By Hannah Christensen
Even More Piranhas
Crystal clinked around me as I focused my attention on Mrs. Gould’s chatter. Her words ran faster than the Cauca River but I tried to listen well. Even in presenters it is a reprehensible trait to only talk and never listen. I took a sip from my glass to keep up my strength. Alas, it was not coffee. My time in South America had unaccustomed my tongue to the delicacies of wine, though I could not say the same of strong drink. Coffee is not for the faint.
“—think of the poor little monkeys you rescued from the river.”
I nodded politely. The baby monkey had been Cooper’s idea. A bad idea, and one I had tactfully not connected to my fellow explorer. We had lost more equipment and frightened away more of the birds we were trying to study through that monkey than any other one cause.
“I cannot immagine being without a single soul—civilized soul—for months and years on end. How do you ever manage.”
“My dear madam, I beg you not to forget Mr. Cooper. He is quite as American as you are, and my constant companion.”
“Except when you leave your miserable jungle to go to parties and bask in the glory of your discoveries.” The new speaker was a skinny man, immaculately dressed and with his hair plastered into subjection. His face looked as if it had been chiseled away by the glittering hunger in his eyes. He stretched his thin lips into the mockery of a smile. “I wonder why you did not bring him with you. Too much competition?”
“Someone needed to continue the work. Our duties took us different paths for the present, but I shall return when I can.” Unfortunately, my return might take some time. Having left the country, I would need to go through the process of having my papers accepted by the government again.
“Ah, yes, it is your duty which forces you to leave your companion alone among the alligators, jaguars and piranhas.”
“Really, Jonadab.” Mrs. Gould brushed him aside. “Mr. Earlson, I must admit that is one thing that has puzzled me. What is a piranha? Have you come upon some river monster?”
“A piranha, madam, is a cold blooded fish with a smug smile filled with dental daggers. It looks too small for its sharp mouth to be more than a minor irritation, but the real danger comes when it bands together with its brothers. A school of piranhas can decimate anything in its path.” I took her arm and began to lead her away from Jonadab. “The best defence is to stay out of the water.”
In the adjoining sitting room my display included a piranha preserved in a jar of brine, but that room was closed off until after dinner. No one wished jungle relics to spoil their delicate appetites. The host had consented to letting coffee from my authentic Columbian beans be served throughout the event. I hoped whoever had prepared them knew their task. I could use some good coffee.
I carefully poured myself half a cup while Mrs. Gould chattered. She seemed to frequent presentations of all kinds. This was the second of mine she had attended. If her talk had included as much on the material presented as it did on the people attending and their manner, she would have been fascinating. Doubtless this was what Cooper had wished to avoid when he pressed me to take the speaking engagements. I thought him quite suitable for the job, it being in his native country, but he insisted that being an Englishman put me at advantage over him. He only wished to send his love to Elva.
Mrs. Gould declined a cup of her own. “I already have some sherry, dear, what would I do with two glasses?”
Reluctantly I put my coffee down. Her etiquette was quite right. First I would need to finish my own wine.
The butler announced dinner just as I finished my wine. He bowed and ushered me to lead the way as the guest of honor. I silently bid my coffee farewell and closed that door of longing in my mind firmly. Bringing a cup of coffee I was holding already to dinner might be excused as an oddity picked up from my time away from civilization. Snatching one up as everyone watched and waited for me might embarrass my host. I would not subject him to that under the piranha eyes of Jonadab. Coffee would have to wait for the sitting room presentation.
By the time we were done eating and ushered out of the dining room, my coffee was cold. I had no time to warm it, though. I scarce had time to slide up the cool cup on my way by. As speaker, tardiness was inadmissible.
With all materials in readiness and a few more attendees scraggling in, I sat back for a moment and sipped my coffee.
It was appalling.
I never dreamed someone could ruin coffee so thoroughly. Even the bitterness was wrong, more like sea water. My tongue, apparently more optimistic than my head, tried another sip.
The second sip was just as bad. I grimaced at my coffee, and it grimaced back at me. I blinked and sat up straight. The smile was gone; only burnt-black ripples showed on the surface.
I lifted the cup again and tipped it to give it a good sniff. I found myself nose to snout with a piranha. Brine blasted my nostrils.
