Rating: 18(ish) 'Cause there's some cussin', ass kickin' and general mature themes.
Violence: Indeed there is. We're not talking 'Saw' but some of the characters do get a little ornery.
Feedback: Is much appreciated. If you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it, please send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org . The muses are hungry!
General Author's Note: Thanks to Sammich for taking a gander at this before it went to post. Any remaining mistakes are mine.
“Go to Canada, Jane.”
Jane Espanoza huffed as she forced her body through the tight crevice.
“It's a swan job, Jane.”
She winced, dark eyes closing in pain as her shoulder cut along a rock.
“Nothing easier, Jane.”
Stumbling as the crevice suddenly widened, Jane's body pitched body forward. She looked down at the dark chasm beneath her, the bright beam of her shoulder light disappearing quickly into the void.
Shimmying out of her bag, Jane tugged out a glow stick and wedged it tightly into a fissure. “Last time I listen to Mathius. Ever.” She eeked over the edge of the chasm and began the long climb downward. Rainforests were fine. Snakes, panthers, spiders big enough to eat your head? No big deal. She didn't even mind Egypt, with its foot long scorpions and burrowing scarabs.
But this? This was ridiculous. She could barely make out anything in the darkness. The one thing Jane could make out, for certain, was the continuous cloud her breathing created. It certainly didn't help that she had ditched her parka some ways back to push through the fissure. Jane, fingers nearly numb, barely had the dexterity left to man the ropes. She had left her home country for a reason. She was not cut out for sub-zero temperatures.
Jane's boots slipped against the rock, her feet kicking wildly beneath her as her body dropped. She tightened her hands on the rope, forcing herself to a jarring stop. Fidgeting in her harness, she tried to dislodge the wedgy from hell before taking in her dark surroundings. She adjusted the angle on her light to point downward, hoping to find something to indicate she was near the bottom. Failing that, she wanted to know there at least was a bottom. A tremor at the top of Jane's rappel line let her know all was not well. She couldn't make anything on the ledge above but the voices filtering down to her were indication enough.
It didn't sound as though Natalia's team had made it though the crevice yet. The tremor had likely been the breaking of the seal when Natalia and her men had opened the door beyond the crevice. Jane was almost impressed, it usually took them longer to track her down. Now that the chamber had been cracked, Jane didn't have much time. Natalia was smaller than Jane, she would have less trouble getting through the fissure. Probably even get to keep her parka on.
“Lucky bitch,” Jane muttered as she took a deep breath and kicked solidly against the wall, pushing herself out. She let her line out, dropping faster than was prudent toward the bottom. Jane would be well served to have her boots on ground when Natalia pushed through the fissure. Natalia would have no qualms about slicing Jane's rappel line from the anchor pin.
Cursing as her line went taut in mid drop, Jane's body came to a violent halt before her momentum carried her quickly towards the wall. Taking hold of the line with both hands, Jane turned her body to absorb the impact on her shoulder rather than her face. A lesson learned after a broken nose in Peru.
Jane braced her feet against the wall, leaning back to search the depths of the dark chasm in a vain hope to catch sight of the ground. Her small beam of light was lost mere feet beyond her boots. Still no bottom.
“Well this is just fucking ducky.” Reaching around, Jane undid the knot in her rappel line. She could get an extra ten feet of length if she unlooped it from her harness. There was a sudden tremor in the rope and Jane's body dropped. Her heart dropped with her as she realized the extra slack wasn't coming from her end but from above.
“Oh, that can't be good.”
Jane fell, hands still on the now useless rope, legs kicking, until she hit the soft packed dirt with a thud.
“Okay, that one hurt.”
The 'woosh' of fifty pounds of rope following behind her cut through the pained haze. Jane turtled, tucking her head into her body and covered herself with her arms. The majority of the rope landed in a heap to the side of her. Only the end of the rope, with the heavy anchoring pin still attached, hit her directly. Jane cursed as the metal hit her knee length boot, pain radiating sharply through her foot.
“Figures.” She shined her light at her boot to survey the damage. The heavy leather was sturdy enough to prevent the pin from slicing through her skin. Thank God. She would have the mother of all bruises though.
“Hey, Espanoza, you still alive?” A heavily accented female voice asked from somewhere above, deep in the black. Jane stood, cracking her neck with a sneer.
“You're gonna have to do a little better than that you KGB reject,” Jane yelled back. Settling her pistol in place, Jane turned in a tight circle to search for the entrance to the next chamber.
“Ah, there you are.” She headed for the small aboriginal glyph, pushing on it to open the ancient trap door. It wouldn't be far now. From the innermost chamber, there would be access to the other side of the mountain. Hopefully.
Jane pressed a second glyph as she entered, activating the centuries old pulley system that would close the entrance behind her. Her small light scanned the chamber finally glinting on what she had come searching for. Her goal, a small wooden box, sat atop a rough stone pillar. She had been hired to retrieve the contents of the box, an old peace pipe. The pipe would be proof that the mountains she now stood inside were property of the First Nations, not the logging company that sat at the base, ready to wipe out an entire ecosystem.
The pipe would illustrate the historic importance of the area and give the activists, currently blocking the roads, legitimate claim to stop the company. Jane would bet her favourite pair of boots that Natalia had been contracted by the logging company to destroy the evidence. Jane approached the box warily, she had been taken by surprise in the initial chamber and she liked her head firmly attached to her shoulders.
“I'm trying to help so if you're keen on warning people about traps, now is the time,” Jane said to anyone, alive or dead, who might be listening. Getting no response -and feeling slightly embarrassed that she had half expected one- Jane moved forward.
Shining the light at the base of the roughly hewn stone pillar, Jane checked for any trip triggers that might set loose a booby trap. Finding none, she reached over and carefully lifted the lid of the box. One dark eyebrow arched at the thick layer of dust in the box, its only contents.
“Well, that was anti-climactic.” A loud thud of boots hitting ground outside the chamber announced Natalia's presence.
Officially out of time.
“Fuck it.” Jane grabbed the box, shoving it into her satchel and searched for the exit. She found a small tunnel, low on the ground, barely enough to crawl through. Certainly not enough for her and the pack that rested on her shoulders. Jane tapped her foot, she couldn't leave the pack or her satchel behind.
“I really hate that woman.” Jane pulled the pack from her shoulders, cutting the chest straps to use them to attach the satchel to the top of the odd bundle. Clipping the small light to her bracer, Jane began to crawl through the narrow passageway. The bags attached to her leg were heavy and awkward, it would definitely slow her down. No help for it.
“Keep moving Jane or I'll kick your ass,” she threatened. Coughing as she breathed in a lungful of dust and sand, Jane let out a curse as the tunnel took a sharp turn, directly upward.
“Yeah, that's fair.” Wedging herself upward with a grunt, Jane took a moment to listen for her pursuer. She could make out the faint sounds of someone coming behind her. “Damn it.” Natalia would definitely move faster in the tunnels.
Jane climbed up, mindful of the bags attached loosely to her ankles. It was getting colder again, the frigid stone leeching the warmth through her thin gloves. She was getting close to the surface. Judging by the acrid smell of cigarette smoke beneath her, so was Natalia.
Natalia's light flashed from underneath Jane and she winced as the bright blue beam hit her retinas. There went any night vision she had left.
