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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
IN THE DEPTHS OF THE AMAZON, ONE OF THEIR OWN HAS BEEN TAKEN!
Days from any form of modern civilization, archeology Professor James Acton awakes to gunshots. Finding his wife missing, taken by a member of one of the uncontacted tribes, he and his friend INTERPOL Special Agent Hugh Reading try desperately to find her in the dark of the jungle, but quickly realize there is no hope without help.
And with help three days away, he knows the longer they wait, the farther away she’ll be.
And the less hope there will be of ever finding the woman he loves.
USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy reunites James Acton and his wife Laura Palmer with Hugh Reading, CIA Special Agent Dylan Kane, Delta Team-Bravo and others in a race against time to save one of their own, while behind the scenes a far darker, sinister force is at play, determined to keep its existence a secret from the world. The stakes are high, the action is full-throttle, and hearts will be broken as lives are changed forever in another James Acton adventure ripped from the headlines.
"James Acton: A little bit of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones!"
Though this book is part of the James Acton Thrillers series, it is written as a standalone novel and can be enjoyed without having read any of the previous installments.
With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 five-star reviews, USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over thirty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers. He lives with his wife and daughter and writes full-time.
"A master storyteller." — Betty Richard
"A writer who tells what we are thinking but sometimes afraid to say." — Bruce Ford
"Kennedy kicks ass in this genre." — David Mavity
"One of the best writers today." — Johnny Olsen
"If you want fast and furious, if you can cope with a high body count, most of all if you like to be hugely entertained, then you can't do much better than J Robert Kennedy." — Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer
Get the J. Robert Kennedy Starter Library by joining The Insider's Club and be notified when new books are released!
Find out more at www.jrobertkennedy.com.
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For the best friend I ever had, Paul Conway.
“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”
Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World
Imagine a small town in the middle of the desert in Nevada. It has no roads leading in or out, and never has. The people have lived there for as long as anyone can remember, happily, peacefully, at one with each other and their land. No planes fly over it, no tourists stumble upon it and only the occasional explorer or adventurer has even been near it. It is isolated and unknown to the outside world. The outside world as much a mystery to it, as it is to the outside world.
Then imagine one day it was gone, its population wiped out because under the town, there was something a previously unknown town wanted, and they were in the way.
Who would know? Who would weep for them?
Though fictional, this scenario is happening today, in the real world. On July 3rd 2014 it was reported that a previously uncontacted tribe had emerged from the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, near the Peruvian border. The tribe, to this point able to live in peace far from Western civilization, had been forced ever closer to other tribes by illegal logging in Peru. As their traditional lands were destroyed, they eventually had no choice but to make contact with another tribe who they knew had relations with the “white man”.
International treaties protect these uncontacted tribes, once thought to be so desperately primitive that we would actively seek them out and “rescue” them from their misery, inviting them into the bottom rungs of Western society. Modern thinking has evolved to the point where we now leave them alone. Many are aware of us, but chose not to contact us, and still others are not. Brazil estimates there are 77 uncontacted tribes in their territory, with another 15 in Peru and still more in other Amazonian countries. Dozens more have been located through aerial surveys in New Guinea and the Andaman Islands off India, and still more are thought to live in Malaysia and central Africa.
Though these tribes may appear primitive to us, who are we to say our lives are any better than theirs? They live, they work, they laugh, they love. They have friends, families, homes and communities. They have purpose and they have problems.
So how are they different from us?
In one fundamental way. They cannot harm us, but with our technology, with our greed and ambivalence, we can wipe them out in a single stroke.
But when it happens, and it does, who would know that one more uncontacted tribe had disappeared when no one remains to sing their songs and tell their stories, including the final story, of when the white man came.
Northern Amazon 54 Cycles after the Year of the Screaming Eagle Fifth Day of the Third Moon
Quickly looking away, he pretended he hadn’t been staring at TikTik, instead following the track of an imaginary bird in the sky. Out of the corner of his eye he glanced back in her direction and saw her smiling at him as she brushed her future mate’s grandmother’s hair.
She’s so beautiful.
His heart sank as he saw Bruk sneak up behind her then roar as he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off the ground. She giggled in glee, a shy kiss exchanged before Grandmother snapped at them to settle down and wait for the mating ceremony otherwise they’d be cursed with ugly children.
