Preview of North of the Killing Hand

The second book in the Compass Crimes Series will be released in October. If you have read South of Justice, you will recognize many of the characters who appear in both books. Thanks to everyone who helped me select the cover art for South of Justice. I will ask for your opinions on the cover choice for the next book in the series when the artwork comes in. For now, please enjoy this preview of North of the Killing Hand.

1

August 3, 2002

 

view of jungle in AmazonFourteen-year-old Nefi Jenkins settled into her perch thirty-four feet up a Strangler fig tree, shaded by the canopy of the top branches. From her favorite place, she enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the Amazon from the Jurua River that wrapped the west and north boundaries of the tribe’s territory, to the denser jungle to the east, and the swamp to the south. Her parents didn’t know of this place because they had not asked. Experience had shown her that forgiveness was easier to gain than permission. She did not want to be lectured about every injury and fatality from falls suffered in human history.

On a clear day, she could locate other tribes by smoke columns where women cooked at the center of other settlements. At the center of her village, surrounded by a dozen wooden huts with palm frond rooftops, Mali cooked for Nefi’s family and her own.

Nefi longed to travel, even just to visit other tribes, but in August, the river ran low. Father said he refused to go out in August because the boat was too heavy to tow, but Nefi believed the real reason was his fear of anaconda that draped themselves on branches over the river like braided hemp ropes thrown from a ship. Father said anaconda did not live back in the states. He promised to take her there, but every year changed to ‘next’ year.

Nefi sighed. Each year grew longer, and this was the longest month of the year.

Birds scattered from trees along the riverbank west of the village. Nefi dug her father’s binoculars from her satchel to investigate the disturbance. A human-made bird call sounded. A warning. Moments later the seven other children of the village dashed to their hiding places.

Had the Matis crossed the river to hunt?

She leaned forward to see around leaves into the center of the village where three men with rifles faced Mali. The small elderly woman turned toward Mama and Papa, who walked toward the strangers. The shortest man pointed to Papa. Nefi focused the binocular lenses on the stranger’s face. The Pirarucu Man.

What kind of fool comes to trade this time of year? He probably got his boat stuck in the shallow river. City dweller.

The Pirarucu Man pointed to the ground. Mama and Papa knelt. A chill ran up Nefi’s spine. He did not seem like a man who would ever ask for prayer. Nefi widened her view to see Mali step toward Mama and Papa. The Pirarucu Man raised his rifle and shot twice.

Nefi sucked in a deep breath. Mama and Papa slumped over. A tiny cloud of smoke rose from the rifle. A howl roared out of Nefi as if by sound alone she could scare off the Pirarucu Man.

She lost her balance and fell four feet onto a wide branch below, striking it hard enough to cut off her scream. Clinging to the branch, she watched Papa’s binoculars fall thirty feet before the rare and unmistakable sound of breaking glass marked its impact.

She shimmied to the tree trunk, hugged it and slid to the next lower branch. The tree blurred, forcing her to blink repeatedly. Her mind spun. Her feet and arms worked on sense memory as her body scrambled down the familiar smooth-skinned fig tree into the cavernous wall-like folds in the trunk. Gasping and wobbly among tree roots that arched waist-high around her, she rubbed her eyes to clear away the nightmare images flashing in her mind.

Stepping over the shattered binoculars, she ran. Crashing through knee-high ferns and tree roots, she tore a fresh path back to the village. Her bare feet slapped the hard-packed mud. She trampled ferns and flowers, sending small creatures scuttling out of her way. She panted. Her heartbeat drummed in her ears. Small branches scratched her arms and her face. Stumbling over roots and vines, she groped her way upright and charged on. She raced to her village, to home, to Mama, to Papa, praying the binoculars lied.

 

 

2

August 8, 2002

 

The more twenty-one–year-old Vincent Gunnerson thought about his mission, the more heroic it sounded. He and two others were tasked with a privately-funded mission to go to the Brazilian jungle to pick up the fourteen-year-old niece of U.S. Senator Jenkins. The girl’s parents had been murdered, leaving her stranded. Four hours into the jungle it seemed a tame assignment.

Vincent was second in a line of three men hiking generally northeast through waist-high brush and towering trees in Serra Do Divisor National Park on the Brazilian side of the Amazon rainforest. Ruis Ramos led the way along a worn pathway. Vincent waved off a cloud of gnats, caught the toe of his boot on a tree root, and stumbled. He gasped, inhaled a bug, and then his rifle barrel smacked him in the back of the head. Good thing only Blake saw it.

