“A shame Mr. Callahan had to run.” Amina Patel stepped away from the wall where she’d been leaning and taking in the fascinating tale. Favoring the remaining gentlemen with a smile, she reached between them to tap out her cherry wood pipe in the ashtray.
The esteemed gentlemen rose as one, and she took a seat at the table. She accepted fresh tobacco from the man on her right, admiring the aroma of the blend. The man on her left offered a light.
Settling back in her chair, Amina savored the flavor for a few puffs. It matched the rich fragrance and didn’t disappoint. A smile touched her lips. “But if I may, perhaps you gents will enjoy my own tale of adventure.”
For all my twin brother’s (numerous) flaws, he’d never in all our thirty years missed our birthday. Our parents get credit for the first half of that accomplishment, but still, he’d never missed it. Not even when we traveled the world. He came to me, I went to him, or we met somewhere in the middle.
Until this year. And since we now lived practically in the same city, I knew something was terribly wrong. Because as talented as my brother was at finding trouble, Ali was even more talented at getting himself out of it. Normally.
I needed help, and I knew exactly who to ask.
As majestic as the ocean liner that had just arrived at the pier, Victoria sailed effortlessly through the milling crowd like a ship cut through waves. The moment I spotted her, I knew we’d find my brother.
Victoria had that effect on people, acquaintances and strangers alike. Victoria bent obstacles to her will like gales bent saplings.
Giving me a wave, she strode across the wharf as if she owned it—which, of course, she did—along with the rest of the shipping company and its fleet. A steward followed, pushing a trunk on a dolly.
Victoria smoothed her skirt as she marched forward. I snickered at the gesture—while still at a safe distance. Victoria hated bustles. Naturally she would never admit to such an impropriety, but we’ve been friends since before we could walk. She thinks her rear end is already quite large enough, thank you very much, that she does not need to call additional attention to it. She loves her three children dearly but, well, the ampleness of her backside is something she could do quite well without.
The pine green of her short jacket and long skirt matched her eyes. It also set off the red tresses piled high under the wide-rimmed, flower-strewn hat she wore at a rakish angle.
At the top of the riverboat’s gangplank, she snapped her parasol shut and laid it on the chest.
“Thank you, Mickey. Please stow that in my cabin.”
I shifted my weight as the deck bobbed beneath my feet. Our boat cast off as soon as Victoria was on board. An invisible cloud of lavender wafted around her, overpowering the salt in the air and the loamy jungle smells.
In all her finery, Victoria looked far too stylish for the jungle river. The jacket and gloves could stay, of course, although she knew my opinion on the silliness of white gloves in the jungle. But, as I had already done, she’d replace the skirt with trousers, and trade her fashionable boots with their laces and dainty heels for sturdy hiking boots. With great reluctance, she’d even forsake her famous headwear for the duration of our sojourn.
“Amina, dearest, you’re looking well.” Stretching on her toes, she kissed my cheek in greeting. “What has our rapscallion of a brother done now?” Victoria regarded me with her trademark look, red eyebrows arched high on her forehead and a wry twist to her lips.
Ali was actually her brother-in-law (courtesy of her younger sister) but Victoria counted him as a sibling.
“He didn’t show up last week.” That very day, I’d posted a letter to Victoria saying only, “Please come now.”
Victoria caught her breath, eyes wide. “Where do we start?”
“He and several ‘gentlemen’,” I used the term loosely, “hired more hands three months ago and went into the jungle at the trading post. No one saw them again until two weeks ago when Ali and one of his companions came and bought some medicine. That’s when he left me the note that this job wouldn’t be done as quickly as he thought, and not to worry that he wouldn’t be home for a few more months.”
“What kind of medicine?” Victoria’s alarm mirrored my original reaction.
“Poultice to put on open wounds and a draught to fight the fever. Plus they got plenty of bandages.”