Another peck was exchanged behind the old grandmother’s back before TikTik returned to her ministrations, Bruk receding into the forest, spear in hand, probably off to slay something for dinner big enough to feed most of the small tribe.
And it ate him up inside.
And he was. Among the men he was the slightest, the weakest. His voice was high and lacked any of the confidence the others had.
He was a woman with a penis.
And you’ll never get a mate like TikTik.
His face fell with his shoulders as he shuffled into the forest leaving the village clearing behind him, the sounds of life and laughter quickly fading, replaced with the constant cry of the jungle. The creatures they shared their home with were well known to him, one of his many intellectual talents the ability from a young age to distinguish the sound of every creature in the forest.
His father, the greatest hunter he had ever known, had taught him how to track and Tuk had become exceptional at it. Unfortunately he didn’t possess the strength to throw the spear to take down the prey he found. He could aim and hit a target with ease, it was piercing the skin deep enough that was the problem.
A tremendous disappointment to his father.
As he quietly walked through the forest, his bare feet enjoying the coolness of the damp morning ground, he heard a wild boar squeal in the distance and knew Bruk had found his next kill.
And his heart felt a twinge of regret for the poor, helpless creature. And perhaps that was it, that was why he could never throw hard enough. Perhaps it was that these creatures who would be their dinner were as helpless as he was. Weak in the face of the mighty hunters of the tribe, like he was. Perhaps they were his kindred spirits.
He gently pushed aside a large, lazy snake with his spear as it dangled in front of him, eyeballing him. Even his slight state would present a challenge to this particular creature, but he knew some of the bigger ones could swallow him whole with ease.
The thought terrified him.
As a child he had seen a yakumama snake devour a boar then regurgitate the still live creature as if toying with it, only to swallow it down again moments later, the look in its eyes one of pure evil. It was to be respected, and avoided. Rarely would the tribe tackle such a creature, though there had been times when one would get a taste for man and they, along with some of the other tribes in the area would cooperate to hunt it down and kill it. The feast would be glorious, though he always wondered if they were indirectly eating their fellow tribesmen.
Maybe I should see how she is doing?
The thought of his future mate warmed him and brought a smile to his face. He would be marrying from outside the tribe, which was encouraged whenever possible. She was no TikTik, but was beautiful in her own unique way, and in time he knew they would both grow to love each other the way he secretly loved the forbidden TikTik.
A scream from the other side of the village had him frozen in place as he turned his head, cocking an ear as the sounds of the forest changed.
A man’s scream.
And it was fear, not anger. Tuk could honestly say he had never heard Bruk ever express fear, and it sent a chill down his spine like he had never experienced before. His instinct was to run the other way, to escape whatever had terrified this great warrior, but he resisted the urge. His mother was still in the village.
More screams, then strange cracking sounds and shouts, voices he didn’t recognize, words that were foreign to him. He readied his spear and rushed back toward the village, the thoughts of another tribe attacking his small family filling him with rage. TikTik screamed, her voice so beautifully distinctive he’d recognize it anywhere, then his mother’s. A beast roared, trees snapped, and still he ran toward the horror, determined to help his family and friends.
And the woman who would be Bruk’s mate.
The roar of the beast was louder now and continuous. He had never heard such a creature before, its sound so loud and long, he wondered when it would need to pause for breath. Trees continued to be felled by the beast, it clearly massive if it were able to take down so many so quickly.
He was almost at the clearing where his village had sat for as long as he had been alive. Their numbers were small now, only half a dozen huts enough to contain all thirty of their clan. Over the years many girls had been born, more than boys, and then several boys had died in a tragic incident with a wild boar. With the tradition among the local tribes of the man finding a mate from another tribe, and bringing her back to live with the male’s tribe, their numbers had dwindled, the girls taking mates and leaving, and not very many men reaching mating age to bring a spouse home. They were few, and eventually they would all be gone, leaving their tribe a mere memory to be lost as the forest reclaimed what was rightfully Hers.
Perhaps my new mate and I can delay that for another generation.
He tore past the ring of trees around the clearing and dropped to his stomach instantly, scurrying back into the cover of the forest as his jaw dropped and his already racing heart threatened to burst from his chest. The roaring beast, quieter now but still growling, sat near the edge of the trees on the other side of the clearing. Creatures, all black with faces as smooth as a still pond were pouring into the village, short spears not much longer than a man’s arm held in their hands. It was as if pure black Panthers had learned to stand on their hind legs.