“How are you doing, Espanoza? Tired yet?”
“Please, with my stamina I could go on for hours. Unlike some chain smokers I know,” Jane lied. Not about the chain smoking. If a booby trap didn't get Natalia, lung cancer would. Even now, the stench of the Russian's preferred brand overwhelmed the small tunnel.
Jane had been lying about her own stamina. Between the hike, the car chase, the gun fight, the rappel and now this, she was about at the end of her reserves. She was getting too old for this. Jane nearly kissed the stone in relief as her hand met flat surface, another tunnel opening. She pulled her body into the new tunnel and ripped a flare from her pouch, her last one. She lit the end, flashing it over the edge to warn Natalia of her intent, before tossing it down.
Jane wanted to slow her opponent down, not turn her into barbeque.
There was an undignified yelp followed by a string of Russian curses that would make a lesser person blush. Jane continued moving, the tunnel widening enough for her to get her backpack on. Taking a moment to shimmy into it, Jane wrapped the leg straps around her thighs. She would have liked to keep the chest strap but beggars couldn't be choosers.
She could see light now and the tunnel was big enough to stand if she kept her head low. Jane began to run, her satchel haphazardly tied to her belt and slapping at her thighs as she moved. Natalia's heavy breathing and bootsteps were getting closer. The blonde had always been the faster runner.
The entrance was mere feet away now. Jane put on the last of her speed, feet clearing the edge just as she felt a hand brush against her side. Then she was airborne, body arched to meet the wind as her right hand went to her bridle and she pulled it free, opening the parachute. She lurched forward, the lack of chest strap making it more difficult to stay upright in her rig. She reached for her toggles, performing a quick flare to stall herself before turning 180 degrees to wave at a vexed Natalia.
“Have a nice walk home, KGB!” Jane yelled, turning back to face the logging camp. The landing was going to be dodgy, way too many trees. The roads were her best bet, with the blockades at the bottom, she would be safe from becoming roadkill. Jane spared a moment to retrieve her radio from her satchel.
“This is base.”
“Coming in. ETA two minutes to your location. Prep vehicle for recovery.”
“Roger that, safe flying. Out.”
Jane tucked the radio into her shirt and began to orient herself for landing. Save a forest, stick it to the corporation and chalk up another jump. All in a good day's work.
One deep brown eye opened, quickly slamming shut as an angry red light blazed across its retina. This however, was nothing in comparison to the shrill sound piercing the eardrums of the eye's owner.
“Alright all freaking ready, I'm up.” Jane rolled over, giving the alarm clock a sound slap to silence it. She quickly regretted it, the violent motion pulling her shoulder stitches tight against her skin. She slid out of bed, feet first, a mammoth yawn overtaking her before she had even made it to the washroom. Wiping her hand across her eyes, Jane inspected her face, contorting the skin to see if there was any way the multitude of scratches could look attractive. She had tried it three mornings in a row, so far to no avail. Jane still looked as though she had gotten into a losing fight with an alley cat.
Her landing on the mountain hadn't been as smooth as she had hoped. A freak updraft had caught her on her final descent, plucking her from a perfectly good flight path and dumping her over the trees without enough altitude to recover. The pine needles had scraped at her as she had fallen through the trees, her canopy collapsing overhead. Jane's body had collided with twenty feet of tree limbs before she had managed to pull her head out of her ass and reached out to grab on. Jane had spent another frigid 15 minutes trying to make it back to her reported landing area, her radio lost somewhere in the fall. It had been quite the adventure.
“Any landing you can walk away from,” Jane reminded, giving her ankle a quick check. The bruise from the anchor pin had moved from a pure purplish black to barf yellow on the outskirts and a lighter shade of purple in the center. Sexy.
“I'll be fighting the ladies off with a stick.” Jane popped a painkiller into her mouth, dry swallowing it as she headed for the kitchen. She flicked on the coffee maker as she walked by, continuing on to the front door of her two bedroom townhouse. The home had been ridiculously over priced, especially considering Jane only lived in it three months a year. But, when she was home, she wanted to enjoy it rather than contend with a roommate's dirty dishes or overflowing garbage.
Jane unlocked the front door, bending down to retrieve the newspaper. She flipped to the back and quickly found the international news section. There was a small blurb on the logging company. Jane hadn't found the pipe but the box had been proof enough. The protest group had put a stop to the logging company. Unfortunately, the injunction had taken two days to go through, time enough for the company to fell some 5000 trees. Bastards.
Jane sat at her breakfast bar, pouring herself a cup of coffee as she searched the article for any mention of Natalia. Nothing. Seemed the woman had decided to lay low after her failed mission. Jane idly wondered how much she had cost the Russian by stealing the box from under her.
Jane's cellphone rang as she flipped to the funny papers, the small device skipping across the marble counter as it rang.
“It's Saturday,” she said in greeting.
“You're up anyway,” was the response. “Gone running yet?”
“Having coffee first. What do you want Mathius?” Jane asked, pushing the paper aside to pull down a bowl for her cereal.
“Hey now, you're not still mad about the mountains are you? Come on, it was all for a good cause.”
“Do you know how long I had to soak in the tub to get the feeling back in my toes? I told you after Siberia that I didn't want any more cold jobs. I moved to California to get out of the Canadian winter.”
“Go where the work is baby.”
“Next time the work better be somewhere that doesn't classify an igloo as a summer home, Baby.” Jane clicked the phone off, tossing it onto the counter. She needed another agent, work was getting slow.
There was a period, not long ago, when Jane wouldn't have time to go home between jobs. Just hop a plane from Egypt to Chile, Peru to Greece. Now, she didn't even know when the next job was. The biggest problem was the deluge of soldiers exiting the army. Everyone was hiring private task forces instead of single man teams. Why pay a professional to sneak an artefact out when you had the muscle on retainer to storm the gates and take it?
If things didn't pick up soon, Jane would have to take drastic measures. Like teach. Jane shuddered at the thought as she poured cereal into her bowl. It was time to go out and find herself a job.
Jane tugged her leather jacket tighter around her shoulders as she walked up the steps to UCLA's archeaology department. The city had been caught in lower than normal temperatures and Jane was doing her best to stay warm without going into full out winter jacket mode. Pushing open the glass doors, Jane caught sight of a familiar young woman.
“Doctor Espanoza, it's been awhile,” Veronica Montgomery, the assistant to Jane's old professor, greeted.
“It's always too long since I've seen you, Veronica,” Jane gently flirted. The woman, petite and pale, quickly blushed as red as her hair.
“Is the good doctor in?” Jane asked, already walking towards McGilvery's office.
“He is,” Veronica confirmed. “He's in the lab pouring over the urn you found for him in December.”
“Ah.” Jane followed Veronica into the lab, canting her head curiously as she watched McGilvery wipe the urn down with a chemical.
“When Veronica said you were 'pouring over the urn', she wasn't kidding. What's up, Doc?”
McGilvery, a portly grey haired man in his late seventies, looked quite content as he worked on his project.
“The solution is an isotope that will identify the decomposition of the paint on the urn to help date exactly when it was created. There are symbols from...”
“Yeah, I know, I found it,” Jane said, holding up a hand to stop what was certain to be a long explanation. “Jesus, Doc. I got it for you as a Christmas gift to, you know, admire or something. You didn't have to go X-Files on it.”