Being that kind of friend, Blake Clayton laughed.

Vincent coughed out the bug.

“Just a walk in the park, eh?” Blake muttered from behind Vincent.

Their leader Ruis Ramos had suggested this mission would be fairly easy.

So far, Vincent believed him. “Did you expect paved walkways?”

“I expected something better than a critter trail in a national park.”

Ruis called back, “We’re almost there.”

There being that spot on Ruis’s map labeled Queimado Hill. There where they were to meet the Brazilian officials for a briefing and to plan their combined search for the girl who disappeared from her village right after the shootings.

Vincent had accepted the mission immediately though he spoke neither Portuguese nor Spanish. If anyone asked, he was prepared to say he was in it for money, for bragging rights, for something to do before starting college in September, and for a letter of recommendation from Senator Jenkins. Though he would never admit it, his true motive was to be like his father, a man who daily risked his life to save others as an officer in the NYPD. Rescuing a recently-orphaned American citizen from the heart of the Amazon rainforest seemed like the most heroic use of the summer.

He didn’t know Blake Clayton’s reasons for going, but he was glad to have him along. After serving in the Marines with him, Blake was like the older brother Vincent always wanted. At six foot even, age thirty, red-headed, with 220 compact pounds of bone, muscle and integrity, Blake had the soul of a poetic clown. They had separately applied to Berkeley College and were accepted. So why not take on one last mission before starting college?

Ruis, a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant with special operations training, was five foot nine, and thirty years old. Though shorter than Blake and Vincent, Ruis had movie-star good looks and justified confidence. He had assumed leadership of the mission because he spoke Spanish and a smattering of Portuguese. Vincent just knew Ruis was the kind of guy who slept in Kevlar.

The men arrived at a trailhead that opened onto a hilltop. Standing at the peak of Queimado Hill along the bank of the Moa River in Southwestern Brazil, Blake set his backpack on the ground. Vincent followed suit, keeping his M-16A2 rifle hanging from its strap over his shoulder. He walked to the cliff’s edge.

Blake approached Ruis. “How do the park rangers know when to meet us?”

Ruis planted a hand on Blake’s shoulder. “Let’s not call them that.”

Blake raised his eyebrows. “Okay.”

“IBAMA,” Ruis said, “stands for the Instituto Brasileire do Meio Ambente e dos Recursos Naturais Renovaveis.”

How anyone got the acronym IBAMA from that mystified Vincent. Even in Portuguese the letters didn’t add up right.

“This agency is chronically underfunded and outmanned,” Ruis added. “It fights poachers, slash-and-burn farmers, squatters, drug runners, fires, illegal loggers, guerillas, and eco-terrorists over an area larger than California and Texas combined. Occasionally they also rescue lost tourists and arbitrate quarrels between tribes.” Ruis’s hand dropped off Blake’s shoulder. “If nothing else, let’s respect them for their high mortality rate.”

When Ruis returned to the trailhead, Blake bowed his head.

Vincent didn’t believe Blake meant to insult the local officials. If given a few more minutes, he too might have called them park rangers.

Blake stepped up to the cliff edge beside Vincent.

The foliage had been thicker on the trail side of the hill than it was looking eastward. From this vantage point, the Amazon terrain had widely-spaced trees. The Adirondacks looked more like a jungle than this. Morning fog rose from the land like steam as if the land itself was sweating, but the breeze at the cliff chilled. It felt like one-hundred percent humidity. The sun glowed with blurry borders through drifting layers of smoky fog.

Ruis’s voice caused Vincent and Blake to face the trailhead. There Ruis greeted two short, solidly-built men in uniform. They shouldered ancient, dusty rifles that looked unreliable in a firefight. Everything about the two Brazilians seemed gritty and dust-covered except for their brightly colored IBAMA agency patches.

Ruis introduced Officers Raposo and Machado.

IBAMA Officer Raposo came up beside Vincent and waved his arm out toward the expanse of the sparse forest below. “Mirante.”

Vincent scanned the flat valley below. “That’s Mirante?”

Raposo spoke rapidly with Ruis in Portuguese that sounded like Spanish with a German accent which made Vincent all the more grateful Ruis handled the translation.

Ruis said something that made the IBAMA officers laugh then he said, “Mirante means overlook.”

