Cover Art copyright 2010 by Stella Price.
“Come on, girl, give me something.” Kate leaned over the Jeep’s console to get closer to Beth, as though spicy details might be easier whispered than spoken as they bumped along the jungle trail at fifteen kph. She had been prodding for some all morning.
Immediately on their return the first day, the entire compound guessed what had happened between Carlos and Beth. And any doubts which may have lingered were put to rest when he moved into her room the same night. For the last two weeks, they’d spent every moment together, until yesterday. He couldn’t put his rounds off any longer, he’d said. He’d be gone a few days.
Kate simply took advantage of the opportunity to get Beth alone by volunteering them to drive into town for supplies. “Don’t be so selfish. Since you’re the only one getting any around here, we all have to live vicariously through you.”
Beth didn’t fall for Kate’s pitiful attempt to wring details from her. “Jean-Paul likes you.” She grinned. “He’s cute. And the accent–très sexy. He’d make a great fuck-buddy.”
“Pfah,” Kate puffed as she sat back in the passenger seat. “Wake up, Beth. Jean-Paul likes you. He just knows better than to try competing with Tarzan. I’m not desperate. So, tell me,” she said, turning back to Beth, “is he as good as he looks?”
Beth smiled a secret smile. “He’s as good as it gets and that’s all you’ll get from me.”
The road took a tight turn around a rise, forcing Beth to brake. A moment later, they came to an abrupt halt as the front end of the Jeep slammed into a downed tree. Beth caught herself with a hand to the dash, but her chest hit the steering wheel, knocking the breath from her.
“Damn,” Kate said. “And I so looked forward to getting my hair cut.”
“We have to turn around. Now.” Beth gripped the wheel until her knuckles hurt. If these guys wanted to spring a trap, they couldn’t have picked a better spot.
“There’s no place to turn around,” Kate muttered, catching some of her nervousness.
“How are you at backing up? I could get out and direct.” Hopeful, Beth glanced at Kate for an answer and found her staring wide-eyed over Beth’s shoulder. A second later, something cold and hard poked the side of Beth’s neck. Her heart leaped into her throat, but she focused on the gun with perfect clarity and swallowed the fear.
“¡Salga! Get out the car,” a heavily accented voice said near her ear. “¡Ándale.” The man stepped back. Both women scrambled to the ground.
Before turning to face the gun, Beth glanced up at Kate where she stood stock-still at the passenger side. Even wide-eyed and afraid, she appeared to be calculating her options. Kate being Kate, Beth felt sure she’d make some kind of move. She cleared her throat to get her friend’s attention and mouthed “no.” She wanted only to get out of this in one piece.
The gun swung a few inches, pointing the way to the compound, then back to Beth’s face. “¡Vaya! Walk.”
Carter would not be happy losing the car, but Beth didn’t expend too much energy worrying. She reached into the bed of the Jeep for her pack without taking her eyes from the man.
He waved the gun at her. “No. Go.”
Damn, she needed the things in her pack–her camera, her ID, her birth control pills, for God’s sake. Things not easily replaced in the middle of the jungle without transportation. Though she didn’t think he would use the gun, she wasn’t about to argue with it either.
“Let’s go, Kate,” she said and turned into the chest of a second poacher. She tried to go around. Big as a bear and smelling like one, he grabbed her wrist and shoved her against the tailgate of the car.
“Where is your boyfriend today, chica?” The idea this man had been watching them sent shudders through Beth. What did they want with Carlos? She shrugged and didn’t answer.
The first said some angry words in Spanish. Big Guy answered without taking his eyes off her. Beth stood squashed between the back of the Jeep and his unwashed body, quietly dreading the argument’s end.
Movement in the corner of her eye drew Beth’s attention. She turned her head in time to catch Kate running toward them. Every instinct told her to call out, to stop her friend from doing something which might anger these desperate men even further, but her voice stuck in her throat.
Kate shoved Beth’s captor hard enough to make him stumble. “Leave her alone. We’re going.” She took firm hold of Beth’s arm and pulled her away from the car.
As Beth slipped past him, Big Guy snatched her arm away from Kate and twisted her to the ground. At the same time, he thrust Kate at his partner.
The smaller man held her roughly against his chest, still arguing, still waving the gun.
Then Kate screamed.
A black streak passed behind Beth. The man pinning her to the ground disappeared with a grunt.
Freed, she turned and stared, transfixed for a second, as the cat tore at him. The urgency of their situation cut her interest short. She scrambled to her feet in time to see Kate shoulder her stunned captor aside, knocking the gun from his hand.
Beth kicked the weapon under a shrub at the side of the track. She followed Kate’s trail into the relatively sparse growth beneath the canopy. They ran.
Behind them, the man’s screams cut off.
They wove through the trees in the almost dark. The monkeys’ frantic hooting made it impossible to hear if anyone followed.
The cat roared, much closer than Beth expected.
