Seventy-two hours after the briefing at the hotel, Danielle and the new NRI team were five hundred miles upriver, traveling aboard a diesel-powered boat called the Ocana, which was captained by a friend of Hawker’s. Known by the locals as a milk boat, because it delivered goods to the smaller settlements up and down the river, the Ocana had a wide deck, a pointed bow and plenty of fuel for the journey there and back. What it didn’t have were cabins or other accommodations, and the group stopped each night to camp along the riverside, as much to get off the claustrophobic boat as anything else.
During the day, however, they chugged upriver, spread out on the boat as best they could. The group numbered fourteen, including Pik Verhoven, his four South African mercenaries and a trio of Brazilian porters to help with supplies and equipment.
With snow white hair, a ruddy, tanned face and a scar that twisted across it like a broken strand of barbed wire, Pik Verhoven was a menacing sight. Six foot one and two hundred and forty pounds, he didn’t walk as much as lumber, allowing others ample time to clear his path. Those who stood too close might end up with a none-too-subtle glare, an awkward bump or at least tobacco juice stains on their boots as well-aimed spittle was fired from the ever-present chaw in his mouth.
Aside from Danielle, no one seemed eager to interact with either Verhoven or his men any more than necessary. Even Hawker, who knew Verhoven from his days in Africa, did little but glare at the man.
Danielle had been told Hawker and Verhoven had worked together before Hawker’s fallout with the CIA, and that bad blood lingered between them. All she could get from Verhoven on the matter was a grunt of dismissal and a statement alleging that she and the NRI must have been “scraping the bottom of the barrel” to hire Hawker.
Hawker’s response was more verbal, if no less hostile. “The man is a son of a bitch,” Hawker had explained, “and he’s sure as hell no friend of mine. But then, that’s not what you hired him for, is it?”
Her sense of Hawker’s response was that woe would befall anyone foolish enough to get in Verhoven’s way, possibly including him, but especially anyone that might attack her team. It was a fact she took comfort in, even as the unease between the two men lingered.
With this divided dynamic in place, the Ocana traveled to the northwest, branching off the Amazon and tracking the dark tannin-stained waters of the Negro, following the path that Blackjack Martin had once taken. As they moved farther into the rainforest, Danielle felt herself growing more focused. She spoke less and became suspicious of everything around her: a strange glance from one of Verhoven’s men, an aircraft that crossed almost directly above them and seemed to linger for a bit too long.
She told herself to relax; it was important that she rein in her emotions, or risk telegraphing the stress to the others. It was an effort that had worked for most of the morning, but one that was suddenly tested by a strange object floating in the river ahead of them.
There was nothing overtly dangerous about what she saw, but something struck her as odd about the shape and the way the leaves and other debris had gathered around it. Try as she might, Danielle was unable to shake the feeling that it was an ill omen of some kind.
“Cut the throttle,” she called back. “There’s something in the water.”
Her shout brought the others to attention. Verhoven caught her eye and began to move to the forward section of the boat.
“You see it?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“Block it before it passes.”
As Verhoven grabbed one of the boat’s long oars, a crowd gathered beside them.
Behind her, the boat’s captain cut the throttle and turned the Ocana sideways. As the vessel settled, the floating object bumped softly against the port side. Verhoven trapped it.
First glimpses surprised them all. “Oh, that’s disgusting,” Susan said.
For those who couldn’t see, Danielle spoke. “It’s a body.”
It was the body of a native man, facedown in the water, surrounded by a tangle of branches, leaves and other flotsam. The lower half of his torso and his legs disappeared beneath the surface, leaving only the back of his head and his shoulders visible.
“Can you clear him?” Danielle said, her tone calm but concerned.
Verhoven used the the oar to scrape off some debris, pushing away a tangle of sticks that had hooked onto the man and then turning his attention to a three-foot log that floated near the man’s head. He shoved it with the oar and it moved away, but the body jerked along behind it and the man’s hands floated to the surface. A thin length of twine connected each wrist to the branch.
Verhoven fired a shot of tobacco juice over the side. “He’s tied to the damn thing.”
Danielle could see the lengths of crude native rope that ran to each wrist. It was not a good sign and truthfully not something she would have wanted any of the others to see.
But they did see, and like onlookers at a car crash, they rubbernecked for a better view, watching as Verhoven used the oar to try to maneuver the log further. As Verhoven worked, the body twisted and rolled, eventually turning faceup. The onlookers stared in silence. The brown face, with a frame of wet, black hair, appeared relatively untouched by whatever had killed him, but the torso carried scars from a variety of assaults: two great holes in the chest, a pair of long slashes that ran from his left shoulder down across his stomach, and a group of bulbous swellings—spherical blackened blisters the size and shape of half a grapefruit.