Shrugging, McGilvery turned his attention back to the urn.
“So what brings you here, Indiana?”
Jane rolled her eyes at the old man. He knew she hated that name.
“Did you see me in the papers?” she asked, eyes following as McGilvery pointed to a discarded newspaper with her story highlighted.
“No name but I knew it was you. Rumours of your skydiving and car chases are legendary around here. Especially among the first years.”
“First of all, it wasn't skydiving, it was base jumping. Second, the car chase wasn't exactly my idea.” McGilvery raised a greying eyebrow at Jane.
“Okay, I may have egged them on a little,” Jane admitted. “So sue me. Anyway,” she waved off the conversation. “That's not why I'm here.”
“You want a job,” he said, looking at Jane over the rims of his glasses.
“Yes,” a pause. “Well no, not a 'job' job. I want an assignment. Heard of anything lately? The closer to the equator, the better.”
“Haven't heard of much. With the economy the way it is, everyone is sitting on what they already have. No one is looking for new pieces.”
Jane sighed, between the flagging American buck and the private armies she couldn't catch a break.
“I'm sorry, Indiana, I'll keep an ear out for you.”
“Thanks, Doc. Enjoy your urn.” Jane pushed off the work table, giving a loose salute to Veronica as she passed by. Maybe Mathius could shake something loose, it was what he was paid for.
Jane walked down the hall to the entrance, eyes falling on many familiar artefacts. She had fetched a number of the pieces herself.
Jane turned at the sound of her name.
“Veronica, you've known me since you were a freshman. You can just call me Jane.”
A freckled face blushed again, the tips of pales ears pinking.
“Oh, well, um, I may have a job for you, Jane.”
“Well then, I may just have a cup of coffee with your name on it,” Jane said, extending her arm for Veronica to take. The woman placed her hand nervously at Jane's elbow and allowed the adventurer to lead them to the nearest cafe.
“So what's the deal, you holding out on the Doc?” Jane asked, pushing out Veronica's chair with a booted foot.
“No,” Veronica said quickly.
Jane canted her head, chocolate eyes showing her disbelief.
“Okay, yes, but with good reason,” Veronica defended.
“Okay...” Jane motioned with her hand for Veronica to continue. The woman who -at best- was permanently anxious, became more tense. She leaned forward, motioning for Jane to do the same. Jane complied, calm brown eyes meeting nervous green.
“My father.” Veronica looked up as one of the many students walked past. She waited until he had gone before finishing. “He's a mason.”
Jane let out a chuckle. All the tension... for that? The kid needed some meditation or Ridalin or something.
“Okay… He need a hand laying brick?” Jane asked as she sat back, folding her hands across her stomach. Veronica, tense as she was, managed to miss the teasing tone in Jane's voice.
“No, that's not what I meant. By mason I mean...”
“I know what you mean,” Jane assured, hoping to halt whatever nervous explanation was coming. “Secret society etc. etc. I know masons. What's the big deal?”
“There's a war brewing between mason factions. It's going to be bigger than anything we've seen in centuries,” Veronica explained.
“I'm an archaeologist for hire. Not a soldier,” Jane reminded.
“There's a Masonic book, it was once understood that whomever possessed the book had authority over all masons. It was lost in a war with the Church over three centuries ago. We can use it to take control and stop the war.”
“You think that because you've got a few pieces of paper, it'll stop a war?” It had been Jane's experience that when people wanted a fight, they generally got one.
“It may not stop it,” Veronica ceded, ducking her head at the admission. “But as it stands, the Masons are split in half. With the book we can swing another section of the factions. We could win the war quickly and minimize casualties.”
“I thought women couldn't be Free Masons...”
“They can't. My father is the grandmaster of a local lodge, I'm asking on his behalf. All of my father's friends and their sons are Masons. Everyone I care about is either a Mason or kin to one, I have a vested interest in keeping this as bloodless a possible.”
“Fair enough.” Jane sipped at her coffee. “Why me?”
“Because you and that other woman, Natalia, are the best there is to be had. I'd bet Doctor McGilvery's urn that the other side is employing her as we speak. I understand she has more… dubious ideas of what is considered legitimate employment.”
“That's one way to put it. Now, not that I doubt your sincerity, but what's to say you're the side to be winning?”
Veronica reached into the pocket of her lab coat to get a pen and took Jane's hand. She wrote an address with a time beneath it.
“My father will meet with you, he can explain the details. I only know what I'm told which admittedly isn't much. There are machinations at work here that go way beyond my ken.”
“Alright,” Jane said, taking a final gulp of her coffee. “I'll meet him.”
Jane rode the elevator, eyes taking in the mirrored walls and marble floor that screamed ‘money!'. Mathius' dossier on Alexander Montgomery hadn't been lying about the man being well off. As leader of one of the most financially powerful Lodges in North America, there was little Montgomery couldn't buy -or take- if he had the mind for it.
Jane shifted uncomfortably, unaccustomed to wearing a pantsuit. Even during her admittedly short stint as a lecturer, she had opted for casual practicality rather than the confines of the dressier set. Her satchel hung across her shoulder, its familiar weight a comfort. Jane didn't usually do client meetings. Mathius handled the business end of her jobs, working out the particulars for Jane who just showed up for an assignment. Montgomery had flatly refused to speak with Mathius, requesting an audience with Jane and Jane alone.
The elevator dinged her arrival and Jane stepped out of the car into an office of sedate opulence. Floor to ceiling windows offered a panoramic view of the city some thirty stories below. Jane stepped up the reception desk, firmly reminding herself that she was a world renowned archaeologist, not a child.
“Doctor Espanoza. Mr. Montgomery is waiting for you.” The receptionist stood, flicking the phone to its auto-answer function and motioned for Jane to follow her.
“Can I bring you anything? Coffee? Tea?”
“Bad joke. I'm alright, thank you.” Jane allowed the woman to lead her across the floor which seemed to be made up of the standard corporate design. The larger offices of the higher-ups bordered the outer windows while the cubicles of the lower level workers were set in the center of the large floor. The receptionist stopped at one such office, knocking softly before she pushed the door open for Jane who stepped inside. The door closed with a quiet ‘snick' leaving Jane to face a man who was undoubtedly Veronica's father.
Hair, toned in the fiery shade of a sunset, was closely cropped and rested atop a head that was just this side of rotund. A light dusting of freckles coated pale skin and the slight play of muscles in his exposed forearms spoke of a life that hadn't always been behind a desk. The difference lay in the eyes. Where the daughter had a deep shade of green, open and inquisitive, the father was nearly amber, the shrewd gaze constantly searching.
“Mr. Montgomery.” They shook hands, Jane taking the offered seat across from the man.
“Can I offer you anything?”
“More information,” Jane said, deciding to get straight to the point.
“I'm assume that what is said here won't be repeated?”
“Very well. What is it you want to know?”
“What the hell is going on, for a start. Veronica mentioned a war. I've got no interest in fighting anybody else's battles.”
“If you find the book, Doctor Espanoza, my hope is there won't be a battle to fight.”
“Masonic groups are formed of Lodges, each Lodge is responsible for itself but we all answer to the edicts handed down by our ancestors. The oldest record of these edicts rests within the pages of the book we want you to find.”
