Authors: Alex Scarrow
The oil-drum fire-pit roared and crackled as the pig turned on the spit above the flames, jetting squirts of bubbling fat into the blaze. The Zambu villagers had maintained a wary distance from them for the rest of the afternoon. But as the sun had settled, and the communal fireplace was stirred from slumbering embers to this roaring fire, so their caution had gradually melted away.
Maddy had patiently allowed a queue of children to play with her frizzy hair. Adam had done likewise, letting the same children squeeze, pull, twist and flick his tatty dreadlocks. Although, she noticed, his patience with that had given out pretty quickly.
Now, she was watching Liam dancing in circles in the glow of the fire with some of the young men. One of them had offered Liam a slurp of the foggy green liquid in his old plastic Pepsi bottle. He’d politely swallowed it, even though she could see he’d desperately wanted to spit it out. Billy told her it was an alcoholic brew the villagers made from cassava. Pretty rough stuff, he assured her, and pretty potent. Which kind of explained why Liam right now was stripped down to his waist and jigging around, performing something that looked a little like a Navajo war-dance.
Adam pitched up beside her. ‘You all right there?’
She nodded. ‘It’s actually quite nice here.’
The entire village had turned out this evening and were
gathered round the warm fire. Mothers with sons, grandfathers, daughters, fathers, sisters, friends, neighbours: one seamless extended family group. The smell of sizzling pork filled the air, and the jungle clearing echoed with a hundred different conversations.
‘How are the other two?’
‘They’re OK.’ Maddy had quickly wandered back down the trail earlier to check on Bob and Mr Pineda. They seemed to be getting on just fine in the back of his boat. Mr Pineda had cooked up some sort of bean mash and was attempting to teach Bob how to play poker.
‘Billy told me these people have had a hard time of it in the last two years. A band of rebels come by every few months. Help themselves to everything and anything they have. Completely clear them out. While they stay, the girls and young women have to hide away in the jungle … for obvious reasons.’
‘I can understand why they were wary of us then.’
They watched Liam for a while, attempting to stay on his feet as he danced. He fell over and the other young Zambu men dancing with him laughed. One of them helped him back up.
‘So you said earlier we need to go up a different river now?’
‘Yeah. The locals call it “Green River” because … well, the water’s green instead of brown, I suppose. It’s much shallower, though, more a stream really than a river. So, we’re going to have to leave the riverboat here and proceed in canoes.’
‘Sure you know the way there, Adam? To the cave?’
He nodded. ‘More sure now we’ve found this village.’ He tapped his backpack, his journal and notes bundled inside. ‘I only started making more comprehensive navigational notes from this point on. I was beginning to get worried Professor Brian was going to get us lost.’
‘So how far is it?’
‘Three days by canoe. Say, ninety miles? Then about a day’s trek on foot into the jungle. There are some Mayan-era ruins, which is where we were headed. We made camp there for a week, explored the site.’
‘And the cave’s there?’
He shook his head. ‘It’s nearby. You can see it from the ruins. There’s a mountainous ridge overlooking the site, quite distinctive, you really can’t miss it. Big cliff-face sticking out of the jungle and a winding walkway carved out of the rock.’
‘Wow,’ she smiled. ‘Sounds like quite a sight.’
‘It is.’ Adam looked across the fire at their guide. ‘What do you want to do about Billy and Mr Pineda?’
‘I think Billy should come along with us – after all, he’s got a gun. He can stay with us until we find those ruins? Then I’ll send him back with the canoes. He can head back here. Then he and Mr Pineda can make their way back up the Coco to San Marcos de Colón.’
‘Won’t he find that odd? You instructing him to abandon us in the middle of the jungle?’
She shrugged. ‘Probably. I guess I’d better think up a reason why we’ll be OK without him guiding us back out.’
‘Good luck with that.’ He had a thought. ‘You sure your beacon thing is going to work?’
Maddy absently felt for the small device in the thigh pocket of her khakis. The very same design that they’d used to track Liam and Rashim across the Atlantic and through two hundred years of time.
‘It works just fine, Adam. Trust me, we’ve field-tested it.’
