Jungle Empire, a Novella: Part One
The sun hung low over the horizon, casting long shadows over New York City. The orange rays of light passed through the blinds of an office the size of a refrigerator box, illuminating a man of many talents. Detective Dirk Cunningham, as he fancied himself, leaned back in his chair, feet propped up on his desk.
He poured over the latest issue of Batman, taking in the caped crusaderâ€™s latest exploits. Between pages he sipped from a glass of ice tea, hoping to be disturbed. He was in the business of helping people, whatever that meant.
Just before he turned the last page, there was a knock on the door. He swiftly buried the book in his desk drawer, bringing out an empty whisky bottle and a few files full of blank papers. He carefully put away a half finished model airplane, and spread the decoy over his playing cards and comic books. As a finishing touch he placed the bottle in the centre of the display.
Then he leaned back, ice tea in hand, ready to face his customer.
â€œCome in,â€ he said, remembering to loosen his tie.
A shapely young woman, wearing a black dress no mother would ever approve of, pushed his door aside. She strutted into his office like she owned the place. A pair of dark eyes scanned him, and for a moment Dirk feared she might have seen through his faÃ§ade. He casually reached for the empty liquor bottle, taking the opportunity to make sure everything incriminating was concealed.
â€œMister Cunningham, I presume?â€ She asked.
â€œCall me Dirk,â€ he replied, grabbing his fedora from under the desk. â€œAnd you must beâ€¦â€
â€œTarcia Jones. We spoke a few hours ago, if I recall.â€
â€œAh yes,â€ Dirk murmured, running his fingers over an old rotary phone. â€œYou said something about a missing brother?â€
â€œYes,â€ she replied, â€œHe was leading an expedition in Belize, whenâ€¦â€
â€œAll communications were lost or he didnâ€™t return on time.â€
â€œHmm, you deduced this?â€
â€œSince youâ€™re here about a man missing in the jungle, it wasnâ€™t hard. Only a few ways to figure out he needed help, and since you didnâ€™t mention a distress call, that number was drastically reduced.â€
â€œMy, my, someone thinksâ€™ theyâ€™re quite clever, donâ€™t they?â€
â€œNaturally, though one might ask why you donâ€™t simply report him missing to the proper authorities?â€
â€œI put little trust in such men, as I find those with personal investment are more likely to produce results.â€
â€œOur plane leaves in an hour,â€ she stated, producing a ticket from her purse. â€œI trust youâ€™ll be there?â€
â€œGuessing no isnâ€™t an answer? Just let me make a phone-call to my guy down there.â€
As the plane began taxiing down the runway, Dirk felt a bit ill. Flying never felt natural to him, no matter how many times he had done it. Beside him, his client leaned back and relaxed, putting her nose into a paperback, unaffected by the dread that Dirk felt.
Or perhaps she was simply good at concealing it, he thought. Deep down he suspected that everyone felt as he did, as he believed the fear of heights to be universal. Hoping to distract himself, Dirk decided to interrogate his client.
â€œSo, Miss Jones, Iâ€™m going to need to know everything you know if you expect this venture to be successful.â€
â€œOf course,â€ She replied, producing a photograph of a young man in football gear. â€œThis is my brother, Michael.â€
â€œIf I may ask, what was he doing down there?â€
â€œAh, you see, our grandfather, Doctor Victor Eckhart, lead an expedition into the jungle in the winter of 1945. Not a trace was ever found, until a few years ago that is.â€
â€œThe journal of one of his colleges, Dr. Johan Krim, turned up,â€ she said, pulling out a photograph of a tattered book. â€œThereâ€™s a tale to be told of how it wound up back in our hands, but suffice it to say that when Michael got his hands on it, well, he got ideas in his head.â€
â€œApparently,â€ Dirk remarked. â€œHow long has he been missing?â€
â€œAt least two weeks, probably longer.â€
â€œA football player?â€
â€œNot anymore, bad back and such.â€
â€œWhat where they looking for, exactly?â€
â€œThe tomb of Mamintlallapalla, a mad Mesoamerican king.â€
â€œInteresting, he was a Mayanist? One of them, that is?â€
â€œOf a sort. My grandfather was interested in a number of legends, and was convinced that they possessed a power source of some kind. Something almost magical.â€
â€œâ€¦in his right mind? No doubt he was not, but, thatâ€™s ancient history. Right now I want to make sure history repeats itself.â€ Tarcia said firmly, â€œErm, does not, rather.â€
â€œAh, of course,â€ Dirk murmured, looking closer at the photograph. â€œThat, looks like German on the cover.