Carefully I replaced the cup on the side table and scanned my relics. The bottled piranha was missing. Mrs. Gould would not get her look at a piranha after all. A pity some fool had spoiled a cup of fine coffee over it.
It Wasn’t Actually a Love Letter
By the end of my talk, it was evident Jonadab was only one of a set of men there with gleaming teeth and hungry eyes. I was glad to be swimming in different waters soon. By the end of the week I hoped to move on to Philadelphia.
While wrapping up for the evening, my gaze passed over the far wall—and caught on a figure at the door. She still wore her stained riding cloak, but the hood was thrown back, and black walnut hair with a gleam of red chestnut where the light touched it spilled over her shoulders.
I almost stuttered. I had seen Elva Bettencourt once already since arriving, and given her Cooper’s tidings. I had not expected her again so soon, especially so far from her home. I wrapped up quickly and came over as soon as I could shake myself from conversationalists. She remained at the back of the room, watching.
“Miss Bettencourt.” I swooped up her hand. “I hope all is well.”
“Mr. Earlson.” She smiled, but her dimple did not touch as deeply as in times past. “I earnestly hope so. But have you heard from Robert?”
I blinked. “Cooper?”
“Ah, the real reason you left your calling in the jungle.” One of Jonadab’s cronies pushed his way in and stole Elva’s hand away. “My lady, I find it hard to blame him too harshly. Who would wish to share such a beauty as yourself?”
She turned a strained smile on him and tried to pull her hand away. He held on tighter and mashed his lips all over her palm. I levered my way between them and tucked her hand safely in my arm.
“No, I must admit I have heard no word from him since last we parted. Have you reason to fear ill on that account?” I walked her into the adjoining room for more freedom. Our intruder was not so ill-mannered as to follow us, though he lingered in the doorway, stretching out his already cup-like ears to soak in every word possible.
“I received a letter.” Elva dug beneath her cloak to pull out a folded paper.
“But he must have sent it as soon as I left. It is faster to make the journey oneself than to post a letter.”
“It was hand delivered. The ambassador came back on urgent business.”
“And you think it has to do with Robert.”
She tipped one half of her mouth up. “When he delivered it he said he couldn’t find anything significant in it. I understand he plans on coming and seeing me later.”
“The ambassador read your letter?” I dropped my voice, trying to keep it from dripping into the nearby set of ears.
“It would seem so. And I think you should, too.” She pressed it into my hands.
I unfolded it and began.
“To you whom my heart is true, who you ever keep on your right hand:
I beg you, do not fail me now—I rely on you to spring me from this crocodilian’s jaws. Do not monkey with my heart. Be above that. Beware the course of action that brings gushing tears!
Your faithful servant,
I closed my eyes.
“It seems terribly awkward. Do you think it’s really from Robert?” asked Elva.
“He never was good at words. Especially when it is something important.”
“Still…” She was frowning. “What do you think—”
“I think now is not the time to speak.” Suddenly the cupped ears in the doorway seemed much too close. I took Elva by the arm and began to lead her out. “Did the ambassador actually say he would come see you?”
“He said he hoped to keep in touch,” she repeated carefully.
“Elva, do you have a place to spend the night?”
“Yes, my cousin—”
“Good. Then we will talk further in the morning.” I lowered my voice. “Something is most definitely not right, but I need the evening to think about it. And a better meeting place.”
She hesitated at the door, her fingers lingering on my arm as she gave me the address to meet on the morrow. I suppressed a shiver as she left.
In the morning I met Miss Bettencourt for a stroll to the post office. The open air seemed the best place for discourse. Many others were out for their own perambulations, and we received no shortage of gazes, but no lingering ears. Miss Bettencourt could add no further information.
“Can we even be certain it is Robert?” she asked. “I know he can be awkard, but this is not merely fumbling with words, it’s stilted and…and odd.”
She spared a moment of worry to look reprimandingly over.
“—not only am I certain of Cooper’s hand in this, he meant it for me. I always said he is the most loyal right hand man a fellow could want, which is what his opening address references. It is rather puzzling why he felt the need to send it to you rather than directly to me. I am inclined to think it is code.”
“Then what is the message behind the code?” She stopped as we reached our destination.
I opened the door. “That I fear is still a mystery. The meaning of the primary message is baffling in itself. I cannot hope to guess the deeper one without more clues.”