“And the book, how's that supposed to stop a war?”
Montgomery shifted in his chair, regarding her carefully.
“What is your relationship with the Church, Doctor?”
“I'm a lapsed, gay Catholic who regularly works for the Church's archaeological competitors. What do you think?”
“Then your relationship is much like our own. For centuries, masons and the Church have been in something akin to a cold war. We take small shots at one another, enough to keep the other in line but not enough to provoke all out war.”
“That being said, there are now a rather large group of masons who feel it is time to put the Church on alert. They are led by my counterpart, Julian, the grandmaster of a rather prominent Lodge. If Julian succeeds in rousing the Lodges to war with the Church, the results will be disastrous. He thinks the Church's powers over the people are flagging, that this is the time to strike. He's misjudged the situation. If he openly attacks the Church, he will rally every committed and lapsed Catholic to defense and masons will be hunted without mercy.”
“And the book?”
“The key. It's an ancient symbol of leadership. Whatever Lodge possesses the book is considered to be the interpreter of its laws. We can contain Julian's Lodge, prevent all out war.”
“Where is it? The book, I mean?”
“Guatemala, we think. Veronica has the details.”
“Ten thousand now, another ten when you retrieve the book and bring it to us.”
“And expenses,” Jane reminded. She always forgot to negotiate the expenses.
“And expenses,” he said with a nod. “You must work quickly. Julian is tabling a meeting in three weeks. If we don't have the book by then, we'll have no choice but to forcibly restrain him to keep the peace.”
Montgomery looked at Jane quizzically.
“I asked around. You've interviewed three other relic hunters in the last four days. Why am I getting the job?”
“You're the best, or so Veronica says. And because Julian has hired Natalia and her team. The others wouldn't have been able to handle her. You… well, there's nothing like a grudge between rivals to promote performance.”
“So Nat did take the job.” Jane smiled. “This is going to be fun.”
“Aren't you enjoying this?” Jane asked, turning to her companion. Veronica's eyes were screwed shut, pale skin made paler by the white knuckle grip the young woman had on her seat.
“How do you do this?” Veronica asked through clenched teeth as the plane shook in the sky.
“A shitload of gravol,” Jane quipped. Veronica's glare forced her to relent. “Kidding, only kidding. Relax.” Jane patted one of the pale hands gently. “We're fine. The wind currents are strong because of the mountain range. It'll settle down.”
“My father and his bright ideas,” Veronica said, closing her eyes once more. She went so far as to bury her head in Jane's leather clad shoulder as a particularly hard bit of turbulence tossed them about. Veronica was of course referring to her being on the expedition. As they had both understood it, Jane was only to get the information from Veronica and fly to Guatemala herself. A last minute call from Alexander demanded a slight change of plans. Jane could understand why the woman was with her. Veronica had been studying the lore surrounding the book for years, she knew it best. Jane just wished her companion had some field experience.
Oh well. No help for it now.
“Come on, it'll be fun,” Jane encouraged.
The grimace on Veronica's face indicated she thought that possibility unlikely. One particularly hard jolt unnerved even Jane as the plane veered sharply to the side. “Hey bub, try to keep it steady would you? I don't feel like wearing this lady's lunch,” Jane said, speaking in easy Spanish.
“Winds are kicking up, storm's coming in,” the pilot replied.
“You didn't check NavSat before we left?” Jane wouldn't have put them in the air if she knew a system was moving through.
“What NavSat?” he asked, sparing a look over his shoulder.
“What?” Veronica pushed off her shoulder to look up at Jane.
“Minor glitch, one sec.” Jane unbuckled her seat belt and wriggled into the co-pilots seat. “How bad is it?” she asked, keeping her tone low. Jane didn't think Veronica spoke Spanish but she couldn't be sure.
“The worst is coming. The mountain pass narrows ahead of us, the peaks are high enough to trap part of the weather system.”
“You mean we're heading straight into a wind tunnel with no room to maneuver?” Jane asked, unnerved by the pilot's silence. “Turn back.”
“Too far to do that. We're miles beyond the PSR. If we turn around now, even with a tailwind, we'll put down in the middle of the forest.”
“Damn it. What kind of emergency gear do you have?”
“Radio, little bit of water, not much.”
Jane sighed, being on the ground wouldn't be too bad. Getting to the ground in one piece could pose a bit of an issue. Jane had her base jumping rig and the pilot had a skydiving rig so they were set. She could see an extra parachute for Veronica tucked by their gear but, with the winds being what they were, it was almost as dangerous outside the plane as in it. Jane grunted as they hit a wind pocket and the plane dropped. Not good.
“Keep us in the air for as long as you can,” Jane instructed before turning to Veronica.
“What's going on?”
“Storm's going to push us around a little. I need you to put this on,” Jane said, pulling the parachute from beneath the seat.
“I'm really not. Come on, shimmy into the leg harness for me.”
Reluctantly, Veronica unbuckled her seatbelt and wrangled herself into the rig, Jane steadying her with an arm.
“I don't know how to fly one of these things, Jane.”
“With any luck, you won't have to learn today. I'm going to give you the crash course, just in case.”
Veronica looked at Jane wide eyed.
“Poor choice of words. Alright, these are your toggles, you use them to steer. Don't pull too hard. Left go left, right go right. Pull together to stall your canopy, it's called a flare. I'm going to talk you through it as best as I can on the radio but if something happens to me...”
Jane winced as sharp nails dug into her skin. She pried Veronica's hand loose, taking hold of it in her own.
“If something happens,” Jane continued. “You want to flare at about fifteen feet. Pull both toggles down to your belly button then tuck and roll. Okay?”
“There's more to it, isn't there?”
“Usually, yeah. Don't worry about the rest, I'll get you in the air.” Jane grabbed two radios from their kit, clipping one to Veronica's rig and duct taping it in place. “You're going to see me fall past you, I can open at a lower altitude. I'll touch ground first so I can guide you in. When you land, stay where you are and pop a flare.” Jane wiggled a flare before tucking it in Veronica's pocket.
“We're hitting the narrows,” the pilot warned.
“Okay.” Jane opened her gun case, pulled her leg straps on and clipped the pistols in. She preferred a shoulder holster but it wouldn't fit with her rig.
“We're going to be okay, aren't we?” Veronica asked, frightened green eyes staring into deep brown.
“We'll be fine, no matter what I'll come for you, just sit tight okay?” Jane squeezed Veronica's shoulder in assurance. “I'm going to talk to the pilot and get into my gear. Make up a bag of what you'll need, light as you can.”
Jane left Veronica to her task and wedged herself back into the co-pilots seat. Dark eyes widened at the clouds that hung just below the mountain peaks. Sharp shards of lightning crackled inside the clouds as rain pelted at their plane. They were a big piece of aluminum in an otherwise empty sky. Really not good.
“I've never seen a storm like this,” the pilot said, hands shaking from the vibration on the stick. Jane pulled on her base jumping rig, tightening all the straps and secured her radio in place. She hitched her satchel to her belt, wanting to be certain she wouldn't lose it in the fall.
“Any clear patches in this valley?”
“A few spots, you'll make it, the woman...” he started then stopped with a shrug. Jane sighed, high winds and rain wasn't exactly the ideal time to introduce someone to skydiving.
