Below are the first three chapters of my new adventure novel Heart of the Maya. This is the fifth Mike Scott adventure in the series. The story starts out on the campus of Marshall University where Mike earned a degree from the School of Journalism and then…well, just read it and you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. If you like what you read, download the whole book to find out how it ends.
“So that’s how I ended up meeting the Castros. We solved the mystery behind the wreck of the USS Huron, found Spanish gold meant for Cuban revolutionaries and shined some light on The Consortium that was responsible for the whole thing.
“My degree in Journalism from Marshall University ended up taking me all over the world where I learned about many different world cultures. And I’ve loved every minute of it,” Mike Scott said as he finished up his presentation at his alma mater. Because of his successes, culminating with the recent story of the USS Huron, he had been invited back to lecture as part of the University Artist Series. “In some ways, I feel like I’ve become an amateur archaeologist, although sometimes I feel more like Indiana Jones than a real scientist. So, on that note, I’ll take a couple questions.”
Mike’s presentation included photographs from many stories he had filed over the years and it had sufficiently wowed the students, faculty and general public alike. He explained how he had gotten his start and how luck, determination and skill had each played their parts in taking a small town boy from West Virginia around the world. As an international news photographer, Mike had won every major award available to him. After fielding questions for 20 minutes, he decided it was time to say good night.
“Thank you for these great questions, but I think they are about to turn out the lights on us. I’m going to wrap things up,” Mike began, but he was interrupted as a student stood up and began talking.
“Mr. Scott, I’m sorry but I have one more question about your days here at Marshall. What do you remember about the archaeological dig of the Adena mound when you were a student?” the young woman asked, nearly shouting over the crowd as they had begun to applaud. The audience quieted, slowly, half-standing and unsure whether to leave or stay. For his part, Mike stood stock still. He hadn’t thought about that incident in years.
“Wow, you’ve been doing some research,” Mike said a little taken aback.
“Yes, sir, I write for The Parthenon, the school paper, and I decided to check to see if you were in the paper when you were a student. I found the final story you wrote about the incident really interesting,” the student explained.
“Unfortunately, I don’t remember much. After our graduate student advisor drowned in the cave, we were ordered to drop the project and most of us were too upset to do anything else. I can say without a doubt that incident encouraged me to learn to dive and to continue my pursuit of journalism. It probably piqued my curiosity for archaeology as well. So, while I put that event behind me, it definitely shaped the rest of my career. Okay, well, thank you all for being such a wonderful audience. Good night!” Mike ended as he began picking up his notes from the podium. The crowd applauded and then began filing out of the Edwards Performing Arts Center.
As he finished up and spoke to the organizers of the speaking engagement, out of the corner of his eye Mike watched the young woman who had asked the last question. At 6’2”, it was easy for Mike to see over most of the crowd. The girl hung around and looked like she wasn’t quite finished. Mike was curious to see what else was on her mind. He was tired but he knew he wasn’t likely to get any rest right now anyway.
Still, he waited for the girl to approach. He wasn’t about to make it easy on her.
“Mr. Scott, do you have a minute? Can I ask you another question?”
“Technically you just did. But, sure. First, though, I get to ask two questions.”
“What’s that?” the student replied, slightly confused by his response.
“What’s your name?”
“Sophia Cruz, sir.”
“Okay, enough with the sirs. My name is Mike. Cruz? That was the last name of the grad student on the project. ”
“Yes, sir, umm, I mean Mike. He was my uncle, or would have been. He died before I was born.”
“Thanks for the reminder of how much older I am than you and just about everyone else on campus. So this meeting and your ‘discovery’ of the article wasn’t an accident, was it?”
“Actually it was. I decided to check back in the archives to see what you had written about and was shocked when I saw you were writing about my uncle Erick. I knew his story, or at least the family version of it, but thought I would see if you knew anything different.”
“Fair enough. Tell me what you know and I’ll see if I can remember anything else.”
“What was your second question?”
“Where can we get something to eat? When I was in school we would go to Hulio’s, but when I drove into town I saw it wasn’t there anymore,” Mike said with a laugh. “I’m hungry. And don’t worry, it’s my treat. I remember being a broke college student.”