“Obviously not for Ali, since he was the one who came to the post. I suspect they won’t yet be too far away from the post.” She sighed. “Something is amiss, and we’ll simply investigate until we find him.”
Amiss. Did I mention that Victoria also has a talent for understatement? “Let’s hope he was able to leave a trail for us to follow.”
“He is a clever lad. I’m sure he did.” She spoke with supreme confidence as always. “Excuse me please, dearest. I’ll return presently.” Victoria kissed me again and proceeded to her cabin.
I leaned against the rail, taking my cherry wood pipe from my pocket. I filled it with tobacco and lit it, enjoying the rich flavor and aroma as the Jungle Queen slid gracefully to the middle of the river.
By the time Victoria returned, we were fifteen minutes upstream. Her white blouse still crisp despite the early morning mist, Victoria looked utterly feminine even in her practical attire. I, on the other hand, well, let’s say my figure is far more lean than voluptuous and leave it at that.
None of the crew or other passengers dared say anything to her. Victoria was, after all, Mrs. Bartholomew Alan James Van der Witten III, the financier of the shipping line and owner of much of New London.
Our ferry, a steamboat with a huge paddlewheel at the stern, was christened the Jungle Queen in Victoria’s honor. She tolerated the homage, thinking it unladylike to admit being pleased at such an outlandish thing but even less genteel to protest. The Jungle Queen voyaged weekly between New London and New Staffordshire, the only two oases of civilization within hundreds of miles. New London lay directly on the coast, a thriving port city that mostly served the ocean traffic. New Staffordshire had, thanks to a nearby mine, managed to take hold and prosper two days inland at a fork in the river.
“Dearest, please put that thing away. It’s unseemly for a lady.”
I grinned at her and she rolled her eyes at me, both of us knowing full well no one would ever confuse me with a lady. Still, I’d timed my smoke to be done when Victoria emerged from below decks, so I had no objection. I tapped my pipe on the rail, knocking the dregs of tobacco into the muddy slow moving river.
“You already know as much as I do. He must have tricked someone into letting him leave the message.”
“Oh, dear. I was hoping he would send you another note by the time I got here.” She rested a gloved hand lightly on the wooden rail. After a moment, her fingers drummed like a Gatling gun. I resisted the urge to slam my hand down on hers.
Staring across the river, she pondered so deeply that her hand stopped moving.
The jungle devoured the unwary. Far too many people who ventured into it never came back out. Especially here. It was a miracle the trading post—a lone building of bamboo and thatch—still clung to the riverbank after so many years.
The tributary beside it bisected the territory protected by the legendary Panther Tribe—or, more precisely, by the ghosts of their long-dead warriors. None of the tribe itself remained, victims of the sapphire mine as surely as we interlopers profited from it. They’d used the stones for currency, but not as we used gold. Rather, as we used poker chips which had no value themselves but represented wealth.
Now they were gone but their spirits remained.
Ali knew better than to stray onto Panther land. All of the most experienced guides did.
Victoria’s stern command brought me back to the present. “We need to consider our options. Show me what supplies you brought.”
I led her down the ladder into the section of the cargo hold I’d commandeered for my own. The square hatch allowed in enough light that we didn’t need the lantern for the moment.
“Hmmm, very good.” She perused the equipment I’d laid out. Two pistols and a sword for each of us, along with several knives. Machetes for hacking through the strangling foliage of the jungle. One rifle, which she was far better with than I, and two backpacks. Hers held the tent we would use. Mine, the heavier of the two, contained other necessities such as rope, more ammunition, basics for first aid, and some additional odds and ends. “So just the two of us? Proceeding as swiftly as we can?”
I nodded. A full-fledged expedition would load up on food and water. The two of us could easily live off the jungle with its wealth of edible flora and fauna, and abundance of water.
The trading post gradually appeared through the early morning mists, its silhouette solidifying out of the shadow. With a gentle thud, the Jungle Queen moored at the end of the floating dock which reached straight out into the river.