She shook her head as I followed her in. “You’re supposed to be helping with answers, not—oh!”
I looked over her shoulder to see what had caught her attention.
Well Acquainted With Falling
ENGLISHMAN STEALS AMERICAN EXPLORER’S FAME, SWEETHEART bellowed the front page of the newspaper a man was reading. My own name glared back at me four different places in the article beneath. It would seem I had let my toes dangle closer to piranhas than I had wished.
Miss Bettencourt began to tremble. Her face was quite white. I gently took her arm and began to lead her back to the house.
“How…how dare…” she began.
“My question exactly!”A woman in a dark brown dress stalked up and poked at my chest with a rolled up newspaper. “Mr. Earlson, I am shocked and mortified that a man I had thought so much of could stoop so low.”
Miss Bettencourt tensed. I edged us around the newcomer.
“Not once in your presentation did I stop to wonder more about this Mr. Cooper you slightly mentioned. To think it was his work all along!” She leveled a suspicious gaze at Miss Bettencourt.
I opened the door and pushed Elva through.
“Expect a cancellation from the Pioneer Ladies’ Guild!”
I shut the door firmly behind us. Elva spun around, ready to charge back in. I gently pulled her away.
“I think you should go back to the house. You’ve had quite the shock.” For a moment I thought she would pull away and take the news station by storm, but then she turned on her heel and started striding through the streets. I had to hurry to keep up. I tried to unruffle her by lightly recalling worse fiascos such as the time Cooper and I had been taken before a local chief at spear point because of the dog that trailed Cooper into the village, or the time we had sunk our canoe and lost everything but our lives and a bag of coffee only to find half a week later when we managed to light a fire that the bag contained worm-ridden cornmeal instead of coffee. I could not tell that she even heard me.
She thrust the door open at her cousin’s house and stormed inside. I hurried after.
“Elva!” Her cousin, a plump woman with graying hair, came scurrying forward, arms wide. “Thank goodness you’re back! There’s been terrible news.”
Miss Bettencourt bristled, but before she could wax eloquent on the subject of news, her cousin pressed a slip of paper into her hand. “It came while you were gone.”
She glanced at the paper, then snapped her attention back to it. She stood still, very still. I could not even see a breath, just her partially opened mouth, as though she wanted to gasp and couldn’t draw the air for it. I positioned myself to catch her if she fainted.
Then I saw the words on the paper. It was a telegram, and said, ROBERT COOPER CAPTURED BY BANDITS STOP RANSOM DEMANDED STOP. I seized a nearby high-backed chair and pulled it behind Miss Bettencourt, then kept tight hold to the back, leaning into its solidness.
It was the Narrator the Whole Time
Slowly I became aware that someone was talking to me. I shook myself slightly. “Pardon, but I don’t suppose you have some tea.” The words came out in little more than a mumble, but my hostess must have had sharp ears, for not long afterwards I was seated with a cup of hot tea in my hands. The aroma whispered of home and hearth and mother’s garden. I took a slow sip, and the world around slipped away. When I opened my eyes and let it come back, everything had streamed back into order.
“I beg your pardon. I needed a minute to compose myself. Now where were we?”
“Poor soul.” Elva’s cousin dabbed at her eyes. “He always did get himself into straits. And not a penny to his name. What will the family do?”
“The context,” said Elva. “I believe you have the context now.”
“Ah.” I took another sip to help settle the world back into its places. “It would seem that the surface meaning would be to beg his ransoming. Hence, his plea for you not to fail, nor choose the path of tears. And it would make sense sending it to you, being family. As for its coded message…” I took another sip and rolled it around on my tongue. The extra time did nothing to enrich its flavor. “I have some questions I should like answered before venturing an interpretation. Where did this capture take place and in what circumstances? Who is responsible and how much time have they allowed for delivery of a ransom?”
“Oh, but if poor Robert is pleading, we must start collecting money at once!” cried our hostess. “I only hope the demand is not too high. Think of the horror should we send the money only to find it had taken too long to raise.”
“Yes, time is of essence,” said Miss Bettencourt. “You must begin deciphering at once, Mr. Earlson.”
I took a swallow of tea. The brittle taste reminded me of why I had taken up coffee instead. “I shall act at once. Let us start by telegraphing the ambassador.”
