Excerpt: River of Eden
Drenched to the bone, Dr. Annie Parrish stood in the doorway of the ramshackle waterfront cantina called Pancha’s and wiped what she could of the rain off her glasses. Putting them back on, she let her eyes adjust to the dim light. Water dripped off her green shirt and baggy khaki shorts, adding to the mud she’d dragged in with her off the street. The tropical afternoon rain poured down behind her, running off the cantina’s tin roof and coursing in streams down the dirt slope to the black waters of the Rio Negro where it flowed past the city of Manaus, Brazil. Inside the tavern, a samba beat blared out of a radio, while a toothless young man added percussion with the rapid beat of his open palms against the bar.
A scattering of seedy-looking patrons littered the shadowy interior, their faces obscured by a pall of cigarette smoke, but it was the couple dancing in front of the bar that held Annie’s attention.
The woman was mulatto, her skin a creamy café au lait color, her yellow halter top and orange sarong the brightest things in the dingy room. Her partner was chameleon-like in comparison. The most noticeable aspect about him was movement—the flick and sway of his hips to the music, the flash of gold bracelets on his upraised arms, the rippling of his open, midnight-blue shirt against his sun-bronzed skin.
The woman was a sunburst. He was a star-flung night, his dark brown hair streaked blond in places and flying with every toss of his head, then falling back into multihued layers that hung low on his neck. Red seed bracelets stacked four inches high around his right ankle were revealed by the rolled-up legs on his black pants, shoroshoro seeds from the forest adding a susurrus of sound with every step he took.
Annie didn’t have a clue who the woman was, but the man was William Sanchez Travers, and sure as she was standing there, he didn’t look like any Harvard-trained ethnobotanist she’d ever seen, “defrocked” or not. He looked like the kind of man mothers warned their daughters about and the reason fathers kept shotguns. But he was Annie’s best chance for getting upriver, and given that one asset, she was inclined to overlook a lot of faults.
With an absent gesture, she shoved her fingers back through her short-cropped blond hair, slicking the wet strands off her face. A quick pat-down of her pockets proved them bulging with the usual junk, too full to organize, so she stuffed what she could deeper, and ignored the rest. Tidied up as best as she could manage, she squared her shoulders. For better or worse, Travers was exactly the type of man she’d been looking for—broke enough to come cheap and shady enough not to ask too many questions. Annie knew plenty of men who fit that description, but she’d worked in the Amazon long enough to add a third caveat: she needed a man who wouldn’t slit her throat in the dead of night. When her research sponsor, Dr. Gabriela Oliveira, had recommended Travers, telling Annie he was back in Manaus and headed upriver to Santa Maria, Annie had figured the ex-Harvard botanist, no matter how degenerate, would more than fit the bill. Hell, she’d read every book he’d ever written—twice.
Now she had an offer to make.
As she started forward, the music slid into a lambada rhythm. Without missing a beat, Travers and his partner came together in a hip-swaying Latin swing that bordered on lewd. Then they took it over the border.
Annie’s gaze dropped down the length of their bodies and quickly came back up in a warily skeptical once-over. Anything could happen on a dance floor in Brazil—and it looked like anything might.
She only hoped he and the woman stopped somewhere short of actual public copulation. She didn’t have the strength for it after spending half the day looking for him in every seedy, portside dive in Manaus he was known to frequent. There weren’t many he’d missed, and after observing his favorite haunts firsthand, she wouldn’t put anything past him, even if only half of the rest of what she’d heard about him was true.
Three years ago, he’d forsaken academia and his fieldwork and disappeared into the Amazon rain forest. The rumors had been bountiful and gruesome: he’d been eaten by an anaconda; he’d taken one too many hallucinogenic trips on the Banisteriopsis caapi liana and was living in a near vegetative state in a cave near the headwaters of the Putumayo; or—and this had been Annie’s favorite—he’d had his head shrunk by the Jivaro. No bones or body, vegetative or otherwise, and no identifiable shrunken head had ever been found. A year later, he’d disproved all the rumors by resurfacing in Manaus safe, though not necessarily sound. The verdict was still out on his mental state—way out.
Looking at him now, Annie would guess he’d abandoned botany for his true calling as a sambista. The kind of moves he was making were grounds for arrest in some countries: arms down, shoulders loose and rolling, his hips doing a buck-and-shimmy against the woman’s. Rumor said Gabriela had been the one to bail him out with Howard Pharmaceutical Labs, the company funding his research. Even so, half a dozen lawsuits were still waiting for him back in the States, compliments of old man Howard, who hadn’t planned on his high-priced glory boy disappearing without delivering some new magically medicinal plant Howard Labs could make millions of dollars synthesizing.
