Gabriela Rose was standing in a small clearing that led to a rope-and-board footbridge. The narrow bridge spanned a gorge that was a hundred feet deep and almost as wide. Rapids roared over enormous boulders at the bottom of the gorge, but Gabriela couldn’t see the river because it was raining buckets and visibility was limited.
She was deep in the Ecuadorian rain forest. Her long dark brown hair was hidden under an Australian safari hat, its brim protecting her brown eyes from the rain. She was a martial arts expert. She ran five miles every morning. She was a crack shot and a gourmet cook. None of these skills were keeping her dry. She was wet clear through to her La Perla panties. Her camo cargo pants and Inov-8 Bare-Grip hiking shoes were caked with mud. She was carrying a Glock .38 in a Ziploc bag tucked into a hip pocket. Other pockets held her passport, a folding Buck knife, and moisturizing lip gloss. Her daypack held a useless waterproof poncho, protein bars, her Ziploc-bagged cell phone, and assorted other necessities for jungle trekking.
She was with two local guides, Jorge and Cuckoo. She guessed they were somewhere between forty and sixty years old, and she was pretty sure that they thought she was an idiot.
“Is this bridge safe?” Gabriela asked.
“Yes, sometimes safe,” Jorge said.
“And it’s the only way?”
She looked at Cuckoo.
“You first,” she said to Jorge.
Jorge did another shrug and murmured something in Spanish that Gabriela was pretty sure translated to “chickenshit woman.”
Let it slide, Gabriela thought. Sometimes it gave you an advantage to be underestimated. If things turned ugly, she was almost certain she could kick his ass. And if that didn’t work out, she could shoot him. Nothing fatal. Maybe take off a toe.
It had been raining when she landed in Quito two days earlier. It was still raining when she took the twenty-five-minute flight to Caco and boarded a Napo River ferry to Nuevo Rocafuerte. And it was raining when she met her guides at daybreak and settled into their motorized canoe for the six-hour trip down a narrow, winding river with no name. Just before noon, they’d pulled up at a crude campground hacked out of the jungle. They’d immediately left the river behind and followed a barely there trail through dense vegetation. And it was still raining.
“Insurance Fraud Investigator” was printed on Gabriela’s business card, and she had an international reputation for excellence in the field. As an independent contractor she had the luxury of accepting jobs not related to insurance fraud, whether because they paid well or because they were fun. Her current job had checks in both boxes.
She’d been hired to find Henry Dodge and retrieve an amulet he was carrying. She didn’t have a lot of information on the amulet or Dodge. Just that he couldn’t leave his jobsite, and he’d requested that someone come to get the amulet. Seemed reasonable since Dodge was an archeologist doing research on a lost civilization in a previously unexplored part of the Amazon Rain Forest. The payoff for Gabriela was a big bag of money, but that wasn’t what had convinced her to take the job.
She was possibly a descendant of the infamous pirate Blackbeard, and she was fascinated by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pirates and the civilizations they touched. The opportunity to visit the site of a lost city was irresistible. It was also her thirtieth birthday. What better way to celebrate it than to have an adventure?
“How much further?” she asked Jorge.
“Not far,” he said. “Just on the other side of the bridge.”
Twenty minutes later, Gabriela set foot on the dig site. She’d been on other digs, and this wasn’t what she’d expected. There was some partially exposed rubble that might have been a wall at one time. A couple of tables with benches under a tarp. A kitchen area that was also under a tarp. A stack of wooden crates. A trampled area that suggested it might have recently been used as a site for several tents. Only one small tent was currently left standing.
There were no people to see except for one waterlogged and slightly bloated man lying on the ground by the rubble, and a weary-looking man sitting on a camp chair. The first was clearly dead. The second stared at them as they approached.
“This is not good,” Jorge said. “One of these men is very dead and something has eaten his leg.”
“Panther,” the man in the chair said. “You can hear them prowling past your tent at night. This site is a hellhole. Were you folks just out for a stroll in the rain?”
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