Authors: Gerrie Nelson
Copyright © 2011 Gerrie Nelson
All rights reserved.
eBook ISBN: 978-1-62110-790-3
My muse, my first reader, my love
Emerging from a murky awareness, Harry now remembered tumbling over the railing and clawing for a grip on the rushing air. But he could not recall landing, facedown, in this dark place.
His quickening brain recorded a flinty presence in his left chest restricting him to gasping quarter-breaths. His rummaging mind located his limbs—still attached—but he could not will them to move. All but the slightest voluntary action had been shut down.
An aberrant wave of well-being washed over him. He had beaten them at their own craft; even a Pyrrhic victory was a glorious win considering the treachery he had thwarted.
He forced a smirk; he had been undone by his naïveté. He had omitted his own safety from the lists of assumptions and variables. What a fool to think they’d let him walk away.
Then there was the Velcro. But even the most fastidious scientist would not have factored in Velcro.
The wind piped up, and he shivered. How long had it been now? It seemed like just moments ago he had stood at Victoria Peak in a state of simple-minded bliss, enjoying the glitter of Hong Kong after dark. The city’s sparkle mirrored his jubilation.
He thought he had every reason to celebrate. Not only had he escaped the PhD sweatshop in Houston, but he had located a San Francisco group deserving of his technology. Tonight, they were supposed to close the deal.
He had been alone on the viewing platform; the blustery weather kept the tourists away. He remembered zipping his jacket part way and loosening the Velcro tab at his cuff to check his watch. The Ridge Laboratory representative was late.
His name was John Bowman. In his email he had described himself as lanky, early sixties, salt and pepper hair. Bowman said he had other business to conduct in Asia and suggested they meet in Hong Kong where Harry was visiting his favorite uncle and aunt. Bowman chose The Peak Restaurant, having read about the view online.
Harry planned to titillate Bowman with some of the specs for his device, then negotiate his employment contract. He looked forward to spending a few years in California.
Impatient, Harry had picked up his briefcase and stepped toward the station door to await the next tram’s arrival. At that moment, a tall man in a dark pullover sweater walked out onto the viewing platform. Even in the dim lighting, Harry recognized him—and he was stunned.
“You?” Harry said. “What are you doing here?”
The man took a threatening step forward and growled: “Do you know me?”
Confused and frightened, Harry retreated toward the railing.
The man advanced. His mammoth hand pressed against Harry’s chest, shoving him farther back. “Answer me. How do you know me?”
Despite the man’s age, his size gave him the advantage.
“I was mistaken,” Harry stammered.
The man became enraged. “You’re lyin.’” He grabbed Harry by the throat and bent him backwards over the viewing rail, then reached down with the other hand and tugged at Harry’s briefcase.
At first Harry resisted, yanking back on the handle. But he needed two hands to fend off his assailant. He let go of the briefcase and went for the attacker’s crotch. But his Velcro cuff latched onto the man’s sweater. While Harry struggled to free himself, the man swung the briefcase and smashed it against Harry’s temple, then heaved him over the railing.
The shivering was now constant. His heart, so carefully toned through years of jogging, had shifted from its deep tympani beat to the thready stutter of a snare drum.
Liquid warmth oozed across his upper abdomen. It was welcome at first, like the fleeting relief of childhood bedwetting. But the small comfort was eradicated by the chilly realization of its source and consequence.
His final thoughts were of those who would avenge his death and carry on his work:
Andromeda and Pegasus point the way.
Uncle, be safe.
…To say that she’s bewitched, one would have to acknowledge that such a thing is possible.
….Absence of proof is not proof of absence.
The syllabus listed today’s session as the final lecture of the fall semester. But, in fact, it would be Professor Rose’s last lecture ever.
Professor Diane Rose withdrew her hands from her sweater pockets, consulted her notes on the lectern, and resumed her discourse. “Scientific research is about truth. It’s about discovering truths in nature, then using those truths to benefit mankind.”
Diane glanced around the classroom at her biology students’ eager faces and realized they were more intent on her words than she was. Chagrined, she took a deep breath and forced herself to focus.
“The successful researcher is creative, confident, observant.
“As you witnessed in the laboratory this semester, the competent scientist never shrugs off a coincidence; it may be pointing the way to a discovery.
“Your lab experience also taught you that successful outcomes are tied to the quality of your input. Nothing good can come from incorrect, skewed or fabricated data. So it follows that, above all else, the research scientist must be painstakingly accurate and uncompromisingly ethical.”