“We may still get lucky,” Jane hazarded. She quickly felt as though she had painted a bullseye on their back as something impacted their wing tip. The plane lurched suddenly to the side and Jane collided roughly with the door, heart dropping as the lock disengaged. “Shit! Get us back level!” The plane's right side was nearly parallel with the ground as they flew.
“Engine's gone, this angle is as good as it gets.”
Cursing, Jane turned in her seat, careful not to tug open the door. She used her feet to push Veronica clear of the door and back towards the ass end of the plane.
“We're coming up on a clear area, now would be a good time to go,” the pilot advised.
“Where's the bag?” Jane asked. Veronica handed it to her and Jane took a length of rope, cutting a rough fifteen foot chunk with her knife. She looped the end around the bag, tying it in place before she hooked the other end around Veronica's ankles. “Hold this to your chest until your chute opens then let it drop. When it hits the ground, you flare. Got it?”
“Good. We gotta go!” Jane screamed over the rumble of thunder and the lone, screaming engine.
“I don't know if I can do this,” Veronica said as Jane pulled her from the back of the cabin.
“It's this or wait until we slam into a rock face. This way we have a chance.” Jane kicked open the passenger door, gravity quickly dragging it downward. The tree tops could be seen some two thousand feet below them. “Come here.” Jane instructed Veronica who was inching herself backwards.
“Jane, I can't!”
“Come here!” Jane ordered, making sure her footing was solid before reaching to grab Veronica by the harness and drag her back to the door. She grabbed the bridle of the parachute holding tight as she tugged the woman to the edge of the door. “Veronica, look at me!”
Veronica spared a moment from staring at the quickly passing ground to gaze up into confident brown eyes.
“Toggles to steer, flare at the bottom and pop smoke. I'll find you. I promise.”
“Jane...” Everything in green eyes begged Jane not to do what she planned. Ignoring her own misgivings, Jane pulled the woman to the open door.
“You'll be alright,” Jane encouraged, steadying Veronica for a moment before letting her fall. Veronica's startled scream echoed through the cabin as she fell. Jane waited to see she had a good canopy before turning to the pilot. “Let's go.”
Nodding, he braced the stick and unbuckled himself. “You first.” Jane didn't need him falling on top of her or steering into her mid-air. Jane used a carabiner to clip the expedition bag to her chest, she needed all hands and feet free to track back to Veronica. The pilot shimmied down the wing strut and let himself go, quickly falling to the lush forest below. Jane gave him a five second count before following after him, throwing her body into an arch. She was offset by the bag strapped to her chest but managed to compensate as she dove for Veronica's bright blue canopy.
Jane lost altitude much faster than Veronica, using minute movements of her arms to steer herself in free fall. She reversed her arch as she neared the ground, creating a pocket with her body to slow herself down as much as possible. It was going to be a hard enough opening as it was. With no altimeter, it was a loose guess at what height Jane reached back to pull her chute. Her body jarred with the opening shock and she immediately reached up to check her canopy. Satisfied she was alright for the moment, Jane searched the sky.
She couldn't see the others anymore. Even with her canopy open, she was falling faster than either Veronica or the pilot. Jane steered toward a small clearing to put down in. She was on course for an easy landing when a freak gust of wind caught her and wrenched her sharply off course. Jane cursed the gust as it swung her entire body around and brought her out of range of the clearing. The screech of metal meeting hard rock cut through the thunder, followed quickly by the explosion of the fuel filled Cessna.
“Oh, shit.” Jane had jumped straight down from the plane. Even with her tracking, she wasn't out of range of shrapnel. The thought had no sooner crossed her mind that the first bit of flames shot past Jane. Burying her right control toggle, Jane steered away from the flaming debris.
A second gust caught her parachute, threatening to rip her toggles from her grasp as the wind pulled her back towards the burning plane. The rip of fabric was almost simultaneous with the register of a searing pain that cut across her left leg. She'd been hit.
Looking up, Jane was relieved to find her chute wasn't on fire, the heavy rain had doused any flames. The wind, however, was quickly turning the small shrapnel tear into something more life threatening. Jane had to get down.
There was no hope for a clearing, at this rate Jane would consider herself lucky not to fly headlong into a tree.
“River landing it is then.” Jane could swoop the water and cut away as she hit. Making the flight adjustments, Jane hoped she was low enough that the wind would settle down. Another shard tore through her chute, cutting deep across her arm. “God fucking damn it.”
Jane was low now and coming in faster than physics said was wise. Putting her feet together to prep for landing, Jane began the short flares to slow herself down. It was then that her chute split down the center, opening the hole wide. Jane heart climbed into her throat as she reentered free fall and hit the water, hard. Momentum caused her to turn in the water, wrapping her body in the lines, the chute floating like a nylon jellyfish. Reaching to her boot, Jane tugged the knife out to cut herself free. She surfaced with a gasp, pulling her rig with her as she swam for shore. She could see Veronica now, the sky blue parachute an ironic contrast against the gun metal grey sky.
Jane clicked on the radio.
“Veronica, steer left. Pull down on the left toggle. I'm going to land you on or near the water. When you hit, get out of the rig as fast as you can,” Jane advised, throwing her bag over her shoulder and running along the shoreline in Veronica's direction. “Steer left, you've got to get away from the tree line,” Jane warned. The small figure in the sky turned and for a brief moment Jane actually thought Veronica would make it. The brief but powerful gust of wind that bombarded the parachute quickly dashed those hopes. Veronica was plucked from the sky, hurtling towards the canopy of trees below.
Jane sprinted to the trees, hoping the blue parachute would stand out among the leaves. “Veronica, flare when your pack hits the tree line, hold for two seconds and flare again,” Jane ordered as she jumped a fallen log, brushing fern leafs out of the way. This wasn't a good way to wander the rainforest, Jane would be lucky if she didn't get herself eaten.
“Jane?” Veronica asked, her voice shaky amidst the rustling of the leaves.
“I'm here. Are you okay?”
“I think so. I'm stuck. I think I caught on a branch.”
“Stay as still as you can, I'm headed your way.”
“Okay, hurry please,” Veronica pleaded.
“I'm on my way, why don't you talk to me a bit?”
“I'm not really certain what appropriate conversation is considering the circumstances.”
“Feel free to be inappropriate then.” Jane thought she could make out something blue clinging precariously to one of the uppermost branches of a collections of trees.
“Did the pilot make it?”
Veronica's bright orange knapsack came into view, hanging twenty feet in the air on a thin strip of rope. Fifteen feet above that were the gently swaying, denim covered legs of Jane's companion. Jane walked over to a vine that dangled just over her head.
“I'm not sure. I saw his chute open,” Jane said. “I found you, I'm on my way up now.” Jane grabbed the vine, wrapping lean legs around to support herself as she began the long climb upward.
Jane smiled at the ‘Thank God.' that crackled over the radio.
“What do you think the pilots chances were?”
“Start with the easy ones why don't you,” Jane muttered, letting out a startled grunt as her boot slipped on the wet vine. Bracing herself, she reached for the radio.
“And please don't lie.”
“Slim to none. The plane exploded over us. I got lucky making it to the water and he didn't go in near me.” There was silence on the radio as Jane abandoned the vine in favour of a thick branch that extended towards Veronica.