Then his heart leapt into his throat and he slowly slid farther back into the jungle as he realized what he was seeing. It was an abomination, a legend told to frighten children and respect the forest.
He had never actually dreamed they were real.
The Panther People.
He had heard of the tribe that had long ago killed the regal creatures and worn their skins, disrespecting their kills, failing to honor the Mother for Her sacrifice.
And they had paid a horrible price.
The black panthers had entered the village and consumed them all, and as a reward from the Mother, been given the powers of man.
It was a story told to children to prepare them for their first hunt, and to warn them of the dangers of disrespecting the forest, the Mother. All life was sacred, and all life served its purpose. If it were necessary to kill to feed or protect oneself, the Mother understood. To kill for pleasure? That was a sin punishable by banishment or worse—though he thought death would be preferable to banishment from the tribe.
He loved his tribe, his family, his friends.
For he had friends. Even the great Bruk was his friend. None of the tribe faulted him for his lack of ability as a hunter, none of them teased him. It was simply accepted as a fact, and he helped in other ways, usually as a tracker for the hunters, or as a trader with nearby tribes since they found him unintimidating.
And as he watched the Panther People round up his tribe, tears rolled down his cheeks as he sat by helpless, cursing himself for not having the soul of a warrior like Bruk.
It was then that he saw two of the Panther People pull a body into the center of the village and dump it on the ground.
TikTik screamed, rushing toward him but was struck down as one of the creatures pointed at her. She fell to the ground, shaking horribly, then was still. Dead.
He cried out in rage, jumping to his feet and hurtling his spear through the air. His aim was true, hitting the creature in the chest, but his weapon bounced off the thick black skin harmlessly.
Then the creature pointed at him.
Tuk realized the horrible mistake he had made and spun, racing into the trees as cracking sounds erupted from their attackers and the trees around him began to erupt, splinters bursting from the mighty trunks as he fled the only home he had ever known.
As he swiftly cut a path silently through the trees, his mind unable to comprehend what had just happened, the sounds began to fade into the distance and he slowed to catch his breath.
What am I supposed to do?
He realized he needed help, he needed the other tribes to help fight the Panther People, but he also knew they would probably be too scared to fight, instead more likely to flee their own villages.
Then he realized what he had to do.
He had to ask the Woman of Light for help. He knew she had special powers, and he knew she would help him. She was one of the Spirit People, and had let herself be taken.
And after the Cleansing Ritual, he would be ready to present her to the tribe.
As his mate.
He closed his eyes as he remembered their first successful communication. Her voice, so different from those of the women of his tribe, had said his name with little effort.
“Tuk?” she had repeated, and he had nodded fervently, so happy she had said it, the sound of her voice filling him with a rapturous wonder, this creature a woman like no other. He had urged her to say it again and again until she had laughed at his excitement, a wondrous sound that echoed through the forest, bringing it to life as the creatures around them had shared in their joy.
Then she had taught him her name.
It had been hard to say, but she had been patient, and after an annoying length of time he had finally mastered it.
And he said it now, filling himself with warmth and love as he set off to ask for help from his future mate.
Rio Negro, Northern Amazon, Brazil Present Day
Professor James Acton lay in a hammock, it swaying gently as the quiet put-put of the engine guided them to the farthest reaches of the Amazon River. A bottle of water balanced on his stomach, rising and falling with each breath, his face one of contentment as he simply listened to the jungle around him, a never ending cacophony of sound that at first was overwhelming, but after two weeks was now oddly soothing. He knew he’d miss it when they went back home.
Sitting in a lounge chair on the other side of the deck was his wife, Professor Laura Palmer. They had married not even two months before, finally managing to find time to gather their closest friends and family, and not have some terrorist group or ancient cult interfere with their plans.
It had been wonderful.
Laura had been stunning in her dress, a simple yet elegant affair that he had no doubt cost a fortune, but not audaciously so. His wife was rich, unbelievably rich. Though both archeology professors on opposite sides of “the pond”—both making modest salaries as such—her late brother had been an Internet pioneer, divesting himself of his company before the bubble burst, leaving him with hundreds of millions of dollars, and leaving it to her when he had been killed on a dig in Syria.