Vincent nodded at Ruis. “And a beauty it is.”

The two IBAMA officers smiled at the view. Unlike Vincent and Blake, the officers had not broken a sweat. A chorus of trills, twitters, whoops, hoots, whistles, squeaks, squawks, clicks, and chirps sounded as birds and frogs joined in to celebrate the day. Despite the variety of noises from the trees, Vincent couldn’t spot a single creature in the dense vegetation.

Ruis handed cold bottles of water to the IBAMA officers. While the officers drank, Ruis told Vincent and Blake, “I’m going to plan our search with these gentlemen. It’ll go faster and smoother if I don’t have to translate.”

Vincent could take a hint. “That works for me.”

Blake nodded. Ruis then spread a topographic map on the ground in the center of the clearing. The IBAMA officers each took a knee along the edges of the map.

Vincent used binoculars to scan the area below. “Brazil,” he said to Blake, lowering his binoculars, “has seven thousand miles of beach.”

“Try not to think about it,” Blake said.

They were almost too far inland for Vincent’s imagination to conjure coconut-oiled women sunning themselves on topless beaches hundreds of miles away. Almost.

Blake sighed. “Maybe we’ll see some genuine Indians.”

Images of male Indians in loincloths obliterated all fantasies of beach beauties. A flash of color flitted overhead toward the trees. Vincent located it in the canopy where a branch swayed. There in black, gold, and orange glory, a toucan repeatedly snapped his oversized beak. The bird looked just like Toucan Sam on the cereal box. His father had loved that cereal.

A squeal from Raposo’s satellite radio scared off Toucan Sam. Raposo tuned his radio until a voice to come through weak but clear. The device looked like a gray brick with an antenna, like Vincent’s father’s first cell phone. Vincent once used it to beat in a tent stake. The phone suffered a few scratches and kept on working. Raposo’s phone also sported several deep scratches. Perhaps this was dad’s old phone sold to an agency in a third-world country. Lowering his radio, Officer Raposo spoke to Ruis.

Vincent raised his eyebrows.

Ruis asked Vincent and Blake. “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

Maybe they found the girl. “The good news,” Vincent said.

“IBAMA officers have arrived at Nefi’s village,” Ruis said. “They are interviewing the villagers and searching for evidence.”

“And the bad news?” Blake asked.

“The investigating officers will probably be gone by the time we reach the village.” Ruis resumed studying the map.

To locate a fourteen-year-old girl in the vast Amazon River basin was a daunting challenge. They were starting out with disadvantages of time and distance. The murders had occurred five days earlier. But how far away was this village? Vincent stepped up behind Ruis to get a better look at the map.

The two IBAMA officers knelt on either side of Ruis around the map. A penciled line ran from Cruzeiro do Sul, where they had landed earlier that morning in the southwest part of Brazil, to their present position at Queimado Hill in the Serra Do Divisor National Park.

On the map, Officer Raposo swept his hand toward settlements along the Moa River, a tributary of the Jurua River. The Jurua flowed north-northeast into the Solimoes, which emptied into the great Amazon River. Officer Raposo pointed to a settlement on the Jurua River labeled in the smallest letters on the map. He then set his fingertip farther northeast along the river, to an area surrounded by dark green, and then Officer Raposo said the only thing Vincent understood. Casa Jenkins.

Of all the places in the Amazon, this area looked the least inhabited. On the flight to Brazil Vincent learned from Ruis that the rivers were the main form of transportation in the rainforest, but as August was winter—the dry season—the shallow Jurua River meandered through six-hundred miles of canyons and flood plains. The river was too low to navigate by boat from their starting point to the smudged fingerprint that marked casa Jenkins; however, the river was deeper downstream from the target village to the north. How long would it take to hike that far?

Ruis and the IBAMA officers pointed to different spots on the map. Officer Raposo spread his hand over the map of an area west of the Jurua River and spoke in emphatic tones. The other officer had crossed himself before he sat back on his legs. Vincent stepped up to the map. The discussion continued in Portuguese or Spanish, he couldn’t tell the difference. The officers gave Ruis one of their gray brick satellite phones. The officers stood.

Both officers shook hands with Ruis, Vincent, and Blake then they headed back down the trail. Apparently the Brazilians and Americans were conducting separate searches. It made sense considering the vast ground they needed to cover.

