Beyond The Veil
June 6th, 2012 – 3° 59' 57” S Latitude, 67° 11' 33” W Longitude, 100 kilometers southeast of Santo Antonio do Içá, Amazonas, Brazil
Morning sunlight trickled down through the forest canopy, spraying golden beams on the thick dappled mats of silver fern. At length, Mahl came to a grinding halt and breathed deeply of the humid, damp air. He would be home soon. Already, he could smell the scent of water. Capuchin monkeys chattered in the spidery branches above. Reaching out, he broke off a slender branch and ripped the outer bark away with his teeth. As he chewed the sweet inner cambium amid the incessant whine of insects, he surveyed the dense forest.
A minute later, he tossed the branch aside, re-slung his bow over his dark shoulder and struck off into the waving sea of green with the black tail of his talisman head dressing flapping in the wind. From here on, the trail ran under the thick green vegetation and he would need to rely on his memory on where to place each step. One wrong placement could mean a broken leg or worse yet, death, in one of the many gaping holes strewn out over the ragged landscape.
After several hundred meters, the landscape leveled out, and in the distance a stream could be heard trickling around rocky outcroppings. Once he came across it, the trail would veer downward toward his village. He hurried toward the stream, and just as he was about step into it, heard strange voices. His heart thudded, and he crept silently into the dense thicket of heliconia with arrow drawn. Whoever they were, they were not Manaqüi, from whom his people had hid unseen since the days of old.
Anxiously he waited, peering through the veil of sword shaped broad-leafs at the forest ahead. As the voices grew louder, he considered his next move. The path leading to his village had to be protected at all costs, but he was only one man against how many? He didn't know. The sound of thumping feet on the soft brown earth drew nearer until at last he saw three men dressed in strange white skins. Who they were and why they were here, he didn't know, only that they were threatening his home. The arrow strung on his bow twitched. Slowly, he lifted the weapon, aimed it at the lead man, and let the arrow fly.
An instant later, a grunt was followed by cries. He quickly fitted another arrow to his bow and aimed it, then stopped when he saw a man draw out long, menacing blade from behind his back. But he stayed where he was, and after much chattering between the other men, he dragged their fallen leader off.
Once Mahl was satisfied they weren't coming back, he slipped his bow back over his shoulder and fled down the steep, sloping path toward home. But deep inside, he was scared. The world was changing beyond his tribe's shrouded borders.
June 6th, 2012 – University of California, Berkley, Kroeber Hall
Claire El-Badawy scrolled down her computer calendar. She had a Lyceum lecture at 1:00 PM, her A330 class at 3:00 PM, and an interview to conduct in twenty minutes, not to mention dinner with Jason. Turning around in her swivel office chair, she peered through the window of her second-floor office, thinking about the grant for the expedition to Brazil. After the huge disaster in Guatemala, she was taking an enormous career risk searching for a lost bushman of the Amazon. The department would only suffer one mistake before showing you the door. But if this lost man turned out to be what she hoped he was, her prestige would skyrocket. As she considered her future, a knock on her open door startled her. She spun around and found herself looking into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen.
“Hi, I'm Owen,” the man said, walking in. He extended his hand, and as they shook, went on, “We talked a couple weeks ago 'bout my showing ya 'round da forest. Am I too early?”
Claire took in the rugged Aucklander's long booted legs, faded jeans, and crisp, white button-down shirt; its top two buttons were undone.
“No, have a seat,” Claire said, collecting her thoughts. “Can I get you something to drink?”
He crammed his long, lean body into the chair in front of her desk. “Nah, I'm good as gold. Quite da campus ya got here. I almost got lost.”
Claire took her seat behind her desk and tried to relax. “Should I be worrying?” she said.
“You getting lost,” Claire said, noticing the faded scar above Owen's brow.
“Nah. Da forest an' I do fine. It's da 'big smokes' that get me turned around. Too many roads.”
“Yes, me too,” Claire said, not quite understanding the term, “big smokes”. She guessed he meant cities. “So, how'd an Aucklander end up in Peru?”
“Westhaven, actually, north of da big town, out in the wops.” Owen handed her an envelope and sat back looking her over. “My pop studied fish on da river when I was a tyke, so I grew up on it, so ta speak, yeah.”
