Pre-dawn over the Florida Everglades. Very peaceful, very serene.
Suddenly there was a stirring in the waters, and the large metal dome broke the surface, slowly raising itself clear until it stood tall. Seconds after, the steel wedges of the dome retracted, like the petals of an alien flower, revealing some interesting life-forms inside.
The light of the morning sun momentarily blinded the people standing on the helipad.
"Clark," addressed Drake. "The weather along your flight path is favorable, and I've arranged for a final refueling stop before the last leg into the Valley -- the information has been downloaded to the Osprey's onboard computer."
The bronze man took the hand of the black man. "Mitch, my thanks for everything."
"Keep in touch, okay? I'd ... like to work with you again."
"Count on it. Besides, you still owe us a ride in the Helldiver," he smiled.
"Blue Thunder?" repeated Amy, reading the name painted on the bow of the Osprey.
"Hey," replied Gumball, tipping his cowboy hat back. "I liked the movie. And you have to admit, the name fits."
"Uh ... yeah." She pointed to one side. "Look, your dad's calling us over."
They crossed the pad. Monk was in a wheelchair, with Dr. Egan behind him. He took his son's arm and pulled him close. "Now, son -- remember, as soon as you can, send me the signal that you're okay. I'll be waitin' for it!"
Gumball nodded. "No problem, Dad. And don't worry ... we'll do fine." He gave his father a gentle hug. "Give Mom a hug for me, okay? See you when we get back."
As he walked away, Perry and Dot approached. Monk addressed the three of them. "Now, remember, those wetsuits are stronger, and they'll resist a bullet, but that doesn't mean you're invulnerable. A rock can bounce off, but you'll still bruise underneath. And a knife or a spear won't cut the suit, but it can penetrate your body and cause internal injuries. Got it?" The trio nodded. "Good. Just keep the heroics to a minimum ... don't be like this old reprobate." He grinned.
One by one, they leaned down and gave the simian Monk a hug. Perry was the last. As he started to move away with the rest, Monk's hand grabbed his sleeve. He let the two women walk out of earshot, then turned back to the man in the wheelchair.
"Give us a moment, please?" Monk said to Dr. Egan. She nodded and moved offside.
Monk pulled Perry in close, his gaze compassionate, his voice cracking with emotion. "You take care of her, son. Don't let her do anything ... stupid ... like her granddad. Okay? You got that?" His eyebrows went up to punctuate the intent, and his apelike grip increased.
Perry's eyes met Monk's. "There's no need to worry. God is in control. And we'll all come home safe." His smile was reassuring.
"C'mon gang, we're losin' daylight!" yelled Gumball from the Osprey. "Let's get'um up, move'um out!"
Perry gave Monk a final fatherly hug, then walked to their transport, meeting Dot halfway. They both waved back at those they were leaving behind, then climbed aboard.
Everyone took their places. Clark closed the door. Amy and Dot made a final check of their gear, then took their seats. During their stay with Drake, Gumball had requested the installation of a CD player in the cockpit, and the music now coming from it was a John Williams movie soundtrack.
The three observers huddled close to the edge of the helipad, watching as Blue Thunder came to life, turboprops quickly lifting it gracefully into the air. A change in the angle of the props, and the Osprey charged forward. It circled once easily over the helipad and took their heading. Flying low to avoid radar, they cleared the Florida Keys, then swiftly ascended and settled on course for Central America.
The flight was mostly made in silence. Perry, Dot, and Amy made last-minute adjustments to their gear, rearranging things to avoid damage once they were on shore in the Valley, then passing the waterproof duffles through the secret hatchway into the pod under the belly of the craft. An eerie green glow shone through the hole from their work light, and it took only one look to show them that it would as crowded as a submarine airlock -- which, more or less, it was.
They made their final pit stop right on schedule, and were back in the air within ten minutes, on the final leg of their journey.
"Good morning, Buttercup," said Woodward. "Hope you slept well."
Pat let out a growl from the bed she was shackled to. "How do you think I slept, you witch!"
"Witch? Witch?" she repeated, her head cocked slightly and laughed. "Talk about the pot calling the kettle black."