‘Is there a way to check it’s working “just fine” … you know …
we abandon our only ticket back out of the jungle?’
Maybe that would be a sensible precaution. Just to be on the
safe side, she’d activate the beacon and when she got a sign back from Rashim that he was picking it up OK she’d give Billy his instructions.
She glanced sideways at Adam. He now seemed amused and engrossed in the antics of Liam and the other young Zambus. Liam had in the last few minutes decided to teach them the conga, and now he was leading a winding snake of young men and children around the clearing …
That’s it! Let me hear you!
One-and-Two-and-Three … HEY!
Legs kicking out to one side.
One-and-Two-and-Three … HEY!
Legs kicking out to the other.
C’mon! Who else wants to tag along on the end!!
Her eyes were back on Adam, who was laughing at Liam’s buffoonery. By the dancing light of the fire she saw a hint of the self-assured man he would one day become, the well-groomed Wall Street data-security specialist. She wondered what exactly it was she was feeling for him.
A crush? Do I fancy him? Is it more than that?
She didn’t have an answer. Just that when she’d first decided they needed to go back to 1994 to enlist his help, she’d felt the tickling flutter of butterflies in her stomach.
She wondered if his life would take the same path now. Back in New York, the last time they’d encountered him, as he’d worked with her for a couple of days to unravel the Voynich mystery, he’d told her how his whole career path had been driven by his need to meet her again. In 1994 he’d had a visit from two mysterious time-travelling strangers who’d left behind just one solitary piece of evidence that he hadn’t completely lost his mind – that ticket stub to a Manhattan nightclub, dated 9 September, 2001. For the sake of his
, everything he’d done since that
visit, every career decision he’d made since then, had been to ensure he would end up in New York, waiting outside that very same nightclub on
And those life choices, those career choices, had ended up placing him as a data-security consultant for Sherman–Golding Investment, on the ninety-fifth floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. And, of course, the way things were destined to go, it all ended with his dying along with three thousand other people on that horrific day.
But it was all different now, wasn’t it? Now they’d taken him along for this ride, presumably his life after this was going to take a very different route. All right, yes, there it was – a contamination of time of
doing. She was so used to berating Liam and Sal for wanting to save this or that person, because they were kind, or because they deserved a chance, or because they were cute, for God’s sake … now here she was being a complete hypocrite and doing exactly the same thing.
I might have just altered how his life will go. And that might change things.
Perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a
linked to that. It wasn’t too much to hope for that, was it?
It really all depended on whether their job was to preserve history – or change history.
The next morning Maddy rallied Billy, Liam and Adam. Liam emerged from a rain-damp shack nursing a throbbing head. He blinked back the dazzling sunlight streaming down into the jungle clearing.
‘What … what the hell happened to me last night?’
‘You drank some of that snot-green jungle juice,’ she replied.
Liam shook his head. ‘Don’t say … please, don’t say words like that.’
He slumped down on to the stump of a tree. ‘At some point in the next few minutes, I’m rather sure I’m going to vomit.’
‘Good, it’s probably better out than in.’
The fire-pit was still smouldering despite the early-morning rain, several thin threads of meandering smoke half-heartedly racing each other for the sky. Coils of steam rose from the damp ground as the morning sun worked on baking it dry.
An early riser, Maddy had already been down to the boat to check on Bob and Mr Pineda. The riverboat pilot was asleep on his hammock, nursing his own hangover. Bob was sitting cross-legged on the foredeck, looking for all the world like a muscle-bound Buddha enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face.
Maddy regarded the pitiful sight of Liam now. ‘We’re heading off again this morning.’
‘Aye. All right.’ He nodded, his head ducked between his knees and waiting for the inevitable.
‘So if you could hurry up and empty your guts out, that’d be good. We’re going to be canoeing from here on.’
On cue he heaved. It was a wretched gurgling moan closely followed by a jet of propelled vomit, stained a vivid green – in places.
She patted his back gently if not entirely sympathetically. ‘There ya go.’
‘Wait, there’sh a little bit more …’ Liam convulsed again, heaved and jetted out another gutful on to the ground.