He had no idea she was rich when he first met her several years ago, and when he had found out she was “well off”, he had no clue just how much so for some time. Their first meeting was anything but romantic, but when he had caught his first real sight of her, standing in front of her classroom, lecturing her students at University College London, he had felt a flutter.
It had been love at first sight, though it took a few more looks to realize it, what with half the city trying to kill or capture him.
They had fallen in love, she secretly confessing to having a bit of a crush on him for years, following his work from afar after reading a spread done on him in National Geographic. He had been flattered, and somewhat embarrassed to have to admit he had never heard of her before he had found that damned crystal skull and discovering she was considered the expert in them.
It was during that first day together that they met Detective Chief Inspector Hugh Reading, who occupied a second hammock at the far end of the rear deck. Mosquito netting covered the entire deck, the bugs far too thick at times to make their journey enjoyable if left exposed. They were designed to be raised and lowered, but had been lowered most of the time, Acton now firm in his belief that Reading simply wasn’t an outdoorsy type.
Happy Hugh, Happy Cruise.
Laura had coined the phrase, much to Reading’s annoyance. The aging ex-cop, now an INTERPOL Special Agent, had become a loyal friend, helping them out over the years on many occasions, and though they rarely saw each other, they often talked on the phone, Acton now considering Reading one of his best friends. Laura adored the man as well, and Acton was certain Reading thought of her like a daughter, though he’d never admit it—it would mean he’d have to admit he was old enough to be her father.
After honeymooning in South Africa—a ten day safari the highlight—Laura had surprised him with four all access passes to the World Cup in Brazil. He had to admit he wasn’t a soccer—football!—fan, though he had slowly begun to develop an appreciation for the sport since Laura and Reading would talk about it non-stop when they were together, and he had been forced to watch umpteen matches on the “telly” as they called it, and on a few occasions had actually seen the games live, Laura getting the three of them tickets to see her favorite, Manchester United.
At times the game was so slow it reminded him of a particular Simpsons episode, leaving him wishing a soccer riot would break out, but usually the games were actually exciting, though low scoring. After seeing a few games he could see why the crowd would go nuts when a goal was finally scored.
The World Cup had been fantastic, and not the fiasco he had feared might happen. He had been disappointed for his British friends on how their team had done, but was happy to have watched several of the US team’s better performances. He turned his head to look at the possessor of the fourth ticket—his best friend and confidante, Gregory Milton. Milton had been his best friend since college, and had been his boss for over five years—and it hadn’t affected their friendship in the least. During the crystal skull business Milton had taken a bullet in an assassination attempt but luckily survived, relegated to a wheelchair he had been told he’d never leave.
They were wrong.
Determination, hard work, and a loving support network had him now walking, though for short distances. The poor bastard had toughed it out through the entire wedding, keeping his promise to himself that there wouldn’t be a single picture of him in his wheelchair. It still brought tears to Acton’s eyes when he thought of the text message his friend had sent when he thought he was dying.
And it had been days before he had discovered his friend was actually alive, saved by an off-duty ER surgeon who had stopped for gas at the same station.
Milton sat in his chair, his head lolled back as he gently snored, his Kindle sitting in his lap, his once skinny legs now healthy and propped up on a stool.
This is the life.
Four friends, together, cruising up one of the source tributaries of the world’s mightiest river in its biggest rain forest, in silence. No need to talk, just enjoying each other’s company, a mix of classical guitar playing through an iPod docking station nearby, the volume low so the sounds of Mother Nature surrounding them could still be heard.
Reading swatted at a bug on his arm and muttered a curse about one of the bastards getting through. Acton took a swig from his water bottle as his friend swung his legs to the floor then stretched with a groan that could wake the dead, the forest protesting at the disturbance. Transferring to a chair, Reading looked over at Acton.
“You seem pleased with yourself,” he observed.
Acton chuckled, swinging out of the hammock a little more elegantly than his friend, then walking over to give Laura a peck. He sat beside her, taking her hand in his. “Just enjoying the company,” he said, squeezing Laura’s hand.
Milton stirred, bolting upright in his chair before gaining his bearings. “What did I miss?”
Laura shook her head. “Nada, just a bunch of lazy folks doing and saying nothing.”
Acton decided to have a little fun with Reading. “You know, I was doing some checking and if I’m not mistaken, England has never won the World Cup.”