Woodward turned to the female guards and instructed them to remove her handcuffs. Another woman brought in a tray with breakfast and set it on a table. While both covered her with tranquilizer guns safely out of reach, Pat climbed out of bed. With eyes full of hate but her mouth shut, she slowly stretched aching muscles, and carefully put on a bathrobe over the underclothes she had slept in. She moved to the table where breakfast was, sat, and started eating without hesitation. She had learned from the last two meals, when her attempts at self-defense caused her meals to be denied her.
Woodward brought a chair around and sat opposite her at the table. "I have a proposition for you."
"This should be interesting," commented Pat caustically.
Woodward ignored her and continued. "We've been rethinking our purpose of holding onto you. Ransom is out -- who's around to pay for you? Blackmail seems to be more realistic, but we have a small snag. There's no point in demanding money in exchange for our silence, since your company will fold in six months at the rate it's going."
Pat's jaw went slack and her eyes grew larger. "How did you find that out?"
Woodward dismissed the exclamation with a wave of her hand. "Doesn't matter. What does matter is that we now want you to keep your company." She paused. "We do, however, have one stipulation: I'll become your silent partner."
Pat bolted straight up out of the chair and yelled, "WHAT?" There was silence, as every weapon was pointed straight at the bronze-haired woman. After a few seconds, she looked around her, raised her hands slowly, and sank back in the chair. "Not a chance," she hissed.
Woodward knew she'd react this way. But, having the upper hand, she could be patient. Still sitting, she motioned for Pat to relax. "Don't answer so quickly, Pat," she continued. "Hear me out. If you return to your company, you'll continue the same practices that resulted in people like Jodie and the others. More lives will be changed, maybe lost. However, if you were to make some ... changes ... in your company, this would be to both our advantages. Your company would continue to run, without Apex as a thorn in your side, and would continue to prosper." She stood and took a couple of steps around the room. "In order to make the right changes, you need someone who is 'in touch' with those who have been harmed in the past. That would be me."
Pat was silent. Her expression was hard, but contemplative. "It nauseates me to think of you as a partner, but I may have to deal with the devil -- " She deliberately paused to emphasize the personal reference to Woodward. " -- in order to keep my company. Let me think about it."
"Fair enough," replied Woodward, nodding. There was no smug grin; she was doing this for the sake of the others. Then she left the room.
Pat finished her breakfast in silence, still under the watchful eyes of a pair of female guards.
"WOAH!" shouted Gumball as the Osprey started feeling the turbulence. "Okay, boys and girls ... welcome to the roller coaster ride ... No standing, and please keep your hands in the car!"
"Need help?" yelled Clark from the passenger area.
"I'll ... let ... you ... know ... thanks!"
The winds shook the Osprey like a raft in the rapids. We'd never felt such shaking, and, even though we were all securely strapped in, we still strained against the straps. All of us in the back were silently praying, both for the ability of the pilot and the airworthiness of the aircraft. The minutes stretched out, and time seemed to slow down. We heard nothing from the cockpit but the music of Gumball's CD; the action film theme seemed to help the matter, masking our concern with fantasy.
Finally, the winds subsided, and the shaking ceased. Moments later, Gumball whooped, "We're clear! And there's the Valley!"
As we burst into the egg-shaped valley, we pressed against the Osprey's windows. The sight was absolutely beautiful, and I said so. It was a little oasis in the middle of the mountain range, hidden for centuries, seen only by a handful of outsiders. It was like discovering the Garden of Eden, pristine in all its majesty.
But then Gumball spotted the serpents in the garden. "Uh oh! We've got trouble," he observed soberly. "I count four aircraft on the ground -- Pat's Osprey, and three helicopters that look military! We could be looking at a small army!"
"I suspected as much," commented Clark with a regretful sigh. "Gumball, take us around the rim a couple of times, then start your approach." He turned to us. "Time to get into position. We'll try to make contact with you as soon as possible."
I looked at Dot and Amy, and tried to sound casual. "Okay, ladies! Let's get wet!"