“Yes, Veronica?” Jane balanced precariously on the branch and began to walk to where it intersected with another tree.
“How high can snakes climb?” The tone in Veronica's voice suggested the question was more practical than hypothetical. Scanning the greenery, Jane could make out a lean body among the branches, blending well with the foliage around it.
The snake began moving forward, the bulk of its massive body wrapped around the branch. “Veronica, undo your legs straps. Now.”
“Hold on to the pack with your arms until I say.”
Veronica reached down to undo the legs on her harness, her body dropping as the support disappeared. While Veronica was freeing herself, Jane worked her way over, trying to keep both the snake and its chosen prey in her sights. Keen brown eyes fell on a large vine attached to Veronica's tree.
“On my signal I want you to let go.” Jane backed up, preparing to get a running start at the vine.
“Are you nuts? I'm not letting go!” Veronica protested.
“You will if you don't want to end up in an anaconda's digestive tract,” Jane warned, balancing lightly on her toes to take a run at the vine. She pushed off with both feet and dove forward. “Now!” Jane yelled in mid air, letting the radio fall as she reached for the vine. The vine swung forward and Jane wrapped an ankle around it, shooting out a hand to grasp Veronica's arm as the woman fell past her. Momentum carried them to the nearest branch and Jane hauled them to relative safety. She spared a look up to see the snake with a mouthful of parachute in its gullet.
“You're awfully good at this, Jane. This kind of thing isn't a rare occurrence with you, is it?”
“Not as rare as I would like,” Jane admitted. Sitting on the thick branch for a moment, Jane cut the bag loose from Veronica's leg before tying the lead rope off around the branch. The rope didn't quite touch the ground but it was a far shot better than thirty feet in the air.
“How fast do those things move?”
Jane looked up at the snake which had released the pack and was flicking its tongue to taste the air.
“Fast enough that we should be moving quickly,” Jane said, motioning for Veronica to start climbing down. Veronica obediently wrapped her legs around the rope and shimmied down. The end of the rope dangled ten feet from the ground, leaving a five foot drop as Veronica reached the end. Jane winced in sympathy as the woman let go and hit the dirt in a tangled heap.
“You okay?” Jane received a weak thumbs up as Veronica pushed herself to her feet and out of the way. Grabbing Veronica's knapsack, Jane pinched the rope between her heels and let herself slide quickly downward. She landed on the ground in a tuck roll, nimbly jumping back to her feet.
“Show off.” Veronica accused, though her voice held no venom.
“How else am I supposed to impress you, Veronica?” Jane handed the young scientist back her knapsack. “Come on, let's get back to the river.”
“What's at the river?” Veronica asked, falling into step next to Jane.
“My rig, or what's left of it. We'll need the lines to build a raft.”
“We're building a raft?”
“We are if you don't want to trek twenty miles through the rainforest without a weapon or a compass. The village is right along the river, it'll cut our time in half.”
“You sound like you speak from experience, Dr. Espanoza,” Veronica said, a slight smile coming to pale lips. Jane smiled back, throwing an arm over the shoulder of the shivering scientist.
“Why on Earth would you ever think that?” Jane asked as she steered them in the right direction. They finally reached the river, the edges of it threatening to swell beyond the banks.
“Is it safe to be here?” The water was running quickly enough to drown even the strongest of swimmers.
“I didn't think it would rise so quickly, must have been a heavy rain season.” Jane caught sight of her rig, the split pieces of canopy near buried in the sandy bank. “I'm gonna grab that, stay here,” Jane instructed as she went to pick up the backpack. Most of the lines seemed intact, it was only the canopy and one of the shoulder straps that seemed badly damaged. Jane's boots sank deep in the wet sand, threatening to pull her feet out of them. Jane gathered the canopy to her body, slinging the pack over one shoulder and headed back to Veronica. “You still have the flare?” Jane asked, motioning for the woman to follow her.
Jane found a somewhat clear area and dropped the pack. She began dragging downed branches to the 'v' created by the root system of one of the tree trunks. Building a makeshift lean-to was their best bet. It was too late to build a raft and they would need somewhere to rest for the night. Veronica quickly got the idea and brought branches over for Jane to use. They worked in sodden silence for nearly an hour before Jane nodded in satisfaction at the structure.
“That's good,” Jane declared as she untied the canopy from the lines. Using one half of the canopy to waterproof ‘the roof', Jane tucked the second half near the back to use as bedding.
“How dry is that flare?” Jane asked as she used a stick to dig into the earth. Veronica ducked into the shelter and pulled the flare from her pocket.
“Feels pretty dry,” Veronica said. Jane gathered as much wood as she could, hoping some of it would be dry enough to burn. She managed to find some that had been shielded from the rain and shoved it into the bottom of the fire pit, tucking the wetter wood at the edges to dry by the fire. They only had one shot, otherwise they would be spending the night in the dark.
“Alright, hand me the flare.” Jane tucked the business end into the firepit, pulling the chord to activate it. She closed her eyes to ward off the bright light as the flare sparked.
“It caught!” Veronica said with an excited clap.
“Good stuff,” Jane moved under the lean-to and sat down. “We have to keep the fire low. If it touches the nylon it'll move too fast to catch it. I'd get your shoes off and dry out your feet as best as you can,” said Jane as she unlaced her boots. “You don't want infected feet in the jungle.”
“What now?” Veronica asked as they dried their feet and watched the fire.
“When the sun comes up we convert the lean-to into a raft, get to the village and get back on track.” Jane said. “Natalia would have gotten hit with the storm before the plane took off, we may still make it ahead of her.”
“There's no guarantee the book is in the village or the mason's temple near it.”
“No,” Jane agreed. “But I'll bet there are clues. If you're as good as your father thinks, you'll be able to tell where we go next. Start refreshing your memory, the way our luck is, we'll end up losing half your notes in the river.” As Veronica read through her notes, Jane stripped her pistols. They would need to be clean and dry before being of any use.
“You saved my life,” Veronica said some time later as Jane used the edge of her shirt to clean out her gun clip.
“Looks bad if you let the bosses daughter get killed first day out,” Jane replied, nudging Veronica with her shoulder to show she was joking. It got a small smile from her companion and Jane turned back to her work.
“The pilot... You don't think he's out there somewhere do you? Hurt, maybe?”
“I can't say for sure,” Jane admitted. “I saw his chute pop but with the shrapnel and the wind, I can't see him making it to a safe landing area.”
“He could have gotten caught in the trees like I did,” Veronica hazarded. Jane shook her head.
“You had a fully opened canopy and were coming down fairly slow. His canopy would have been collapsed and coming in hot. He probably would have knocked himself cold and hit the ground. We have next to no chance of finding him now, even if he is alive.”
“Sorry, I don't mean to make it sound like you haven't done enough. I just...” Veronica gave a helpless shrug.
“Look...” Jane started, pushing her pistols to the side. “He was reckless, he should have been checking weather patterns. If he had, he would have known about the storm. He nearly got us killed, I wouldn't shed too many tears over him. It was a matter of 'when' not 'if' he went down. We just had the bad luck of being the ones in the plane with him.” Jane pulled out a lone, dented can of pop and a bag of beef jerky from her satchel. The moisture would make the meat go bad, it was best eaten now. She ripped off a large strip and handed it to Veronica before gnawing on her own piece. Veronica gazed at the meat with an expression that bordered on disgust. “Tell me you're not a vegetarian.”
