Grabbing the wheel in preparation to hauling himself back into the jeep, Carlos’ feet skid out from under him. The big Peruvian guide lands on his back with a splash in a puddle that did not exist moments before. He is quickly on his feet, laughing and shaking off the rain and mud and asking Amy:
“Could you reach into that box and hand me the triple-X size tee shirt. Its mine anyway.”
Amy finds the shirt and hands it to him. Carlos settles sideways in the driver’s seat to peel off his wet shirt.
Amy turns to Genius, and freezes. The color has drained from his face and his lips press together, tight and white. Before Amy can ask, he raises a quieting finger to his lips, and points to Carlos’ left shoulder.
Amy turns and looks. Her head feels suddenly light. Clearly visible up on the smooth, hairless shoulder of the big man there shone a detailed tattoo of a skull sitting atop a red orchid – the identifying symbol of a member of the Brotherhood of the Blood Orchid.
Moving cautiously, Genius brings his legs up and around, holding them up at Carlos’ back. As the big man bends forward to wiggle the tee shirt over his head, Genius pushes. Arms trapped and head covered, Carlos flies out into the rain, landing face down and skidding into the waist high foliage flanking the rutted road.
Genius grabs the wheel and hoists himself into the driver’s seat. Carlos has left the engine running. Genius slaps the jeep into gear and stomps on the gas. Amy slams deep into the back seat. She struggles to look over her shoulder. They are several yards away before Carlos stumbles back onto the rutted road. He looks about to start after them, then realizes the futility of pursuit and fires his shirt onto the ground.
“What’s he doing?” Genius asks.
“Probably using language a lady like me shouldn’t hear and won’t repeat.” She sticks her head between the driver and passenger seats. “What’s the plan?”
“I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along.”
“This is no time to be quoting Indiana Jones.”
“According to my sister its never a bad time to quote Harrison Ford.” After a moment he says, “After we put a few miles between us and our ‘friend’ Carlos, we’ll abandon the jeep and head south.”
“Why abandon the jeep?”
Genius nods toward the On-Star system.
“Can’t you disable it?”
“I can. But if we abandon it somewhere and head in another direction, they’ll waste time recovering it.”
“You said head south. Why?”
“Chile. I’ll be more welcome there than in Bolivia or Argentina.”
“Why is that?”
“No comment.” After a moment he curses, “Every damn time.”
“Every time I come down to South America I wind up having to walk out of the jungle.”
Satisfied that Genius seems to know what he is doing, Amy settles back.
After a couple of minutes Genius suggests, “Check those boxes. See if our friend was carrying any food.”
Amy finds mostly clothes and shoes for people of all ages, sizes and sexes. One box is stuffed with Ron Popeil gadgets.
“Bingo!” She lifts a heart-shaped package from another box. “Godiva chocolates. A twelve count carton,” she notes. “Either Carlos has a lot of lady friends, or he is stocking up for Valentine’s Day for the Mrs. until about 2020.”
“Not power bars,” Genius sighs. “But they’ll do.” After a minute he reports, “I think the rain is letting up. When it stops we’ll pull over and do a proper search of the jeep.”
“A prudent man like Carlos would have some kind of emergency kit in case he was stranded. Knife, fishing line, water purification tablets.” He slaps the steering wheel. “Something I should have brought along if I hadn’t been so damn trusting. That’s what happens when you leave the field and become an office wonk.”
Amy completes the inventory. “There are some jars and what looks like homemade sauce. Pack them in the photographers bag?”
“No jars. We’ll be traveling light.” Genius laughs. “With my luck they’d be bootleg marinara sauce.”
“There’s this,” Amy says, grinning while holding up something from the box of gadgets for Genius to check out in the rear view mirror. A small, battery operated egg beater. “Maybe Carlos has his own version of Louisa.”
“You’ve got a cruel streak, Goddess. You really do.”
A half hour later the rain abruptly ceases. By then they have left behind the open area and are again surround by menacing jungle. Finding a less claustrophobic spot, Genius halts the jeep and checks the glove compartment. He finds the emergency kit, with it’s large bladed knife . It’s hollow handle holds, among other things, fishing line and water purification tablets.
“We won’t lack for shelter, food, or water,” he announces. “No maps, but I wouldn’t expect Carlos would need one.”
Genius plucks his cell phone from his hip. “No problem, I’ll just – .”
His phone fails to beep. He shakes it, taps buttons, checks it’s weight.
“Problem?” Amy asks.
“BIG problem.” He pries open the battery lid. He shows Amy the empty battery section. “That was a neat trick Carlos pulled.”
“When he borrowed it just before we left the hotel,” Amy realizes. “And me without mine.”
“Yeah, its probably back in Mexico in the rubble with what’s left of Ramirez.” Genius resumes rummaging in the glove compartment. After a moment he straightens. “Would have preferred to have not found this.” He holds up a nine millimeter pistol.
“A firearm is not a good thing to have when you’re stranded in the jungle?”
Genius turns to reveal her the grip. “Ah,” Amy notes. “Biometric lock. Can you ‘adjust’ it.”
“Nope. And neither could Carlos, so I wonder why he kept it.”
“Its not his?”
“Standard C.I.A. issue. And I don’t think the agent it belonged to just handed it over to Carlos.” Genius studies the pistol a moment, then with an angry exclamation whirls and pegs it far into the jungle.
