"Readers will be focused on the mystery, pulled on by the gripping suspense."—Kirkus
A Legendary Ghost, An Ancient Treasure, A Mystery Only Samantha Sutton Can Solve
There's nothing Samantha Sutton wants more than to become an adventure-seeking archaeologist like her brilliant Uncle Jay. Samantha's big dreams are finally coming true when Jay invites her along on a summer excavation of an ancient temple in the Peruvian Andes.
But this adventure isn't exactly what she thought it would be with her nosy older brother, Evan, and Jay's colleagues monitoring her every move. And she has to deal with the local legend, EI Loco: a ghostly madman who supposedly haunts the ruins. But when the project's most important finds go missing, it's up to Samantha to solve the mystery before the treasures of the temple are lost forever.
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Samantha Sutton jerked awake, her seat belt pressing uncomfortably into her cheek. She sat up as straight as she could and struggled to clear her mind of its strange, unsettling fog.
But when she cast her eyes through the dirty windshield, she immediately wished she hadn't. The road outside had grown narrow and rough, winding its way along a ledge carved into the cliff-face. Just inches from her side of the van, the ground dropped away into shadowy nothingness.
A careless turn would send them tumbling over; a fall would kill them all.
She forced her gaze back inside, bringing her hand up to ensure that her notebook still hung from her neck by its knotted length of cord. She could not remember falling asleep or even feeling drowsy. How long had she been unconscious?
Rubbing her bleary eyes, she turned to see her brother, Evan, snoring in the backseat, his headphones still on and his head lolling back. Her Uncle Jay was also sound asleep, his chin collapsed against his chest. To her relief, Osvaldo sat fully upright and alert in the driver's seat beside her, his smiling eyes fixed on the road ahead.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"Just past Huaraz, pulguita."
Huaraz? She must have been asleep for quite some time. The barren mountainside outside the driver-side window glowed warm in the afternoon sun.
Osvaldo laughed at her question.
"You passed out! All three Suttons, out like lights. But do not worry. It is the altitude, nothing more."
"I fainted?" she asked.
"Well, yes, in a way. At this elevation, there is less oxygen than you are used to. Your body did not want to work so hard, so it turned off for a short time."
She turned away, catching a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror. The same dark braids framed the same elfin features, and the same freckles speckled across the same slightly upturned nose. But her large brown eyes were happy, and new life beamed from her pretty smile. She was fully herself somehow, now that her adventure had begun.
With her entire being, Samantha wanted to be an archaeologist, just like her Uncle Jay. On weekends, her parents would sometimes drive her from their home in Davis, California, and drop her off at her uncle's university on the far side of San Francisco Bay.
Samantha and Jay would talk for hours, sprawled among his notes and photographs. Rubbing his rough, unshaven chin and excitedly smoothing his dark brown hair, her uncle would tell her tales of forgotten tombs, dangerous cave-ins, hidden cities, snakes, and scorpions.
But while Samantha adored these stories of adventure, she listened most closely when he described his ongoing excavations at Cerro Sechin, which bristled like some cornered animal against the desert bluffs of the Peruvian coast. She was drawn to the detailed note-taking the work entailed, the precise soil samples, and the careful analysis of bits of broken clay vessels, known as "potsherds." She loved the orderly elegance of test "units"-the perfectly dug squares and rectangles on which all excavations were based. Archaeology seemed to be a job for a very patient and organized mind. It seemed like something she could do.
And of course it was Jay who had given her the field notebook-a present for her twelfth birthday, back in January. Similar ones sat in disorderly piles on his bookshelves and in tumbled stacks around his office floor. But hers was clean, its unlined pages crisp, and Jay had passed a piece of twine through the tight spiral binding so it could hang from her neck like a pendant.
"Get used to writing everything down," he had commanded when he presented it to her. "Things you read, conversations you have with people, ideas that come to you, even little details that don't seem to matter. You can sort out what's significant later."
He'd passed the loop of twine over her head.
"We archaeologists destroy what we study-that's just how it goes. If you dig something up, you're the first and last person to see it exactly as it was left. Everything comes down to what you observe at that moment and how carefully you record it."
She nodded, eager to show him that she understood.
"But that kind of observation takes lots of practice. And if you're going to work for me, I'm going to need you to be good at it."
"What?" she cried. "Work for you?"
"That's right. This summer. What do you say?"
But even in her excitement, Samantha had known that her say wasn't what counted. The decision would be up to her parents, and them alone. And while Raymond and Phoebe Sutton loved their daughter, they were far too busy with their careers to understand just how much archaeology meant to her. They had no time to ask her how she spent her afternoons at the library every day after school, or why she would whisper "Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic" to herself from time to time.
