Leslie Kicklighter

 

Leslie awoke to a din of animal noise coming from the jungle, a smell of wet, warm earth, and the sheet clinging to her with humidity. She didn’t want to get up, but even at this early hour, it was too warm to stay in bed. She brushed aside the mosquito net.

The room had looked more menacing when she arrived in the dark with nothing but candlelight and lamps to show her the way. Now bathed in early-morning sunlight, it appeared a bit cheerier. She was surprised by the beautiful cherry-colored wood of the floors and walls. In the corner hung a bright orange hammock and above her, the roof was a thick layer of palm fronds.

She had heard and read that the eco-resort was beautiful. That the rooms had been built with an open veranda facing the thick jungle for privacy and to give visitors a real sense of being in the tropical rainforest. Obviously, the locals had put a lot of thought and funding into this place. It catered to adventurers and science enthusiasts who wanted to experience the jungle as close as possible.

She was not, however, a fan of there only being three walls. The opening looked out to the jungle and allowed all that noise to wash into the room. It had also given the room a cave-like appearance at night.

Leslie stretched her jet-lagged muscles and swooped into a downward dog on the smooth floor. A gold-skinned grasshopper was ambling along near her. When she picked it up it didn’t try to escape, but let her set it outside her door. She didn’t want to accidentally step on it.

If she were home, she’d be going about her happiness-inducing morning trifecta. Basset hounds, checking social media, and setting off her coffee pot. The basset hounds, Donald and Daisy, were staying at her friend’s place in Albuquerque, probably sneaking onto her friend’s couch when she wasn’t looking. Leslie missed the troublemakers already. The internet wasn’t available here in the Amazon basin, far removed from normal civilization. But at least she could do something about the coffee.

And she really needed the coffee. Between the creatures chirping and whirring and moving in the trees outside, there had been a lot of strange noises during the night. When she slept, her nightmares had haunted her. The memory of Carol’s stricken face as the flashlight flickered and faded. Then, in the suffocating darkness, her friend’s voice slowly dwindling as her life left her. The sounds of the jungle and the unfortunate cave-like look of the room must have brought back the memories she had been avoiding. Leslie wasn’t sure she was ready to face those memories yet, and certainly not right now.

She dressed in lightweight khaki pants, a green tank top, and tennis shoes. While she deftly braided her long, brown hair and pinned it up and out of the way, she checked over everything she had crammed into her luggage. Her well-worn hiking boots, protective hiking pants and shirts, and wicking T-shirts next to fancy shoes, dresses, and her skimpy silk pjs. At least material-wise, she was prepared for the trip. She pulled out her journal and packet of pens and set them on the bed, partly to remind herself that she was here to write and investigate, not just take in the scenery.

But now to go take care of the reason she existed: Coffee. She headed to the hotel’s main building, connected to the bungalows by a series of wooden walkways. The walkways were suspended a few feet above the muddy ground, and the wood was beaded with water from last night’s rain.

The walk to the main house made her think of a botanical center. Here the jungle had been partially held back. Where trees had been cut down, now grew dense grass, flowering bushes, and in her short walk, she had already spied numerous and very different-looking mushrooms. All of which was surrounded by the dark, dense, and looming jungle of tall trees and small plants clinging to every available space of dirt and branch.

Entering the resort’s restaurant, Leslie passed into the only place with a generator to run the cool curtain of air conditioning. Instead of the steady sound of jungle, here were groups and couples hovering and talking around tables. Latin music was playing softly through a tiny speaker in the corner.

Not quite what one would think of as a restaurant, she thought. More like a high school cafeteria constructed of dark wood, big and open, with lines of long wooden tables, and a small beverage bar in the center. A sign in English stated, “Alcohol served at any time”. Although that would have been a pretty awesome high school cafeteria, thought Leslie.

She grabbed a coffee cup and helped herself to the coffee at the main table, then perused the handwritten menu. The place prided itself on fresh food and fresh ingredients. She could go for the American plate with steak and eggs, or for the Healthy plate with yogurt, cereal, and fruit. It was an easy choice.

“The American, please,” she said when the worker approached her. The woman then moved off to take the orders of a few others who had wandered in.

Leslie didn’t recognize anyone in the room, so she took a seat at an empty table. The coffee smelled so good, she quickly gulped it down, dashed up and got some more. Now she could take some time to savor it.

She had an urge to pull out a cell phone and check her social media. How she could use some Internet right now. Instead, she scanned the room for entertainment. Two men were seated at the only small table; two Bloody Marys sitting in front of them. They appeared to be getting into a heated argument.

The one facing Leslie, strangely but impeccably dressed in a dark gray suit, moved his arms in wide sweeps, and his handsome face was marred by an angry expression. Snippets of the conversation wafted to her like the occasional tantalizing scents of the restaurant’s food.

“It’s a simple enough request, Alejandro.” “I don’t see why you…”

The man with his back to her had a wide neck and short, graying hair. The light shade of gray formed a wave in his hair. He shook his head now and stood up, shoving his chair back. He turned and stalked past Leslie.

The man still seated ran his hand through his short, blond hair then leaned back and lifted a Bloody Mary to his lips. Even from across the room Leslie could see he had icy blue eyes that were now lasered in on her.