â€œIndeed, that would be because Dr. Victor Eckhart was German.â€
â€œHmm, wasnâ€™t a Nazi, was he?â€
â€œIâ€™d like to get back to the film,â€ Tarcia said quietly, turning away from him.
â€œI-I see. Erm, with any luck, weâ€™ll pick up on his trail in no time at all.â€
Dirk staggered out of the plan, glad to have his feet back on terra firma. Before he could lean down and kiss the tarmac, to fulfill the complete clichÃ©, another passenger brushed passed him, bringing him back to reality. He spun around and looked for his client, though it seemed Miss Jones was taking her time.
It was a painful three minutes before she emerged from the interior. She smiled at Dirk, wading down the stairs through the various flavors of tourists also trying to get the hell of the plane.
â€œGood of you to join me, Miss Jones.â€
â€œHope I didnâ€™t keep you long.â€
â€œNot at all, now, I need to make a phone call.â€
â€œHere, use my cell.â€
â€œIâ€™d prefer a land line; specifically a payphone in the terminal,â€ Dirk replied, â€œMy contact has a thing about anonymous cell phone calls.â€
â€œHe doesnâ€™t answer them. Ever.â€
â€œVery well, Iâ€™ll go procure us a taxi. Meet me out front in five minutes.â€
Dirk watched her walk around the end of the building, unable to shake the feeling that he had somehow upset her. The moment she vanished he ran into the terminal building, flashing his passport by the half asleep guard. Once in the sunny entryway, he began checking the payphones until he found one that still worked.
He slipped a coin in and punched his old friendâ€™s number. A few rings later and a half asleep barkeep was on the line.
â€œWho am I speaking to?â€
â€œTell Kantok that Dirk is on his way.â€
â€œYou mean Kantokâ€™?â€ The man croaked.
â€œYeah, him, gatta go.â€ He said hurriedly, spotting his client waving at him through the glass.
Dirk dropped the telephone back onto the receiver and sprinted out into the parking lot. Tarcia was waiting for him, strumming her fingers against the roof of their cab. Glad she had made good on her promise, he clambered inside, waiting for them to get underway.
â€œYou seem to be in a hurry,â€ Tarcia commented, sliding in beside him.
â€œI donâ€™t want to keep Kantok waiting.â€ he replied, leaning forward. â€œHey, cabby, make for Shoktzilâ€™s, down the highway.â€
â€œYou sure tourist?â€ The cabby asked surprised.
â€œCompletely, and Iâ€™m not a tourist, either.â€
The cabby shrugged and promptly floored it. Dirk was pushed back against his seat as the car flew out of the parking lot and veered down the main highway. Several unsafe lane changes and minor heart attacks later, the cab arrived at its destination.
Fearing for his life, Dirk promptly forked over the cash and made his escape from the vehicle. Moments later the car screeched back onto the roadway, returning to its prowl for victims.
â€œYou sure know how to pick them, Miss Jones.â€
â€œQuiet,â€ she advised, looking over the tavern. â€œThis is that place?â€
â€œI was afraid you would say that.â€
Shokztilâ€™s tavern had the appearance of a rotten log. The line of windows were either too dusty to see through or boarded up. The covered walkway along the front of the building was cracked and discolored, while the roof above sagged in the centre like a tarp held aloft by four broomsticks. Tarcia blinked, spotting several broomsticks buttressing the most rotten part of the roof.
â€œIâ€™ll lead the way then,â€ Dirk muttered, stepping through the door.
Inside was a dank atmosphere, reeking of stale beer and clamoring voices. Dirk Picked his way through the mess, looking for his contact. Near the end of the bar sat a tall man in a long brown coat. His locks of greasy black hair fell to his shoulders, almost concealing a scar across his neck.
As Dirk approached the man spun around, as if he had sensed him.