The restaurant was crowded and noisy, filled with students, faculty and townies, but Mike quickly drowned it all out as he slipped into his memory of a time 25 years before. The restaurant was in the same location as one of Mike’s favorite haunts when he was a student, making it that much easier to forget the “here and now” and go to “then”.
It was 1989. I was a sophomore and taking an anthropology class for a humanities credit. It was a little odd for me to get involved with a dig out in the field like that, but I was also writing for The Parthenon and the professor in charge of the class said I could come along and do a story on it as well. It was great for me. I got credit for two classes at one time. The editor wasn’t thrilled, but it all worked out. I, of course, had dreams of working for National Geographic, like every other journalism student, so I saw it as my big break. I didn’t count on all of the hard work and digging, but that’s how we learn, I guess.
We were excavating an Adena burial mound that had recently been uncovered. There were several others in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, but none this close to the Ohio River in West Virginia. It was a pretty exciting find. The farmer who owned the land thought it was just a natural land feature and had ignored it for a long time. He was digging an access road on his property and cut through part of the hillside with a bulldozer. He stopped when he saw bones sticking out of the ground.
He immediately called the police. Once they realized the bones were ancient, not evidence of a murder or an old cemetery, he called the university and rerouted his access road. And then we got involved.
Finding a new Adena burial mound in the late 20th century was pretty exciting for all of us. Most of the mounds had been excavated or destroyed long ago. The Adena themselves existed from about 1000 BC up to 200 AD and had left these burial mounds all over the Ohio River valley as well as other places. They are viewed as a precursor civilization to many of the Native American populations that came along later. All things considered, they were pretty advanced for their time, too. They traded over the eastern United States from the Great Lakes down to the Gulf Coast.
So, we went out to the mound for weeks, slowly sifting through the dirt. We found several skeletons and then some burial beads and things. Whenever we would find something we would all gather around and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’. Your uncle, Erick, was heading up our daily activities and kept us going. He supervised the whole thing, under the watchful eyes of the professors, of course.
The most amazing day, though, was when we found the well. We were digging into the hill, excavating sideways into the mound. We hit a section of stone that had been buried at the base of the mound. You could tell it wasn’t natural rock the way it was shaped. The stones were fitted together. We knew this was something really special.
Erick made us all slow down. He told me to get my camera and from then on, I was there to document everything they found. I shot rolls of film as the rest of the students dug around the stones. We eventually excavated a room inside the mound itself. There was this stone chimney on the floor a couple feet high. It was capped with another stone. The floor of the room was stone, too, so we knew we were down to bedrock. We decided the mound was probably built around this thing, whatever it was. Erick was careful, though, to not let us try to remove the capstone on the structure until we had the room dug out. They brought in some basic mining equipment to shore up the roof and the walls so we wouldn’t get buried if the mound collapsed.
After the professors came out and looked over what we had done, they gave us permission to remove the cap stone. It ended up being the cover to an underground cave system. At first we lowered lights down inside, but we couldn’t see much. We lowered a camera down the hole and found a big room with what looked like two more openings off to the side. On one side, there was water that came up from an underground spring. Of course, we were all convinced this was the greatest archaeological find of the century.
Eventually, we got permission to climb down and look around in the caves below. They brought in Adena experts from all over. None of the students were the first to go down, but we did get down there eventually. Of course, we spent our time measuring and photographing everything. I was having a blast. I got to file several stories and was having dreams of going straight to National Geographic before I graduated.
We didn’t find much in the caves at first. There were a few pieces of broken pottery and that sort of thing. There were paintings on the cave walls, too. It was interesting, but sort of fizzled out after a while. A lot of the experts speculated why the Adena had buried the caves under a mound, but it was mostly speculation.
And then Erick found something in the water. He was sitting at the edge of the pool taking a break when something caught his eye. It was just a straight edge, but Erick thought it might be important. He waded down into the water to get a closer look. It was a stone tablet with carvings on it, but it wouldn’t budge. He ended up going home and getting a mask so he could look at the stone underwater.
