Cleverness in an evil man is like fire in the treetops.
— Tilok proverb
Her green eyes could have been taken directly from Mother Amazon.
Michael Bowden always felt Marita’s presence before seeing the bronze of her skin catch the light. She appeared infrequently and always silently. Michael fancied her a creature of the forest, a shadow in the green, but knew there was more to her. She would reveal that aspect, or not, in her own time.
The informal alliance had been formed from the smallest subtleties over many days, though they had never been closer to one another than about twelve feet. On certain days she would come right to the railing of the large porch, though her favorite place seemed to be the giant ficus tree, where she’d perch among the vines that wrapped the limbs like braided rope. He had been preparing to draw a map for a book when he’d first noticed Marita on this hot, muggy af ternoon. She had come much earlier than usual. From the expression on her face he knew instantly that something was different. Perhaps she was troubled. He would be patient, keep on with his work, and let her settle in. Maybe today they would talk.
Built on massive stilts, the entire house, including the porch, stood some eight feet off the ground, a measure taken against the coming wet season. In Peru, in the vast jungle province of Loreto, two great rivers, the Maranon and the Ucayali, came together to form the Amazon-unless you were a Brazilian citizen and then the Amazon was said to be formed by a downstream confluence that was, not surprisingly, in Brazil. Between the Maranon and the Ucayali lay the 5-million-acre lowland reserve Pacaya-Samiria. Only 1 percent of the reserve remained terra firma during the wet season. In fact, during the annual high water, from December through June, 80 percent of the Loreto Province (if you didn’t count trees and floating grass mats) lay underwater.
To the south of the Ucayali the local people, called the Matses, used stilted huts near the river to weather the wet season. Historically, they had been nomadic and among the most skilled hunters of the Amazon. In modern times they remained among the more remote of the indigenous natives of Peru and Brazil, although they had been influenced by Western missionaries since the 1970s, and they had been ex posed to Western culture more than the other tribes across the border in the Brazilian refuge.
Marita was Matses, though she lacked the tattoos or nose piercings common to Matses women. Westerners called the Matses “cat people” because of whiskerlike wooden pieces that the women wore in their noses as a matter of course and that men donned during special celebrations.
Michael wasn’t sure what language Marita spoke, but he had heard that she had been away to school. He was fluent in both Spanish, the official language of Peru, and Portuguese, Brazil’s dominant tongue.
It had been months since Michael had been with a woman- not since his wife died-but, for him, Marita’s seductive light was cast by much more than her sexuality, although that too seemed considerable.
She had come out of the vines and stood on the ground where he could clearly see her, but where she could not see his work. That alone was different.
He felt he should continue with his map, let her decide whether to come closer. The map concerned a group of ani mals (people thought of them as plants) that he believed were closely related to a saltwater sponge-in this case a previously unknown freshwater species. He’d found them during a ten-day walk, Matses time, through the jungle and across the Yavari, into Brazil, where Matses had led him to another tribe that in turn led him to a quebrada, or small, deep, black-water river. Michael suspected that like some saltwater sponges, these might have anti-inflammatory or immunosuppressant properties. Shamans from this deep jun gle tribe in Brazil had used an extract from the animal, mixed with four other plant extracts, to heal what had ap peared to be neurological disorders that seemed to Michael like MS. Most noteworthy, however, was the fact that such cures were an apparent medical impossibility using conven tional therapy. In his own mind there was most definitely some rational explanation for this anecdotal information be cause the laws of nature were the laws of science, and the laws of science were ultimately the laws of the universe. It was up to the scientist to make the reconciliation between seeming conflicts. Some of this animal and plant material had been submitted to the pharmaceutical company and they were begging for more, though he had no idea why.
Returning to the site of a prior discovery was easy these days, thanks to the handheld GPS. Still, he wanted a good hand-drawn map, if not for actual use, then for his forthcoming book. A map would make the tale of the discovery of the sponges more vivid and exciting for the readers. Since the reserve was strictly regulated with a prohibition against vis itors and very remote, it was unlikely that an estranjeiro would try on his own to follow the map. As a final precaution Michael deliberately did not draw the map to scale.