â€œHaha, Dirk, itâ€™s good to see you.â€
â€œHello Kantok. Youâ€™re looking better than the last time I saw you.â€
â€œWell, you know how things go. Who is the woman?â€
â€œAh, a rare pleasure,â€ Kantok said, gently grasping her hand, â€œSoâ€¦â€
â€œKantokâ€™, telephone,â€ the bartender said, pushing the receiver into his hands.
â€œSorry,â€ he mumbled, putting it to his ear. â€œH-hello.â€
Tarcia sighed, settling in for the long haul.
â€œYes-yes, I know thatâ€™s what Iâ€¦uh-huh. No really, I did not mean toâ€¦Yes, yes, Iâ€™ll make it up to you when I get back. I promise. No, I said I would probably read to you about the princesses tonightâ€¦probably, thatâ€™s what I said sweetie. Now, I have some businessâ€¦No, Iâ€™m not always on business, please, let your mother read to you tonight. Alright, alright, I promise, really and truly promise, love you.â€
Kantokâ€™ sighed, placing the phone down on the counter. He looked over at Dirk and Tarcia, smirking at them.
â€œMy daughter, sheâ€™s a determined one. Wantsâ€™ to hear about princesses and castles and knights, you know.â€
â€œIndeed,â€ Tarcia said quietly. â€œNow, how about we get down to business?â€
â€œSo, Mister Cunningham, Misses Jones, you require my services, yes?â€
â€œYes, we need to find my brother, Michael, and his expedition.â€
â€œSounds easy enough, where did they get lost.â€
â€œIn the northern jungles, they were searchingâ€¦â€
â€œNorthern jungles? No way.â€
â€œIâ€™m afraid thatâ€™s where we want to go,â€ Dirk interjected.
â€œYou donâ€™t want to go north, Mister Cunningham. Strange things have been happening up there.â€
â€œIâ€™m no stranger to strangeness, Kantok.â€
â€œThe Oketle Cartel in that area suddenly vanished about three years ago, and they never recovered from the loss. And just a few months ago, more cartel hideouts started vanishing, right around the time that electric prices plummeted.â€
â€œHuh, what does the disappearance of a few ruffians have to do with utility rates?â€
â€œEverything. The government is keeping quiet, but I know, I know theyâ€™re connected. Iâ€™d bet my lucky teeth on it.â€
â€œIf what you say is true, then itâ€™s all the more urgent we depart.â€ Tarcia insisted, pulling open her purse. â€œPerhaps some payment is in order?â€
â€œI-Wow, thatâ€™s a lot of money.â€
A stack of hundred dollar bills hit the table. Kantokâ€™ stared at it, tentatively rubbing it to make certain he was not hallucinating. He looked up into Tarciaâ€™s face, a wide grin breaking out across his face.
â€œAlright, you talked me into it. Letâ€™s find this idiot.â€
â€œThatâ€™s my brother youâ€™re talking about,â€ Tarica snapped.
â€œEh, fine, fine, as long as youâ€™ve got the money, Iâ€™ll give the man respect.â€
â€œI would hope so,â€ she muttered, making for the exit.
Kantokâ€™ downed a last shot of some yellow liquid before gathering up all his stuff. A knife, a mini-bottle of tequila, and a few sheets of paper, which he stuffed into his coat. With a twirl he popped his brown hat atop his skull and left the establishment.
Outside was his aged green jeep, the army green paint peeling off of the seams. He hopped into the driverâ€™s seat and gunned the engine. As they sped down the highway, Kantokâ€™ looked back at his passengers.
â€œWelcome to Belize, Misses Jones.â€
â€œA lovely country,â€ she replied, glancing at the wall of trees on either side.
â€œHow about being a bit more specific than, â€˜the northern junglesâ€™, eh?â€ He pushed a map at her.
â€œJust take me towards the border, off the main roads, Iâ€™ll know the way.â€
â€œSuit yourself, but we might have to charge extra if this takes too long.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry, everything will work out fine.â€
The aged jeep cairned off the main road and onto a disused logging path scarcely different than the forest floor around them. Gnarled, twisted trees fanned out in all directions, casting a gloom over the entire area. Barely a ray of the bright midday sun penetrated the dark canopy.
A strange discomfort came over Dirk, a feeling as though he was being drawn into something beyond a simple missing personâ€™s case. A moment later a cold .38 revolver was pressed into his hand. He looked up at Kantokâ€™, noticing an Enfield lying on the dashboard.