“No,” Veronica shook her head. “I just don't make a habit of eating giant slabs of dried cow.”
“You'll need the energy. It's this or eating bugs,” Jane said, happily pulling out another piece.
“Won't this dehydrate us?”
Jane stared at the water pouring down then over at Veronica with an eyebrow upraised.
“We can drink this?”
“I'd trust rain water here more than in LA but we're going to boil it anyway,” Jane said, holding up the can of pop. She popped the top and took a swig, offering it to Veronica who waved it off. Shrugging, Jane finished the rest of the drink. She wasn't in the mood to have ants crawling all over her for the sugar. Using her pocket knife, Jane cut the top off the can and used it to catch rain water. She poked a hole on either, shoving a stick through it to hold it near the coals to boil. As it sat warming, Jane turned her attention back to her weapons. The small calibre pistols wouldn't be worth much against the larger animals but hopefully the noise would startle any predators enough to give them a chance. As Jane worked, Veronica quietly chewed on her jerky, occasionally rustling a paper.
“Have you looked over any of this?” Veronica asked as Jane tested the trigger on her pistol.
“Yeah, I've read most of it. I've got a few ideas where the book might be,” Jane said, putting her pistols back into their holsters and reaching for the jerky. She took the last of it, offering a piece to Veronica. “It may be the last we eat until late tomorrow and it's going to be a hard day,” Jane warned at Veronica's indecisive look. Veronica reluctantly took the meat, watching as Jane took the boiling water and set it down between them.
“You know the entire temple is probably rigged to keep non-masons out,” Veronica said.
“I was under the impression that was why I had you.” Jane tested the temperature of the can before handing it to Veronica. “I've got a few books to sanitize water but we'll save those for tomorrow.”
“Do you think the rain will have stopped by then?” Veronica asked, sipping at the water.
“We'll have to wait and see. You should get some shut eye, I'll keep watch,” said Jane, motioning for Veronica to rack out on the piece of canopy.
“Don't you need sleep too?”
“Yes, but one of us should stay awake. You'll take second watch.”
“Alright, goodnight, Jane.” Veronica handed off the last of the water and rolled over on the makeshift bedroll. “Jane?”
“Hmm?” Jane nudged the edge of the fire with her boot. The flames danced and kicked up small sparks, some of which burnt out beneath the wood of the lean-to, others escaping to the night air only to be doused by the pounding rain.
“We're going to be okay, right?” Veronica asked.
“Yeah, we'll be fine. This is nothing,” Jane assured, reaching back to pat Veronica on the leg. “Push your boots over, I'll get'em as dry as I can.”
A small, bare foot nudged the hiking boots into Jane's reach and she put them near the fire. With the humidity of the forest they would, from this point forward, be at best moderately dry. Jane sighed, rolling her head around to loosen her neck. It had been a damn hard opening shock and the shrapnel wounds had begun to itch. They scratches had sealed shut with dried blood and she was reticent to reopen them here. In the jungle, infection wasn't a question, it was a matter of severity. She finished off the water, filling the can again and put it to the fire. It was vital to remain hydrated.
Figuring she had nothing better to do with her time, Jane began to rummage through Veronica's notes about the book. It seemed the book had disappeared during one of the many skirmishes between the church and the masons. The mason leader at the time of the conflict had disappeared with the book during battle. It was he, General Tapas, who hid the book until a mason powerful enough to unite the lodges appeared. Jane wasn't sure how much of that she believed but was willing to put her inner critic on hold until she had more evidence.
There were interesting glyphs inlaid on the book, some looked vaguely Egyptian, others Jane could have sworn she had seen in Mongolia. She knew the masons had expanded well beyond the borders of their ancestry but she hadn't realized how deeply other cultures had seeped into Masonic ritual.
Jane continued to read, her mind working through the wealth of information. It wasn't until she awoke, early the next morning, that Jane realized the relaxing pattern of the falling rain had lulled her to sleep.
She came too well before Veronica, coaxing the fire back to life and stood to stretch out the kinks. She knocked her boots together to dispel any critters that thought they were a good place to nest and pulled her socks back on. Time to start the day.
Jane laced her boots, the edges of the tough leather ending just below her knee. The treated hide prevented, or at least minimized, the chance of snake bites piercing skin. The leather bracers that adorned toned forearms and the vest that clipped over Jane's cotton shirt made sure the areas most likely to take a hit were well protected.
Ready to take on a rainforest, Jane headed for the river. The water had risen overnight. It wasn't enough to make it impassable but did make Jane question the wisdom of steering down it on a makeshift raft.
The woman in question turned away from the water to look over at a sleepy Veronica.
“How's it looking?” Veronica asked as she took the hand Jane offered and allowed herself to be pulled up on to the bank. “Oh. Isn't that high?”
Jane moved her head in a 'so-so' manner, eyes scanning the shoreline for any obstacles that would break up a raft.
“We'll stay as close to the bank as we can. You'll be tied off to me in case we end up in the water.”
“You know, I'm actually a good swimmer. The water is one place you won't have to worry about me,” Veronica said sullenly, turning from the river and marched back to the lean-to. Jane cleared her throat, scratching at the back of her neck as she followed after her companion.
“I didn't mean...” Jane started, uncertain exactly what she had said to upset the younger woman. Wounded pride shone from jade eyes. “Ah, Hell. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have assumed you'd be the weak link. Can you tell I'm used to doing this on my own?” Jane asked, giving the scientist a weak smile.
“I know me being in the field wasn't either of our ideas. And no, I'm not equipped to do base jumping...”
“Skydiving,” Jane quietly corrected, having the good sense to cast her eyes downward in response to the annoyed look Veronica shot her way.
“Skydiving,” Veronica amended , “or to build teepees or face anacondas. But I can be of actual use, I do have skills you know.”
“I know. Skills that'll serve us better once we actually make it to the temple. Until then...”
“Until then, what?”
Jane barely held back a groan. This was why she didn't work well with women.
“Should I keep my mouth shut and do as I'm told? I'm not a toy soldier for you to order around, Indiana.”
Jane winced at the name. God. It wasn't like she made a habit of using a whip, it had only been a handful of times for chrissakes. No one would ever let her live it down. Jane had to hand it to Veronica though, the woman was showing exponentially more spunk in dangerous terrain than she ever had in the safety of the lab.
“Look, I'm not telling you to shut up and do as you're told. All I'm saying is... I have my strengths, you have yours.” That was conciliatory enough. “Let's get this raft and get your book, okay?”
Two hours later saw the pair launching the small raft. One half of the parachute canopy served as a covering of sorts over their wooden raft. The other half was tightly bound around their two bags and lashed to the top of the raft. Jane had fashioned crude paddles out of some canopy and two 'y' shaped tree branches. Not much, but enough to get them downriver. Hopefully.
“Ready?” Jane asked, waiting for Veronica's nod before pushing them out into the river. They paddled out far enough to avoid the shoreline without putting themselves smack in the center of the murky water. “If you want to sit, you can, Doc. It'll only take one of us to steer now. We can work in shifts.”
