TL sat at the head of the long metal table with Parrot to his left. Jonathan, our physical-training instructor, sat at the other end. David rolled a leather chair out in his usual spot to the right of TL, and I made myself comfortable beside Parrot.
If history repeated itself, TL was about to take Parrot’s monitoring patch. At least that was what happened with me, Wirenut, and Beaker the first time we met TL down here away from the others.
When we first got recruited by the Specialists, TL had required each of us to wear the flesh-toned tracking device. He kept tabs on us everywhere we went. Even the bathroom. I still cringed at that thought.
To my knowledge only Parrot, Mystic, and Bruiser still wore theirs. He’d taken mine, Wirenut’s, and Beaker’s right before sending us on our first missions.
And since I was in here with Parrot, that meant I was probably going with him.
Inwardly, I sighed, although at this point it really didn’t surprise me. So much for working from home base, as TL had originally promised me.
TL closed the folder in front of him and looked up. “What can any of you tell me about the Junoesque Jungle?”
Suddenly my mind zinged back to when I was nine years old, the year I tested out of eighth grade. “We had completed a whole unit on the Junoesque Jungle in my science class,” I replied. “There are three hundred species per every two acres, more than any other area in the world. Five species of plants that exist there are bougainvillea, curare, coconut tree, kapok tree, and strangler fig. Some of the animals that live there include chimpanzee, tamarin, harpy eagle, kinkajou, silvery gibbon, and toco toucan. Of course I wouldn’t know a kinkajou from a gibbon if one walked right up to me and slapped me in the face.”
I swept a proud smile over everyone in the conference room, then slowly realized from their perplexed looks that, once again, I’d made a complete nerd of myself.
TL’s lips twitched. “Your science teacher would be proud.”
Everyone chuckled, and I joined in. Joke’s on me. I mean, really, what was the point of getting embarrassed? They expected this stuff from me.
“Yesterday afternoon,” TL began, getting everyone back on track, “in Rutina, South America, a sixteen-year-old girl walked out from the Junoesque Jungle and onto an excavation site. She was carrying only one thing.”
He pointed a remote to the wall-mounted screen behind Jonathan, and he scooted out of the way. A picture of an old vase flashed into view. “Parrot, do you know what this is?”
Parrot didn’t answer at first as he studied the screen. “That can’t be the Mother Nature vase.” He looked at TL. “I thought that was a Native American myth.”
TL nodded. “Not anymore. What do you know about it?”
“I know that it’s a centuries-old artifact believed by many native tribes to control Mother Nature.”
TL zoomed in on the brown, weathered pottery. “Exactly. This vase is believed to control the elements. It gives the one who holds the vase the power over nature. It is coveted by various Indian tribes.” The vase rotated slowly on the screen. Cracked, and missing chunks, the vase was divided into four sections, each engraved with symbols and pictures.
TL froze the screen on one of those sections. “Notice this is a rough depiction of rain. The symbols above and below the rain are a prayer. Whatever it is a tribe needs, they say the prayer corresponding to the picture.”
The vase rotated again, showing us the other roughly chiseled pictures of nature: the sun, a gust of wind, snowflakes, and again the rain.
“How big is it?” David asked.
TL referenced his notes. “It holds approximately a pint of liquid.”
A slender Junoesquian girl appeared on the screen, standing with the jungle at her back. She wore a white cotton dress with tiny blue flowers embroidered on it. Her long black hair hung straight down her back. Leather straps attached to the sandals on her feet and crisscrossed up her calves.
As deep blue as my eyes were, hers ran the opposite spectrum. Their icy color contrasted dramatically with her dark skin and hair. Her eyes held uncertainty, and her slight smile spoke hesitance and shyness.
She was beautiful.
Before joining the Specialists, I’d never paid such close attention to a person’s physical details. I’d never searched for answers in their eyes and smile. It was incredible how much I could learn about someone by observing them.
“This is Jaaci,” TL explained. “She’s the only surviving member of the Muemiraa tribe. She’s lived in the Junoesque Jungle her entire life.”
I leaned back in my chair. “This is the girl who found the vase?”
“Yes.” TL folded his hands on top of the table. “Here’s where things get tricky. This vase has popped up here and there throughout history. Roughly a century ago it disappeared, seemingly into thin air. It has been a much sought after artifact. And numerous different tribal nations have it documented as being in their possession at one time or another.”
TL nodded toward the screen and the picture of Jaaci. “On her father’s death bed, he told her about this vase and where it was hidden. He told her to locate it and, once she did, to pay homage to the Muemiraa gods by finding the ocean and throwing it in to reunite the vase with its creator.”
“Find the ocean and throw it in?” I couldn’t imagine living in the jungle my entire life and my dying father telling me to find the ocean.
Would that be left or right, Dad?