Reading’s eyes widened and his chest expanded as he leaned forward, his finger raising to jab his point home. “I don’t know where you get your bloody facts, but we won in 1966, on home soil!”
Laura squeezed Acton’s hand, already realizing what was about to happen. “1966? You mean the one where the Soviet referee gave you that goal that never actually went in?”
Acton had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from smiling as Reading jumped to his feet. “That was a goal! Everyone knows that was a goal! Only the damned Germans say it wasn’t, and that’s because they lost!”
“Are you sure?” Acton waved his iPad as if it were the key piece of evidence in a murder trial. “On here it shows how it was impossible for the ball to have actually gone in. They say it bounced on the line and back out.”
Reading walked over and snatched the iPad away, turning back to his chair as Acton and Milton exchanged grins. “I saw that bloody match and I know it was a goal. Whoever is feeding you these lies is a bloody Hun!” He paused. “Sorry, that was uncalled for. But whoever they are, they are bloody anti-British!”
His fingers flew over the iPad and he held it up triumphantly, a clip of the 1966 World Cup final against Germany playing. “Look at that, it clearly goes over the line!”
Laura leaned forward, gasping. “Hugh! Do you realize how much that costs to download from here! That’s tethered to the satellite phone!”
Reading blanched, his jaw dropping, clearly aghast. His finger flew at the pause button.
“It’s still downloading, Hugh!” exclaimed Milton as he leaned forward, joining in on the fun.
Acton pointed at the iPad. “You have to close the browser window!”
“How the bloody hell do I do that?”
“My God, that must be, what, a thousand dollars already?” Milton bit down on his thumb as he exchanged glances with Acton and Laura.
“There!” cried Reading triumphantly as he simply turned off the device, his face red. He looked at Laura. “I’m so sorry, I had no idea—”
The three of them burst out laughing and Reading realized he’d been had. Acton rose and took the iPad, grabbing his friend’s shoulder and shaking him. “I’m sorry, Hugh, that was just too damned easy!”
“Fowk off!” muttered Reading under his breath as he shook his head. Acton returned to his chair as Reading calmed himself slightly. “Okay, you got me. So how much did that cost, anyhow?”
“Oh, Greg’s about right,” replied Laura. “Probably about a grand.” Reading’s jaw dropped again but before he could say anything Laura waved her hand to dismiss any apology. “And I don’t care. James watched Netflix last night. It probably cost us ten times that.”
Acton suddenly felt the same guilt and shame his friend had moments before. He turned to Laura. “My God, Laura. I’m sorry. It didn’t even occur to me!”
“Love, if it mattered, I’d have said something. I just want us all to be happy, and God knows we can afford it.”
Acton shook his head, still feeling guilty. He smiled at her slightly. “At least I selected lo-def! I bet Hugh didn’t!” He spun his head at Reading, his eyes glaring at him. “J’accuse!”
“Don’t try that Frenchie shit on me, old boy. Besides, I wouldn’t know lo-def from low-jack. It’s all bloody Greek to me.”
Acton took Laura’s hand in his, kissing her wedding ring and winking at her. “I guess we’ll never know if England really should have won that soccer match.”
“Football!” cried Reading and Laura at the same time.
They all roared in laughter, their happiness carrying across the water, when Reading pointed. “Hallo! What’s this? Looks like a good place to hole up for the night.”
Acton looked to where his friend was pointing to see a shallow inlet with a clearing on the shore. Reading was right, it was perfect.
Laura shouted for the captain of their boat, Fabricio, who appeared moments later. “Yes, senhora?”
She pointed at the inlet. “What do you think?”
Fabricio looked and smiled. “Perfeito!” He disappeared, shouting orders, and the boat slowly turned toward its resting place for the night.
Acton turned toward Reading. “So, when are the FIFA Oscars announced.”
“For all those dives the players take during the match.”
Reading shook his head. “Bloody Americans. Just wait until I start in on baseball and see how you feel.”
“Bring it on!” Acton suddenly stopped, the smile disappearing from his face. “What’s that?”
Northern Amazon Second day of the Third Moon Three days before the attack
Tuk’s shoulders heaved, the heaviness in his heart overwhelming. The woman he loved barely knew he existed, so much so she was pledged to another man. A man who was his friend. A man he had envied his entire life, and now even more so that he had captured the heart of the beautiful TikTik.