The discomfort had apparently come over his friend, as Dirk could not remember Kantokâ€™ breaking out the weapons so soon into a trek before. He carefully holstered the weapon, hoping it would not upset Tarcia too much.
Dirk was surprised again when he noticed Tarcia lazily reading a book. She seemed to be unaffected by the strange dread, and appeared quite relaxed. Something about this seemed wrong to Dirk, though he could not put his finger on what it was.
A loud curse from Kantokâ€™ interrupted his thoughts. An APC that stretched al the way across the road was bearing down on them. Dirk braced himself for a head on collision, knowing the odds of their survival were slim.
Kantokâ€™ swerved off into the foliage. The jeep jostled them around as it dodged around the ancient trees, the sky going dark above their heads. Dirk gripped his seat, bouncing up and down hard enough to rattle his teeth.
In seconds the detour was over. The jeep reemerged onto the trail, the APC now safely behind them. Relief spread through the passengers, Kantokâ€™ patting the steering wheel affectionately. Soon the feeling of relief faded, leaving Dirk oddly empty inside.
A few hours later a military truck appeared ahead of them. As they all reflexively braced themselves for another detour, Dirk noticed that no one was at the wheel. Kantokâ€™ Â let up on the gas, pulling alongside the vehicle.
The truck looked recently abandoned, though had no visible damage. Apparently hoping to find something of value still tucked away inside, Kantokâ€™ pulled up behind it and hopped out.
It was then that Dirk realized how comforting the hum of the engine had been.Â Silence fell over the area leaving a ringing in his ears.Â Unsure if remaining in the car or getting out would be less nerve wracking, Dirk pushed the door halfway open and left it there for a full ten seconds.
Only when Tarcia got out did he decide to see what Kantokâ€™ was up to .He approached his friend who was rummaging around in the cab. Hesitantly, Dirk tapped him on the shoulder.
â€œOoh, what do you want?â€
â€œFind anything helpful?â€
â€œA handful of bullets, a flask of something nice, and a few emergency meals,â€ Kantokâ€™ replied, holding out some of the spoils behind him. â€œAlso, a nice, government map.â€
â€œHere, take these back to the car, Iâ€™m going to get a siphon going.â€
Kantokâ€™ filled dirkâ€™s arms with about eight meals and shooed him away.
â€œShouldnâ€™t we get a move on?â€ Dirk replied, carefully ferrying the goods.
â€œAbout that,â€ Kantokâ€™ said, approaching the jeep, â€œMiss Jones, perhaps you could enlighten me as to where we are going?â€
â€œI told you, into the northern Jungles.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a direction, not a destination. There is one friendly village north of here that has petrol, so before we can plot our route, I must know what your grandfather trying to find.â€
â€œThe Tomb of Mamintlallapalla.â€
â€œThe mad Nahua king of the world? R-really, his mind was broken enough toâ€¦â€
â€œYou assured me that my payment would bring proper respect.â€
â€œMisses Jones, Mamintallapallaâ€™s tomb is suspected of being anywhere between Panama and Teotihuacan. How you expect us to locate him is beyond me.â€
â€œPerhaps, then, I should have sought a better guide.â€
â€œCan we all calm down,â€ Dirk said, walking between them. â€œMiss Jones, do you have anything to go on, anything at all that might narrow down our search area?â€
â€œIndeed, I have something,â€ she replied, pulling a folded sheet of paper from her purse, â€œThis is the last letter I received from him.â€
Kantokâ€™ snatched it from her and gave the letter a once over. Unimpressed, he flipped it back, shaking his head. Tarcia leapt forward, grabbing it before it hit the ground. She glared at Kantokâ€™, who simply smirked at her.
â€œBah, I donâ€™t believe a word of it.â€
â€œSuit yourself, but know that my grandfatherâ€™s discovery will shortly be known to the world.â€
â€œSuppose if youâ€™re this determined to waste your money, I might as well collect some,â€ Kantokâ€™ said, unfolding the map, â€œMiss Jones, Iâ€™ll take you on your wild goose chase, but I wonâ€™t be wasting more than three days on this venture.â€
â€œFine, by then youâ€™ll be convinced anyway.â€
â€œWhatever you say.â€