Well, she thought, that bright hope had sure gone to hell in a handbasket, with the way smoothed by more than a few bottles of rotgut cachaça, Brazilian sugarcane alcohol. It was a damn shame, but all Will Travers was known for now was ferrying people up and down the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes and showing up in the Manaus bars often enough to qualify as a waterfront attraction.
At six feet, he had the gringo looks for it, tall and rangy, with that wild, sun-streaked hair and a face that had set more than one coed on the path to a botany degree.
Annie was way past the coed stage of her life, but from what she could see of him, he hadn’t lost his poster-boy looks, even if the veneer of his Harvard days had worn so damn thin as to be invisible.
He probably didn’t know it, but he’d once one-upped her on a plant identification, getting his specimen in mere days ahead of hers. Since then, for all time, whenever anybody enjoyed a certain South American balsam herb in their garden, the label read Dicliptera traversii, instead of Dicliptera parrishii. It was as close as she’d ever gotten to getting the best of him. Then he’d gone and dropped out of the game—and that was the real damn shame.
As she watched him dance, her mouth curved into a rueful grin. What a waste, she thought, and what a great opportunity for her. With William Travers out of the running, a place in the history books was up for grabs, and she was going to take it. Still, she would have loved to have met him in his prime and given him a run for his money, before he’d gone to seed—and like everyone else in the Amazon and academia, she couldn’t help but wonder what in the hell had happened to him. He’d been on top of the world before he’d gone off and gotten himself lost.
The music changed again, and Travers grasped his partner’s waist with both hands. The woman went willingly into his embrace, the two of them slithering together in a serpentine mating dance.
“Damn,” she muttered. They really were going to do the deed right there on the dance floor, as if she didn’t already have enough problems.
Johnny Chang, the two-bit felon she’d been dealing with all week, had warned her to leave Manaus once their business was done, and God knew she’d tried, but the boat she’d been counting on had gone belly-up and left her dry-docked. She couldn’t afford any more delays. She had to be out of the city by morning.
She glanced out the door. The rain looked as if it would go on forever.
The radio sputtered to a stop behind her, and the sudden quiet drew her attention back to the bar and a bit of good news: Travers still had his pants on.
Thank God for little favors, she thought and moved forward. She needed to cut her deal while she still had the chance.
“Dr. Travers,” she said, pitching her voice to carry above the racket of the rain on the roof.
The man she’d been tracking all over the waterfront turned, weaving slightly with the woman still in his arms, and Annie had to fight back a pang of irritation. Drunk before three o’clock, he was in worse shape than she’d expected, and she hadn’t expected much. On the other hand, with him two sheets to the wind, talking herself onto his boat ought to be a piece of cake.
“Dr. Travers,” she repeated, approaching him with a smile firmly in place. She’d never been much in the bees-and-honey department, but she knew enough to make nice when she wanted something.
“Will,” he said, smiling back, his dark-eyed gaze slightly confused as he studied her face. He had a day’s growth of stubble along his jaw, macaw feathers tied into his hair behind his left ear, and possibly the longest, thickest eyelashes she’d ever seen on a grown man. “Just Will.” With a glance over his shoulder and a gesture, he ordered a beer. The woman was plastered to him.
Probably holding him up, Annie thought, exasperated with herself for needing him. He and the woman leaned a bit too far, having to take a half-step to stay upright, and Annie couldn’t even keep a forced smile on her face. No doubt about it, he’d started his party hours ago and was headed downhill. His hair was wildly disheveled. His shirt was completely unbuttoned, and with his pants low slung and hanging by a thread and the grace of God on his hips, he looked as if he were coming undone, as if his clothes could finish the slow slide off his body at any second.
She had the most ridiculous urge to straighten him up a bit, pull him together and tell him to get a hold of himself.
Instead, she offered her hand and introduced herself.
“Annie Parrish,” she said, noticing the genipa dye trailing in a thin line around the base of his throat like a serpentine necklace. A chunk of quartzite strung on a knotted palm-fiber cord, a shaman’s crystal, hung around his neck. The biggest jaguar teeth she’d ever seen flanked the stone, two wickedly curved fangs telling her the crystal was meant to be a thing of great power. She wondered where Will Travers had gotten it, and if he had a clue as to what it was.
Glancing up, she met his thick-lashed gaze and lazy grin, and somehow didn’t have a doubt.
He knew, and probably thought he was really onto something.