“Here is where we received the note. And this,” Joseph Harding swished his cane along a stretch of the map, “Is the area he was traveling.” The ambassador had contrived to meet with us personally a mere two days later. Elva and I sat in his study.
I nodded. “Many of our guides have come from that area. When I left, we had talked about the need for a visit to one of the villages to maintain relationships, and maybe exploring more along the smaller tributaries in the area. It’s amazing what one can find even close to a well-traveled area, if one truly looks.”
Mr. Harding snorted. “Well, he had a guide all right. The fellow was very verbal in his warnings about raiders in the area. We hadn’t heard any news of trouble, and Cooper thought if this boatman knew more about attacks than anyone else seemed to, he should know best how to avoid attack. The man agreed to be his guide, and they took along a good sized party for safety. For all the good that did them.” He jerked his shoulders. “Five dead, two missing. The guide himself came away injured. He kept babbling on about all the other other captives this group had taken and the horrible fates they had—beg pardon, miss.” He nodded towards Miss Bettencourt.
I paced across the patterned burgundy carpet. “Is there any pattern in these bandit attacks? Who else has had trouble with them?”
“There is no pattern that we can find from the fellow’s accounts. If anyone else knows anything, they aren’t talking.” Mr. Harding rubbed his temples. “Though from what I hear through the government agents, the natives in that area often keep their own counsel. There may well be sympathizers scattered along the river. In fact, we have reason to question if there may have been a contact man within Cooper’s own group. One of the injured claims to have heard a non-bird directly before the attack.”
I studied the area in my mind, trying to remember every individual Cooper and I had met there, and went over the geography as Mr. Harding reviewed how far the party had traveled. The bandits would have taken their captives into the jungle rather than farther along the river.
“To begin with, I believe Cooper is asking us to rescue him, not ransom him. ‘Spring me from this crocodilian’s jaws’.” I paused. There was more there, it simply wasn’t surfacing there yet. “What I need to decipher is where they are holding him.” I picked up the note Elva had laid on the table. Perhaps unnecessary, but seeing the words helped me think.
“Monkey.” I put it back down and continued to pace. “Monkey. Monkey! I know the place to which he is referring.” I seized a pen and began to flip the telegram over, then paused and looked inquiringly at Mr. Harding. He rummaged about and found a small piece of paper for me. I began to sketch on it.
“The first time we went down this river, we took a detour up a tributary to look for tanagers. At one point we even saw a flash of scarlet through the leaves. That’s when we took out on foot. Our search was interrupted by a band of monkeys.” I added some quick, curved lines. “My memory places their nesting place in the trees at the foot of a steep hill. I would venture to say that on top of this hill is the bandits’ camp. Hence, ‘Be above that’.”
“And ‘Beware the course that brings gushing tears’. Is that a warning for us to be careful of being trapped in the crocodilian’s jaws, too?” asked Mr. Harding.
I paused to consider. When I realized I was massaging my chin as though there was a beard attached, I dropped my hand and resumed pacing. “It is doubtful, though of course a good idea. The idiom of crocodile’s tears is not in use in said area.”
“But as an American, surely Mr. Cooper might have used an expression foreign to the area.”
“True, but it is not one I ever remember him saying. Also, we made it our practice to adopt local sayings. For example, we might call someone a crocodile who had hidden motives.”
Mr. Harding nodded.
“Or a guide could be called a…a storyteller, I believe the word comes out to. Many of them are known for not merely leading the way and assisting, but jawing about everything in the area. A good way to learn, as long as one doesn’t need quiet to slip up on the fauna.”
“But what of the course of gushing tears, then?” said Miss Bettencourt. “It must mean something.”
My brain marched the facts around again: the route, the guide, the attack, the geography… “Course.” I smiled. “Watercourse.” I faced Mr. Harding. “I believe he is warning us against the most heavily guarded route to the camp. Down one side of the monkey’s hill a cataract falls. The scattering droplets could easily be compared to tears. Facing the the creek, this would be the most obvious direction of approach, and would be most heavily guarded. If we wished to take them by surprise, we will need to circle the hill. A tricky task in the jungle, but worth the effort in this case.”
He nodded. “This is your insight into the meaning of Robert Cooper’s message, then?”