After much examination and expert opinion, the professors all agreed that the Adena had made the carvings on the stone right where it was. The stone wasn’t movable. That meant the water level was lower at some point. No one knew if that meant the water had just been a few feet lower or if there was a larger cave system below.
After that, Erick became a little obsessive about it. He said he thought the carvings on the stone looked more Mayan than Adena, but that didn’t make a lot of sense because while the Maya were around at the same time as the Adena, they didn’t flourish and really excel at everything we know the Maya for until after the Adena had dispersed. He told everyone who would listen to him that the real discovery and the answer to all of the questions surrounding this mound would happen in the caves below. It was all he could talk about. He wanted to make a dive into the flooded part of the cave and see what was down there.
The university, on the other hand, wasn’t thrilled about allowing anyone to dive into the cave to explore further. Everyone thought the risks were too high.
The rest is the hard part to discuss. We went back to the mound to continue the dig one morning. Your uncle told us to meet him there. When we got there, his car was already in the parking area we had set up. We looked all over the place for him, but couldn’t find him. Until we looked down in the cave. We saw Erick floating face down in the water. He had scuba gear on, but he wasn’t moving. He had decided to dive in the cave on his own and prove his theory.
After that, the university shut everything down. It was a big mess for a while. Promising graduate students weren’t supposed to die on university-sponsored digs. The farmer who owned the land ended up putting a steel door over the opening and closing it off to further exploration.
We were all told to move on to other projects. I didn’t end up learning to dive until I had graduated from college and then my career took off in other directions. To be honest, I never forgot about it, but I never thought about going back to the site after that.
Mike and Sophia were sitting in Fat Patty’s, a local burger joint adjacent to campus. Mike glanced around the room, thinking of his old days. He didn’t feel like he had changed much in the 20-odd years since college, but his dark wavy hair was a little grayer now and things hurt more than they used to. He kept in good shape, mostly by staying active and on the go, rather than a significant exercise routine, but he didn’t think he looked a lot different than he did back in school. Of course, that was what he told himself. He was sure the students in the restaurant thought he was a professor…and an older one at that.
After they ordered, Mike had started talking, walking through the story as he remembered it, surprising himself with just how much he could pull up. Sophia had the good sense to simply listen and let Mike talk.
When he was finished, they both looked down and realized they were finished eating, having done so almost on autopilot while Mike spoke.
“That’s about all I remember,” Mike said when he finished. He looked down and realized his beer glass was empty, too, so he signaled the waitress for another round—beer for him and Diet Coke for Sophia. He had spent the entire time talking and he knew Sophia would have questions.
“Thank you for taking the time to tell me about all of this. You’ve given me more than anyone else knew or could remember. It was a pretty rough time for my family and they don’t like to talk about it much,” Sophia said, sadness in her eyes.
“I’m sure it was. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child like that, especially one with so much promise,” Mike agreed. He had seen plenty of death on assignment, but some deaths were more memorable than others.
“I’ve always been curious about the whole situation and couldn’t find out much until just recently. My granddad was cleaning out some boxes in his attic and found some of Erick’s papers. After he died, the university boxed up everything in his office and sent it home. His parents, my grandparents, were so upset at the time they never looked at any of it. Grandpa didn’t want to look at it, but he said I could go through it if I wanted,” Sophia explained. “Most of it was pretty typical stuff for a grad student. He was teaching a class and doing his own work toward his doctorate so he was pretty busy. And then there was all of the field work from the dig.”
Sophia pulled some papers from his backpack and spread them out on the table.
“Of course, I was most interested in the notes from the dig to see if there was anything about what he planned to do. You’re mentioned in there a couple times, by the way, and he had a picture of yours as well. It had your name on the back of the print. I hope you don’t mind if I keep it,” Sophia said, suddenly afraid Mike would want it back.
“I gave that to your uncle. It belongs to your family. Was there anything else in there?” Mike asked. “I’m guessing you wouldn’t have brought all of this along if you hadn’t found something interesting.”
“Most of it is pretty mundane stuff. You could tell he was really excited about the dig. In the last couple days before he died, there are a couple of interesting things. He made a note on one page that he thought he was being followed. There is even a copy of a police report. He said he got run off the road on his way home from the dig site. He was in a university vehicle so he had to file a report even though there wasn’t any damage,” Sophia said, showing Mike the note on the report. “They didn’t seem to take it very seriously, though.”