A table of pine that had belonged to his grandfather, and had been brought from the United States up the Amazon River, supported his work. A stack of notebooks, blue in color and nicely bound, stood on one corner. Directly in front of him was a computer that sucked up its power from batteries that were recharged by a diesel generator. At one time he had thought of the generator as a vile intrusion on the jungle, but now he wasn’t sure. A second, much longer table formed an L with the computer desk; on it were the Bunsen burners with clay pots, retorts, glass tubing, beakers, and various other laboratory items. Michael sometimes used modern conveniences in reproducing the concoctions of the shamans, but he often found it was best to use their methods and their materials at least the first time.
Michael looked up from his work: Marita had come to the bottom of the steps. She held something… a book-in triguing. When he held up his paper and beckoned her closer, she seemed to ponder the idea instead of fleeing. He lowered his eyes, waiting to see what would happen next.
Marita advanced, climbing two more steps. Michael ad mired her tangled, curly hair and the beautiful lines of her face. For the first time he realized that this haphazard pile of ringlets atop her head might be the result of grooming and not an accident of her DNA. She had clean, delicate features with an aquiline nose that displayed the European in her ge netics. Brazil and Peru were populated by an odd mix of peoples, and even among the riverine tribes any combination of hair, complexion, and eye color might pop out of a Peruvian or Brazilian womb.
The Matses, who did not consider themselves riverinos, had for centuries had an odd custom of kidnapping women for wives. They commonly had raided faraway villages, especially riverinos, and hence had introduced an especially wide variety of DNA into their gene pool. A Matses man could have up to four wives. Two was still common, and be fore the 1960s all of a man’s wives might have been stolen from distant peoples.
So Michael couldn’t guess what this strange girl’s her itage might be. He had learned her name from the people of the various families living on the river down the way. On one occasion when Marita had come in the afternoon, he had fol lowed her through the jungle until darkness swallowed her and she had left him behind to pick his way back through the blackness. It had taken all the skills that he had learned from his father and the Matses to find his way home, and as he stepped onto the porch, he had looked around to see a slen der shadow retreating down the path. She had followed him. He looked down at the map again, wondering how he ap peared to Marita. Michael had curly blond hair and light skin. The blue of his eyes matched the blue of the extrava gant morpho butterflies, his face lean like his body. Some riverinos thought Michael Bowden to be a pink river dolphin in disguise, and therefore he was rumored to have great se ductive power with the native girls, who in fact flocked around whenever he entered a village. It was said that under his hair was a cap and that if you pulled it off, the dolphin head would be exposed down between his ears.
Eight months previous, after his wife died-murdered, actually-Michael had become deeply depressed before he became angry. He barely ate for a month and, for the first time, began questioning his life in the jungle. One day, lying on his porch watching the bugs crawl over his pots and burners, he’d seen Marita appear. She had thrown him some man ioc bread. While he ate, she watched as though he might disappear if she didn’t pay close enough attention.
This evening she wore a white pullover blouse of cotton livened up with some hand embroidery. Her legs were bare and she wore brief shorts fashioned from faded blue jeans. Unlike most of the clothing worn by the natives, her outfits were always clean.
When next he looked her way, he saw a forthrightness in her stare. He had the feeling that she was working up to something, although he couldn’t imagine what it might be unless she intended to venture onto the porch. Just as he thought it, she walked up the stairs and stood at the top, hes itant and small like some delicate creature of the wild.
There was a chair on the opposite side of the table. Using his foot, he pushed it out and angled it, making it easy for her to sit. Then he nodded.
“Have a seat if you like.” He said it in Spanish and then in Portuguese. He had overheard a conversation and had gotten the idea that she might have been in Brazil for her schooling. He was reluctant to say or do more, since direct attention on his part would send her skittering and he very much did not want that to happen.
Sometimes he thought of going to the city, maybe Manaus or Iquitos, to meet a woman, but he seldom ventured there. He knew that apart from the science that he read about in a myriad of periodicals, the world was leaving him behind. It had been pulling away since he was nearly twelve years old, and he left Ithaca, New York, with his father. Michael knew the names of a few movies but had seen only one in sixteen years. It was a good enough experience, but it just wasn’t as compelling as his writing or his research or the poetry and literature he read before sleep. He had a clear recollection of television, but even as a child he hadn’t been particularly enthusiastic. Growing up in New York State and California, he had been studious enough to be teased by other children, ex cept he also excelled in wrestling. That seemed to make his disdain for frivolity acceptable. By twelve, when his father took him to the Amazon, he was an apt home-schooled pupil learning easily everything from mathematics to physics and biology. Only the social sciences lacked interest for him.