“Wops?” Claire said, opening the envelope and glancing down at his credentials.
“Yeah, ya know, boonies,” he said. “I think ya find everything in order there.”
Claire nodded as she read down the list of past treks he led. The resume wasn't exactly what she was expecting, but then, she wasn't looking for flash. “Must have been interesting growing up on the river.”
Owen shrugged. “It was alright. Not all it's cracked up ta be. Lots a nasty critters down there – say nothing bout yella fever.”
“And malaria,” Claire added. I'm not a tourist, Mr. Macleod. ”I take it you were sick?”
Owen's expression tightened at the mention of the malaria. “Nah. Just a run-in with an aranhas armadeiras.”
Oh, we are trying to impress. I'll give you the benefit of a doubt. “A banana spider? You should be dead.”
“Yeah, yeah. For a while, I wished I was. So, why ya wanna find this Lost Man?”
“To learn about his people before it's too late,” she said folding up his resume and tucking it back into the envelope.
“What if he don't wanna be found? Big forest down there.”
“Are you saying you can't find him?”
“Nah, not at all,” Owen replied. He crossed his legs and shifted awkwardly in his chair. “Might take time. T'aint easy finding someone don't wanna be found; that and where we're going ain't a walk in da park. Manaqüi don't take kindly ta people tramping in their back yard.”
“Well, we have four months, Mr. Macleod, so either you can or you can't,” Claire said, handing him back the envelope.
“Ah now, no need ta be so formal. Call me Owen, and no worries. We'll find 'im.”
Claire smiled. You're smooth. Too smooth maybe. I bet you'd tell me you could find Nessie if you thought it'd get you the job. Except, you come highly recommended. “Where you staying?”
Claire looked at her watch. It was almost noon. “You hungry?”
Owen shrugged. “Wouldn't mind a round of shark and taters.”
“Right … I don't know if we have shark.”
Owen laughed. “Not shark. Fish.”
“Oh, like fish and chips.”
Claire tried to think if the cafeteria offered fish. It was Friday. “Let's see if we have shark and taters then. Unfortunately, I have a lecture at one, but if you want, I can have my RA give you the nickel tour.”
Owen smiled. “Sure, why not? Got no place ta be.”
December 10th, 2012, Lima, Peru
Owen opened the door to the company apartment and dropped his backpack beside the couch. Exhausted from the trans-Pacific flight, he rubbed his neck and shuffled to the sliding glass door. Pulling back the screen, he let the sound of rush hour traffic six floors below filter into the room. After a minute of looking out over the hazy coastline, he headed to the bathroom and splashed water on his face.
The mirror over the vanity reflected eyes in need of sleep. But it'd have to wait until he checked email: that, and removing his large banana spider from the shower's soap shelf. The furry critter had escaped his terrarium again and taken up residence there. He snatched the arachnid between finger and thumb, sending its long legs into a wriggling frenzy.
“Calm down, Shelob,” He muttered. “We'll have ya home 'fore ya know it,” He walked to the kitchen and popped him back into his glass home.
“Now, hopefully,” he said to Shelob, “Robbie left me some coca tea.” He felt around cans of vegetables and boxes of dry goods until he found a canister. Shaking it next to his ear, he smiled as the spider pawed the pane of its terrarium. “Good boy, Rob,” he said, and set a kettle of water on to boil. Fifteen minutes later, he sat on the deck overlooking the street below sipping tea with the laptop open on his lap.
Booting it up, he saw a dozen emails. Clicking the one named, Claire El-Badawy Itinerary, he scrolled down the page.
As he read the flight information, the memory of his conversation with the cultural anthropologist popped into his head. He smiled, thinking of the tall, silky brunette with flashing blue eyes. She had a killer smile and a pair of legs that wouldn't quit. His body stirred as the memory of her flashed before him. But, what really grabbed him was her sharp, challenging and feisty mind. He liked intelligence in a woman.