Her opinion of him dipped even lower. He was a scientist, one of Harvard’s finest, for crying out loud, or had been. He should know better than to believe in magic crystals and jaguar teeth. At one time, before he’d gone and gotten himself lost, he probably had known better.
Heatstroke, some people said. That’s what had happened to him, massive heatstroke leading to temporary derangement, though there were differing opinions on how “temporary” the derangement might be. He’d been back for two years and still looked plenty over the edge to her
“Annie Parrish,” he repeated. “Dr. Annie Parrish?” He took her hand, his expression turning curious—a common enough reaction. Like him, she’d had her moment of notoriety in the past. Unlike him, she hadn’t made a lifetime commitment to scandal, not yet anyway.
“Yes. I’m working with the River Basin Coalition, RBC. Dr. Gabriela Oliveira suggested I contact you.”
“Ah, Gabriela,” he said, still holding on to her hand, his mouth curving into another grin. He turned to whisper something to his dance partner.
The woman smiled and pressed herself against him, whispering back, asking him to come with her, a sultry offer on a hot, tropical afternoon, an offer Annie was afraid he wouldn’t refuse—and then there she’d be, left standing in Pancha’s, while he and the woman finished their dance behind closed doors.
Or maybe he was thinking of taking her with them. He was holding on to her as if he weren’t going to let her go.
Well, he could try, she thought, if he was feeling lucky. She had a reputation, well earned, if a little overblown, of protecting herself. If he’d heard about her at all, he must have heard that.
She tried pulling her hand back, and he tightened his grip, showing surprising strength for someone who was having trouble even staying on his feet, and suddenly Annie wondered just how interesting the afternoon might get. Too interesting, she decided, preparing to retrieve her hand, an effort that proved unnecessary when he loosened his grip and slid his hand up her arm, still touching her, but not holding her, as if he were merely keeping track of her while he murmured a reply to the woman. The dancer pouted through all his softly spoken Portuguese. When he was finished, she brushed her lips across his cheek and whispered, “Gato,” before turning to leave. Sexy man, she meant, like a cat.
He was pretty damn big for a cat, Annie thought, but she would admit to a certain suppleness to all that lean muscle—and a damn good bit of pure power. However dissolute his lifestyle, it hadn’t taken an obvious physical toll, and possibly just the opposite.
The only photograph she’d seen of him had been on his book jackets, taken long before he’d spent his year lost in the rain forest, and there had been some undeniable changes since then. He was leaner, harder, the lines of his face more stark, his features and his body more carved than molded. From her perspective, eye level with his chest, he seemed to be made up entirely of corded muscle covered with smoothly tanned skin, none of which had shown in the picture of him neatly buttoned and tucked into an oxford shirt with a tie. He obviously hadn’t spent all his time drinking in cantinas, and wherever he’d been, he’d covered some ground. She knew the look of long miles and short rations. His body was stripped of any excess. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him.
“So you spoke with Gabriela today?” he asked, his gaze coming back to her after the mulatto woman had finished weaving a drunken path to a barstool. Watching her, Annie had been forced to revise her opinion about who had been holding up who.
“Yes. She told me you were headed to Santa Maria in the morning.”
“You want to go to Santa Maria?” he asked, one eyebrow lifting in question. Sweat-dampened hair clung to the sides of his face, pale sun-streaked strands overlaying dark brown, accentuating his cheekbones and overall vagabond appearance.
“But not on the RBC launch with Gabriela?” His beer arrived, and he thanked the bartender. “Obrigado.”
“The engine broke down,” she explained. “The parts are coming up from Santarem. It’s going to take at least a week, and I’m in rather a hurry... very, uh... busy.” She carefully chose a word after a slight pause. “Too busy to wait.” She couldn’t very well tell him she had to get the hell out of Manaus before her luck ran out. That sort of confession was bound to rouse some questions she had no intention of answering.
His grin broadened again, coming as easy as the rain outside and apparently as often. “Gabriela did mention the possibility of a... busy... woman wanting passage.” With his beer in hand, he slid his other hand low on her back and gave her a little push toward the cantina’s front door, moving her along with more purpose than she would have thought he could muster.
“Yes, I’m... uh,” she said, glancing around, wondering if she’d missed something. “I’m doing research on the—” Her voice trailed off when she noticed two men rising from a table near the bar. One was tall with buzz-cut black hair. The other was younger, shorter, and dumpier with a cigarette hanging from between his lips. Both of them were watching Travers with grim expressions on their faces. The glint of a partially sheathed knife flashed on the shorter one’s hip.