“I suspect her father knew that if the vase got into the wrong hands, it would be used for evil. The vase is intended to work with nature, not control it.” TL stood. “But when she walked from the jungle she strolled straight onto an excavation dig. One thing led to the next, and now the whole world knows about this.”
He got up and made his way around the table. “As I mentioned before, the vase is centuries old. Documentation shows fifteen different tribal nations have held the artifact at one time. No one can prove they are the rightful owner, but they all want to be. Legend has it that whoever owns the vase prospers beyond imagination and never suffers again. Here’s where the Specialists come in, and here’s where I hand things over to Jonathan.”
TL gave the remote to Jonathan, and he stood. “I spent a number of years in the jungles of South America, including the Junoesque Jungle, as a warfare specialist with the IPNC. I know most of it like my childhood backyard. A few of the tribes involved are violent rivals. TL and I have discussed things and have decided I’ll be point man on this mission.”
TL took his seat. “Jonathan will be in charge. I’ll provide assistance from home base, which will give me time to wrap up a few other things and attend some meetings with prospective Specialists’ clients.”
This would be weird. I’d never been on a mission without TL. I wondered what type of leader Jonathan would be.
He’d gone on the Ushbanian mission as my modeling agent. I smiled a little as I recalled our disguises—me as the spoiled model and he as my boisterous agent. He’d worn a different colored eye patch to match every colorful suit and had buffed his bald head every morning. Other than on that mission, I’d never seen him wear anything other than PT clothes.
Looking at him now, all big and bald, with his black eye patch, I found it hard to conjure up his colorful side. And he’d done it so well.
My gaze drifted to his black eye patch, and I wondered, not for the first time, what had happened to his eye.
Jonathan pressed the remote, bringing my wandering thoughts to attention. Three rows of five pictures each appeared on the screen. All head shots of tribal men. “These are the leaders of the fifteen tribes as they appear in their ceremonial garb. In four weeks they will meet in Rutina, South America, to decide who gets the vase. The North and South American Native Alliance has hired us to provide translation services for the talks and to guard the vase. Each chief is allowed to bring one representative with him from his own tribe.”
While Jonathan read off the names of each tribe and its chief, I studied the pictures.
. Those two words popped into my head first.
Their ages ranged from forty on up. The oldest one looked to be over ninety. None of them smiled.
Some wore their hair in a long braid, others cropped short, a couple were bald, a few wore traditional head pieces, and one had a Mohawk.
None had beards or mustaches, but some displayed facial tattoos, and others nose or ear piercings.
A man along the bottom row drew my attention more than the others. He had a Mohawk and stripes tattooed down his chin.
It wasn’t the Mohawk or even the bold stripes that made him stand out, although they did add to his uniqueness. It was the look in his eyes. Stern, like the others, but with menace. Like an I-wouldn’t-want-to-be-in-a-dark-place-with-him kind of menace.
“The talks will take place on impartial land occupied by the Huworo tribe. They have no documentation that links them to the vase; therefore, their land is considered neutral territory.” Jonathan ran his hand over his bald head. “Parrot, this is your first mission. You will go to this meeting as the official translator. There is no technology allowed. As I’ve already mentioned, each chief will have a personal representative with him. This person knows both English and their chief’s native tongue. You, Parrot, will listen to the chiefs speak in their language, translate to English for the personal assistants, and the assistants will translate into their chief’s language. There will be ten different dialects and indigenous languages spoken; you are familiar with six. You have four weeks to learn the remaining four.”
I blinked. Four weeks to learn four languages?
Was that even possible?
Parrot cleared his throat. “Sir, can someone else do this? Another agent?”
Jonathan took his seat. “No one has your linguistic brilliance. No one’s of Native American descent. Only a Native American translator is allowed at this meeting.”
Parrot nodded but showed no expression.
Why wasn’t he excited? He was going on his first mission. And not any old mission, either. One that would take him back to his roots, his people.
TL folded his hands on top the table. “Parrot, I know you have a history with one of those men up there.” He paused. “So does Jonathan.”
Parrot snapped surprised eyes to Jonathan.
“I was there that day. On that Venezuelan runway. I was the guy in the cowboy hat and dark sunglasses.” Jonathan adjusted his eye patch. “I spent a good number of years on that case. Because of you, we made significant headway.”
Parrot stared at Jonathan, dumbfounded.
were they talking about?
“Parrot, you’re a different person now,” David added. “You can do this.”
TL cupped Parrot on the shoulder. “You need to put the past behind you.”
With a nod, Parrot dropped his gaze to the table.
I stared at his bowed head and the black shininess of his hair. My mind whirled with questions. Which man on the screen was TL referring to? Had something happened between the chief and Parrot? Or maybe Parrot had lived on one of those chief’s reservations. Was whatever happened the event that had led the Specialists to him? And what was this about a Venezuelan runway?