Veronica sat, laying her paddle across her lap as Jane worked to keep them on course.
“Do you think we'll make the village today?”
Jane considered the river speed and how far they were from the small village that sat at the base of the Masonic temple.
“With a little bit of luck... good luck,” Jane clarified, “we should make it before sundown.”
“Hmm, can I ask you something, Jane?”
“Sure, why not?” Jane's concentration was more on the task at hand than on the conversation.
“How do you get to where you are now?” Veronica asked, turning to face Jane as she spoke.
“Well, there was a big plane and a bus and then a little plane and now a raft.”
Veronica didn't seem amused by the cheeky response.
“Whoa, tough crowd. What do you mean by 'where I am now'?”
“This.” Veronica swept her hand out in front of her. “This, jumping out of planes, Tarzan, MacGyver stuff. Normal people don't do this. Doctor McGilvery said when he first met you, you were a shy geek like the rest of us. Where was the disconnect?”
“You mean where did the clumsy nerd run off to?”
“She met a roguish young adventurer while on a dig in Egypt. It was either keep up or get left behind. And I was tired of being the one who always got left behind,” Jane explained, wobbling slightly for a moment as the water roughened.
“So what happened?” Veronica asked, green eyes wide with interest.
“Our moral compasses didn't match up,” Jane admitted with a shrug. “She was willing to do any job if the price if was right. I wasn't.”
“You got left behind again?”
Jane thought she could detect a note of sympathy in Veronica's voice.
“Yeah, I did. But it was the one time I didn't mind. Anyway, after you spend three years traveling the world, you can't really go back to the classroom. Not for long anyway. I did enough to get my doctorate and here we are.”
“Here we are,” Veronica said with a nod. “Jane?”
The adventurer sighed and looked down at her companion.
“Do you ever wish you'd stayed with her?”
Jane gave the question the consideration it was due before answering.
“I miss the companion she was when she wasn't scrambling over everyone for the next job. I miss having a deep personal connection with someone. But if you're asking me if I'd do it differently and compromise my morals for a woman who never truly respected me, the answer is ‘no'.” Jane paused, looking down the river. “We're coming up on some calm waters, Doc. Why don't you take over for a bit while I try and figure out how far we've gone.”
Veronica, seeming to understand that the line of questioning was closed, steered the conversation towards something less emotionally charged.
“Do you think I could ever be a grand adventurer Jane?”
“Sure, why not? You're cutting your teeth already.”
“Promise you won't leave me behind?”
Jane held out her hand, waiting for Veronica to take it.
The pair spent the next few hours in companionable silence, broken only by Jane's occasional snippet of information on the local wildlife. Jane allowed Veronica to steer while she kept an eye out for any potential dangers in the water. The river dipped and Veronica's knees threatened to buckle as the front of the raft hit a shallow area.
“Where did that come from?” Veronica asked, looking back to identify the source of the small gulley.
“Tree root, I think. Rainy season must have flooded the area beyond the banks. This'll probably be dry land in a few weeks.”
“How far to the village?”
“Another ten miles or so. We're getting close,” Jane said as she pointed to a small totem tucked back in the trees. “That marks the edge of their hunting ground.”
“Why did you go into archealogy, Jane?”
“What's with the sudden Q and A?” Catching sight of a root in the distance, Jane used her paddle to push them further out into the river.
“I don't know,” Veronica said with a shrug. “We're stuck on a raft in the middle of the forest. What else is there to do but talk?”
Having no good counter for the Veronica's logic, Jane merely continued to steer them along.
“Why'd you go into archealogy?” Veronica asked, reaching for one of the binding ropes that was coming loose. She tied it back together, using the knot Jane had shown her before refocusing her attention on Jane.
“I like mysteries,” Jane said simply. “I like solving problems and then going back to see if people were asking the right questions. I didn't want to go into game theory because I didn't want to work with the government. There were some other choices but archeaology seemed like the one that fit,” Jane answered. “And you?”
“And me what?”
“Why are you in archeaology? You're more about the science than the society. Why not be in a medical lab instead of carbon dating fossils?”
“My father,” Veronica said simply. “I've always been better with science but the stories he used to tell me of Mayans and the Aztecs...” Veronica's voice trailed off in memory. “I figured out that, as great as I was at science, I was passionate about archealogy. Dr. McGilvery's program seemed like a good compromise. I don't spend much time in the field but I still get first hand knowledge of everything that's found. When the portable labs become a little more economical, I'll be able to be in the field more.”
“Maybe that's why your father sent you with me,” Jane suggested. “To get some of the field experience he knows you want.”
“That's a lot of faith to put in me the first time out. I just hope I'm built for it. I don't want my father to lose the book because I'm slowing you down,” Veronica revealed, dragging her hand in the cool water.
“You're a fast learner, you've already shown you can handle this. Otherwise, we'd still be at the crash site with me trying to get you out of shock or worse yet, looking for your body. We're in damn good shape, all things considered.”
The excited smile her young companion flashed at her reminded Jane of herself, long ago, when she had been at a similar crossroads. The thought brought back memories of the woman who had said the same to Jane and she felt the smile slide from her face. She quickly mired herself in the bad memories, very nearly missing Veronica's next question.
“I'm sorry, what was that?” Jane asked.
“I was wondering why you were frowning.”
“Well, those for one,” Jane said, motioning to the tree roots that were sticking well out of the water. The current was picking up and they were being carried swiftly toward the thick branches. Veronica stood, putting her paddle into water to help steer them clear. It wouldn't be enough. “We're going to hit. Brace yourself!” Jane warned, twisting her ankle around the rope that held the nylon wrapped package. There was no way the small craft would hold together on impact. Tossing her paddle to the side, Jane threw herself into Veronica to clear them of the raft.
They hit the water with a splash, spinning underwater as the current fought to take hold. Jane held tightly to Veronica as they were pulled downstream.
“The bag.” Jane, pointed to the blue canvas ball that was floating past them. “We need the maps of the temple.” She moved to swim for the bag, held back by Veronica's steady grip.
“I'm the map, Jane. I was memorizing pictures of that place before I was potty trained.”
Reluctantly, Jane began to kick her feet, helping propel them towards shore. They didn't seem to be making much headway. The current pulled them further downstream than they were getting across. Jane's energy was beginning to flag when Veronica's scream wrenched her head back into the game.
“Oh my God!” Veronica's voice nearly drowned out the roar of what was in front of them. “You didn't tell me that was on the map!”
“It wasn't on the map!” Jane screamed back as her eyes focused on the churning waterfall ahead of them and somewhere, far below, the bottom. “That wasn't on the fucking map! Swim!”
Jane began paddling like hell, all limbs working to propel herself toward the water's edge. Veronica suddenly disappeared from beside her. Jane scanned the water frantically, trying not to let herself be pulled further in as she searched for her companion. A russet head popped above the water surface for a brief moment, nearly dead center in the river and unavoidably close to the falls.
“Jane!” The woman's panicked cries were cut off as she was tugged back beneath the water. Jane's own frustrated yell was barely past her lips when the merciless current sucked her below water level, dragging her to the center of the river.
Jane's final thought, before unconsciousness crashed down upon her, was instantaneous with her realization as to how far down the ground was. The thought was simple, direct and decidedly displeased.
To be continued
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