O-kay, she thought, remembering a couple of other things she’d heard about the mysterious William Sanchez Travers. One rumor that had picked up some speed was that he’d spent his lost year searching for and finding a city of gold buried in time and lianas in the wilderness of Amazonia. He did have a pair of hefty gold bracelets hanging around his wrist, gleaming dully in the low light of the cantina, and there was nothing like gold to bring out the mercenaries and bandidos in backcountry Brazil. Of course, people who had known him before he’d disappeared swore that even if he had found an ancient lost city of gold, the wealth wouldn’t have interested him nearly as much as the archaeobotany of the site. But even she could see that he’d changed in some rather dramatic ways from the photograph on his book jacket, maybe more than the people who had known him before realized.
Regardless, he was ushering her out the door, and he had a couple of very bandido-looking dudes staring holes in the middle of his back.
“You do know there’s a man with a knife watching us. Right?” she asked.
“Tudo bom, Dr. Parrish,” he replied with a shrug. Everything’s ok. “Think nothing of it.”
“Do you know him?” she asked, taking another quick glance and thinking a lot about it. She’d been on more than a few waterfronts along the Rio Negro, and in more than her share of roughneck bars back home in the States, once or twice in less than ideal situations. In her opinion the only situation less ideal than a grim-faced man with a knife was a grim-faced man with a gun. Whether the men were Wyoming cowboys or Brazilian caboclos, the outcome was never good.
“The one with the knife in the orange T-shirt is named Juanio. The man trying to hide a shoulder holster under his vest is called Luiz.”
“Shoulder holster?” That meant a gun. The day was definitely taking a dive.
“Garimpeiros,” he explained, as if that would be reassuring.
“Gold miners,” she translated aloud, her curiosity and wariness ratcheting up a few dozen notches. Gold miners were the bane of much of the Amazon and a particularly poisonous thorn in her side.
“Don’t worry. They’re only here to entertain me.”
Annie didn’t bother to hide the doubtful arching of her eyebrows. “And are you finding them entertaining?” No one could be that self-assured when he had a man with a knife and another with a gun at his back.
He glanced down at her, and his mouth curved into a mischievous grin. “Very.”
“And the woman?” she asked, wondering how, or if, the dancer was involved.
His grin broadened. “Cara? Part of the package. She dances a few dances. Juanio buys me a few drinks, and Luiz makes sure I don’t get distracted by any garotas who wander in off the street.”
Annie slanted him a glance, hardly classifying herself as a garota, a lovely girl, who had wandered in off the street. She knew what people saw when they looked at her. “Four-eyed academic” and “muddy-kneed botanist” came to mind, and “pint-sized pit bull” had been mentioned more often than she cared to admit, especially by other field researchers, especially if they were in her field. “Lovely girl” would be a stretch on her best day.
In two more steps, he had her back outside, under the eaves of the cantina’s tin roof, the rain pouring down not six inches from where they were standing.
“I’d say Luiz is doing a damn good job.” Drunk or not, and she wasn’t at all sure anymore, he’d just given her a first-class bum’s rush.
He answered with a negligent shrug and stepped out from under the eaves. The rain sluiced down his body, instantly plastering his clothes to his rangy frame. He tilted his head back and dragged his hands through his hair, letting the water wash over him. For a moment, he looked like a river creature, sleek and wet, all lean muscle and coiled power, half of this world and half of the other, the rain a veil between water and air. Then he stepped back under the eaves, and the moment passed—but not without leaving her oddly disconcerted.
She didn’t know what he was, but she was getting the idea that he wasn’t just the simple dockside boat tramp she’d set out to find.
“If you want to come as far as Santa Maria, that’s fine with me,” he said, wiping a hand across his face, and then wringing out the tail of his shirt. “Fare is a hundred and twenty reais with meals. I’m tying up at the RBC dock tonight and leaving at dawn.”
Before she could say anything, he turned back toward the cantina and within a few steps had melted into the darkened interior with his garimpeiros and package-deal mulatto woman. A new song started up on the radio.
“Damn,” she swore softly. She’d seen a lot of wild things in the rain forest, but William Sanchez Travers had just shot to the top of her list.
And who in the hell were those gold miners? She knew what they were—trouble. Garimpeiros were always trouble, especially when you mixed them with liquor and guns. Whatever deal he was working, Will Travers was sitting on a powder keg doing business with them. She just wondered how much business he was doing, and whether or not she ought to be hightailing it in another direction.
But damn, he did have a boat, and she had a place on it at dawn, which was more than she’d walked into Pancha’s with, and which still made him her best bet for getting out of Manaus—and above all else, garimpeiros or not, she needed to get the hell out of Manaus.