Polaski asked the question on everyone’s mind. “What on earth happened to him?”
Verhoven shook his head. “Too big. Can’t make a hole like that without blasting a train tunnel out the back side. And I didn’t see any exit wounds.”
Verhoven offered a guess. “Looks like he was impaled on something. A couple of blows from a sharpened stave, maybe.”
Danielle needed a better opinion. She crouched at the edge of the Ocana’s deck and studied the holes in the chest herself. There was damage to the man’s skin that indicated movement both ways. “Something went in and then came back out,” she whispered. “It didn’t go through.”
Behind her the deck became crowded as the others moved in for a better view.
“What about those?” Devers asked, pointing to the blackened swellings. “I mean, please tell us it’s not Ebola or anything.”
Some of the blisters displayed ragged tears, as if they had exploded. Others showed a cleaner cut, as if they’d been lanced on purpose, perhaps to keep them from breaking. At that moment she wished they had brought a doctor along, but another civilian was one too many. The limited medical training the NRI had given her and a degree in biology would have to suffice. “There’s no discharge,” she said, moving in closer and sniffing the air. “No smell of infection either.”
In fact, there wasn’t much odor at all, which led her to believe the man died quite recently, probably within the last twenty-four hours.
“It looks more like a reaction to something,” she told them. “Like a chemical burn or a raised welt from being struck.” She wondered if the skin and tissue had swelled from being in the water. She turned to Devers. “And, besides, Ebola is only in Africa.”
Devers nodded, moving closer. “Good to know. Ebola, permafrost—I’m learning all kinds of things on this trip.”
Uncomfortable with Devers’ crowding presence and his babbling, Danielle stood up, put a hand on him and pushed him back with the rest of the crowd. “Stay,” she said, glaring at him, then turned to Verhoven. “Can I see his legs, please?”
The request was easier asked than answered. Verhoven was using his pole to keep the body from floating away, and each time he released the pressure, the slipstream that had formed on the side of the boat began to move it. He turned to one of his men. “Get another pole.”
Verhoven’s lieutenant grabbed an oar and worked to leverage the dead native’s legs to the surface, but it was a struggle, and it took a minute before they realized why: his legs were tied to a small net full of flat stones.
“Hell of a way to treat a man,” Verhoven said, spitting to emphasize the point. “A buoy to keep him afloat and a weight to keep his legs down. Boy must’ve pissed in the wrong chief’s pot.”
Verhoven’s lieutenant appeared disgusted. “Goddamned natives,” he mumbled.
By this time McCarter had moved up beside Danielle, careful not to invade her space. “That’s right. Civilized men never do anything like this.”
The man started to respond, but a stern glance from Verhoven stopped him, and McCarter knelt beside Danielle to help her examine the body. They studied the twine where it wrapped the wrists; there was some discoloration but little indication of rubbing or friction. “I think he was tied up after death,” he said. “He doesn’t seem to have struggled against the rope.”
“Killed first, then tied up,” Verhoven said. “Seems an odd way of doing things.”
“Well, it looks like he’s been clawed too,” Polaski added, pointing to the long parallel slashes. “Perhaps he was killed and tied up for the animals as some kind of offering.”
McCarter shook his head. “Never heard of anything like that from an Amazonian tribe. Besides, if an animal got to him I’m guessing he’d have been eaten.”
Danielle stayed out of the discussion, trying to think. The traders she and Moore had spoken with often told stories about the different tribes, many too outlandish and absurd to believe. Spice for the foreigners to buy perhaps, but most genuinely feared the Chollokwan. And the stories about them always seemed to involve strange mutilations like this one—bodies burned, impaled and hacked up; men who hunted men in conjunction with the animals of the forest: the Shadow Men of the pestilence.
As she stared at the round face, she thought of Dixon and his missing squad. They were well trained and heavily armed but still missing. She wondered if they’d find those men floating and mutilated farther upriver somewhere. She hoped not, for every reason under the sun.
Even as Danielle considered this, the others were overcoming the initial shock of the discovery and giving way to a morbid curiosity. Various theories began flying back and forth. After several minutes even Hawker came forward. He appraised the body for only a moment.
“Wonderful,” he said sarcastically, and then turned to Devers. “Can you tell what tribe he’s from?”
The dead man was naked, with no identifying marks or jewelry of any kind. “No,” Devers said. “Why?”
Hawker nodded into the distance ahead of them. “Because they seem to be as interested in him as we are.”
Danielle looked up to see a trio of native canoes being rowed frantically toward them. There were two men in each boat, paddling furiously and shouting as they approached. Their pace was almost panicked and their voices were filled with a mad fury, every ounce of it directed toward the Ocana and its spellbound passengers.