Authors: James Rollins
From his school desk, Jake Ransom willed the second hand on the wall clock to sweep away the final minutes of his sixth-period history class.
Only another twenty-four minutes and he would be free.
Away from Middleton Prep for a whole week!
Then he could finally get some
work done. He had already mapped out his plans for each day of the weeklong vacation break: to explore the rich vein of shellfish fossils he had discovered in the rock quarry behind his house, to attend a signing by one of his favorite physicists, who had a new book out called
Strange Quarks and Deeper Quantum Mysteries
, to listen to the fourth lecture by a famed anthropologist on the cannibal tribes of Borneo (who knew sautéed eyeballs tasted sweet?)—and he had so much more planned.
All he needed now was the school’s last bell to ring to
free him from the prison that was eighth grade.
But escape would not come that easy.
The history teacher, Professor Agnes Trout, clapped her bony hands together and drew back his sullen attention. She stood to one side of her desk. As gaunt as a stick of chalk, and just as dry and dusty, the teacher peered over her fingertips at the class.
“We have time for one more report,” she announced.
Jake rolled his eyes.
The class was no happier. Groans spread around the room, which only hardened her lips into a firmer line.
“We could make it
more reports and stay after the last bell,” she warned.
The class quickly quieted.
Professor Trout nodded and turned to her desk. One finger traced a list of names and moved to the next victim in line to present an oral report. Jake found it amusing to watch her thin shoulders pull up closer to her ears. He knew whose name was next in line alphabetically, but it had somehow caught the teacher by surprise.
She straightened with a soured twist to her lips. “It seems we will hear next from Jacob Ransom.”
A new round of groans rose. The teacher did not even bother quieting them down. She plainly regretted her decision to squeeze in one more report before the holiday break. But after almost a year in her class, Jake knew Professor Agnes Trout was a stickler for order and rules. She
cared more about the memorization of dates and names than any real understanding of the flow of history. So once committed to her course of action, she had no choice but to wave him to the front of the class.
Jake left his books and notes behind. He had his oral report set to memory. Empty-handed, crossing toward the blackboard, he felt the class’s eyes on him. Even though he had skipped a grade last year, he was still the second tallest boy in his class. Unfortunately it wasn’t always a good thing to stand out in a crowd, especially in middle school, especially after skipping a grade. Still, Jake kept his shoulders straight as he crossed to the board. He ignored the eyes staring at him. Not one to set fashion trends, Jake wore what he found first that morning (clean or not). He ended up with scuffed jeans, a tattered pair of high-top sneakers, a faded green polo shirt, and of course the mandatory navy school jacket with the school’s insignia embroidered in gold on the breast pocket. Even his sandy blond hair failed to match the current razored trend. Instead it hung lanky over his forehead.
Like his father’s had been.
Or at least it matched the last picture Jake had of the senior Ransom, now gone three years, vanished into the Central American jungle. Jake still carried that photograph, taped to the inside of his notebook. It showed his parents, Richard and Penelope Ransom, smiling with goofy happiness, dressed in khaki safari outfits, holding
up a Mayan glyph stone. The photo’s edges were still blackened and curled from the fire that burned through their hilltop camp.
Taped below it was a scrap of parcel paper. On it, written in his father’s handwriting, was Jake’s name along with the family address for their estate here in North Hampshire, Connecticut. The package had arrived six weeks after the bandits had attacked his parents’ camp.
That had been three years ago.
It was the last and only contact from his folks.
Jake fingered the thin cord around his neck as he reached the front of the class. Through his cotton shirt, he felt the small object that hung from the cord and rested flat against his chest. A last gift from his parents. Its reassuring touch helped center him.
To the side, the teacher cleared her throat. “Class, Mr. Ransom will be teaching us…well…I mean to say his oral report will be on…”
“My report,” he said, cutting her off, “is on Mayan astronomical techniques in relation to the precession of the equinoxes.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Equinoxes. Very interesting, Mr. Ransom.” The teacher nodded, perhaps a bit too vigorously.
Jake suspected Professor Agnes Trout didn’t fully understand what the report was about. She backed toward her desk, as if fearful he might ask her a question. Like
everyone else, she must have had heard the story of Mr. Rushbein, the geometry teacher. How after Jake had disproved one of the teacher’s theorems in front of his whole class, he had suffered a nervous breakdown. Now all the teachers at Middleton Prep looked at Jake with a glint of worry. Who would be next?
Jake picked up a piece of chalk and wrote some calculations on the board. “Today I’ll be showing how the Maya were able to predict such events as the solar eclipses, like the one that will occur next Tuesday—”
A balled-up piece of paper struck the board near his hand and caused the piece of chalk in his fingers to snap with a loud squeak on the board.
“Were they able to predict that?”
Jake knew the voice. Craig Brask. A linebacker for the junior varsity football team. While Jake had skipped a grade, Craig had been held back. Ever since, Jake had become the target for the beefy troglodyte.
“Mr. Brask!” Professor Trout declared. “I’ll have no more of your shenanigans in my classroom. Mr. Ransom listened to your report with respect.”
Craig’s report had been on Custer’s Last Stand. He even got the ending wrong:
The injuns got whooped good!
As the few snickers finally died down, Jake took two steadying breaths and prepared to resume his report. In preparing for his report, Jake had delved deeply into how
the Maya were skilled astronomers, how they understood the grand movement of the cosmos. Such research made him feel closer to his parents. It had been their life’s work.
But now, standing at the chalkboard, Jake sensed the boredom of the class behind him. With a small shake of his head, he picked up the eraser and wiped away the calculations he had already written. That wasn’t what the class wanted to hear. He turned to face them, cleared his throat, and spoke boldly.