“Who can define ethics for me?”
Several hands shot up.
“Okay, everyone gets a turn. Let’s start in the back.” She pointed over the rows of sweatshirts and denim toward Norma, a young woman in an orange sweater at the rear of the room. Norma had not raised her hand. She reminded Diane of herself when she was an undergraduate on full scholarship. She was always reluctant to volunteer information, fearing her voice would not measure up to the others—those with living, college-educated parents who could afford to pay their children’s tuitions.
Her opinion sought out, Norma jumped to her feet and launched into a speech on ethics.
As each student took a turn, Diane Rose paced and smiled, nodding occasionally to acknowledge well-thought-out points.
Diane glanced out the window at the dark clouds rolling in from the northwest; it appeared the promised Thanksgiving snowstorm had arrived in Pittsburgh.
Her hand strayed once again to the mobile phone in her pocket. She wished she had responded to Olimpia Garza’s voice message and phoned her in Houston immediately; better to have been late for class than to be so distracted.
Traditionally, Diane used the last semester hour to attempt steering her students toward careers in science. She called it the “commercial break.” But today she felt she was doing a lousy sales job; Olimpia’s message had jerked her thoughts in other directions.
Olimpia Garza, Diane’s longtime mentor and colleague, was a professor at the
Universidad de Bogota
in Colombia. For almost three decades Olimpia had been studying plant medicine used by the indigenous peoples of Central and South America and Borneo. As a result, she was regarded as one of the world’s foremost ethnobotanists.
A message from Olimpia was usually an invitation to the surreal. On rare occasions, she made a straightforward request like: “Could you present a conference paper on the botanical hallucinogens used by the
tribe we visited in Colombia?” But mostly Olimpia proposed field trips that portended the mysterious or the exotic with “adventure” as the unstated, quadruple-starred footnote.
Diane found conferences and presentations interesting, but less than exciting. The promise of a field trip, however, was always compelling.
A montage of past adventures crowded Diane’s mind: chasing plant poachers through Quito’s marketplace; dodging ubiquitous bands of revolutionaries in Colombia; canoeing for days in quest of the healing mavaco bark in Panama—only to find a hostile shaman standing guard over the trees; climbing liana vines, in various countries, to harvest rare medicinal passion flowers (
) and encountering poison dart frogs (
)—the name says it all, double-headed snake caterpillars (
—startling—both coming and going, and fanged Peruvian tarantulas (
)—black furry legs and pink fuzzy toes, but less than cuddly.
Diane loved jungle trekking and feared it too. But she felt she
it to balance the textbook and test tube parts of her life.
By ten minutes to eleven, the students had completed their discourses on ethics, and Professor Rose dismissed the class for the holiday. As students turned on cell phones and gathered backpacks, she raised her voice over the commotion.
“Have a nice Thanksgiving. Good luck on your finals. See you next semester.”
Olimpia Garza grimaced when the phone in her pocket vibrated. She had forgotten to turn it off, and the attendants were closing the airplane door. She dug out the phone and checked its screen. It was an international call. She exhaled through pursed lips and rolled her eyes; university politics wasted so much of her time. She had already given her blood oath that she would attend tomorrow’s meetings in Bogota—unless, of course, the plane went down. What better assurance could she offer?
She glanced around the business class section—not a flight attendant in sight. She pressed the green button and spoke just above a whisper. “
.” Her heart lurched. “Oh, it is you.” He was the last person on the planet she wanted to hear from.
“I trust you had a fruitful visit,” he said.
“I cannot speak now; my plane is backing away from the gate in Houston.”
Olimpia’s thumb wavered over the “off” button, her only defense against him. But, even a continent away, the voice on the phone held a tighter grip on her than the seatbelt cinched across her lap. She could not hang up.
“I will be brief,” he said. “I want you to come out to the island tomorrow and stay overnight. That will give us time to talk.”
Olimpia shook her head violently.
No, that would not be possible
. She found her voice and said, “I have urgent meetings scheduled at the university all day tomorrow and the next day.”
He responded in a friendly tone; a man accustomed to giving orders did not need to sound demanding. “Your meetings can wait. I will send the helicopter for you at noon tomorrow. You know the landing site.”
It was snowing. And all over campus, students celebrated the first storm of the season by tilting their faces up to catch the wet confetti on their tongues.