We'd already donned our wetsuits, becoming familiar in moving about with them, so it was just a matter of adding the SCUBA gear. Clark helped us down into the pod and into position. The red utility light kept away the claustrophobic feelings in the tight enclosure made tighter by the presence of the diving gear.
As each of us vanished below the floor of the Osprey, Clark told us, "God be with you."
"You too," I replied, the last one in.
In the quiet pod, I opened the communications channel in our full-face masks. "Everybody okay?"
"Yes," replied Amy.
"Same here," added Dot. "I just pray I don't have to itch."
I grinned, and turned the communications outward. "Okay, Gumball. Looks like we're good to go."
"Roger that, Perry," he answered, his voice cold and determined. "We're making our final pass. Thirty seconds, more or less."
We felt the Osprey tilt and descend. According to the plan, Clark would move forward into the cockpit and sit next to Gumball during the landing.
I concentrated on my breathing, then suddenly felt Dot's hand near mine. I reached for it, and felt her squeeze my hand twice, deliberately, in our private silent signal for 'I love you.'
"Any second now," reported Gumball. "We're lined up and going down. Good luck, guys."
Luck had nothing to do with this, I thought. Just then we hit the water with a jolt. Prepared as we were, we still bounced around inside the close quarters. I heard Amy give off with a sudden, "Ouch!" but we hit again before I could check on her situation. This jolt was lighter, and settled into a forward rocking motion.
"We're down," announced Gumball. "Deploying -- now!"
The doors on the underside of the pod opened, and we slid smoothly into the water. It was not as cold as I had expected, a welcome feeling, but it was surprising. I quickly descended, moving clear of the plane's wake. As I did, the canisters of anaesthetic gas began rolling free, like depth charges. One bounced off the end of one of the weighted waterproof duffles attached to my belt, then continued downward. The water was clear, and I could see Amy and Dot ahead of me. After a few seconds, I stopped my descent and pivoted to look above me. Only the gentle rippling of the water by the Osprey indicated any movement on the surface. Good, I thought, thanking God for a smooth insertion.
I continued my descent, stopping at the hundred-meter depth. The others were already there. Hovering in the water, we faced one another and quickly checked each other out. Everything was in good shape, as we reported through our communicators. Our rebreathing gear was working flawlessly, showing no telltale trail of bubbles. Our intent was to spend fifteen minutes at this depth, then make a landing at a place on the left of the river as one faced the pyramid.
My concern now turned to Clark and Gumball.
From the clearing near the palace, Woodward and Clayton had watched the approach of the blue plane.
"It's an Osprey, allright, but like no configuration I've seen before," commented Bonnie. "Looks like they're aiming to come ashore at the base of the pyramid."
"This is getting to be a very popular place," added Woodward tiredly. "Friends of Pat?"
"Not a clue."
"Then grab a couple of your best shots, and let's welcome them ashore."
Clayton ran off while Woodward walked towards the lake.
Pat had been allowed to stay unshackled as long as she promised to stay in her room. She agreed, if only to net her some freedom to find a way of escape.
So at the first sound of airplane engines, Pat rushed to her bedroom window.
Her initial response had been elation, knowing that her nemesis cousin was at last where she wanted him. But her joy crashed to the ground as she realized she was no longer in control, but Woodward -- and that turned Pat's stomach like habanero peppers and tequila. If Doc sided with Woodward against her ... she shuddered in fear at the possibilities.
Her eyes turned to the descent of the blue aircraft, and her jaw dropped as she recognized it. "An Osprey?" she exclaimed, her language now punctuated with obscenities. "My blankety-blank cousin got an Osprey? How? And he painted it blue to get on the natives' good side!"
As the plane cruised casually up the river, Pat's hopes sank.
"That's the last of the canisters. Pod bay doors closed," acknowledged Clark. "You ready?"
Gumball gave the bronze man an astonished look. "You're asking me that now?" He smiled. "So where do you want me to come ashore?"
"Let's drop anchor on the far side, there ... to the left of the waterfall."
"Roger," he answered.
As they slowly sailed upriver, Gumball commented, "Your descriptions of this place didn't do it justice, Doc. It's beautiful."
"I won't argue that. Thank God, it hasn't changed much," he added with a smile.
