Day 1, Midday
Brent reached out his hand but paused when his fingers touched the tent flap. He drew a deep breath. He had to remain calm. Upsetting this jerk would accomplish nothing.
“Come In.” Alfonse’s voice startled Brent out of his contemplation.
Brent entered the security chief’s tent to find him sitting behind a camp table strewn with maps and papers. “May I speak with you?”
“Pull up a chair.” Alfonse nodded in the direction of the only chair not stacked with boxes.
Brent maneuvered the folding camp chair from between several large crates. He slid his eyes across the lettering on the larger one, ‘UNIT TWO ARMAMENT.’ Odd supplies for a botanical expedition. Even if it was in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
“What can I do for you?” Alfonse asked as Brent lowered himself into the chair.
“I’m concerned about rumors of logging in this area.”
Alfonse shifted his gaze to the map spread out over the table’s contents and then back to Brent. “Why?” he asked in a flat voice.
“I fear they will associate the logging with our project and be uncooperative.”
“What is your source?”
“My translator, Philippe, told me that the nearby tribe is being forced off their land by the loggers.”
Alfonse’s mouth twitched. “That problem is above my pay grade. But I do know that the logging company working this area has the proper permits. I know that because the security firm I work for also has the contract with them.”
Brent slipped his hands under the table and squeezed them into fists. Their expedition’s security team also worked with the loggers? “This will impact our ability to research indigenous medicines.” He could hear the anger in his voice. “The ability to query local experts is critical to our project.”
“Again, that’s above my job description.” Alfonse stared at Brent. “My only concern is your safety and that of the others on your team.”
He pointed toward the tent’s entrance. “Please remember the signup sheet outside my tent. If you go anywhere, requisition a guard, write down your destination, and have the guard initial it.”
Day 1, Evening
“Any success?” Brent watched Philippe his weight from one foot to another. “Here, sit.” He led the older man to the only chair in the tent.
“The local shaman, Lone Seeker, will talk with you.” The older man said after several long breaths. “But only alone. I will take you to him now.”
“Now? It will be dark soon.”
“He prefers darkness. Does not trust the warriors. And we must go alone.”
“The security men with guns.”
“I’ll get my pack together.”
“And no photos or voice recordings. Notes on paper only.”
In a few minutes, Brent had assembled his pack, added another layer of insect repellent, and fastened his snake gaiters around his ankles.
Brent followed Philippe, skirting the central area of camp containing the kitchen, dining shelter, and any inquisitive late diners. As they passed the guard at the camp-side of the helicopter-landing zone, Brent paused to wave and point in the direction of their camp’s refuse center.
The guard returned Brent’s wave and then pointed to his wristwatch.
Brent nodded, made a show of looking at his own watch, and continued following Philippe to the far side of the landing zone.
Once they were out of sight of camp and its guards, Philippe left the trampled trail and plunged into the thick jungle. Within a few hundred yards, they emerged into a small clearing. An open-air shelter with a thatched roof protected a small fire ring from the wet climate.
“We wait.” Philippe squatted and poked at the remains of an old fire.
Brent squatted close to the other side of the rekindled fire, taking advantage of the minimal cover from the moisture dripping from the jungle canopy.
As the surrounding trees disappeared into the deepening darkness, a figure detached itself from the vegetation and stepped toward the shelter.
Philippe stood and, gesturing Brent to do the same, held out his open hands and bowed. After Brent repeated the motions, Philippe introduced Lone Seeker and Brent to each other. They then squatted around the smoky fire.
“I will speak your words,” Lone Seeker said.
Brent noted that Philippe’s eyebrows rose at this revelation of Lone Seeker’s language skills.
Lone Seeker turned to face Brent. “Why are you here?”
“I wish to learn your sacred medicines.”
“Why should I tell you our secrets?”
“So I can help others.”
Lone Seeker’s eyes focused past Brent toward nowhere.
“What can I do for you?” Brent asked. “In exchange for your knowledge of plants.”
“Send the gun warriors away.”
Brent glanced at Philippe, who shrugged.
“I do not have the power to do so,” Brent said to Lone Seeker.
“Are you aware of the logging?” Brent watched his boss over the rim of his mug. The bitter coffee stung his mouth and, yet again, he wished that tea was available.
“It’s a sad situation,” Dr. Tanner said.
“But isn’t there anything we can do? Maybe have Corporate influence the government?” Brent clamped down on his rising anger. He had thought that the head of the Botanical Assets Expedition would be more interested in the protection of indigenous people whose traditional knowledge they sought.
“The politics is complicated. We’d just lose our permits if we, or our company’s spokesmen, made any waves about resource extraction in this area.” Tanner looked down at his hands. “The reality is that we have to acquire as much knowledge of local plants as possible before these poor people become extinct.”
Brent forced his jaw to unclench. “We just sit back and do nothing?”
Tanner stared at Brent for several seconds, his face hardening. “I understand your concerns, but access to this region depends on working with the existing system. The potential for new medicines is too great to jeopardize.”
“Or the corporate profits?” Brent struggled to keep his voice calm.
“Best keep your thoughts to yourself.”
Day 2, Noon
Brent stared at the notebook laying open on his camp table. The white paper shown bright in the harsh light of the propane lantern.
Still only one paragraph. And he’d been here almost an hour. His hands clenched as he again thought of Tanner’s comments. The man had written off an entire tribe. Men, women, and children.
Brent willed his hands to relax. Anger would not accomplish anything. And, as low man on the corporate ladder, he was powerless. Now. But perhaps some influence would be possible in the future if the expedition found useful botanicals. He picked up his pen.
A voice interrupted any attempt to focus on his list of potential botanicals.