Michael graduated from college by correspondence and had since been awarded two honorary Ph. D. s in absentia for his research and writing. Before his wife died, he had viewed his world as expansive and as much a feast for the mind and soul as a man could ever need. Science was exploding in all directions. Sometimes he read in a frenzy, moving from one article or paper to another, never able to keep up. People from all over the world sent him things, most of which were interesting, some of which were vital. The balance of his time he spent writing of his experiences and work in the Amazon, its tribes and flora and fauna. Exclusive of his purely scientific articles, all of his writing incorporated sto ries. He never wrote just about a creature or a plant but rather always told the story that led him to it, and about the people he encountered along the way. He deliberately chose a plain style so that even a mind numbed by years of television might partake and find an adventure worth considera tion.
Such a tale might come from today’s experience. Michael watched as Marita slowly lowered herself into the chair, placed her book in her lap, and folded her hands on the table. It appeared in his brief look that the book was one of his. On the table near him lay an unpublished manuscript. He put it in front of her, then dropped his eyes as he saw her begin to read. It was in English, but she appeared fascinated. He couldn’t have been more shocked if she had said, “Hi, I’m Dr. Marita from Harvard.” Next to him was a portable cassette player. He turned on the tape, which played soft quena flute music, floating, lilting. Michael was the instrumentalist, a dedicated member of the Red Howler band in Angomos. He would now go on with his work as if all this were perfectly natural.
Marita kept reading. Michael wished his scientist friends could see this Matses girl reading English. Had she read magazines? If she went away to school, to the city, Western publications would be available. Had she seen a car? Western-style makeup?
He wondered what she knew of the outside world and im mediately wondered how much he really knew of what was happening outside the vastness of the Amazon jungle. Occasionally he thought perhaps he should go to New York and meet Elaine, his agent, and Rebecca, his editor, at the publishing house. He liked them both. They were creatures of the corporate world, but when they communicated with him, it was all about the Amazon-he the expert and they the novices. Their relationship had been cast in that mold. He wasn’t sure he wanted that to change.
When he looked at her again, Marita held his gaze. “It is very good. Like all your books,” she said in workmanlike English.
“You are astounding me, you realize. You come here and never say a word…”
“I am shy. I like to watch people first.”
“It is still strange to go that long,” he said.
“Especially when visiting pink dolphins.”
He laughed. “A tale you obviously don’t believe.”
“Blond men from America are blond men from America.”
She placed her book on the table next to the English manuscript: The Ramparts of the Amazon by Michael J. Bowden. It was a Portuguese-language edition.
“Ja leis-te? ” He asked her. “Fala Portuguese? “
“I speak Portuguese fine. But I wish to practice English. I want to go to New York. At least to see. If I like it, I want to have my children there.”
“Is thatwhy you came to see me?”
She hesitated. “I desire that you come with me. Now.” Somehow her grave expression didn’t match the words she spoke.
“Your English is remarkable.”
“I have been to missionary school for twelve years. Catholic. On the Brazil side of the river. In Tabatinga. They say I learn fast. They give me many tutors.”
He was beginning to get an inkling that she was older than she appeared. Girls normally went to school from about ages six to twelve, maybe fourteen, and then they began bearing children. In Peru early education was compulsory except for the indigenous tribes. Obviously, Marita was not fitting the mold of limited education and that told him that she must have an unusual aptitude for learning to attract such attention among the Catholics.
“But you have never spoken to me. You stood and watched.”
“I explained the best I can about that. Now I need your help. You will need a gun.”
“A gun?” Michael didn’t like them, but he owned plenty.
“A long gun,” she said, gesturing with her arms in the manner of someone firing a rifle.
She looked dead serious, even a little fearful. Without questioning her further, Michael walked to a cabinet that held his rifles. He removed a. 300 magnum, Winchester Model 70. Returning to the porch, he said, “This is a big gun. Why do you need it?”
“Do you have a small gun? I think we’ll need both. You can show me how to shoot.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“To protect us from the bad men.”