Gumball pointed towards the shore, where the Mayan natives were curiously gathering and watching. "Looks like tourist season has started. Wow -- they're gorgeous!"
"Indeed. Every one a pure Mayan, with no intermarriage with outside races."
They passed rows of impressive stone houses, and could see the detail in architecture. Many of the natives sank to their knees and bowed to the ground as the Osprey passed by. Gumball gawked at the sights, until Clark put a hand on his shoulder, reminding him, "The pyramid?" They slowed and eased precisely towards the pristine white sand of the beach.
"Okay, now what?"
"Now we see who meets us," said Clark, eyeing beyond the shore. "Drop the anchor."
Gumball flipped a switch. "Anchors aweigh!"
There was a slight jerk as the anchor took hold and slowed them to a crawl. A few moments later, mere yards from shore, their momentum halted. The Osprey rocking gently with the waves, Gumball shut down the engines and looked out at the shore. "Here comes our welcoming party," he announced. "And they don't look like natives."
Four women were walking directly towards them, in two rows of two. All were wearing camouflage clothing and carried holstered weapons, and the two in the rear carried automatic weapons at the ready. Of the two in the lead, one was a black woman with a determined walk, and the other was of amazonian height and build. The natives gave the women a wide berth, Clark noted, and appeared to be frightened at their presence.
"I don't see Pat or Monja," commented Clark, inserting one of the tiny transceivers into his ear. "There may be more going on here than we are aware of. I'll open the door and make my appearance first. We'll keep in touch with the transceivers."
"Sure thing," replied Gumball, adjusting his transceiver. "Be careful."
Clark moved back to the door and slowly swung it open. He stood in the doorway for a moment, then dropped into the shallow water and waded onto shore. "Read me?" he said softly.
"Loud and clear," came the answer.
As he shook the water from his boots, the welcoming party reached him, and the black woman in the lead spoke first, "Who are you, and what is your business here?"
First conclusion, he thought, is that this one's not supporting Pat, otherwise she would've acknowledged me as who I am. Interesting.
Thinking quickly, he put on his best used-car-salesman smile and stepped forward with an outstretched hand.
"The name's Dent, ma'am -- Clark Dent. I'm a trader to these people. And, as you can see, I'm also unarmed. Now who might you be?"
"Woodward," she said coldly. "I'm the military government of this valley. What is it you trade, Clark Dent?"
Clark didn't hesitate. "Services, mostly. Medical needs, technological skills." His outstretched hand was still alone, so he withdrew it. "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am. Will you allow my pilot and I to come ashore?"
She looked him over, maintaining an intimidating silence. The women accompanying her were just as stoic. A moment later, Woodward replied, "Permission granted."
Clark turned to the Osprey and waved.
"Okay, Doc," said Gumball through the transceiver. "You want me to activate the on-board security?"
Clark shook his head briefly, no.
"Okay," answered Gumball. "Here I come."
The tall pilot walked from the aircraft to the shore, and stood at Clark's side.
"This is my pilot," said Clark.
"Call me Gumball," he added.
Woodward turned to the amazonian brunette and ordered, "Search the plane."
Without hesitation, the three who had accompanied the black woman waded into the water and climbed into the Osprey. After a few minutes, the tall one called back, "It's clean."
Woodward turned to Clark. "Services, huh," she mumbled, suspiciously.
The three returned to the shore and the tall one -- they overheard the name Clayton -- took Woodward offside. Clark was able to read their lips, and knew they were conferring about what to do with him and Gumball.
WOODWARD: "I don't trust those two. It's just too convenient for them to show up at this time, and in an Osprey no less."
CLAYTON: "You think they're here because of Pat?"
WOODWARD: "Possibly. Either way, we need to find a place to hold them."
CLAYTON: "There's a place about a half mile from the palace. The natives call it the Island of Shame. I checked it out yesterday, and it's just what you're looking for."
They returned to where Clark and Gumball stood. Her expression was hard. "Until we can confirm your story, you will be placed in protective custody. Any resistance, and my people will shoot you. Is that understood?"
"Certainly, ma'am," replied Clark. "Although I'm confused. We're just here to help these people. Will you let us help them?"