A small shock passed through her, but she made a point to smile. He smiled back.

She was relieved to hear a familiar, raspy voice coming from behind her.

“Leslie.”

“Jessup!” She jumped up and gave the older man a hug. She couldn’t help looking over his clothes, especially his garishly blue and orange shirt. “What’s up with the jeans and Hawaiian shirt? What happened to your leather pants and jacket?”

He cleared his throat, his voice a product of his many years of smoking. “It’s too damn hot for leather. For this vacation, I’m not the radio personality Jessup. I’m the mild-mannered version.”

She laughed. Mild-mannered my ass, she thought. Shaking her head she responded, “I’ve seen that video where you wrestle that guy half your age and you were already in your seventies then.”

He smiled wide, the lines on his face drawn deep and long. “Well, I’m not getting any younger.”

“Why don’t you join me for breakfast?” Leslie offered, taking note that the blond man was now standing at the bar just behind Jessup, his back to them. Getting another Bloody Mary, she thought. Not a bad idea.

Jessup sat down next to her but shook his head. “Thank you for the invite, but I only have a few minutes. I already ate breakfast and I have to find out who else is here.”

“So, you’re the one organizing everything?” Leslie asked.

He nodded. “It was a favor to the Captain. I used my connections and people I knew from my work on the radio to find adventurous souls willing to take on the trip of a lifetime. And, here we are.”

“I’m glad you’re coming.”

“I would never miss out on a trip like this.” His eyes lit up as he continued, “We’ll be the first, besides the archeologists from years ago, to see the ruins”—he pushed his index finger onto the table with each item—“and we’ll be among the few people to move into the unexplored parts of the Amazon. Plus, we get to go back to the ship every night for a little rest and relaxation and sleep in a soft bed. Now that’s my kind of vacation.”

“You’re not worried about problems with the tribes along the Amazon, or that others have disappeared in some of those areas we’re visiting?”

“That’s old news.” He waved his hand at her. “The last time anyone disappeared out there was over twenty years ago. Besides, we have a guide who’s been to those areas and never had a problem.” He leaned back and narrowed his eyes. “Are you trying to stir up trouble?”

She laughed. “Of course not. You know I’m writing about this for some magazines. I needed some backstory.”

He looked serious for a moment, not something she saw him do often. “Look, I know you’ve been holed up in your apartment for over a year. Are you ready for this? Are you worried about the trip at all?”

She shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Really. It’s about time I got out of my funk. And I have work to do for the magazines. I promised them a good story. Does the captain know I’m writing about this?”

“He not only knows, he asked for you specifically.”

“What? Why?”

He shrugged and stood to go. “I don’t know. I’ve known John a long time and he doesn’t always share information.”

Leslie’s food was delivered. Steaming steak and eggs made her stomach growl.

Jessup stood to go. “And with that, I will leave you to your repast. I have to go see if I can find Samantha Sorenson.”

Leslie did a double-take. “Samantha Sorenson? Please tell me this is not the self-prescribed celebrity. Spoiled and famous for nothing?”

Jessup nodded. “Well, she’s not quite famous anymore. I’m guessing she agreed to come, hoping that some publicity might come from this trip. And John, he’s fine having some big celebrity on board.” He made a mock salute, then dashed away.

Leslie was taken aback. She might not be a movie or TV star, but she was well-known for her adventures, articles, and presentations. As well as my latest failure, she thought.

When Jessup had asked her to come along, she figured this would be the perfect opportunity to move on and find a new direction. She did not need some spoiled woman making this trip difficult. The best she could hope for was that what she had seen on TV of Samantha Sorensen was just an act. Besides, if this trip was as easy as promised, it would be worth it.

From her purse, she pulled a faded drawing, scanned from a book she had happened upon in her research, The Spafford Expeditions. The drawing was by Benedict Cecil Spafford, a swashbuckling British explorer of the early 1900s, who had persevered to discover the very same ruins she would be seeing soon.

The image was of a pyramid in a state of overgrowth. In the drawing men were depicted like tiny ants, going through the motions of clearing away trees. Spafford had sent back reports to the Royal Geographic Society about the uncomfortable living conditions, although he noted he was glad there was a man to play viola at night, and he had reported that he thought he had found something amazing. At the bottom of the picture, Leslie had written a quote from his letters: “The largest pyramid has no marked way to enter. Is it to protect something inside? We hope to find the entrance soon.” He and his men were never heard from again.

It was believed that they had been captured by hostile natives. The ruins, far into the jungles, had not been revisited until almost one hundred years later by one Sun Castel and his brother Miguel. A reluctant but interesting man, Sun told National Geographic that the site was extremely difficult to get to, but that the natives who moved through that area were no longer hostile. Now it was within reach because of John Holbrook’s genius ship, which was designed to traverse air and the shallow water. Unlike in Spafford’s time, they wouldn’t have to trek through miles of jungle to reach it.

She had written John Holbrook’s name on the back of the photo, and in parentheses, the additional research she had found. It appeared he was a descendant of Spafford’s. Why he was choosing this route was something he hadn’t shared with anyone, but she at least had an idea.

Were you hoping to find something out here? she thought at John’s name. Then she flipped the photo over and looked at the pyramid. And what secrets, she wondered, lie within your walls?