Ruis pulled a pencil from his shirt pocket. “This,” he said, jabbing at a place on the Jurua River, “is where the Jenkins lived. The villagers report that Nefi ran off on August third and left her family’s boat behind. In that terrain, she could have traveled anywhere in this area.” He drew an eighty-mile-wide circle on the map.

Vincent sighed. They were south of the area Ruis circled on the map.

“Both officers say she probably headed north along the river,” Ruis said. “The water is deep enough there for a boat.”

“Why did that officer genuflect?” Vincent asked.

“This area on the west side of the river is the Matis tribe territory.” Ruis scowled. “Hostiles.”

Vincent checked the scale on the map and estimated their position. “The girl has a two-hundred-mile head start on us.”

“How can we catch up?” Blake asked.

Ruis smiled. “I’m hiring a seaplane to take us to Nefi’s village.”

Blake paled. The poor guy despised flying more than dental work. “Forgive me, Lord. I should not have complained about the hike. So we go back to the park station?” Blake tucked a thumb under the shoulder strap of his backpack.

“The park we just hiked from?” Vincent asked pointing west to the trailhead.

Ruis reached up and gently nudged Vincent’s arm southwesterly. Vincent dropped his arm to his side.

Blake shouldered his backpack. “I don’t mind going back. I forgot bug spray.”

“The seaplane can pick us up here, tomorrow.” Ruis stabbed the map with his pencil to indicate a place downstream on the Moa River a day’s hike away.

Vincent crouched by the map, casting his shadow over it.

Ruis tapped the map. “Officer Raposo believes her parents took her to Manaus for immunizations. If she heads for a city, this northern city is the most likely choice. Copies of her description have been transmitted to authorities all over the country. He said he’ll contact us if he gets any news.”

Vincent resigned himself to a day’s hike to the spot on the map where the seaplane would pick them up. He set his expectations low for the reliability of a seaplane in the Amazon. The nearest airport with a mechanic had to be a couple of hundred miles away. Commercial flights were spooky enough, but the idea of riding in a seaplane gave him chills. They were so small, like a car with wings.

Vincent waved his open palm over the north half of Ruis’s drawn circle. “So we hike to the pickup point and fly to her village. After that, we follow the trail northeast and look for signs of her?”

Ruis nodded. Vincent and Ruis waited for Blake to weigh in. Blake nodded.

Vincent found encouragement in the fact that a girl raised here should fare okay if left on her own, but where were the men who killed her parents? And why did she leave the village?

Rising to stand, Ruis shook the dirt off his map. He folded it and tucked it in a plastic bag that he stuffed in his shirt pocket.

“I’m sorry to say we don’t have any photo of the girl. Based on photos of her parents, she’s probably tall for her age.” Ruis dug something that looked like a string of beads from his backpack. He held it up. “Senator Jenkins said this is something the girl should recognize.”

Vincent examined the leather and stone bead choker up close. “Looks handmade.”

Ruis handed it to Vincent. “Show it when we encounter any girls.”

Vincent said, “I’ll be glad to.” With that, he fastened the leather and stone bead choker around his neck for safekeeping.

“Maybe I should take it,” Blake said. “We don’t want to scare her off. Females trust me.” Blake waggled his eyebrows. He had a kind of boyish Southern cowboy charm women responded to, but still….

“She’s fourteen,” Vincent reminded him. “Can you say jailbait?”

Blake patted Vincent’s shoulder. “And you just turned twenty-one. Legal age here too, I bet.”

Ruis cleared his throat. His glare sent chills through Vincent. “I have to make a call.” He stepped away from Vincent and Blake.

Vincent overheard Ruis arranging for more supplies and the seaplane. Vincent took a swig of water and tucked the bottle back into his pack. After adjusting the straps comfortably over his shoulders, he waited beside Blake for Ruis to finish his call.

Ruis swung his machete up to his shoulder as he led the way back to the trailhead. Vincent and Blake fell in line behind him. At the mouth of the trail head, Vincent elbowed Blake and cut in front of him, leaving Blake at the end of the line.

They were going deeper into the road-less nowhere. They could encounter poachers, guerillas, drug runners, hostile Indians, and who knows what kind of vicious wildlife. Vincent didn’t know which he dreaded most, the flight in a seaplane or the idea that their connection to the outside world depended on a technological, hand-me-down relic. The IBAMA loaner phone seemed a feeble improvement over smoke signals.

They had brought along a few days’ worth of food and water. He hoped it was enough to last until they caught up with the teenager.

Why did she leave her village?