"In time, Mr. Dent. For now, come with us. Your aircraft will be safe."
They both nodded and went with their welcoming party, to a clearing with an island only a few yards wide surrounded by a water-filled channel. They crossed the moat using a sturdy plank, which was removed once they were across.
Clayton talked to Woodward offside, resulting in a loud explosive laugh from the black woman. Clark, reading their lips, reacted with only a raised eyebrow.
The welcoming party marched off, and Gumball looked around the area with amusement. "This is their holding cell? Heck, I could broadjump this moat easy."
Clark replied sternly, "I wouldn't." He pointed at the edges. "Look closely. There's sand on both sides of the moat. Makes it hard to push off on this side, and hard to land on the other side without falling backwards."
Gumball wasn't impressed. "So? What's to stop us from wading through it? Can't be more than a couple'a feet deep."
"Did they ever teach you about poisonous snakes in the military?" asked Clark nonchalantly.
"Survival course during Basic Training, and two semesters of marine biology in college. Why?"
Clark pointed at the moat. "Look closely."
Gumball warily edged towards the water and peered down. All of a sudden his eyes got large and he backpedaled several feet. He hit a soft spot in the sand and fell onto his backside. "Holy cow!" he exclaimed. "I've never seen so many different species of poisonous sea life before!"
"She called this the Island of Shame," said Clark as he helped Gumball back to his feet. "Now I can understand why. Very practical."
The pilot dusted the sand from his pants. "Okay, so we're stuck. How do we get unstuck?"
"Right now I don't believe that's important," answered Clark, looking around and walking over to a clean patch of ground. "They have us under a microscope." He lowered himself into a cross-legged seated position and looked up at Gumball. "So we wait and see. Join me?"
The pilot gave Clark an impatient look, then shrugged and flopped down on the sand near him. "I hope they're doing okay," he said softly.
Clark turned his eyes to the heavens and replied under his breath, "So do I."
While Dot and Amy held onto my duffles, I made my way to the surface.
My head just above the water, I scanned the area. Thank God! We were well clear of the village -- it was more the size of a small town -- and closer than we had hoped to our intended beachhead. Submerging, I joined the others and guided them to the shore. One by one we cautiously left the water and regrouped a dozen yards inland. Once we synchronized our ARTIE units to our location, we moved deeper into the jungle and set up a camp site a mile from the river.
I thanked God for the Paradox wet suits, especially after a couple of reptiles tried to get familiar with Dot and Amy. Our special survival knives took care of them, as well as clearing some of the foliage away from our campsite.
Amy set up a hypersonic repeller that would guarantee a twenty yard radius clear of pests and other critters, and a heat sensor that would alert us if anything with a human body temperature got within a hundred yards of our little hideaway.
"Okay, the perimeter's safe," she announced. "We can breathe now."
Dot and I released a simultaneous sigh. "Thanks, Amy," I said, and started opening my duffles.
The first thing I unpacked were the three transceivers that would keep us in touch with Clark and Gumball. I put mine in my ear as I handed the box to Dot.
"Perry to Clark ... do you read me?"
"Yes, Perry," acknowledged Clark. "I read you. Is everyone okay?"
"Yes, we're fine." I gave our position relative to the pyramid. "We've set up camp within a mile of shore. How about you ... what's your situation?"
"It appears that things have changed since our first contact. The additional aircraft we observed in our approach are not associated with Pat, but seem to be a paramilitary force that has taken control of the Valley. The leader is a woman by the name of Woodward, and from what we've seen, their entire force is comprised of women. We've neither seen nor heard anything from Pat or Monja since our arrival, and currently we're in an area called the Island of Shame, under 'protective custody'. We've told them we're traders to the area, but I rather doubt that they believe us. So, right now, we're waiting to see what you find out."
"Yeah," added Gumball. "Like Clark put it, we're under a microscope. And how! We can be watched from several angles, including the palace."
"Are you sure it's safe to talk?" I cautioned.
"We're free to talk as long as we're not being directly observed," said Clark. "And if we give the appearance we are communicating between ourselves and not with outside parties. For the moment I would suggest you remain where you are until we can discern more about these people."
