Amanda Jones sat alone on her bed, counting the cost of Rachel's betrayal.
The tablet was gone, of course. Her passport had disappeared from the drawer. Most injurious of all, however, was the loss of the Illiterati Codebook. It had been her most prized possession, both invaluable and irreplaceable. Amanda wondered if Rachel appreciated its true value.
Rachel - where was she now? Presumably on her way to raid Lady Xoc's tomb - with Amanda's passport, to stop her following.
They were meant to have gone together. Against her material losses Amanda weighed the loss of her supposed friend. It hurt, deeply. She had been such a fool; trying to fill a Ciara-sized gap, she had put feelings onto a person who didn't merit them. Had Rachel ever cared about her? Or had she played her right from the start? Was she serious about teaming up - or just waiting for the chance to drug her and steal her things? A tear formed; Amanda tried to blink it back, but it rolled down her cheek and landed on her knee. Another one followed, then another, leaving small damp dots on her tights. She felt exploited, humiliated... and worst of all, abandoned.
Amanda wiped her face on her sleeve and got to her feet; her headache came rushing back in throbs. What now? Time for a shower. She threw off her clothes in a pile, and then stepped into a welcome cascade of hot water.
Five minutes later she sat, wrapped in towels, at her desk - refreshed, positive and with a clear head. Amanda perched in front of her laptop, chin resting on her hand, browsing a page of flight schedules.
There was only one possible course of action: she was going after Rachel.
Every route to Mexico involved a change; making a total trip of fourteen to sixteen hours. Rachel had a head start and, if she had left early that morning, she would be landing about now in Villahermosa. Probably she would be tired, check into a hotel and then leave for Yaxchilan tomorrow.
If Amanda could make the 8pm flight to Houston, she could travel overnight and land in Mexico at 10am. Then, if she set off for the jungle immediately, she might only be a couple of hours behind Rachel.
Amanda's excitement was tempered by three questions: what to do for a passport; how to afford the $1,200 flight; and what she would say or do to Rachel if she caught her. She decided to leave the last question for later; the answers to the first two were simpler.
Unknown to Rachel, Amanda's US passport was not her only one; at the age of sixteen, her British-born father had arranged her a UK passport. Even though she had never set foot in the country, and felt not the least bit British, her father had reasoned: 'You might need it one day - if there's a war or something.' Amanda had used the passport once only: for her trip to England in the last academic year. Unfortunately, she had lost it when she returned.
Now, she had to find it, somewhere in her room, in the next half hour - or she was not going to Mexico.
It was almost fortunate that Rachel had helped out by throwing everything onto the floor.
Amanda got down on her knees and sifted through the papers. Could Rachel have stumbled across her second passport? Maybe; but it was unlikely she could succeed where Amanda had failed. In any case, it was worth a look.
Several minutes of rummaging, opening envelopes, and tipping out folders did not produce the passport. The room was now a bigger mess; it would be worth going to Mexico just to avoid tidying it.
Amanda shivered: she had to get dressed. She hung her wet towels and ventured to her ransacked cupboard, looking with regret at her middle drawer. Trying to forget that the tablet was gone, she took a clean pair of dark tights and short denim cut-offs; she pulled them on and closed the drawer. Next she leafed through her various tops, much as she had done the previous evening. She picked a comfy lumberjack shirt: it was off-white with a check pattern. She threw it on and fastened the buttons, absentmindedly.
Then she saw it: her raincoat.
Of course! Amanda reached and pulled the jacket from where she had hung it a week ago, that stormy day. She felt the lining... that mysterious flat rectangle... it had to be! She unzipped the inner pocket and pulled out a small red-brown book: her British passport.
"Yes! Oh yes!" cried Amanda out loud. She flicked through the pages, screwing up her nose at the old photograph. It was from the days when she had long hair and braces. She looked like a child - she was a child. Nevertheless, the passport was valid two more years; it was all she needed.
Amanda plonked herself excitedly on the bed and reached for her phone. She searched for a number then lay back while it dialled.
Eventually, a tired voice answered:
"It could only be you."
"Oh... what time is it there?" Amanda winced.
"It's bloody four am."
"Oops. Sorry Daddy," said Amanda, sweetly. "How is... everything?"
"Look Amanda, you know I love you - but will you just tell me how much money you need, so I can go back to bed?"
"That's not fair!" she protested. "I don't ring you just for money..." her voice trailed off.
"How much, daughter?"
"Twelve hundred dollars. I need to go to Mexico; for... erm... an archaeological dig."
A long sigh was followed by the sound of shuffling at the other end.
"Digging for Roman coins in the jungle?" Her father sounded sceptical. "I thought the University paid for that sort of thing?"
"It's not exactly... with the University - and there aren't any Romans in the jungle, silly."
A pause was followed by distant clicking. Amanda crossed her fingers and looked at the ceiling.
"I've sent you two thousand," said her father. "You can get an air conditioned tent."
She breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you Daddy... Love you."
"Love you too... just watch out for snakes." He hung up.
Amanda shuddered: she hated snakes.
After a moment's reflection, she hoisted herself up, swung her long legs off the bed and leapt into action. She took a rucksack and large holdall from the cupboard, throwing them onto the bed. In the rucksack she put a first aid kit, a compass, underwear, a change of tights and a couple of books for the flight. In the holdall she put the rest: a light cotton shirt and pants for the jungle; a pair of walking boots and socks; a water canteen with sterilisation tablets; insect repellent and toiletries; a long flashlight with spare batteries; a coil of rope; her raincoat and a pair of fingerless gloves. She was ready.
A thought struck her. Amanda grabbed her phone and thumbed through the recent SMS messages. She found the one she was looking for, and pressed DIAL.
"Amanda?" came the surprised answer.
"Hi Glenn -"
"I kept the books as long as I could," he sounded sorry, "but someone took them all today."
"No don't worry, it's not about that. I'm trying to get hold of Rachel."
"Oh... I think she's out of town. She said she was going away."
"Do you have her number? It's kind of urgent."
Amanda interrupted him: "Can you text it to me please?"
"OK. No problem," said Glenn, adding hopefully: "Do I get a coffee for this?"
"Maybe... we'll see. Bye now."
Amanda still had no intention of going for a coffee with him.
A moment later, her phone vibrated. The screen showed a string of numbers and a word: RACHEL. She highlighted the number and pressed DIAL. After a long few seconds, the phone rang. The tone sounded strange.
"Hello?" Rachel's voice was distant. The phone crackled.
"Rachel..." started Amanda, searching for words; but before she could find them, the phone went dead.
She stood staring into space, faced flushed, her heart sinking once more. Moments later she caught herself; with a shaking hand she put the phone into her back pocket. Doubts crept into her mind.
Was she doing the right thing? Rachel was crazy going to the jungle alone; so how crazy was Amanda to follow her?
She looked down at the screen of her laptop. A small icon waited at the bottom right. It read: Click Here to Purchase.
Amanda took a deep breath and sat down at her desk.
Two minutes later she pulled a boarding pass from her printer and called a taxi. She sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled on a pair of dark blue canvas sneakers, lacing them up. Then, she put on her rucksack, snatched up the holdall and went to the door. Amanda turned, and took a last look at her mess of a room.
She flicked off the light, double-locked the door, and headed for the airport.
...Amanda and Rachel will return in MASK OF THE MAYAN QUEEN