He screamed her name in his head, his eyes closed as he pictured her smile. To say she barely knew he existed wasn’t fair. She knew him—she knew him well. After all, their tribe barely numbered thirty so it interacted closely with the neighboring tribes, hers only an hour’s walk away. They had grown up together, played together, and because of his slight size, he hadn’t roughhoused with the boys as much, instead preferring the company of the girls.
I’m a woman with a penis!
It was his own insult to himself—he was his worst tormentor. Some from the other tribes would tease him, especially when he was younger, but now that he was a man and dealing mostly with adults, the teasing was mostly gone, unless the alcohol started to flow, then the teasing began anew. He would usually make an excuse and leave beforehand, returning to his village should there still be enough light, or to his guest quarters, pretending to sleep, instead wincing with each barb at his expense as it sliced through the laughter and darkness, the truly vicious insults delivered at an ever increasing volume.
Too often he cried himself to sleep.
He was so lonely it hurt, and he knew his face revealed his pain every time his mother looked at him. His father had died years before saving a young hunter from a charging boar, and it had opened a void in his life, his father his constant companion. His friend Pol had filled that void, an older boy who took him under his wing, and in time a friendship developed that was so close the two became each other’s confidants, no secret too great that wouldn’t be shared.
Even his longing for TikTik.
Pol had always been there for him, day in and day out, filling the void. When he needed someone to listen, Pol was there, when he needed advice, Pol would oblige. If he just needed to sit in silence, but with a companion, his friend was there.
And now he wasn’t.
He had become sick a few weeks ago and no one knew of what. A vicious cough turned into fever, shaking and sweating. Eventually he had begun to see things, to imagine people and creatures around him, and in a moment of lucidity had called out for Tuk, but Tuk had been at the next village trading, assured by their medicine man there was no hope of ever speaking to Pol again.
But he had been wrong.
And Tuk blamed himself for missing his one last opportunity to say goodbye to his friend, and it broke his heart every time he thought of his friend calling for him, and he not there to answer, to take his hand in his and just let him know he wasn’t alone, and that he was loved.
Tuk wiped the tears away from his face with the back of his hand and looked up as a sound carried over the waters of Mother’s River. It was a three day’s hike from his village, and he had only seen it once before when he was younger, but when Pol had passed, he had run away lest anyone see his tears, and after much indecision, eventually decided to visit Mother’s River. The last time had been with his father shortly before he had died, and now he sat on the very spot where he had once relaxed with his father as he told tales of strange people and stranger boats that carried them. His father had never seen them himself, but the stories were passed on during visits from tribes that lived closer to the great river.
The Spirit People.
And there was one thing they all agreed upon.
Never approach these strange creatures, and never be seen by them.
Lest death befall you.
It was believed they were from the next life, the one after this, when the great Mother reclaimed her children and rewarded them with everlasting life. Some believed that was a life of joy on the Mother River, others believed it was in the sky at the firesides that twinkled in the night. Tuk wasn’t sure what to believe, but he did believe in prudence.
He rose slightly and stepped back into the forest, abandoning his perch at the side a small inlet of calm water and pleasant shade. The cool breeze that had at one moment helped keep the bugs away now carried curious smells, and sounds that continued to get louder.
Several people were talking and laughing, their voices carrying across the water, and as his curiosity overcame his fear, he edged forward, peering around a large tree as the oddest looking boat he had ever seen came around a bend in the river. It was massive, at least the length of five men if not ten. And tall, rising out of the water higher than the tallest building in their village.
It was completely white, as white as the eyes in his head, and seemed to be moving without any sign of oars, the only way he knew to propel a boat, though he was no expert, his own tribe rarely venturing this far.
He heard a woman’s laugh, it so casual and genuine, it lifted his soured spirits. He peered across the water and finally caught sight of the source of such a beautiful sound.
A woman whiter than any he had ever seen.
And more uniquely beautiful than he could have ever dreamed.
And in that very instance, he knew he had to possess her.
Somebody on the boat yelled and pointed to his position. Tuk’s heart leapt into his throat and he plunged back in the woods as the boat turned toward him.
Rio Negro, Northern Amazon, Brazil Present Day
“What is it?” asked Laura as they jumped to their feet, all eyes on the shore.
“I saw someone, or at least I think I did.” Acton had to admit he wasn’t sure. It was more of a shape, small, slight, sort of reddish brown. As soon as he had pointed it had disappeared. “It must have been an animal.”