“Que homens? A gue distancia? Conto e que sabes que sao maus? ” He spoke rapidly in Portuguese to make sure she understood his questions.
What she said next nearly stopped his heart.
“One of the men is the man who killed your wife.”
Before he realized it, he had sat back down at the desk, dumbfounded. After a moment he opened a side drawer, re moved a. 357 magnum Ruger GP 100 pistol, and placed it on the desk. “I need to understand how you know this.”
“They are one day’s walk from here… for a estrangeiro.” She seemed stuck on English now.
“Six. Matses hunters saw them on the Blanca.”
He tried to picture the terrain. It sounded like they had come up the Ucayali and Tapiche river system, then overland on foot. It would only make sense to do so if they sought to remain bidden. To think the Matses wouldn’t see them was foolish. That would make them foreigners.
“I saw them this morning,” Marita said.
“But you’re here.”
“They are estrangeiros. I am Matses.”
“Do you know why they have come?”
“The same reason as before, when the man killed your wife. They are looking for your experiments.”
Michael stood again. “You’re sure this man killed my wife?”
“Yes. He took your things too.”
“You saw him do this?”
“It’s better not to talk about it. She fought and they killed her. They were trying to… hurt her.”
“But only one of these new men is the same.”
“Yes. They call him Cy. The other men… I think they are very bad too.”
“What do you think you can do?”
“I want to kill them.”
“We have police.”
“Where? These men will break the police like little sticks. And the police won’t follow if they go into Brazil.”
“These men will be here and they will kill and hurt Matses and they will be gone before the soldiers arrive.”
“We could leave and try to get everyone out of San Jose.”
“Matses men? Run? They already think I am unruly and crazy. They will say I have bewitched you.”
He thought for a moment and nodded. He had never seri ously considered killing anyone. Even when he found his wife’s brutalized remains, killing did not become his dream. His first rule of life was to do no harm. But then to kill this kind was to prevent harm. Perhaps his first rule of life could use some rethinking.
“Did they hurt you?”
He was surprised at the almost physical sense of relief he felt at her answer.
“They hurt my sister, and killed my child,” she said. “Before my sister escaped…,” she trailed off. “She is dif ferent now.”
His throat thickened and he hesitated. He still did not know for certain if there was a connection between his wife’s death and this group. Or if so, who exactly was re sponsible for Eden’s murder. He looked to Marita. Her eyes said what he scarcely dared to think: one, at least, among these men was a murderer and rapist, and that was enough.
He stood. “How will we find him?”
“They will walk along the small creeks. The way the land lies they will eventually find the trail from Herrera to San Jose. Like any estrangeiro they will stay on it because the jungle is thick.”
“Probably.” Quickly he went back inside and pulled two military M-16 rifles from a footlocker. He had bought these guns only after Eden’s murder. He grabbed a backpack already loaded with the basics-knives, lighters, water, and the like. He stuffed all the ammunition in the packsack. Back at the footlocker, he removed a Glock 10mm model 20, with fifteen-round clip, and for her a Glock 9mm model 17, with a seventeen-round clip. As much as he liked any gun, he liked this one and he had plenty of ammunition. Then he considered that they should both be using the same ammunition, so he grabbed a second 9mm and took the 10mm as a backup. He got her a pack for her ammo and water, then threw in some more supplies. Normally, she would need only matches, salt, a fishing line, and a knife to survive in relative comfort for lengthy periods, so she would be traveling in relative luxury. In the packsacks were a num ber of individual flour sacks that had been dipped in liquid latex, making them waterproof and buoyant, allowing the backpack to double as a crude flotation device. Anything that needed to remain dry went in a latex-coated sack.
“We may die trying. Is this worth it to you?” Michael was tempted to revert to Portuguese for the philosophical aspects of this question.
“It is worth it.”
Before they left, they practiced with the guns for half an hour, and when they were finished, she could use the M-16 to obliterate a stump in seconds. Her facility with the guns was almost unnerving.
They gathered up their things and began walking toward the Tapiche. Somewhere between the Tapiche and the Galvez they would find the trail of the men who came to steal again, perhaps to rape and kill. And they would kill them.