I closed my eyes to carefully review the facts. Starting to nod my head, I paused. “There may be more to the comment on crocodilians, after all. Mr. Harding, I may know the identity of the inside man.”
In Which Several Events Were Not Actually Tragedies
Plans were swiftly laid for an agent to take the soonest packet ship to Columbia with as detailed a map as I could draw and papers for assistance in leading a rescue raid. He was to go as quickly and as inconspicuously as possible, not letting the possible contact man nor the kidnappers themselves know of their presence.
Almost two days after the packet ship left, the agent was found tied up in his own closet. All maps, money, and letters of authority were stripped from him. The agent himself appeared only half alive. The first words from the mouth of the plucky fellow were, “Has the ship sailed yet?” He was quite put out that he had missed his chance for at least a week. The doctor thought he should wait longer, but Joseph Harding was nearly frantic with the need for someone to go in communication with the American embassy.
“We cannot ignore the letters that were stolen,” he said. “In the hands of an unscrupulous person they could wreak chaos. And a thief is an unscrupulous person.” He studied me. “Do you know of anyone who might know of our plans? If I telegraph to beware documents with my seal, it could cause years of straightening out. If the conspiracy has spread so far as to have a presence in the United States, a telegram might be intercepted.”
“Miss Bettencourt’s cousin, Mrs. Tabor, is of course in our confidence, as is her guardian, Mr. Hawthorn.”
“And they have no reason for ill will towards Mr. Cooper?”
“Why, no. They are quite as distraught over her cousin’s activity as any other. But surely such far reaches for a band of jungle bandits is absurd.”
Mr. Harding shook his head. “The ticket was missing as well. Nothing can be assumed.” He excused himself to go question these individuals.
I excused myself to wander the streets. Several engagements had indeed been cancelled in the course of the week, leaving more than enough time to worry about the situation. I suppose I should have been grateful not to need to focus on presenting on past explorations while distracted with present difficulties. My heart was too fully in Columbia to want to merely talk about it. I needed to be there myself to reach Cooper before the thief ruined the rescue. I shrugged back my shoulders and quickened my step. Even the cold breeze and dry air here weighed on my mind and shriveled my soul.
“Bedeviled with unraveling plans, are you?”
I shook away my thoughts to see Jonadab’s smirking face before me. “What do you know of my plans?”
“It is a reporter’s job to find out everything.”
I looked hard at him.
He lightly brushed the air in front of him. “Miss Bettencourt does not seem to be in your company.”
It would have been odd indeed if Elva Bettencourt been constantly in my presence. True, she had only accompanied me on walks twice this week. I would have gladly taken her out more to relieve her mind from worries, but on both occasions the diversion had merely substituted an agony for an irritation. All about, citizens snubbed our company and made snide comments. She decided she preferred secluding herself where she could, in her words, worry about important things.
“Shall I send her your regards?” I asked.
He raised his eyebrows. “I have no intention to steal the lady’s heart. I firmly support the union of rightful lovers.” He tipped his head and walked away with the air of a self-righteous cat.
I frowned after him. What exactly was he after? I decided to follow.
Keeping my distance, I trailed him to the news shop, then ducked around to the back. A high window stood propped open, doubtless for ventilation. I turned my coat inside out, partly to protect it as I climbed up, partly to make my appearance more unkempt as fit the surroundings. Perched on a stack of boxes, I could make out words from inside.
“—news on Cooper?”
“Must not have access to a telegraph yet.”
“The documents seem to have been legit. They gave him an interpreter, anyway.”
“Unless that’s the reason…”
“Stop worrying. Mellus knows how to look out after himself.”
I stood a long time, forming the words I caught into a whole. Mr. Harding needed to hear of this. He should be able to send his telegraph, after all, as long as it was on a private line untapped by nosy reporters. And he should be able to scrape together a description of the interloper. I wondered if he might have cup-like ears.
Almost a month later I returned from a speech to find a letter asking for my presence at Joseph Harding’s house. We met in his study again.
“Do sit.” He pulled out an envelope and handed me the contents. “Miss Bettencourt has already received the news about her cousin. I would have shared it with you at the same time, but you were gone.” He stretched back with his hands behind his head. His face bathed in a relaxed pleasantness.
I skimmed through the letter.