Diane Rose stepped outside, pulled on her gloves and looked skyward. Maybe she wouldn’t take the shuttle bus after all; she would walk the four blocks to Foster Hall where she and her husband Vincent shared an office and laboratories.
She stopped at the curb under the red flashing pedestrian light. The air was dense with filigreed snowflakes. The white silence-in-motion was much like the green stillness of the jungle at midday—quiet, beautiful and potentially treacherous.
The traffic light changed, and Diane was swept across the street on a tsunami of chattering, tweeting, texting students. She dug her cell phone out of her shoulder bag and checked the screen. No messages. She hadn’t been able to reach Olimpia Garza. Most likely, she’d already boarded her plane back to South America.
Olimpia’s message had aroused Diane’s semiannual urge to escape from her day jobs. She made a mental note to email her later. Olimpia might provide the perfect diversion.
Diane often puzzled over her compulsion to keep moving. To most observers she appeared to be completely absorbed in her teaching, her laboratory work, and her marriage. But, in fact, she was always looking over the horizon, poised to jump to the next place, the next project.
Vincent once said that, having been orphaned at an early age, she was always expecting loss and trying to outrun it.
Perhaps she did have a deep-seated fear of abandonment. She had to admit that easy commitment was not her strong suit. If she had been unprepared for Vincent’s proposal of marriage, she likely would have panicked and bolted from the restaurant the night he popped the question. But she had done her homework beginning day one of their relationship, interrogating him about his family’s health—back three to four generations—until she was satisfied that, for the most part, he had no serious threats to his longevity.
Vincent admitted that, early on, he was concerned with Diane’s morbid interest in his ancestors’ afflictions and wondered if she’d reject him based on a few of his progenitors’ preexisting conditions.
Diane thought of people, places and things as being as transient as time. Returning from field trips, she was always pleasantly surprised to find her world still nailed down.
Reaching the top step outside Foster Hall, Diane caught her reflection in the glass doors. The melted snow had tightened her hair into auburn coils—her “Carrot Top look” Vincent called it. She fluffed some droplets out of her curls and entered the building.
Vincent Rose sat at his computer doing a statistical analysis of some data regarding his experimental Parkinson’s drug,
Diane came up behind him and placed her hands on his beard for warmth.
Vincent jumped. “You’re wet. Is it raining?”
Diane pointed to the window and the falling snow. “How long have you been at the computer?”
He shrugged. “Are you finished with class already?” He looked at the snow, then at his watch. “How did it get to be noontime? Maybe we should leave before we’re snowed in.”
“It’s not cold enough for it to stick to the pavement yet. We’re probably safe for an hour or so.”
Diane glanced sideways at the assortment of unopened envelopes cluttering Vincent’s desktop. “When was the last time you opened your mail?” she asked.
“Hmm?” He was focused on his computer again.
Vincent was an able administrator and good researcher but rarely mixed the two functions. This week he was in his research mode with little time for anything else.
Diane hung her coat on a wall hook, gathered an armful of mail and walked to other end of the room. She dumped the mail onto her desk, dropping a FedEx envelope onto the floor and scattering her desktop display of condor foot bones.
She bent forward, stretching her arm toward the bones—but stopped short. If Vincent would, by chance, turn his head just slightly to the left, he could catch her in the act of aiming the condor’s center toe toward the East. And today there wasn’t time for more of his voodoo jokes.
The bones of the venerated prehistoric Andean condor (
) were said to convey health and power. In mythology, the condor was the ruler of the upper world because of its closeness to the sun deity. The foot bones were given to her by a Peruvian shaman with the caveat that the elongated center toe must point to the East, to the rising sun, or she would suffer the consequences.
When Vincent first saw her aligning the bone, using a compass, he teased her mercilessly. “Ahh-h, the rite of the condor,” he had said with mock reverence. “Tell me, did the shaman say anything about magnetic declination when using a compass? Something to think about Diane—any inaccuracy and zap! There go your powers.” Diane smirked and ignored him. But that didn’t stop his needling.
Vincent, the empiricist, evidenced a growing concern that she was leaning away from science, towards some sort of mysticism. He said she was turning into a witchdoctor before his very eyes. He remarked that she returned from field trips with more and more “voodoo notions,” scoffing at her flashes of intuition, teasing that she was the only scientist he knew who factored “vibes” into her data.