“Pretty hard to prove. The campus police probably thought he was making it up to explain why he had a problem with the car. What else?”
“Whoever boxed everything up included a copy of the police report into his death, including the coroner’s report. It had a note on it, addressed to my grandfather, saying he should read it. He never did,” Sophia explained. “I didn’t see much in it that seemed out of the ordinary. They declared the cause of death as drowning.”
“That’s pretty typical for dive accidents, especially when the medical examiner doesn’t know much about scuba diving. They find traces of water in the diver’s lungs and airway and rule it as drowning,” Mike agreed. “And it’s consistent with someone who made a dive and ran out of air underwater. He was back in a cave and couldn’t make it back to the surface in time. He would have lost consciousness and then drowned. It’s a terrible way to die.”
“I thought that was the case and I did some research. I found out pretty much exactly what you just said. But here is what I don’t understand. In the police report, someone checked out Uncle Erick’s equipment. There’s a note that he had 2800 psi in his air tank,” Sophia said, pointing out the line in the report so Mike didn’t have to search for it.
“A full tank only has about 3000 psi, so that tank is essentially full. That doesn’t make sense. Someone could have made a mistake, I guess, but it’s not really likely. If that’s the case, he never made the dive. He died on the surface,” Mike said, concern growing on his face.
“And that would mean someone killed him, wouldn’t it?”
Mike was quiet for a few minutes while he looked through the accident report in greater detail. The police had called in a local dive instructor to consult on the incident. The diver had also noted that the equipment wasn’t assembled correctly. Erick’s regulator was on backwards and it was facing the wrong direction in the buoyancy jacket the grad student was wearing when he died.
“I never heard about any of this at the time. Not that I knew anything about diving yet, but it’s strange no one reported this,” Mike said, clearly puzzled by what he was reading.
“My family said Erick was an experienced diver. He had made more than 100 dives before the accident and been all over.”
“I’m really confused by all of this and I don’t like what I’m reading. Someone who has made that many dives wouldn’t assemble their gear so poorly. It becomes second nature after a while. You just can’t do it wrong. But the air thing has got me really concerned. We found his body floating on the surface and now I read he had a full air tank. He could have had a seizure or something, I guess, but really the only way that could happen is if he was unconscious when he got in the water and that means someone put him there. He was probably still breathing when he was pushed in the water and that was when he drowned.”
“So you think he was murdered?”
“I’m not ready to go there yet, but something is weird. If its murder, whoever did it knocked him unconscious and then put him in his gear, putting it together wrong, and then put him in the water,” Mike said, ticking off the points on his fingers.
“But you agree something is suspicious, right? I think we should go to the police. There’s no statute of limitations on murder right?” Sophia said, standing as she said it.
“Hold on a second. First, it’s late. Second, I’ve had a couple beers. The police are not going to want to see us right now,” Mike said, motioning Sophia to take a seat. “Third, I want to read this a bit more closely and see if I can figure out what’s going on. If we’re going to get the police to reopen a 25-year-old case that was ruled an accidental drowning, we’ll need to have more than this to go on. They will just write it off saying someone made a mistake about Erick having air in his tank. And we still don’t have any proof that someone didn’t make a mistake.”
“I noticed you said ‘we’ several times. You’ll help me figure out what happened?”
“I don’t see how I can do anything but help. You’ve just told me there is a chance someone killed a friend of mine; someone I looked up to. I’m definitely going to get to the bottom of this,” Mike said. “But remember, this won’t be easy. The police aren’t going to want to deal with this. That’s no reflection on them. They have a lot of other things on their plate. We’re going to have to give them more to go on than just our word.”
“What do you want to do next?” Sophia asked.
“Well, it seems I have a little celebrity status as an alumnus ‘who done good’. Let’s see where that gets us. Let me take these papers and read through them. We’ll meet on campus tomorrow and see if there is anyone still around who was here at the time and ask some questions.”
If you want to read the rest of the story, Heart of the Maya is available in softcover and on Kindle. Get your copy today!