The previous spring, her parents had barely noticed when she constructed a model of the Chateau Gaillard in the shaded patio of the backyard-relying on her careful research to reproduce Richard the Lionheart's twelfth-century castle with cardboard, gravel, and glue. In their eyes, she was just a strangely serious little girl with a pretty peculiar pastime. Archaeology was just a phase, and she would surely outgrow it.
So when they finally said yes, Samantha was not surprised that their agreement came with a catch. Her brother, Evan, would accompany her to Peru.
She was much too young to traipse around South America looking for dinosaurs on her own, her parents had explained, confusing archaeology with paleontology for the millionth time.
"Who else will supervise you while your uncle works?" her father asked, not understanding that she wanted to be working too, right at Jay's side.
"The Archaeo Kid is much too little," Evan added, using the nickname he knew she hated. "Look at her! She's microscopic!"
Samantha realized she would just have to accept having Evan come along, and by the time Jay came back from Peru to retrieve them, she was nervous with excitement. All her hoping, all her pleading, all her months of research had finally paid off.
As Jay discussed the final details with her parents, Samantha wrestled her duffel bag out the door and into the back of her uncle's muddy pickup truck, distinctive for its solid layer of bumper stickers. Evan was already seated.
"Hey, Archaeo Kid!" he called through the open window. "Ready to be my personal assistant?"
But she barely registered the teasing. It didn't matter. This would be the best summer of her life. She would be an archaeologist, at last.
As she opened the passenger door, Evan pulled his knees to his chin so that she was forced to slide into the cramped middle seat. He smelled like old pizza, and she was about to tell him so when Jay clambered inside and started the engine.
"Okay, guys. We have a flight to catch!"
"Where are we going?" asked Samantha, as her brother jostled her to fasten his seat belt. "Cerro Sechin?"
"No, Sam. Somewhere totally new. Well, new in a manner of speaking."
Jay pulled out of the driveway, grinning at his own joke.
"But you're going to love it. I met up with a couple of colleagues last year at a conference in Lima. We got to talking about a site where they've been working, and they invited me along. It's called Chavín de Huántar, and it's way up high in the Andes mountains."
The name seemed familiar, but Samantha was distracted by something else her uncle had said.
"So, it's not your project?" she asked glumly. If Jay wasn't in charge, she wondered how much she would be allowed to do.
He read the expression on her face.
"Don't worry, kiddo. I may be third in command, but I still got to pick a third of the team! When I arrived with my group a couple of weeks ago, we were welcomed with open arms. And you will be too."
"Chavín de Huántar," she said as they sped down the highway, letting the strange words roll from her mouth. "Is it Incan?"
"Oh, please," said Evan. "Of course not. All your research and you don't even know about Chavín?"
"Easy, Ev," Jay said, and then softened his voice. "Sam, remember how the Inca were around in the fifteenth century when the Spanish arrived? Chavín is much, much more ancient. In fact, it would have been older to the Inca than the Inca are to us. Not much is known about the people who built it, and that's why this summer is going to be so exciting."
"Unless I'm stuck baby-sitting you all the time," said Evan.
He reached for his headphones, and as soon as the muffled, tinny music of his handheld video-game system filled the cab of the truck, Jay whispered a half apology.
"I know you don't exactly love that your brother is coming with us, but it was the only way I could convince your parents to let you go. And besides, I can use his help. His Spanish is good, and we both know he's a smart kid."
But Samantha could not agree.
"He's not going to be any help on the dig at all," she muttered. "He's just going to torture me all summer."
"Oh, don't you worry about that, Archaeo Kid," Jay said, his smile sly. "You guys will be too busy to bother each other. I'll see to that. And maybe you'll be able to prove to him just how much you know."
She relented. Her uncle's enthusiasm was contagious.
"Besides, it's your help I need most of all," he continued. "In fact, there's a very important job at Chavín that only you can do."
Samantha had not been on many airplanes in her life. Sitting by the window, she felt her heart race as the noise of the engine swelled and the plane charged down the runway to buck suddenly upward and into the twilit sky. Jay must have misread her excitement as nervousness because she soon felt his reassuring hand on her arm. To her relief, Evan-seated by the aisle on the other side of their uncle-seemed not to notice. By the time the plane had leveled its ascent, he was absorbed once again in his video game, Pillager of the Past IV.
Night had fallen outside her window, but Samantha was too excited to sleep. To pass the time, she examined her passport. Crisp, blue, and formal, it looked and felt like a new, exhilarating responsibility. She turned it over and over in her hands, then carefully examined the pages. There was her picture, taken at school, and beside it, in gravely serious print, her name: Sutton, Samantha Isis. She couldn't wait until the passport was floppy and worn like her uncle's, and the pages filled with exotic stamps.
