Or, truth be told, felt I deserved.
I am the in-house investigator for the family-owned, Silicon Valley-based detective agency, Discretionary Inquiries. The aforementioned is called D. I. by everyone except my mother and CEO, Lila Hamilton-Alvarez. She doesn’t like abbreviations, nicknames, or salty language. It can be a challenge. D. I. is known far and wide for taking on the who, what, where, and how of stolen computer software, hardware, and intellectual property. Then we help bring the villains to justice. Just like our business card says.
But we sure got fooled on the last one. Under the guise of being about bad business practices, this job could have been labeled Cain Clobbers Abel. One brother coveted the other brother’s wife. And scored. It was worse than any soap opera I’ve ever seen because I wound up being one of the cast members.
Just to make it clear, we don’t usually deal with this type of case. Volatile and distasteful. But we were committed. Or should have been.
It took three hideous weeks of twelve-hour days to prove there was no business malfeasance on either brother’s part, much to each one’s dismay. Following this revelation, Lila Hamilton-Alvarez suggested—in the nicest possible way—they get over themselves and seek therapy. But not before apologizing to their own mother for causing her such heartache.
The lovely Lila presented them with a bill large enough to buy a small Greek island. After she cashed their check, she sent them on their way.
My mother survived this odious event with barely a mascaraed eyelash out of place. Not so with me. I looked like something Tugger, My Son the Cat, decided not to drag in because he has standards.
At thirty-four years old, my eyes had bags under bags. My long brunette hair exploded with a sudden case of split ends. I needed an emergency facial, done by either Elizabeth Arden or Roto Rooter. I wasn’t fussy.
After we closed the case, I spent the next day in bed trying to recover. I wore a garden’s worth of sliced cucumbers on puffy eyes, took scissors to split ends, and then binge-watched, All Creatures Great and Small. I began to heal.
Come Sunday, I was in a laid-back, love-the-morning mood, relaxing outside on the deck in one of our comfy lounge chairs. The sun was shining, birds were singing, and a soft breeze was blowing. Both cats, Tugger and Baba, snoozed at my feet. Baba Ganoush, having come into my life with Gurn, was this darling long-haired, gray-and-white girl kitty, the textbook complement to the lean orange-and-white Tugger. They worshiped one another.
The day stretched out before me. At the end of this perfect day, my Uncle Tío, a retired chef, invited us for dinner. And I would be able to eat my head off, as I was four pounds under goal.
In short, all was right with the world. Naturally, that was about to change. I steeled myself and repeated hubby’s words back to him.
“JJ’s in trouble? If memory serves me, she couldn’t come to our wedding because she’d been sideswiped by a jaguar. And I don’t mean the car.”
“She would have been there if she could.” His tone was just a tad defensive. Once again, very unlike him. “And she did send us that temple rubbing.”
“Absolutely, darling, and it hangs in our hallway with pride. Just a little attempt at humor,” I said.
“Of course it was, sweetheart. Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.” There was the man I loved and adored. Welcome back. Shaking his head, he went on, “I know I don’t see JJ a lot these days. But we grew up together.”
“And you’re close. I get it.”
“I just got off the phone with her.” He took a breath to go on, but I interrupted before he could speak.
“JJ called you from the jungles of Guatemala? I thought she was busy mapping out the latest Mayan site.”
“She called to tell me Martín is missing. Missing! He disappeared yesterday.”
“Her husband’s missing?” Goodbye laid-back mood. I swung my legs to the floor and sat upright. “Oh my God! What do the police say?”
“There seems to be a delay in alerting them. Her boss has pressured her not to. JJ says there has been some trouble on the site, and the police have been out there a few times already. One more visit, and Dr. Lancaster is afraid the Ministry of Justice will shut the site down. JJ agreed to wait a day or two if she could call me instead.”
“This Dr. Lancaster is her boss?”
“In charge of the whole project.” Gurn came around to the lounge chair opposite me and sat down on the edge of it, tense, tense, tense. “You know Martín is a paramedic, right?”