“Good,” Alfonse said as the security chief entered Brent’s tent and looked around. “I prefer to talk with your alone.”
“What can I do for you?” Brent asked.
“You can start by following procedure.” Alfonse glanced around the small tent and frowned.
Brent remained sitting in the only chair.
The security chief crossed his arms. “Where did you go last night? My men on the perimeter have night vision goggles.”
Brent set down his pen. He had assumed that infrared optics wouldn’t work well at twilight. But regardless, he’d been caught. “Had a unexpected meeting with a local healer. A shaman. Had to check it out. But he was a no-show.” Last thing he wanted was Alfonse’s men harassing Lone Seeker. “I was back within an hour after sunset.”
“No more. My job is to keep you alive. I actually get a bonus if I do so.” Alfonse’s frown deepened. “There’s been trouble a few miles away.”
Brent’s pulse quickened. “What happened?”
“A guard at the logging camp was killed yesterday. But my colleagues will be taking care of it.”
Day 2, Evening
“I’m calling it a day,” Brent said to everyone and no one as he rose from table and left the mess tent. Maybe he’d try reading another chapter in the latest John Milton novel. At least in fiction, problems could be solved. Anything to get his mind off the rumors of fighting between the locals and the loggers.
The other staff members, especially Tanner, seemed to think that conflict was inevitable. Brent tried to shake the thought from his consciousness. Failed. He’d probably be awake all night fretting about the situation. Couldn’t these people see that it wasn’t just the lives of the locals? Their botanical knowledge could be critical to the entire planet, given both new emerging diseases and existing evolving ones.
He slowed as he approached his glowing tent. He hadn’t left this lantern on. His right hand slipped to the knife sheathed at his belt as he pulled back the entrance flap with his left.
“Hello,” Philippe said as Brent entered. The local guide and translator sat on the tent’s only chair.
“You’re visiting late.”
“Lone Seeker is dead.”
Brent froze. The old man had seemed healthy last evening. “Did he have an accident?”
Philippe stared for several seconds. He looked down, worried on finger on his left hand with those on his right. “Your people killed him.” He stood and stepped aside.
Brent staggered to the now empty chair. Lone Seeker was the local shaman. His main contact for indigenous use of local flora. “Why?”
“Two days ago, a few of the younger men from the nearby village tried to stop the logging. Killed one of the gun warriors. Yesterday, the gun warriors attacked the village and killed most of the inhabitants. Including Lone Seeker.” Philippe stepped toward the tent’s entrance. “I leave this area.”
“Wait,” Brent said, forcing the words out. An image of a crate flashed through his consciousness. “Are any of the men from the village still alive?”
“A few hide in the jungle.”
Brent’s pulse soared. Could he? Should he? “Would you deliver something to them?”
Philippe stood silent for several seconds. “Yes.”
“Can you come back in four hours?”
“I can not pass the guards. And must leave now.”
Brent checked his wristwatch. The guards would close down the camp in an hour. “Please return an hour after sunrise. Go to the far side of the brush pile on the other side of the helicopter landing zone. The are is outside of the guards’ perimeter. I’ll leave something there for you to give the men of the destroyed village.”
Philippe stood silent again for several more seconds. He then nodded and left.
Day 3, Morning
Good morning,” The guard nodded toward the duffle hanging over Brent’s shoulder. “Big bag.”
“Camera tripod and shovel,” Brent said. “Going to catalog plants along the perimeter of the landing zone. Maybe even dig a couple up.”
“Stay close. Mr. Rodrigues gets upset if you people go off on your own”
“I’ll behave. Don’t want to get Alfonse angry.” Brent forced a smile. As he walked away, he felt the man’s eyes on his back.
The landing zone occupied a gravel bar down river a few hundred feet from camp. Most supplies were boated in, leaving the more expensive travel to perishable supplies and academic guests.
Beyond the open area lay the dump, consisting of a pit for food scraps and an elevated platform for bagged trash.
Brent made a show of stopping to take photographs of various plants, some of which he’d have to look up. Or not.
On the far side of the trash platform, Brent squatted and opened the duffle. He pulled out two long plastic bags and a smaller on. These he shoved under the platform.
Brent continued photographing plants along the jungle edge of the gravel bar, working his way back toward camp.
Day 4, Noon
Brent staggered into the tent, propelled by the guard’s push. “What’s with the attitude?” he said to the impassive guard.
“Attitude? And interesting choice of words.” Alfonse stared up at Brent from his seat at his desk. Behind the security chief, Dr. Tanner stood with eyes focused anywhere but on Brent.
Alfonse shifted his gaze toward the guard standing in the tent’s entrance. “You may leave now.”
After the guard left, Alfonse redirected his attention to Brent. “Did you notice anything out of the ordinary last night or the night before?”
“I’m not sure what is ordinary,” Brent said.
“Are you being evasive?” Alfonse didn’t bother to wait for a reply. “Did you give weapons to any of the locals?”
“Guns are missing from my tent. There was another attack on the logging camp. Two more security men died. This is personal to me.”
“How many locals were killed?”
“I understand that Lone Seeker was killed. That makes it personal to me. His death negatively impacts our project that had depended on his knowledge.”
Alfonse’s eyes bore into Brent’s. “I don’t trust you. I understand the movements of everyone in this camp except yours. So, if it was up to me, you’d simply disappear into the jungle.”
Tanner spoke. “Per Corporate, you are off the project and are to be evacuated immediately.” He eyes still did not meet Brent’s.”
Alfonse’s words followed Brent as he left the security man’s tent, “It’s not my choice that you walk, but I’m somewhat comforted that you’re going to find your ass blacklisted back in the States.”