Victoria and I exchanged a glance. Normally the proprietor came out to meet the ferry. It was, after all, Maki’s sole connection to the rest of the world. He should have been waiting for supplies. A wiry little man with skin twice as dark as my own, he’d been the one to teach me the local languages.
The captain of the Jungle Queen approached us and nodded to Victoria. “Ma’am, normally I’d continue on and leave his shipment on the way back. Seeing as you two ladies are staying, we can unload it now if you think you’ll be needing anything.”
The frown not quite hidden under his neatly trimmed beard and moustache, and the hard look in his eyes, told me he didn’t approve.
“Thank you, Captain, but you needn’t change your routine on our behalf.”
His frown turned to a scowl. Giving a curt nod, he turned on his heel, paused momentarily, then relaxed his shoulders and ambled away. I knew from last time he desperately wanted to send at least one of his crew with us. Not safe or smart for two women to go traipsing around in the jungle, after all.
But we were never sure who among his crew could be trusted. Victoria had made that clear the first and only time they had argued about it. The captain didn’t like it or approve, but he didn’t forget either.
With just our few supplies around us on the deck, Victoria and I stood watching until the paddlewheel vanished around the bend in the river.
Now we could begin the search in earnest.
The river was still high from winter melt off which took a good two months to travel from the headwaters to the delta. We didn’t need the rope ladder folded neatly beside the step up from the dock into the bamboo longhouse. A curtain hung in the doorway leading into the rectangular room.
We stepped inside. The trading post didn’t stock much. It didn’t need to. Not many people stopped, even fewer bought or bartered, and hardly any foodstuffs could be kept for long in the tropical heat. Maki kept supplies such as pots, pans and tools. Weapons such as spears and bows were available, and blankets, bowls and canteens.
None of the wares looked out of place. The dust on the wood plank floor hadn’t been disturbed in some time. I walked to a second curtain dividing the store from the corner he used as his private room. The sleeping mat was neatly rolled in the corner. A spear leaned against the wall.
“Off getting breakfast perhaps?” Victoria suggested, unconvincingly.
“His spear is there.” I let the curtain fall back into place. When he got hungry, all he had to do was step outside and spear a fish from the river. “But his canoe wasn’t.”
“So they went upstream.”
“Looks like it.” Luckily for us, the creek that met the river right at the trading post flowed quickly and included plenty of rapids. Ali would know that. An outsider wouldn’t. We could walk alongside it more quickly than someone could row up it.
Heartened by the discovery, we set off at a brisk pace. We followed the game trail running alongside the waterway. Yes, we needed to be that much more vigilant because of it, but it let us travel that much faster. As the morning progressed, not even Victoria’s garments stayed dry.
“Look at this!” The markings in the tree trunk could easily have been mistaken for claw marks from a panther climbing the tree. An extra notch below and to the left, small enough to be overlooked but deep enough to be no accident or mistake, told me no panther had gouged the soft bark.
“How old is it?” Victoria might be the force of nature, but I was the jungle guide.
“From yesterday.” I grinned triumphantly. Although it was too soon to celebrate, this told me we weren’t far behind at all. And it told me Ali had been at the trading post.
An hour’s walk brought us to the first set of falls. The plants along the bank were trampled, small trees snapped, and indications of footprints deep in the muck. In an indentation amid the underbrush, dark red stained all the smashed leaves. The color grew more intermittent along the trail leading further away from the stream.
“Someone died here.”
Victoria joined me as I bent down for a closer look. “And the denizens of the jungle feasted on the corpse.” Her voice quavered ever so slightly before she ruthlessly controlled it. “But whose?”
“We’ll find out. This way.” I continued up the game trail, Victoria close behind. I couldn’t bear to look at her, knowing I’d see the same fear in her eyes that was turning my stomach to an excruciating knot. It couldn’t be Ali. I kept telling myself that. But then it had to be Maki, the taunting voice in my head replied.