“Are you sure?” Reading sounded concerned. “Perhaps we should find another place to weigh anchor.”
Acton shook his head, motioning toward the western horizon. “The sun’s low already. The chances of us finding another location like this are slim to none before nightfall, then we’re stuck in the middle of the river. I’d rather get off the boat and set up camp where we can stretch our legs.”
Reading frowned but acquiesced. Acton suppressed his smile, knowing damned well that Reading would enjoy any excuse to stay onboard, the eight legged and no legged creatures he hated in far too great abundance on land for his liking. Even Acton had to admit to a little bit of trepidation, the insects large, numerous and exotic in appearance.
Especially when they were sitting on your chest staring at you when you woke up, and you could physically feel them walking away.
That was the first night and from then on he made certain the tent was sealed up tight every instant it was ashore. There had been no more bedtime surprises, but many campfire ones. He was loving the trip, of that there was no doubt, but he had to confess he was looking forward to getting home and back into his comfortable bed.
They still hadn’t settled on living arrangements, though there hadn’t been much time since the wedding. After their two week honeymoon, they had split some time between his house and her flat, then came to Brazil for most of June, and then straight to this cruise.
Thank God it’s summer break!
The subject had been avoided the entire time, and Acton wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not. All he knew was that it would need to be settled soon, since this little trip was over in four days, the Venezuelan-Colombian border less than half a day away at which point they would turn around, return to Manaus and take Laura’s private jet home.
Part of him wondered why they needed to change anything. It had worked out well so far. They split their time between London and Maryland, Peru and Egypt. It kept things exciting.
But it’s not a marriage.
The boat pulled up to the shore, its shallow draft hull allowing them to get within a few feet. A ramp was thrown down and several of the crew quickly tied the boat to nearby trees, the anchor dropped. The clearing and nearby forest were inspected and the all-clear given. Acton was off first, Laura second with Reading and Milton taking up the rear. Acton placed Milton’s chair near the shore, pushing it down to make sure it was stable, then he and Reading helped him into his seat, the most comfortable on the boat. The crew of six had the clearing free of debris, a fire pit dug and ringed with rocks, then tents set up within less than half an hour.
Acton had to admit they had skills.
They had boarded the Juliana at the end of the main tour that most tourists took out of Manaus, a city buried in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest at the mouth of the Rio Negro where it emptied into the mighty Amazon River. This smaller, more maneuverable boat had taken them where few had gone before, deep into the jungle where their guides assured them tribes never before seen by modern man still lived to this day.
How exciting would that be?
To discover a tribe never before seen by “modern man”. To communicate with them, to learn their ways and culture. To destroy their entire belief system by exposing them to modern technology.
They need to be left alone.
He would happily settle for seeing them from a distance, undisturbed, going about their daily lives as they had for thousands of years. And the thought reminded him of what he had seen from the boat. He walked over to the tree where he was sure he had seen something and examined the area, the only light now from the flickering fire ten feet away. He debated getting his flashlight but decided against it when the cook announced dinner.
I’m sure it was nothing.
But something made the hair on the back of his neck stand up as he turned, a feeling of forewarning he had felt too many times just before something took a turn for the worse. He eyed Laura, who smiled at him and patted a clear spot beside her on the ground.
Perhaps we should sleep on the boat tonight.
Northern Amazon Second day of the Third Moon Three days before the attack
Tuk watched the man from his perch not twenty paces away. He was tall, taller than any man he had seen before. And there was another older man who appeared even taller. In fact all the pale ones were tall, including the woman.
They must be from a mighty clan of warriors!
The man turned away and Tuk shifted, a loose branch rustling slightly. The man froze, and Tuk could tell he was resisting the urge to turn around. Tuk prepared himself, ready to disappear deeper into the forest should it become necessary, but after only a few moments the man resumed walking toward the fire where a darker skinned man was preparing what Tuk assumed was food, the few wafts of it that had drifted his way delicious.
You better keep that fire fed, otherwise you’ll have uninvited company.
Every carnivore within half a day’s travel would be smelling this feast, the wind blowing inland. It would shift soon, out over the river, but these strange people didn’t seem to understand the ways of the Mother. He said a silent prayer for their safety. Fools didn’t deserve to die at Her hand, these people clearly not of this land.
But where are they from?