"We've got some time now, Sam."
Jay rustled for a moment in his knapsack and withdrew a stack of papers. They were photocopies of pages from his own field notebook, bound with a rubber band.
"Yours to keep. The field season has only been going for a couple of weeks, so you haven't missed too much. But I should catch you up with the rest of the team."
He laid the stack on her tray table. His handwriting was as bad as a little kid's, but his sketches and maps were expert and precise. Before her were pictures of snarling carved faces, majestic staircases, and pots with intricately engraved designs. Most exciting were Jay's diagrams of enormous stone buildings. They were zigzagged with a wild maze of passageways-called "galleries," strangely enough. Their tangled paths were hard to navigate, even in diagrammed form.
Questions came so rapidly to Samantha's mind that she was barely able to ask them.
"What is it? Who built it? What was it for? What are these...?"
"Hold on, hold on, hold on!" her uncle said, laughing. "Sam, there's one answer to all those questions-we don't really know. Archaeologists have been working here for decades, and mostly it's still a mystery. Hopefully, after this summer, we'll be able to come up with some answers."
With her uncle's notes before her, the hours passed quickly. Samantha did her best to absorb as much of the information as possible. She flipped through the stack again and again, and tried especially hard to commit one page-a map-to memory. A rectangular building seemed to dominate the area, with smaller buildings and imposing courtyards spread out before it. A river flowed north and south, marking the site's eastern edge. A second river flowed in from the west, meeting the first just above the site's perimeter.
But at the bottom of the page, something else caught her eye: a note, penciled in her uncle's hurried scrawl.
There may be some truth to the "Loco" rumors after all. Villagers extremely reluctant to discuss.
She nudged her uncle awake.
"What's this?" she asked. "What rumors?"
Jay glanced groggily at the page.
"That? Nothing for you to be worried about."
"But why is it in your notes?"
Jay rubbed his eyes, clearly eager to fall back asleep.
"It's kids' stuff. Nonfactual. Just a ghost story."
Samantha did not drop her questioning look, and Jay let out a semi-serious moan.
"Fine, Sam. The ruins are supposedly haunted, okay? Not by some ancient spirit or mummy's curse or anything like that, but by el Loco-a lunatic-who disappeared into the site many years ago and never came out. He is said to return to the valley in the moonlight, protecting some sort of treasure he left behind."
She nodded, committing the story to memory.
"It's no more than a legend, Sam, if you can even call it that. A rumor, like I wrote, spread by children."
He emphasized his point by pulling a pen from his pocket and scratching out the words completely.
"Let's focus on the archaeology, okay?"
Samantha gave a cautious nod. In all the time they had spent together, Jay had never refused to answer a question that she had posed to him, even in a joking way. He hadn't even held back when they talked about his old site of Cerro Sechin-happily describing the gruesome carvings of dismembered human bodies, piles of heads, gouged-out eyeballs, and spilling guts that adorned its fortress walls.
From the aisle seat, Evan's video game beeped and chirped.
"Finally! Done with Africa!" he announced, as the small screen faded to black. "I just cleared the entire Mali board. Dug up and sold all three hundred terra-cotta statues."
The screen begin to glow again, and Samantha watched as a tiny character-the Pillager of the Past herself-jogged across a ruined road into what looked like a smashed and burning museum.
"Oh yeah," said Evan, grinning. "Baghdad! This level's supposed to be easy!"
Samantha woke to the buzz of the television display embedded in the seat in front of her. It showed a map of the flight's progress, and the tiny plane symbol was just now inching across the equator. Through her window she could see nothing-just daybreak over a carpet of thick, dark clouds. Only when the plane banked to one side was the gray expanse broken by an endless chain of jagged white peaks reaching for unknown miles toward the horizon.
She was worlds away from her familiar life now. She would never spend another boring summer at home. Not when there were real adventures to be had.
At last, the aircraft eased through the clouds and Samantha saw a massive city spread out below her. This must be Lima, the capital of Peru, sprawling from the foot of the mountains to a dark and angry sea. Soon, she heard the landing gear unfold below her and the tremendous rush of air against the wings. With a thump and a lurch, they arrived.
For some reason, Samantha had expected Peru to feel different from the United States. She had thought the air itself would seem special, or that something inside her would be able to sense that she was in a new country, far away. But, as she marched down the metal stairway and onto the tarmac, she was surprised how familiar everything seemed. It was a little more humid than she was used to, but otherwise, it was like any warm, cloudy morning back home.