A few minutes later, I found what I’d been searching for, and I could breathe normally again. More ‘panther’ marks in another tree. I traced them with a finger, reassuring myself they were really there. Victoria saw them over my shoulder and gave me a fierce hug.
Ali was still alive. And since he was, perhaps Maki was as well. I didn’t hold out much hope, but I clung to even the smallest bit.
Encouraged, we forged ahead with even better speed. At the top of the long tract of whitewater, we found a fire pit and the remains of a spit. If any bones had been left behind, they’d been carried off by scavengers.
“So this is from this morning.” Victoria followed my train of thought.
I stepped carefully around the perimeter, spotting what I thought were a dozen sleeping depressions. The area was so well trampled it was hard to tell for sure.
“No fewer than twelve,” I said.
Mouth in a tight line, Victoria nodded. “But, dearest, at least we’ve almost caught up with them. I told you Ali is a clever lad.”
We trekked on wordlessly, a cacophony of singing, screeching, twittering birds and chittering monkeys covering our progress. Before long a steady rain added its patter to the jungle symphony.
We crouched behind leaves as big as ourselves, ignoring the rivulets water falling from them to be greedily sucked in to the dirt squelching around our boots. The twenty minutes of rain had soaked us but done little to satisfy the insatiable ground. Rather than making the humidity even more oppressive, the precipitation had temporarily washed some of the moisture out of the air.
Not one- but two dozen khaki-clad men stood around, some toting guns, others holding sticks, whips or lashes as groups of smaller, swarthier men either felled trees or bound them together into rafts. The greatest concentration of the brutes, those holding rifles, surrounded some scaffolding at the center of the clearing. It looked to be built over some type of sinkhole or well, and rigged with a strong pulley. A tarp stretched overhead, keeping that bunch and their construct dry.
“Get working!” Ali’s voice boomed out.
My joy at seeing him safe barely had an instant to form. Horrified, I watched him raise a club and bring it crashing down—right beside the hapless laborer, who contorted and cried out in seeming agony. Victoria’s fingers dug into my arm. Several of the overseers chuckled approvingly.
In just a moment my appalled disbelief morphed into realization. Ali was at the edge of the clearing. To the rest of the men, he appeared to be beating the native. Only from our vantage point could Victoria and I see his subterfuge.
“What could they possibly be so determined to take downriver?” Victoria whispered in my ear.
I shrugged, not taking my attention from the scene before us. Still not averting my gaze, I tilted my head toward her and replied equally softly. “Whatever is it, once it’s loaded on the rafts, they’re going to kill those people.”
“Can we distract them off long enough for the others to get away on the rafts? Or disappear into the jungle?”
I rather doubted that. But her question did evoke an idea. “If we can draw off some of the guards, then get the rafts away after they’re loaded, the rest of those brigands will chase the rafts instead of the natives.”
“Agreed, Dearest, but how do we do that?”
A face appeared beside me, brown as darkest wood. I sucked in my breath and barely managed to not let it out again in an earsplitting shriek. Victoria gasped and clamped onto my arm with one hand before relaxing her iron grip. Her other hand held her pistol aimed and steady.
Once I resumed breathing and Victoria’s gun was no longer in front of my face, I hugged the little man then regarded him closely. He appeared to be unhurt aside from a nasty welt on one temple. His eyes wrinkled in concern, but his beaming smile of delight showed gleaming white teeth. “Ali knew you would come.” He kept his voice low.
Our circumstances had improved markedly. Instead of eight to one odds, they were now a mere six to one against us.
“What are they doing?” Victoria leaned close so only the two of us could hear her.
Maki moved closer as well. I felt like a sandwich between them. “River pirates left treasure in that hole. Panthers kill them all. These river pirates want the treasure.”
Maki was not talking about feline panthers.
“From the mine,” Victoria said, her face twisted in disgust. She despised avarice and the ruthlessness it caused.
“Yes, many shiny stones,” Maki confirmed. Even uncut, an exposed edge occasionally revealed the fiery splendor of the sapphires.