~ * ~
From where he stood in the cantina’s doorway, Will watched Annie Parrish make her way down the street. He’d given her a minute before coming back to check on her, and he was glad to see she’d left. He had some business on its way to the cantina, the kind of business best transacted without witnesses. Will had sent a message two hours ago to let Fat Eddie Mano know he was in town. Juanio, Luiz, Cara, and a few others had arrived shortly afterward to empty out Pancha’s and keep him in place. Fat Eddie was due any minute.
A grin curved his mouth, and he lifted his bottle of beer to take a drink—Annie Parrish, the infamous Annie Parrish. When Gabriela had mentioned a woman, she was the last one he would have expected. He hadn’t even known they’d let her back into the country. Gabriela must have really pulled some strings. She’d definitely laid her reputation on the line to be working with Annie Parrish, and the reason old Dr. Oliveira might have for doing that intrigued Will almost as much as Annie herself—almost, but not quite.
Given her reputation, he’d expected her to be bigger, rougher around the edges, more imposing, but she’d barely reached his chin, and the word “rough” was the last one he’d thought when he’d turned around and seen her standing behind him. “Soft” had come to mind, silky soft and golden skinned despite her scraped-up knee and the calluses he’d felt on her palm, and despite the strength of her grip when they’d shaken hands. She’d looked like a wet kitten, with her cropped blond hair sticking out all over and her gaze scrutinizing him from behind her rain-spotted, wire-rimmed glasses. Amazon Annie, he’d heard her called before the unfortunate Woolly Monkey Incident, as the case came to be known. Afterward, she’d only been called persona non grata.
He’d been way upriver at the time, but he’d heard the stories when he’d returned to Manaus. She’d been kicked out of Brazil by then, but now she was back, her pale hair framing an urchin’s face with a freckled nose and cat’s eyes—hazel-green—none of which had been mentioned in the stories he’d been told. In them, fact and fiction had melded together to make her sound like one of the original Amazon warrior queens, not the small, intently serious woman who’d been staring up at him from where she’d stood in a puddle of mud with one of her shoes untied. She’d looked a bit scatterbrained, with pencils and a wet notepad sticking out of one of her pockets, soggy papers fanning out of the other, and a muddy magnifying glass hanging from a cord around her neck, but Will had heard enough about her to know she had a botanically brilliant mind. She’d collected plants for some of the most famous herbariums and research institutes in the world. He had noticed a small scar near her right temple and wondered if she’d gotten it in the incident. Apparently, there had been bloodshed all around.
The thought made him distinctly uncomfortable. In another environment, and a lifetime ago, he’d been as liberated as the next man, but upriver in deep jungle no woman was safe on her own. Someone as nubile as Annie Parrish was pure jaguar bait, with every man in the forest being the jaguar—himself included. The laws that governed civilized behavior started unraveling pretty quickly in the heat and humidity of equatorial Amazonas. About the only protection a woman could have was a gun, and everyone had said Dr. Parrish had used a pretty damn big one.
He grinned. It was a little hard to imagine. Wearing baggy cargo shorts with every pocket stuffed like a kid’s and a green shirt two sizes too big, she’d looked more like an underfed teenager than an Amazon. But she had known when to stop asking questions and get out of Pancha’s, and she hadn’t been frightened by Juanio and Luiz. She’d been curious, but not unnerved.
“Senhor,” Juanio called from back in the bar. “Vem aqui, por favor.”
Will gave a quick glance over his shoulder and saw what he’d been waiting for—a rolling mountain of a man and a package coming through the back door, Fat Eddie and his contraband, Will’s ticket to hell. He hadn’t wanted Annie Parrish in the cantina when the deal got struck, and it looked as if he’d gotten her out in the nick of time. He certainly hadn’t wanted to let go of her until she was out of Pancha’s. Juanio and Luiz weren’t quite as benign as he’d made out. He’d figured for a few minutes’ worth of conversation, keeping her close to him was enough to keep her safe.
He returned his attention to the street and waited until she reached the corner. Only after she was out of sight did he turn and walk back into the bar and realize that he was still smiling. Taking Annie Parrish to Santa Maria on his boat, the Sucuri, wasn’t going to be a problem. A paying passenger going upriver was always welcome. Wanting to take her farther than just up the river, however, might be a problem, and nothing could have surprised him more.
He didn’t remember sopping-wet ragamuffins as being his particular type, but he couldn’t deny that Dr. Parrish had held his interest. Fortunately, he’d heard enough about her to be cautious. As he recalled, it had been her lover that she’d shot.