Following Jay's example, she slid her new passport across the desk to the stern, uniformed official and listened as he questioned her uncle in Spanish.
"He's asking what we're doing here," Evan translated in a low voice. "And uh-oh...this isn't good...
"What?" Samantha whispered. "What's he saying?"
"They're talking about you."
"About me?" She twisted a braided pigtail nervously around her finger.
"The policeman says you're too ugly to come into the country. I think they want to send you home."
Samantha frowned. She didn't know any Spanish and instantly hated that she would be at Evan's mercy to understand everything that was said. As she heard the clank of the officer's stamp and retrieved her passport through the window, she decided to learn as much of the language as she could, as quickly as possible.
By the time they had collected their luggage and stepped into the heat of the parking lot, it was pouring. Steam rose from the swollen puddles, and raindrops the size of walnuts rapped against the roofs of cars.
The area beneath the concrete awning was crowded with taxi drivers jostling for passengers. Jay politely refused their shouted offers, leading his niece and nephew through the mob and toward a covered bus stop. While Evan and Samantha flinched and cowered as globs of water stung their faces, Jay strode on with his back straight, as if totally untouched by the rain.
Suddenly, though, he changed direction.
Repeating "permiso, permiso" and glancing back to make sure that his niece and nephew were following, he made his way quickly to where a man was waiting for them, his hand raised in silent greeting. Jay extended his own as they approached, and the two embraced warmly in the downpour.
"Mis sobrinos, Evan y Samantha," said Jay, proudly introducing his niece and nephew as they blinked in the pounding rain. "Guys, this is Professor Osvaldo Huaca. For most of the year he teaches archaeology at a university here in Lima, but he works up at the site for the rest of the time. He grew up near there, actually, and I think it's safe to say that he knows more about Chavín than anyone else alive."
The Peruvian man was short, shorter than Evan, but at least twice as wide. His wet black hair lay pressed against his head above dark, smiling eyes. While the taxi drivers nearby wore T-shirts and shorts in the warm weather, Osvaldo was wearing a thick sweater and jeans, soaked dark by the rain. A silver buckle glinted from his belt. His grin and demeanor were just like their uncle's-friendly, intelligent, and open-but there was also concern in the way he smiled and anxiety in the way he kept checking his watch.
"Mucho gusto, Profesor Huaca," announced Evan formally, in his crisp, junior-high-school Spanish. Then, turning to his sister, he hissed: "I think he's almost as short as you are, Archaeo Kid! Looks like you've got some competition for the World's Puniest Person award!"
Jay's face dropped, and he continued his introduction with quiet anger in his voice.
"Professor Huaca also happens to speak English. Probably better than you do, Evan." He turned to face his colleague. "I am so sorry, Osvaldo. These two have a bit of a rivalry going on, and sometimes they say rude and ugly things."
He flashed an angry glance at his nephew.
"Especially this one."
The Peruvian archaeologist's smile did not return. He coughed uncomfortably and shifted his weight on his feet.
"It is of no importance, Jay," he finally replied. "Children. What can be said?"
He met Samantha's nervous gaze.
"I mean no offense to you, of course, Samantha. I am sure you do not share your brother's manners."
"No, I do not, Professor Huaca," she stated emphatically.
Evan gave her a dark scowl, promising some form of revenge.
"Please call me Osvaldo, pulguita. We are all on a first-name basis on this excavation."
He said the last word as if it had an "s" or a "c" where the "t" went, and Samantha felt a wave of confidence. If "excavation" in Spanish was just "excavación," maybe learning the language wouldn't be as hard as she'd feared.
"But Osvaldo, what are you doing here?" Jay asked. "We were going to just get an overnight bus through Huaraz. I thought it would be better to take it slow. Get these guys adjusted to the altitude."
"There is no time. We must get you back to the site."
Jay's face darkened.
"It's happened again?"
Osvaldo gave a quick nod, and even in their anger at each other, Samantha and her brother exchanged questioning looks.
Jay gave a long sigh. Water was coursing down his hat, streaming in thick rivulets from its broad brim.
"Okay, then. Evan, grab the bags."
Osvaldo, Jay, and Samantha trudged through the rain to a small white van, Evan trailing behind them with the luggage.
"Why don't you sit up front, Sam?" asked her uncle when they reached the vehicle. Then, indicating Evan with a joking frown, "I'll keep an eye on this one in the back."
Samantha could tell that her uncle was no longer mad at her brother. Jay could not be angry at anyone for very long. And yet, as he began to chat with Evan about the site, Samantha could detect something in her uncle's voice that she had never heard before. He seemed preoccupied and maybe just a little afraid.