Kate cried out. Beth slowed to a stop, looking over her shoulder, terrified she’d find the cat attacking her friend.
Kate sat, legs splayed, on the ground where she’d fallen, safe for the moment. She stared back the way they’d come, her expression confused and frightened. Beth followed her gaze.
Carlos strode toward them from the shadows. Speechless with relief, Beth spun on her heels and ran to him.
He stopped where Kate sat and bent to offer his hand.
Kate gaped at him, her face a mask of confusion. “B’alam,” she said. She took the hand he offered and let him pull her to her feet as Beth walked up.
“Are you okay?” Beth asked. Had Kate bumped her head when she fell? What did she say?
Kate blinked a few times, never taking her eyes from Carlos. Her confusion turned to awe.
“You’re naked,” she said.
His gaze fixed on her, but he made no comment.
Beth said as calmly as she could manage, “Carlos, poachers…two at least. The cat attacked. He must be near. Why are you naked?”
“I took care of the poachers.”
“He’s the cat.”
“You took care of them? Are they dead?”
“No, running for town.” His eyes, still locked to Kate’s, filled with despair.
“Did you hear me, Beth? He’s the cat.”
Beth gaped at her like she spoke some obscure language.
“B’alam,” Kate said. “Leave it to you to get a god to fall in love with you.”
“I don’t understand. Carlos, what is she talking about?”
Carlos turned sad eyes to her. “I’m so sorry, querida. You were never to see this. Talk to Kate. She can tell you what she knows. I should go now.”
“You mean I’m right?” Kate said. “Don’t go. I have a million questions. How old are you?”
“Older than I look. Beth, forgive me. I will go now.”
“No, Carlos. Wait!”
He walked three steps and his body began to contort. A scream developed in Beth’s throat and stuck as his legs shortened, back lengthened. When the cat stood before her, it glanced back. All that remained of Carlos was the eyes.
“Jesus,” Kate said.
Beth felt her legs give way, then nothing.
* * * *
She came around slowly to the sound of Kate calling her name. When her eyes finally opened, her friend’s worried face looked down at her.
“Are you all right?”
Beth shook her head. She was far from all right, but couldn’t put two thoughts together coherently enough to voice it. With no energy to protest, she let Kate help her to her feet and walk her back toward the road in silence.
The Jeep was where they’d left it, but turned around facing the way they’d come. Both their packs lay in the back undisturbed.
Without a word, Beth climbed into the passenger seat. If Kate didn’t feel up to driving, they would have to sit here until she did. Beth had no desire to get behind the wheel, or to hurry back to the compound.
Kate started the engine right up. No one said a word for the hour drive back to where they’d started. Beth went directly to her room and lay in her hammock, leaving Kate to decide what to tell the others.
He’d warned her. She’d thought he wanted to hide the fact he’d been in prison, or had smuggled drugs in his sordid youth, or some other perfectly normal skeleton. That he wasn’t human–scientists’ minds did not go in those directions. He was beautiful beyond belief, but everything about him said man. He tasted like a man, smelled like one. Yes, he made her body sing like no man had before, but the only magic there was the magic in her heart.
Yet she had to believe what her eyes told her. As a scientist, she should want to explore, to find out why the impossible was, after all, possible. She didn’t, though. She wanted only to remember Carlos as he lay beside her after love, sweet and vulnerable, spent and happy.
The secret revealed. Carlos did not exist. She couldn’t think of him as he was, so she mourned what he wasn’t.
Later in the afternoon, Kate stopped at her threshold. She held a thick book much like the dozens of textbooks Beth had hoped never to see again after four years as an undergrad science major.
Beth roused herself, ready for answers.
Kate spread the book open on the small desk next to the window.
“Here he is.” She pointed to one of four statues pictured on a page of pre-Columbian art. “B’alam Agab, the night jaguar–supposedly one of the four progenitors of mankind–that’s the Maya legend. The Olmec, however…”
“Kate, you’re not talking hundreds of years here; you’re talking millennia.”
Kate glanced up. “Yeah.”
Beth skimmed through the passage next to the picture, then read it more closely. When she finished, she flipped the book closed and shoved it at Kate. “You can’t tell anyone.”
“Like, who would believe me?” Kate said, pulling the book to her chest. “I want to talk to him, though. Imagine the history he could clear up. Olmec! Beth, so little is known…”
“Anything he told you couldn’t be proved.”
“Well, I understand that. But you can’t expect me to stop wanting to know. That’s my job, right?”
* * * *
At breakfast, Carter clinked his cup for their attention.
“Carlos has been called away. He won’t be back,” he announced.
Everyone turned to Beth.
“What did you do?” Sam asked.
Kate stuck up for her. “Leave her alone. Beth didn’t do anything to make him go.”
“The situation was a disaster waiting to happen,” Sam said. “Just great, Beth. Now we don’t have a guide for a month until Antonio gets back.”
Look for the final chapter, Chapter 7, on March 9.
Thanks for reading.
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