I nodded. “I remember. Something about there being a lot of people living around ancient cities in the Mirador Basin. Doesn’t he run a nonprofit clinic to take care of their basic health needs?”
“Yes, an offshoot of the dig, but privately funded. He’s doing good work in places where they’re short on doctors and long on snakebites.”
“You make the jungle sound so inviting. Go on.”
“Three days ago, there was a cave-in at a nearby site. Probably due to recent rains. Some men were hurt, just scrapes and bruises. They sent for Martín to help patch them up.”
“Wait a minute. Isn’t there an on-site doctor?”
“Took the day off and went to Antigua. Martín and his assistant were covering. I think the doctor is due back later today. Anyway, Martín left immediately. It’s only a few miles away, but it can take several hours to walk that far through the jungle.”
“No cars or jeeps?”
“No taxis, either.” He smiled briefly, then sobered. “That part of the rainforest is too dense and is only reachable by foot. He and his assistant were supposed to be gone for a day, two days tops. On the morning of the day he was due back, Martín called JJ, who was in Flores at the time—”
“What is Flores? The closest town?”
“Yes. Martín told JJ they were leaving and on their way back. He said they would be there before she returned. That’s the last she heard from him.”
“Maybe one of his patients needed them to stay longer, and he didn’t or couldn’t let JJ know.”
Gurn shook his head. “In that type of setting, you don’t change plans and not let people know. Not done. Besides, they have satellite phones, shortwave radios, cell phones—when they work—and walkie-talkies. When it got dark, and they still hadn’t arrived, she talked to someone at the cave-in site. Martín left in the morning, as planned. Even though you try not to be in the jungle at night, she and a team set off from their end, hoping to meet up with them. They got all the way to the other site without a trace of either man. Both vanished.”
“Oh my God. And she can’t go to the police?”
“Not at this point. JJ promised to wait. From what she says, Dr. Lancaster is coercing her to at least give them a chance to find him on their own. Otherwise, the entire project might be shut down. One hundred jobs at stake. JJ doesn’t want the site closed any more than Dr. Lancaster does. Anyway, she called me for help.”
I leaned forward and touched his hand with one of mine. “Oh darling, I am so sorry. I’m not surprised she’s turning to you.”
My voice was calm and knowing. When I met Gurn, he’d hit the ripe old age of thirty-six, a little long in the tooth for a Navy SEAL. He’d recently stepped down from active duty and now taught Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps or NROTC, did occasional work for some bigwigs at the Pentagon, and ran his own CPA business. But before that, he’d been on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, performing the usual feats of heroism these incredible people perform.
Even in military retirement, this side of my man was never far away, his need to serve, to help, to right the wrong. I was used to it. Or as used to it as one can get before she has to start coloring her hair to get rid of all the gray. Even though Clairol and I are best friends, I am proud of him.
“Of course, she’d want your help,” I continued, with a smile. “Part of your SEAL training was to fell a tree with a pocketknife, swim with it underwater for six or seven miles, surface, and use the branches to build a bridge. All before lunch.”
“Not quite,” he said with a slight smile. “That’s more along the lines of Paul Bunyan. Although basic training often felt like that.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Isn’t the terrain of Afghanistan and Iraq completely different than the Guatemalan jungle?”
“Yes, but remember when I was part of a volunteer team helping to put out the Amazon fires? We didn’t get them all, but every fire we extinguished helped.”
“That’s right! You were there for over two weeks. I couldn’t wait for you to come home, but you were doing something important.”
I smiled. He shot me another fleeting smile, then the worried look returned to his face.
“There has to be a reason why those two men haven’t returned. Whatever it is, it‘s not good.”
“Don’t go to the dark side yet,” I said. “It’s only been a day.”
“Even with their knowledge of the jungle, they won’t last long out there if one or both are hurt and can’t reach anyone. I’ve never heard JJ as upset as this. Or as scared.”
“Well, I know I would be beside myself if you were missing. You should go, darling, of course. After all, she’s family. Blood is thicker and all that. I’ll be worried about you trekking through the jungles of Guatemala, but I understand you have to go.”
”Maybe you’ll be too busy to be worried. JJ and I want you to come with me.”