The raft building continued, each large enough to carry men plus treasure and sturdy enough to survive the rapids. Lying parallel on the ground, other logs spanned the yards from the sinkhole to the water. The men would roll the rafts with their precious cargo down to the creek and, traveling with the strong current, be back in New London in no time.
“I say we shoot them all and be done with it before they kill anyone else,” Victoria stated. She positioned her rifle against the tree in front of her and took a pistol in each hand.
I did a double take. Practical, yes. Typical Victoria. But rarely so cold hearted. Still, I thought of the trail of blood and knew she was right. Our options were indeed limited.
The pirates might start shooting the workers as soon as we took action. But they would ultimately kill them all anyway. More likely the pirates would shoot at us and the natives could flee in the ensuing melee.
“They’ll be most distracted when they are getting the jewels,” I said. As we watched, the workers were being herded together to finish tying off the rafts. Ali strolled over to join the rest of the pirates.
One peacock of a man, not the most imposing physically, but wearing a scimitar instead of a saber and an ascot with his khakis, shoved Ali toward the wooden framework. “Why don’t you do the honors?”
“My pleasure.” Ali stepped into a loop knotted in the bottom of the rope. He held tight with both hands while they lowered him into the pit.
Only someone who knew him as well as I could spot the tension around his mouth, belying his cocky half grin. His expression never faltered, but just before he sank below the rim of the hole, he let go with his left hand and scratched his nose then his right ear as if swatting away a fly.
My heart leapt at the casual, perfectly natural gesture. Ali knew we were here! I didn’t know how. Surely he hadn’t seen us. And if he’d heard us, the others would have as well, making our predicament even more dire.
“Hoist away!” Ali’s voice echoed weirdly up the shaft. He reappeared straddling a wooden chest and swung over to solid ground. “Two more,” he said as they freed the chest from the rope.
Two more. That was for our benefit. It told us how much time we had left.
A shiver ran through me that had nothing to do with my dripping clothing. At the same instant, Maki hunkered down closer to the ground. The sounds of wildlife around us faded to silence.
Maki murmured a single word in his native language.
I knew he wasn’t talking about felines. “Go, Maki. We’ll be right behind you.”
He didn’t argue with me.
Tendrils of mist rose off the ground and off the chaotic jungle all around us as the dampness melted back into the air. The steam didn’t drift upward in the thick, still air. It danced and swirled, twisting closer to the chests of sapphires and surrounding the whole clearing.
“While we can still see,” Victoria said under her breath. “I’ll fire left.”
I concurred, and would take the right half of the camp. I selected my first target, the most important. From our hiding spot, I had the best line of sight on the leader of the band of robbers. Maki no longer knelt at our side. We had to trust he knew to keep himself safe.
Victoria and I exchanged a quick glance, aimed, and fired two pistols each. The workers screamed and ran. So did some of the pirates. Ali dove to the ground, grabbed an abandoned rifle and came up shooting and swinging.
More interested in provoking pandemonium than committing murder, we shot at those who remained. Bullets whizzed past us, one slicing through leaves inches from my head. Another tore into the tree beside me and sent up a spray of wood shards and splinters, some of which sliced into my shoulder.
As sudden as it was strong, a gale roared through, bringing dense fog instead of scattering it. An unearthly wail came from everywhere, as if emitted by the land itself. Tucking my pistols back in my belt, I caught Victoria’s wrist.
“We need to go!” Guiding by the sound of the rapids, I took us toward the creek. Ali would do the same. It was our standard plan. The wail died away to be replaced by the even more terrible sound of men screaming in terror.
We’d dashed only a few steps when the mist completely dispersed. Stumbling, I risked a look over my shoulder but saw only an impenetrable fogbank. Then Ali plunged out of the roiling gray maelstrom and we sprinted to the water.
None of the pirates made it that far. The ghostly mist concealed their bodies. There was no sign of Maki, but he’d need no help to find his way back to his trading post.