Baptiste made his way to a small holding area where informants, witnesses, and prisoners could be interviewed by the government. He did not want to speak to Benoit Moreau in her cell or in the regular visiting area. By bringing her out, he hoped she would begin to feel what was possible and to build in her soul a yearning so deep that she could not resist the generous offer of the French government.
She waited in the holding area, a neat and clean room with a fresh coat of paint, sitting in a nice chair, such as the kind that might be used by an executive secretary. There was even a desk for her to sit behind; in a way she could imagine that she was interviewing him. These were props of pride and position, luxuries that would never again be hers…
He had come up with the idea himself, like a car sales man who puts you behind the wheel of a brand-new Citroen. There was a glass window in the office and blinds that were partially open to let in light and to allow her to see snatches of what was going on outside the door of her little office. She sat in the chair in chains. That was different from the Citroen and the unctuous salesman, but necessary for the time being.
He started by offering a friendly smile. He was not good at them, as his wife often pointed out.
“I’ll get right to the point,” he said when Benoit showed no reaction. God, she was beautiful. He knew it, he had seen her, but still he wasn’t quite ready for it. And for just a brief second he wondered whether he might ever have sex with her, and then he blew the notion out of his mind, knowing that it was incredibly weak and incredibly dangerous. Straight- backed and lithe, she projected a cold sexiness even in her prison suit.
He sat, determined to let her see nothing in his eyes. “I called you here to begin a discussion regarding an offer from the French government.”
“Aren’t you going to greet me? How are you, mademoi selle? How do you like the office, mademoiselle? Nice weather we’re having? No small talk or chitchat? Amazing for a man with a big plan.”
“What big plan is that?”
“Whatever big plan you have to lift yourself from obscurity in a job that is going nowhere and a future that is only slightly less dull than this office.”
“I like my job. I take it very seriously. You are the one with no future.”
Something about her unbelievable confidence was unnerving.
“You think you have a big future? You can go back to your cell in your chains and rot.”
She rose, completely unperturbed. “I’m ready. I’m sure that the admiral will be wanting to see me, so give him my best regards and tell him I am looking forward to our meet ing.”
She was ambling toward the door in her chains. A wave of panic washed over him. Could she…? The admiral was reputedly a womanizer like many Frenchmen in positions of prominence.
“Unfortunately, you won’t be seeing the admiral.”
“Get back there and sit down,” he said.
She sat and smiled. “It’s true that I’ve only seen him once. He was curious like all men. He lusts, but he is too smart to ask for sex. Just as you are. But, just like you, he was tempted.”
“I am not going to waste time on your games.”
“What, then? Will you physically abuse me? Are you going to rape me as well?” She studied him with bright ap pealing eyes. “You want my help with the genetic science of Grace Technologies, particularly Chaperone, but of course at the same time you’re wondering if we might one day have sex. Don’t deny it and we’ll get along better. I hate men who lie to me.”
“I am interested in making an arrangement where you can do France some good, instead of sitting on your ass all day. In exchange you would be released from prison each day. Of course you return here at night. And there would be security to and from and at work. The key is that you earn our trust. Which you are not doing right now. For example, you could start by telling me what the name Chaperone means. Why did they call it that?”
“For me your offer is a way out of that hole at least for the day, to see the pigeons on a windowsill, to watch it rain, to walk outside, to be with normal people instead of lunatics, maybe to have sex in the copy room. And by telling you about Chaperone, God knows what little extras I might get. I got it. But I’m not interested.” “Why?”
“Because it’s not good enough. I can touch and hold, but I cannot take a bite and cannot really taste. No thanks. My imagination does the same for me here. I’d rather rot.”
“But there are possibilities. Real possibilities.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“If your work were good enough. If you were reliable. Maybe, who knows, a sort of house arrest? You weren’t convicted of actually pulling the trigger on anyone. There were a lot of charges for conspiracy, and of aiding and abetting, that sort of thing. Nobody, though, said you shot anybody or poi soned them, except of course Chellis, but he didn’t die and he mistreated you, I am sure. An argument could be made.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“You do not have long.”
“I want to talk to the admiral before I make a deal.” She stood and her chains rustled. On her, the chains seemed nearly elegant.
“He is too busy.”
“No. You are too afraid. Tell me what you are afraid of?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Baptiste responded.