They wore strange things on their bodies, covering up most of their skin. In the tribes he had been exposed to, nothing more than a loin cloth was used to cover the private areas, and some tribes didn’t even bother with that. He reached down and felt his own cloth covering his manhood then tried to imagine what it would feel like to have his entire body confined by animal skins.
What a waste!
Like the stories from when he was younger.
The Panther People.
They had disrespected the mother, killing the stately creatures for their skins, abandoning the rest of the carcasses, all so they could adorn themselves in their shiny, black furs.
But the Mother had her revenge on the tribe, the result an abomination, a fiction to scare respect of the Mother into the children of the tribe.
Or was it a fiction? These people were clearly wasteful, adorning themselves in unnecessary skins just like the Panther People.
As he sat watching these strange people eat around the fire, he wondered what the Mother thought of their coverings. Would She disapprove? Would She demand punishment? If She did, he hoped She would spare the woman. Tuk couldn’t tear his eyes off her, her appearance unlike anything he had ever seen. It was so exotic, he wasn’t certain it was beauty or novelty that attracted him. TikTik was beautiful, of that there was no doubt. In her entire tribe she was considered the most beautiful of them all, and Bruk, her betrothed, the most handsome in his.
Tuk was far from the top.
In fact, if there were a list, he would be at the bottom, he was certain.
His pain overwhelmed him again and he felt his eyes burn with the memory of Pol. Pol should be here with him now, sharing in this fascinating experience. These pale people were so different, he knew the stories he would tell of this encounter would never be believed. In fact, he was so certain they would never be believed, he debated whether or not he should even bother mentioning it when he returned home.
He couldn’t bear to not be believed. His word was all he had, his looks, strength, and skill as a hunter not virtues anyone except his mother recognized, and even she, he knew, was only humoring him.
He blinked away the tears and glared instead at the man who was clearly the woman’s mate. As the fire lit her impossibly pale face and her light, reddish hair, he felt his chest tighten with excitement, his loins stir against their leather encasement.
A woman of light!
It was as if she were the sun itself, the radiance of the Mother trapped inside this creature, its light escaping every pore, creating the white skin and light hair so strange to him.
She was a creation of the Mother, delivered to him in his moment of need, to fill the void left by the loss of his friend, and to be his companion, at his side, for life evermore, TikTik forever out of his reach.
But there was only one problem.
The nine men between him and her.
Rio Negro, Northern Amazon, Brazil Present Day
Laura sat, rocking side to side, her arms folded, her beloved James tucked in behind her, his arms wrapped around hers as he matched her to and fro motion. Fabricio was playing the Portuguese guitar, its teardrop shape and twelve strings producing a uniquely beautiful sound. He and a few of the crew sang traditional Brazilian folk songs, the Portuguese lyrics completely foreign to her, but the beauty and warmth they represented not.
She was feeling a little warm, the couple of glasses of wine starting to kick in, her eyes were beginning to droop. Reading was already dropping his chin onto his chest then waking up instantly from the surprise as he tried to stay awake. Milton had already gone to bed on the boat, his back sore and not up for sleeping in a tent tonight.
She worried about him, wondering if he had taken on too much by coming on this trip. She hadn’t worried about him at the World Cup. There they were in civilization. If something happened he could get to a hospital with ease, and be flown back to the States in a few hours should it be necessary.
But here, in the middle of the jungle?
If something were to truly go wrong, they were a two to three day journey back to the tiny bit of civilization that had been gouged out of the center of the rainforest, where he would still have to be flown out of to get real care. Her private jet would be there waiting for them in three days when their journey was scheduled to be finished, but part of her was wondering if they should call things short and head home in the morning. The rest of their journey was only vanity, to be able to say they made it all the way to the border, but there was little if anything significant to see by way of unique features between here and there.
“I was thinking…” she began.
“What?” James’ voice was a whisper, the music still playing, the crew enjoying the entertainment as much as them, the rule on the trip—no alcohol. She was thankful for that, though felt a little guilty for having some herself. It was her experience however that too much alcohol amongst the hired help could lead to problems, and she had made it a rule whenever possible to have a dry policy for them. That was one of the reasons she actually liked working in Muslim countries since they were dry by law for the most part, so alcohol wasn’t as much of a concern. It still was, just not as much, the hypocrisy of the true believer something shared the world over.
“Perhaps tomorrow morning we should head back.”