“Happy Birthday!” Ali winked at me as he heaved the canoe off the bushes and into the water, steadying it so Victoria and I could clamber inside. He followed with a graceful leap that sent us to the middle of the creek.
I handed him the second oar instead of walloping him over the head with it.
If one affords the rapids enough respect, they are not an insurmountable obstacle to experienced guides such as Ali and myself. We catapulted out of the side stream and into the main river, turned the canoe and came to rest against Maki’s dock.
Ever the gentleman, Ali assisted Victoria out of the canoe then offered me a hand. I took it, mightily resisting the temptation to yank him into the water. I did succumb to the next urge and threw my arms around him.
Then I punched him hard in the shoulder. “What was that all about?”
“They caught me spying on them. I had to be their guide—pretend to be one of them—so they wouldn’t kill me. They insisted on going after the sapphires. I tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t believe me.” He turned his most charming smile on Victoria. “I’ll be utterly lost if you ever change your perfume.”
“The lavender.” That explained it, and reassured me. I hadn’t yet figured out how he’d known we were there and I do hate mysteries.
“I wasn’t sure,” he admitted. “It was so fleeting.”
Maki sauntered into his hut as Victoria picked the last of the splinters out of my shoulder, which she then efficiently bandaged. We cleaned up as best we could. Still, Victoria could not wait to avail herself of the shipboard amenities. Ali and I liked that idea as well.
Waiting for the Jungle Queen the next day allowed us to assure ourselves that none of the pirates reappeared to accost the little trader. Undoubtedly, the Panther spirits had gotten all of them.
Victoria smoothed her skirt as she joined Ali and me in my stateroom. She was decked out in full fashion regalia, the royal blue as flattering to her as the pine green had been. She regarded my outfit approvingly as I knew she would. She always says I’m not half bad to look at when I dress like a lady.
“White suits you, Dearest,” Victoria declared, kissing my cheek. I preferred trousers but knew she’d appreciate the skirt and tailored jacket.
Ali stood and held the chair for her. She kissed him as well before settling into it. He poured three glasses of wine and brought them to the table as the steward arrived with our meal. Our repast included fish from the river and fruits from the jungle—the freshest menu available.
Talking little, the three of us devoured the feast before us. With perfect timing, the staff returned to clear away our empty dishes.
“Would you like your birthday present now?” Ali’s dark eyes sparkled with mischief.
I was instantly wary and arched a brow at him. My facial repertoire didn’t equal Victoria’s, but I could comport myself well enough. I wasn’t sure I wanted to imagine how he’d acquired a gift for me while he was trying to extricate himself from the piratical mess he’d gotten into.
With a smug twist to his lips, he reached into a pocket of his dapper suit and withdrew a handkerchief wrapped around a lump the size of my fist. He set it before me on the yellow tablecloth.
“And for you, for always looking after my sister and me.” He put another in front of Victoria.
Eyes narrowed, I regarded it a moment before I reached out and peeled away the linen to reveal a chunk of stone.
Examining it more closely, I saw it wasn’t just stone but crystal. Fiery blue crystal, a huge uncut sapphire.
I glared at Ali in disbelief but he held up both hands in surrender to forestall my tirade. “Peace, sister, peace! They’re not from the Panther lands. They are from the mine, and perfectly good.” His smug grin returned, making me wonder how many he’d managed to keep for himself. No doubt, plenty.
After a brief internal debate I decided that no, my brother would not give me a cursed gemstone for my birthday. Evidently, Victoria reached the same conclusion.
“In that case,” Victoria lifted her wine goblet, “cheers.”
First and most importantly, thanks to my wonderful family and friends for their constant encouragement. It’s greatly appreciated! Major thanks to Michael Stackpole as well, for hosting the Chain Story where these tales first appeared, and to him and all the authors who made it so much fun. I’m also grateful to Todd Kogutt for the beautiful cover he made.