The busy road from the airport wrapped around the city's center and through a landscape unlike any Samantha had ever seen. Covering the dry barren hills was an enormous sprawl of shacks built of plywood, sheets of metal, and corrugated plastic-stretching as far as she could see. As the van raced through the rain, Samantha could see where streams of brackish water had cut furrows in the dirt streets, flooding where they were choked with garbage.
"These are the pueblos jóvenes, the new towns," Osvaldo explained. "The people who live here have fled from the mountains."
"Why? What happened to them in the mountains?"
Osvaldo took a deep breath, weighing his words before he answered.
"It is a difficult life in the montañas, my dear. Little work. Very poor. And...pues, the Andes can be unforgiving in other ways. Terrible things have happened there in years past."
She nodded gravely, trying to absorb the news like an adult would have. But then Osvaldo leaned over her for the glove compartment, reaching for a map, and her eyes caught the cold glint of metal.
There was a gun inside, inches from her knees.
"Do not be afraid," Osvaldo soothed. "There have been some problems with bandidos on the road we are to take. But it has been a long time since I have had to use that."
Samantha did not know what to say.
"I am sorry." Osvaldo shook his head. "These are not things for a child to worry about."
She set to work on forgetting the horrible thoughts that filled her mind.
An hour later, they were out of the rain. As the van raced through a brown expanse of sugarcane, and as Jay and Evan talked loudly in the backseat, Samantha traced their route on the map spread across her knees.
The road to Chavín seemed to begin innocently enough, but soon the small blue line on the map would kink wildly back and forth, folding itself into the contours of the mountains. After the town labeled "Huaraz," the blue line gave way to a thin brown thread, and the zags and kinks became impossibly tighter.
Behind her, Samantha could hear Evan as he tried impatiently to teach their uncle how to play his video game.
"You have to hurry through the museum halls before the soldiers show up," her brother was explaining. "Clear out as many of the cases as you can."
"I'm just not a natural at this, I guess," Jay replied, stabbing at the buttons with his thumbs.
"What's this number?" Samantha asked, pointing to a figure printed alongside their route on the map. "Is that how many people live there?"
"4,700?" Osvaldo answered, "No, pulguita. That's the elevation of the pass in meters. About 15,000 feet."
Samantha was astonished. In California, her own familiar Sierra Nevadas were only around 6,000 feet above sea level.
The last of the sugarcane whipped past, and suddenly the Andes loomed before them. The map showed that the mountains were still a hundred miles away, but Samantha had to lean forward to see their summits through the windshield.
Soon, the van began its ascent. The deep ravines that gradually opened up on the left side of the car were spotted with flowering cacti. To the right, barbed-wire fences corralled goats and chickens and pigs into notches in the cliff-face. Patches of unpaved road became more and more frequent, and before long they were bumping along a wide earthen track. Here and there, small waterfalls coursed down the rocks, carving gullies across the road.
She could hear her uncle and brother laughing about something in the backseat, but she did not feel the slightest bit left out. These were the Andes unfurling around her, and she had the perfect view.
Until the formidable elevation sucked the oxygen from her body and plunged her into a dark and dreamless sleep.
Now, Samantha sat up as straight as she could, determined not to let the altitude get the best of her again as she watched the landscape bounce past her window. But just as her mind cleared itself of thought, and just as she began to give in to her fatigue once more, Jay murmured something from the backseat.
"The looting," he said groggily over his nephew's loud snores. "Tell me what happened."
Samantha didn't move, knowing the conversation would end abruptly if they could tell she was listening.
"It's bad, amigo. Very bad. Many more test pits on the Temple's south side."
"You've reported it to the police?"
"Yes, of course."
"And nada. They say they are doing what they can. In their opinion, the site's perimeter is secure. They say it is from animals rooting around."
"Ridiculous." Jay spat, no longer whispering.
"What's ridiculous?" Evan was awake now too, if only barely.
"Nothing, kiddo. Rest up. We're still a few hours away."
Samantha, too, fell back asleep. When she next awoke, the rocky cliffs had given way to a vast rolling grassland-the puna that she had read about in her books. Stepped ridges cross-cut the vastness, and distant white peaks poked up from the horizon. The van wound its way through rolling hills and around a small, clear lake-bright blue, even in the golden evening light. There were no other cars, no other people in sight. Just majestic scenery in every direction, as far as she could see.
Finally, after a long tunnel, the road began its descent. In the fading light, Samantha could make out a curtain of cliffs sweeping into the shadows below. The van crept downhill, the gravel surface crunching beneath its tires on switchback after switchback after switchback.
And then something emerged from the shadows before them and Samantha was too terrified to scream.