“Then we have no deal.”
“Do you know now if Chaperone is actually one mole cule? Do you know how it works or where it came from?”
“I know more than you,” Benoit challenged.
“I am offering you something. If you don’t want it, just say so.”
“Fine. I say no.” She stared at him with confidence born of resignation. Even though she didn’t like prison, clearly she could stand it. The question was: could he?
She shuffled toward the door, not even bothering to look at him.
“I’ve got to move quickly. You and I are going to come to an arrangement or I will find a way to make your life hell.”
“My life is already hell. But I’m listening.”
“What do you want?” he demanded.
“Before we do business, you have to make love to me. Take it or leave it.”
He was stunned. Oddly, he didn’t know what to say.
“With a c-condom?” he stammered.
“No condom. I am clean.”
“How would I know?”
“Recently I got myself tested. You read the records. Who in here can I have had sex with since? No one. But maybe you assume a guard. How dangerous is that? They’re all married and their wives are like coal mine canaries.”
“You aren’t man enough to take a woman? So be it. I don’t do business with eunuchs.”
“Where would we have sex?”
“I go on outings when we make a deal. Remember? Sex in a government lab wouldn’t be bad. When the glory of France is at stake, something can be arranged. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“No. We can’t be intimate. Something else. Choose some thing else.”
“I want you. And I insist on you. But there is something else as well that you can do right this minute.”
“What is that?”
“Tell me about this Sam man, who put the case together that sent me to jail.”
“You want revenge?”
“Hardly. I want to know if the two maniacs have had any success trying to kill each other. I will need them both alive to help me solve your problem-after you sleep with me.”
“I don’t understand,’ Baptiste answered.
“Simple question: are they both alive?”
“Yes. As far as I know. And Sam, whoever he is, still hunts Gaudet.”
“Where has Gaudet set up his operation?”
“We think he travels. The man is completely elusive. He could die and we would never know it.”
“I am ready to help you get all of the technology for the glory of France. The rest is up to you.”
She reached for the door and turned the knob. The door wouldn’t budge. Outside, a guard seemed to have a large foot placed as a doorstop.
“You aren’t going anywhere until I say.”
“Big man with no balls, huh?” she countered.
“You slept with Chellis. Now he’s crazy and locked up.”
“Chellis hit me. Chellis humiliated me. He became a murdering, bellicose asshole. It is the explanation for his failure, not an excuse for mine. I chose Devan Gaudet. It was wrong to go in league with Gaudet, but he’s rich and on the loose. Now I choose you. Think about your pathetic pension. I’m here because you already contemplated your retirement. It’s written on your forehead. I can do it for you and for France. I can cut you in for a piece and we can both get out of this sewer. Think about it. You know what Chaperone is worth. You’ve already thought about what you could do with that kind of money. Now all you need to do is make it happen for France.”
“I thought I was a cold bastard.”
“You’re tough. With me you’ll be tougher. You’ll get Chaperone for the greater glory of France and we’ll get a piece for ourselves. You will retire a hero.”
“How in the hell are we going to share in what rightfully belongs to France?”
“You’re not getting my ideas until we make a deal and I get what I have coming.”
He needed time to think. He had behaved like an amateur. Benoit Moreau had controlled the discussion. At that mo ment he wanted to kill her and he knew that in matters of the ego there wasn’t a lot of difference between doing that and ravishing her.
Afterward, Benoit was satisfied with her meeting with Baptiste, although waiting to get to the admiral was a major frustration. Knowing that Gaudet was alive was a huge relief and knowing that he had not killed Sam an even more en couraging confirmation. Already the admiral had sent an emissary, indicating that she might call him if she wished. Of course she would not call him. It was imperative that he be the first to initiate contact. Carefully she wrote down the name of each person she would communicate with and their motivations. She tried to crystallize in her own mind what would be driving them and how they would react to the situation that she expected to create in concert with history. Her list was six long:
Georges Raval the man they called Sam
Next she wrote down the themes that she would stress with each and she tried to picture the world as that person would see it as the critical circumstances unfolded. Finally s he imagined leading them to a certain vision in keeping with her plan.
Being stuck in the cell while she waited for Baptiste and the admiral was agonizing beyond words. Her only relief was thinking about the man that would one day be her lover.