After a moment it lands with a distant ‘thwack’.
“Did you hear that?” Amy asks.
“Pegged that one pretty good, didn’t I,” Genius confesses with a rueful smile.
“No. I mean that other sound. I heard something else while I was listening for the gun to hit.”
They listen. After a moment Genius nods. “Yeah. I hear it. Sounds like ….”
“Running water. A river.”
“Right. Stay close, and stay on your toes.”
After fifteen minutes of slipping on and pushing around slick ground and tree roots, following the ever growing hiss of rushing water, the jungle opens up, revealing a swollen river of frothy, churning brown.
“A river at our backs would be nice,” Genius muses.
“I can’t swim.”
“I can’t swim.” He looks at Amy. “And don’t make a big deal about it, okay?”
“I won’t. Its just that its kind of refreshing to find something you’re not an expert at.”
“The illusion of my perfection shattered. I’m sorry.”
“I never thought you were perfect.”
“With the situation we’re in, Goddess, you ought to be stroking my ego.”
“Just as long as it’s the only thing of your’s I have to stroke.”
Genius chuckles as he peers up and down the river’s edges. “When you finish patting yourself on the back on that first class bit of banter, take a look down there and tell me if that’s a bridge.”
Amy follows his gaze. “I believe that is a bridge, yes.”
Genius checks the jungle they have just trekked through. “And I believe that little road we were on will take us right to it.” In a passable Captain Kirk impersonation, he announces, “I have … a plan.”
The ruts lead them to the bridge, a half century old structure made entirely of wood and in need of paint. The timbers are of various shades of color and wear. Genius figures that means the bridge was routinely maintained; a good sign.
“Is the fact there are no safety rails a bad sign?”
“Don’t let it worry you. We’re not driving across. The jeep goes into the river.”
“The jeep goes into the river? Bulletin, Mr. ‘I can’t swim’. Maybe your lack of familiarity with the water is a factor here, but you can’t drive a jeep under water. Especially not in these deep rapids.”
“Thank you. Mrs. Jacques Cousteau. But we’re going to make the jeep as light as possible, button her up, and while the good Jeep Calypso is floating downstream, with the G.P.S. tracker, we’ll be heading upstream.”
“I see. You know, its really fascinating, how your mind works.”
“I’m not sure I meant that as a compliment.”
Working quickly, they unload the jeep and transfer what they need in the multi-pocketed photographers carry-all. With Amy directing, Genius edges the jeep off the ruts and toward the bank. Reaching the point he wants, Genius climbs out. He secures the steering wheel with one of the TAZ tee shirts Carlos had purchased.
Amy wonders aloud, “Why do I get the feeling you’ve done this before?”
“No comment,” Genius grunts as he tightens the t-shirt. He loops a section of fishing line around the gear shift, then the rear view mirror. He rolls up the door window, leaving a minuscule opening for the fishing line. He steps away from the jeep, making certain the line is not caught up. “How are your knees, Goddess?”
“Well, they don’t get as many compliments as my legs, but I like them.”
Genius shakes his head and chuckles. “That’s what I get for asking an imprecise question that can be used as a straight line. I mean ….”
“I know what you mean,” Amy laughs. She looks for a place to set the photographers carry-all down, then readies herself at the jeep’s bumper. “Say when.”
“Watch your footing, and watch the mud that’ll kick up.” Genius loops the line around one hand, then holds it elevated as he grabs the jeep’s door handle with his other hand. “Okay … when!”
The jeep edges forward. Suddenly it lurches, the front dipping as it rolls off the edge of the bank.. Amy feels her balance shifting too fast, and just manages to land on her knees with a wet squish as the jeep picks up speed and rolls away. Genius barely has time to release his hold on the door handle. His pull on the fishing line is more from falling down and away then a planned tug. With a whine the jeeps gears grind, then catch.
Mud and exhaust splatter Amy’s face. She hears rather then sees the jeep crashing through brush. Then comes a heavy splash. Pawing at her face, she feels Genius rush past, then hears the quick thud of his boots on wood.
“There she goes!”
Amy, still wiping mud from her eyes and face, has to take his word for it. She hears the thud of boots again, then Genius is at her side, pushing his handkerchief into her hands. “I told you to be careful of the mud.”
As Genius guides her toward the bridge Amy’s eyes clear enough for her to see the camouflaged top of the jeep bounding downstream.
“Thanks,” she says, and hands Genius back his handkerchief.
He shoves it back in the pocket of his khakis and hoists the photographers bag over one shoulder. “You’re welcome Goddess. Now we’ll need to shake a leg. I want to put as much distance between us and that jeep as possible.”
Amy glances down river and sees the jeep bobbing in the rapids, about to disappear around the river bend. “I wonder,” she begins, still watching the jeep as she takes a step to follow Genius. Her musing is cut off as she bumps into him. “Stopping for a rest already?”
Genius raises a hand for silence, then points to the far end of the bridge. Amy peers around and follows his pointing finger.
Four tall, bronzed Indians, wearing only loin cloths, block the end of the bridge. They adopt identical poses, crouching slightly, one foot in front of the other, blowpipes ready at their lips.
A fifth man stands on the bridge, just in front and to one side of the others, his arm raised, ready to give the signal to fire. The angle of his body exposes a portion of the skull and blood orchid tattoo high on the back of his left shoulder.
TO BE CONTINUED