“It is well known that the Maya practiced ritual human sacrifice. They even cut out their victims’ hearts—and ate them.”
The sudden change in topic shocked away the bored looks of the class.
“That’s so sick,” Sally Van Horn said from the front row, but she sat straighter in her chair.
Jake drew an outline of a human body on the chalkboard and went into great detail about the method of ritual sacrifice: from types of knives used in the slaughter to the way the blood was collected from the altar in special bowls. By the time the bell rang, no one moved. One student even held up his hand and called out, “How many people did they kill?”
Before Jake could answer, Professor Trout waved him to stop. “Yes, very interesting, Mr. Ransom. But I think that’s enough for today.” She looked a little green, possibly
after Jake’s description of how the Maya used bones and intestines to predict the weather.
Jake hid a small smile as he dusted the chalk from his hands and returned to his desk. A few students clapped at the end of his report, but as usual, he was mostly ignored. He watched the others leave, clutched in groups of two or three, laughing, joking, smiling.
New to the class, Jake hadn’t made any real friends. And he was okay with that. His life was full enough. Determined to follow in his parents’ footsteps, he had to prepare himself—mind and body—for that goal.
Reaching his desk, he collected his backpack and saw that his notebook was still open. He paused just a moment to look at the photograph of his parents on the inside cover, then closed the notebook, shouldered his backpack, and headed toward the door.
At least he was done with school for a week.
Nothing could go wrong from here.
Jake hurried down the school’s marble steps in the bright April sunshine and headed to his mountain bike.
Bright laughter drew his attention to the left. Under one of the flowering dogwoods in the school yard stood his sister, Kady. She leaned on the trunk of the tree, dressed in the yellow and gold of the senior cheer squad. A match to the three other girls gathered around her, though clearly she was their leader. She also held the full attention of half
a dozen upper-class boys, all wearing letterman jackets.
She laughed again at something one of the boys said. She tossed her head in a well-practiced flip, sending out a cascade of blond hair, only a few shades lighter than Jake’s. She stretched out a leg as if limbering up, but mostly, Jake knew, it was to show off the length of her leg and the new silver ankle bracelet. She was trying to gain the attention of the captain of the football team, but he seemed more interested in a shoulder-punching contest with a fellow teammate.
For just a brief moment, Kady’s eyes caught Jake’s approach. He watched them narrow in warning, marking off forbidden territory.
Jake skirted away. He quickened his steps, prepared to take a wide swath around the gathered elite of Middleton Prep. It was because of such a concentrated effort that he failed to see Craig Brask until he was almost on top of him.
A large arm shot out and slammed a palm into Jake’s chest. Fingers curled into his shirt. “Where do ya think you’re going?”
Craig Brask stood a head taller than Jake and twice his weight. His classmate’s red hair was shaved to a stubble, and his face had so many freckles it looked like he was always blushing. He had the sleeves of his school jacket rolled up to expose his apelike forearms.
“Let me go, Brask,” Jake warned.
By now, others gathered. Snickers rose from the crowd.
As Craig turned to grin at his audience, Jake reached up and grabbed Craig’s thumb in a lock and twisted it. Over the past three years, Jake had studied more than just ancient civilizations. He had readied his body as much as his mind by taking Tae Kwon Do classes three times a week.
Craig gasped as Jake broke his hold. The large boy stumbled back.
Not wanting the fight to escalate, Jake turned and headed for his bike. But Craig lunged and grabbed the back of Jake’s collar, not letting him leave.
Jake felt the thin braided leather cord around his neck snap under the pressure. The weight suspended from it slid down his belly where his shirt was tucked into his jeans.
Anger flared, white hot and blinding.
Not thinking, Jake turned and snap-kicked Craig in the chest.
Craig flew back and landed flat on his back. Jake’s anchoring foot slipped in the grass, and he fell hard on his backside, jarring his teeth.
Someone called out, “Kady, isn’t that your brother?”
Jake glanced over a shoulder. The elite of Middleton Prep all turned in their direction, including the captain
of the football team.
With a frown, Randy White headed over. Taking his lead, the others followed in tow, including Jake’s sister.
Reaching them, Randy pointed at Craig’s nose. “Brask, leave the kid alone.” The command in that voice did not invite debate.
Craig rubbed at his bruised chest and scowled.
Randy offered Jake a hand up, but he managed to gain his feet on his own. He didn’t want any help. He brushed off the seat of his pants. Randy shrugged and turned away, but not before mumbling, “Weird kid.”
As the elite drifted away, Kady remained. She caught Jake by the elbow and leaned close to his ear. “Quit trying to embarrass me,” she hissed between clenched teeth.
Jake shook free of his sister’s grip and returned her glare, eye to eye. Though they stood the same height, Katherine Ransom was two years older.
Jake’s face went even redder than during the fight. Unable to form words, he freed the broken cord from under his shirttail. The object that hung from it dropped into his open palm.
A gold coin. Actually it was only
a coin, the whole having been broken jaggedly in two, a Mayan image engraved on each half. The sunlight glinted and caught Kady’s eye. Her left hand rose to her own throat. Her half of the same coin hung from a fine gold chain around her neck.
The two coin pieces had been mailed in the parcel three years ago, along with their father’s camp diary and their mother’s sketchbook. Neither knew why the package had been sent or who had mailed it. Since then, the gold tokens never left Kady’s or Jake’s neck.
Jake stared down at the piece in his palm. Sunlight reflected off the burnished gold, making the symbol on his half of the coin shine brightly. The symbols were called