Mr. Mellus, one of Jonadab’s cohorts, had indeed been seen in Columbia, where he had used his documents to procure a boat, supplies, and use of one of the embassy’s interpreters, Fabio. They followed Cooper’s course up the rive, making discreet inquiries about his ‘friend from America’ to find out ‘how he was doing.’
I smiled and started reading aloud on the part reporting his meeting with the same river guide as Cooper had employed.
“The guide told us the American was well so far, but he did not know how much longer his good health would last. ‘They are bad men, very bad men,’ he kept saying.
“Mr. Mellus asked to hire him. The guide wanted to know if we were on an expedition. Mr. Mellus told him no. ‘Bring money?’
“’I can pay,’ Mr. Mellus told him. The guide did not look pleased when he payed. ‘I hope this is not all the money you have brought,’ he said.”
“So I was right, it was the guide, narrating the very circumstances he led them into,” I said.
“Yes,” said Mr. Harding. “And our little sneak got his just desserts. The crafty fellow whistled the bandits up on him, too. He put up quite the fight, Fabio says, but was wounded in struggle. If we hadn’t gotten your message off when we did, the soldiers would not have had the opportunity to arrive in time for the combat, and we would have had two prisoners to ransom.”
I suppressed a snort. Only one would have been worth a ransom, in my estimation. “What did he think about the rescue?”
Mr. Harding chuckled. “By then he was thoroughly confused over the whole affair. Apparently he thought you had set up the kidnapping and were sending someone down to finish Cooper off before Miss Bettencourt had the chance to raise ransom money. When his guide turned against him, he accused him of working for you.”
I smiled, but not with humor.
“That upset our villain,” Mr. Harding continued. “He raged for a while about how he worked for no one, he was the ruler of the river. By the time he had finished, he had incriminated himself as the head of the bandits.” Mr. Harding cocked a bushy eyebrow at me. “Altogether, our interloper did some good after all. You’ll be especially glad to know the fight on the river was the perfect distraction for a rescue maneuver. Martin himself led a party around to the back of the hill and spirited Cooper away. They’re all safely back at the embassy.”
I relaxed back in the chair. “It is good news. Though I wish I could see…” A word at the bottom of the letter caught my eye. It was my name. I looked closer, read it again, and looked up. “Me? They want me?”
Mr. Harding twisted an apologetic gesture with his hand. “The government considers the whole affair a fiasco, and wants a thorough investigation. You were involved enough in it that they want you, too. Sorry about that. It will mean cancelling the rest of your tour and months of politics. You could say no, of course. It’s not your government. But they might refuse all re-entry if you do.”
“Return is a bit…complicated at this point. There is the paperwork and permissions, you see.”
“I imagine they would be willing to cut quite a bit of red tape. And any necessary paperwork would be waived until you could work on it down there.”
I tried to accept this verdict with proper gravity, but a smile pushed its way out. I would be back in South America sooner than I had thought possible. Cooper and I could easily be ready for our next expedition by the time the investigation was over.
I walked out happily reflecting on the habitats of the lesser parrots, and almost ran into Elva.
“Your heard then,” she said.
“Yes. I’m glad to hear your cousin is safe.”
She nodded, but looked less excited than I would have thought. “You would think that would cause general rejoicing.”
“Miss Bettencourt?” I asked.
“After all this?” She laughed a little. “Please, just Elva.” She sighed. “Though it is almost a useless gesture.”
I stood, uncertain.
She hugged herself and sighed. “It’s this doltish society. They won’t listen to anything but their juicy gossip. It doesn’t matter that Robert is not my lover. It doesn’t matter that you helped save him. They all would rather hear about the scandal of the English explorer who abandoned his American partner to his fate and stole his sweetheart.” She shook her head violently. “I evidently have no choice now but to spurn you.” She smiled lopsided.
“Ah.” I inclined my head. “I hope I have not made your position more difficult by failing to formally present my suite before you jilted me.”
“I would say ridiculous, rather.”
“May it never be said I rendered a lady ridiculous.” I bowed, running my tongue around my mouth to find the right words. “Miss Elva—”
She smiled and held up a restraining hand. “I have hopes you will remedy the situation. But later. You are on your way to Columbia.”
“Perhaps when I come back I should bring Cooper.”
“Yes. Do bring my cousin home. Only don’t take too long. I’m not sure how long I can wait.”