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Despite sweating in the heat, she breathed normally, dodging thicker stands of brush, crashing through the thinner ones. Late-season insects trilled around her and in sporadic spectral clouds tried to fly up her nose and into her mouth. The birds chattered and called to one another in the trees. The woods smelled of green growth and mostly dried decayed vegetation, not at all the way she imagined a true rain forest might smell, lower down in the Amazon basin proper. Up in the watershed of the Amazon's tributary the Río Marañón, in eastern Peru, the early autumn was drier and cooler, the growth far less dense.
Her heart raced as much as any person's might have after running at high speed for over two miles, up and down steep ridges. It had little to do with the exertion, though.
She ran for her life.
DAYLIGHT CAME LATE and evening early to the small
Peruvian village of Chiriqui. The sun had rolled well past the zenith. Though shadows weren't yet very long, it wasn't far from vanishing behind the tree-furred ridge to the west when the blast of a diesel engine ripped the calm air.
Beyond the ridge loomed the mighty peaks of the Andes themselves, looking close enough to topple and crush the little village into its dusty hillside, their blue tinge hinting how far away they really stood. The hills were mostly covered in patchy grass, dry as the hot Southern Hemisphere summer ended. Stands of hard-wood forest rose on some of the heights, interspersed with tough scrub.
Chickens flapped their wings in annoyance and fled squawking as a big blue Dodge Ram 2500, battered and sun faded, rolled into the small plaza in the midst of the collection of a couple of dozen huts. A tethered spider monkey shrilled obscenities and ran up a pole supporting a thatch awning as the vehicle clipped the edge of a kiosk and spilled colorful fruits bouncing across the tan hard-packed dirt. The owner remonstrated loudly as the vehicle stopped in a cloud of exhaust and dust.
Men began bailing out of the truck's extended bed. Men dressed in green-and-dust-colored camouflage who carried unmistakable broken-nosed Kalashnikovs and grenades clipped on their vests like green mango clusters.
They were gringos, unmistakably, who towered over the small brown villagers. The vehicle sported a powerful Soviet-era PKS machine gun mounted on a roll bar right behind the cab.
The people of Chiriqui knew better than to call attention to themselves when such visitors came to town.
"Gather 'round," the apparent leader commanded in clear but norteamericano-accented Spanish. He wore a short-sleeved camo blouse, a similarly patterned baseball cap atop his crewcut red head, and carried a black semiautomatic pistol in an open-top holster tied down his right thigh like a movie gunslinger.
Unlike people familiar with such things only from watching television from the comforts of their dens, the villagers knew well the difference between semi and full automatic.
The villagers stared, more as if their worst nightmares were coming true than from any lack of comprehension. Because, of course, that was exactly what was happening. The gringo soldiers with their hard faces grinning mean white grins spread out in pairs with rifles at the ready to enforce their leader's command.
IN THE RELATIVE COOL of her hut Annja Creed sat straining to read by the light coming in by dribs and drabs through gaps in the hardwood-plank wall. A bare bulb hung by a frayed cord perilously low over her head at the table on which she had spread the ancient book. It was unlit. The people of the village of Chiriqui had already done more than enough for her; she had firmly but with effusive thanks refused their offers to burn up more of their scarce, precious fuel to run the generator to provide artificial illumination. She could smell hot earth outside, the thatch, the sun-dried and splitting planks of the walls.And most of all the familiar musty odor of an ancient volume.
"...herb has most salubrious effects," she read, "particularly with regards to ye falling sickness, the effects of which fit it serves to ameliorate most expeditiously..."
That was how she would have translated it into English, anyway. The Jesuit Brother João da Concepção's seventeenth-century Portuguese gave her no problems; modern Portuguese had changed less in the intervening centuries than most languages. Even other Romance languages, which if translated literally tended to sound archaic and formal even at street level to English ears.
She knew her Romance languages. She knew the majors, Spanish, French, Italian and, of course, Portuguese. Plus she was rudely conversant in some of the minors, such as Catalan. Of the whole group she knew little of Romanian. She read and wrote Latin superbly; it had formed the core of her language study since she had learned it in the Catholic orphanage in New Orleans.
What gave her fits was Brother João's crabgrass handwriting. The ink had faded to a sort of faint burgundy hue on the water-warped pages of the ancient journal. In some places water spots or mold obscured the text entirely. In others the words faded entirely from visibility as of their own accord.
"This would probably be easier if I went outside in the direct sun," she said aloud. She had a tendency to talk to herself. It was one of several reasons--that she knew of--that the villagers called her la gringa loca, the Crazy White Lady. That she spoke Spanish and was willing to share her medical supplies or give impromptu English lessons to the local kids--or their elders--helped keep the inflection friendly when they said it, so all was well.
As for going out in the sun, she'd had about enough of it in the weeks she'd spent tramping the hills looking for the tome. It wasn't as hot there as it was down lower in the Selva, the great jungle of the Upper Amazon. But to compensate, the high-altitude sun was more intense, with less air to block the UV rays that punished her fair skin. And it was hot enough. Even in the shade of the hut she had to keep constantly on her guard to prevent sweat from running the line of her chestnut hair, tied back with a russet bandanna, and dripping off her nose onto the priceless pages.
"Anyway," she said, aloud again, "I'm just being impatient. I could just wait till I'm back at the hotel."
Having searched a month to find the book, she was eager to confirm its contents. However, she was still a day or two from any kind of reliably illuminated, not to mention air-conditioned, surroundings; she was meeting a farmer from up in the hills about sunset. He had agreed to give her a lift into the nearest town of consequence in his venerable pickup.
Annja's impatience was rewarded. It seemed that the hints she'd been pursuing had been correct. The long-dead friar had cataloged a wealth of herbs of the Upper Amazon and watershed, along with a remarkable accounting of their observable effects on various maladies so systematic that it prefigured the scientific method. She wondered if an early stint in China, with its extensive materia medica assembled over millennia, and its own tradition of systematic observation and trial and error, had influenced him.
Excitement thrilled through her veins as she carefully paged through the book, reading passages, looking at the pictures Brother João had drawn in almost obsessive detail. She knew nothing about botany, and even the mid-seventeenth century was straying beyond her actual scope of formal training, which was medieval and Renaissance Europe. But since she had taken on this new life, she'd found herself constantly expanding her horizons.
She was barely conscious of the outlaw-motorcycle rumble and snarl of the diesel truck pulling into the plaza. None of the villagers possessed a motor vehicle, but a few, mostly pickup trucks, wandered through Chiriqui almost every day.
"Senorita," a childish voice said, low and urgent behind her. She turned.
"What is it, Luis?" she asked the tiny figure who stood in the door, a tattered T-shirt hanging halfway down his bare brown legs. His eyes were great anthracite disks of concern beneath his thatch of untamed black hair.
"You must go," he said.
He looks so innocent, she thought, not overly concerned despite his apparent urgency. She knew how kids tended to dramatize.
"Why?" she asked.
His eyes grew bigger and his voice more grave. "Bad men come," he said.
From outside came the sudden, unmistakable clatter of automatic gunfire.
THE VILLAGERS CROWDED into the square and stared as one at the man who lay writhing on the slope across the stream, guts and pelvis pulped by a burst of steel-jacketed rifle bullets. The stink of burned propellant and lubricant stung the air.
"My, my," the intruders' leader said, wagging his head reprovingly. "You people are slow learners. Don't you know by now that when we come around you don't run, because you'll only die tired?"
For a moment there was no sound but the pinging of the truck as it cooled and the groans of the mortally injured man. "Don Pepe, front and center," the redheaded man in the ball cap commanded.