A taxi below blew its horn, and the memory ran away. Cracking his knuckles, he pulled a candy bar out of his shirt pocket and peeled the wrapper back. As he bit into it, he opened a file he'd downloaded a while back. The screen page opened to a photo of a stepped pyramid. “That's one wild theory, Luv,” he muttered, tilting his head. He stretched and scrolled down the page to her picture. “You sure are one put-together package, I'll give ya that. Just keep ya pretty little nose outta my business and we'll get along just fine.”
December 10th, 2012, San Francisco, California
Hot showers always refocused Claire when bad shit happened. She turned the hot water up another notch and gritted her teeth. Since her fiancé, Jason, decided his career was more important than hers three weeks ago she had been trying to forget him. But it wasn't easy. She scrubbed her hair as his ultimatum played over in her head. Of all the times to draw the line in the sand, he had to pick twenty days before the Project started. She felt her throat tighten. Screw it! CBS and New York can have him. I need to call Thad.
She stepped out of the shower, toweled off, and marched into the closet. In the corner, sat a new tan duffle bag. Next to it, stood her Zamber boots and a dozen pair of 150 thread ultra-light hiking socks. She eyed them as she pulled a pair of nylons on, wondering if the duffle bag was big enough for all the gear she'd need for the expedition.
Twenty minutes later, she pulled her Volvo out onto the arterial, and after stopping at Double D's to get her regular morning bagel, turned the radio on to listen to the morning news. As she settled in for the hour-long commute, her blackberry buzzed. Setting her breakfast bagel on the passenger seat, she dug into her purse and pulled out her PDA. Thad's number showed on the screen.
Thaddeus Popalothis, or Poppy as he was known on campus, was her research assistant.
“Hey, what's up?” she said.
“You on the 880?”
“Just getting on.”
“Well, you might want to get off at Artesia and hook up with the 680. Tractor-trailer jackknifed at Exit 120. It's a mess.”
“Shit. Okay.” She tapped her finger on the steering wheel as five lanes of traffic began slowing down. “You hear anything more from this guy, Owen?”
“Yeah, he emailed back. We're all set. He'll meet us at the airport,” Thad said. He cleared his throat and his voice dropped down. “There's something else.”
“What?” Claire said, bracing herself. When Thad's voice dropped, trouble lurked.
“Noah's rethinking my going to Brazil with you.”
Claire blinked. What is it with fucking Noah? He just can't let go of shit. She collected her nerve, and with a level controlled tone, said, “Don't worry, Poppy. I'll take care of Noah.”
“But he's department chair.”
“Yeah, I know. Don't worry about it, okay?”
A long pause ensued on the other end. Finally, Thad said, “Okay. And if he doesn't change his mind?”
“He'll change it,” Claire said exiting onto the 680. Oh, shit, a cop. She glanced at the needle touching 80. Wonderful. “Got to go. Bye.”
Claire threw her office door open and set her purse on her credenza. Her desk was in disarray. Files piled up four and five deep. Post-its with phone numbers and to-dos were stuck all over her computer. Beside the screen, stood a framed photo of her parents. Tucked in the corner of it was a small, faded wallet shot of her grandmother. She cleared a stack of mail from her chair, sat, and checked email. As usual, a long list stared back. She triaged a few, shot off some replies, then quickly reviewed her day's schedule while debating if she should phone Noah. No. Better to deal with him face to face. Problem is, I have class in thirty minutes. Tapping her nails on the desk, she heard a knock on her open door.
Looking up, she saw Thad leaning against the frame with his arms folded across his chest. Tall, with jet-black curly hair that framed a Mediterranean olive complexion, Poppy was quite popular with the young ladies on campus.
“Oh, there you are. I need to see Noah, but I have class in–” she looked down at her watch, “–twenty minutes.” She dug the lesson folder out of her bag. “Would you mind filling in for me?”
He stepped up to her desk and took it from her. “Well, I'm not really prepared, but okay.”
Thad nodded. Then cleared his throat. “Hey, just so you know, don't go nuts trying to change his mind. I'll be all right. Really. I mean, don't take me wrong, I wanna go–who wouldn't? But I don't want to be shoved down his throat. He can really fuck with me, Claire.”
Claire studied Thad's long, angular face, feeling his guarded concern. She knew he was right. Noah could really do a number on Thad come dissertation time. “Don't worry. I know how to handle Noah.”