She curled her lip at the congealed steaming mess between his spattered feet. ‘You know? I guess I’ll leave you to it.’ She wandered across the clearing and found Billy emerging from a hut, stretching, yawning, then pulling on his threadbare khaki shirt. She heard a woman’s voice calling to him from inside.
I won’t ask.
‘Good morning, Miss Maddy!’
She explained to him what Adam had explained to her last night. What they needed: two canoes to take them up the Green River.
He nodded. ‘I will speak with village fathers.’
By noon they were nearly ready to get on their way again. The village elders had canvassed the younger men, and two had volunteered their canoes and themselves; both of them Maddy recognized as being among the crowd Liam had been teaching to conga.
She also discovered Mr Pineda kept a small 50-horsepower outboard engine in the shallow hold of his riverboat – for dire emergencies only, he’d immediately pointed out. She spent half
an hour cajoling him into agreeing to pull it out of the hold and let them take it with them.
‘Me ’mergency motor! Me lanch need that in case me diesel die!’
‘You’re not going anywhere, remember? You’re just waiting here for us.’
He shrugged and pursed his lips. ‘True,’ he finally conceded. ‘But
motor!’ he exclaimed, pointing out the obvious. ‘
canoe! How you gon’ make that work, sister?’
‘We’ll tow one.’
‘It just a small motor, sister. Very small …’
‘But big enough, it seems, for your launch,’ she replied, smiling. ‘In case of emergencies.’
Mr Pineda frowned. ‘You lose it, you break it … be extra I chargin’ you!’
‘Of course.’ She dug into her bag, pulled out her diminished bundle of notes and unfolded several fifty-dollar bills. ‘That’s to cover the engine, just in case.
I’ll pay you for your waiting time too, Mr Pineda. Pay you when we get back.’
‘How long that be?’
She clucked her tongue. ‘Say … about a week.’
He gave that some thought, then finally nodded. ‘Me lanch a busy boat this time of year. Week is a long time. You gonna need to pay me –’
‘Two hundred dollars be enough for your time and the motor?’
Mr Pineda’s disapproving frown vanished like a magician’s shiny penny. Instead he flashed her a broad grin. ‘Be waitin’ right here for you, sister.’
Half an hour later, a week’s worth of food and water had been loaded into the bottom of the canoes, the outboard motor had been clamped to the rear of one of them and several plastic gallon cartons of diesel had been stashed away. Then with the
exchanged, she watched Liam, surrounded by an adoring crowd of the village’s children, as he high-fived his way through a thicket of outstretched hands.
‘Jay-zus!’ he uttered as he clambered aboard.
‘Seems with all your clowning around last night, you turned out to be a big hit with the kids,’ said Maddy.
‘Aye. Maybe I’ll do that when I retire from the time-travel business: birthday parties and weddings.’
She laughed. ‘You seem a lot better now.’
He puffed queasily and made a face. ‘Next time someone offers me something I don’t know what it is … you step in on my behalf, all right?’
‘Pfft, you’re big enough to know better.’ She shook her head. ‘I’m not your mom.’
Bob pushed both canoes out, off the silt bank and into the gentle flow of the river. He pulled himself aboard the second canoe, joining Billy, Liam and one of the Zambu men. For now, with the flow in their favour, they were paddling. The outboard motor was for later on, when they turned right into the tributary and had to work upstream against the current.
She watched the village slowly recede behind them, a muddy bank lined with smiling faces, waving hands, voices calling after them and wishing them well, and for a moment her heart felt heavy leaving them behind.
‘They were really friendly to us strangers.’
Adam nodded. ‘God knows they’ve got reason not to be.’
‘Did none of them recognize you from your last visit? When was it … two years ago?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’ Adam shook his head. ‘Mind you, I looked completely different. My hair was all short back-’n’-sides. I was clean shaven like a preppy.’ He shrugged. ‘I probably looked like a bit of a trainspotter.’
‘A dork. A pencil-neck. A complete nerd.’
She nodded. ‘Oh, OK. I think I can see that.’
He smiled sarcastically. ‘Thanks.’
The sedate flow of the river carried them round a long bend and finally the village was lost from sight, the voices faded and the sound of the jungle once more filled the humid air and descended upon them like a blanket of thick felt.