"Agreed. We'll need the time to determine a route to reach you without being discovered."
"Good. Clark out."
As the morning sun crept overhead, the two men passed the time by examining their surroundings and exchanging information. Clark identified the palace, and both of them watched the activity on the second floor. At one point they saw an exchange between Woodward and a dark-haired woman, then with someone in the room next to it. They observed the movements of the female soldiers who patrolled the area, and noted the weaknesses in their actions.
Sometime after noon, they were visited by Woodward and a couple of her soldiers. The amazonian lieutenant wasn't with her.
She stood there on the outside edge of the moat, silently looking him over for many moments. Then she spoke with slow deliberation. "You ... are ... Doc ... Savage."
Clark had anticipated this sooner or later, but his countenance remained firm. He calmly denied her statement, and tried to argue the point, but the black woman held up a hand and exploded, "No, that's crap! You're him! I don't know how you look so young, but since your cousin's on some Fountain of Youth drug, anything's possible!" She paused. "By the way, it was Queen Monja who finally spilled the beans and identified you!" She glared at him. "And don't even think about conning me, or you'll never get off that island!"
Clark paused, his face impassive, and their eyes met. "You are correct. I am Clark Savage, Jr. And may I assume you're the leader of the group they call Apex?"
"Good guess, boy scout," said Woodward, her eyes narrowed.
"Apart from taking my cousin captive, why are you here?"
She looked at him and tried to read through the bronze mask. "You really don't know, do you?"
She took a deep breath. "Your cousin, apart from deceiving the world through her duplicity, has perpetrated numerous atrocities through her company. If you would like a few flesh-and-blood examples, I can introduce you to them personally. We followed her here in order to have an opportunity to bring her face-to-face with her actions."
"I assume you've done that by now?"
"Yeah. We did."
Clark looked at her and stated, "There's more."
She nodded. "We know her secret. We plan to use that knowledge to force her to make changes to her company."
"Will you free her once she agrees to this?"
Woodward paused, suddenly realizing how open and honest she was being with this man. And it concerned her. Perhaps it was the legend behind the man, or his imposing stature, or something she couldn't put her finger on. She had no reason to answer his question, but she did. "I don't know yet. There's no guarantee that she'll comply if we do. Until we get that guarantee, we can't let her go."
Just then the amazonian Clayton, calling Woodward's name, ran to her side and pulled the black woman away, out of earshot. As Clark read their lips, he suddenly moved his hand to his ear and released a sharp cough. "Your attention please!" he said softly but forcefully. Then he relayed the information along the transceiver's path.
"There is a problem ... one of Woodward's soldiers named Janie has escaped from a special confinement ... she persuaded her guard to untie her so she could relieve herself, then overcame the guard ... injured her rather severely ... and fled into the jungle ... 'she has a pistol and some grenades' ... Woodward is ordering a search party to go after her ... 'take her alive if possible, kill her if you're attacked'."
"One of their own?" commented Gumball softly.
Seeing Woodward walking back towards the island, Clark suddenly said, "Stand by!"
The black woman's face betrayed her concern, and she did her best to hold it in.
"Nothing wrong, I trust?" asked Clark naively.
"None of your business!" she snapped. They could see that this latest development had disturbed the unflappable black woman. Maintaining an even countenance, she stood silently for a moment to compose herself. Then she looked at Clark. "I'm curious about something. I found out that Pat used some sorta drug on her and on Monja. Is that what happened to you?"
Clark thought a moment, noting the detail about the silphium being used on Monja. He wondered for a moment if that was the dark-haired woman he saw in the second floor window of the palace. If this were so ... he needed to talk to her.
But Woodward needed an answer. "It's a little complicated," he replied vaguely.
"I'm a scientist," she affirmed impatiently. "Try me."
He looked at her and nodded. "Very well. Fifty years ago, I was rendered unconscious by an enemy, then placed into a form of suspended animation. I awoke only last year."
The black woman's interest was peaking. "Cryogenics? Freezing? Stasis?"
"I'm not certain of the method. As I said, I was unconscious when it happened to me, and, since the breaking of the mechanism is what freed me, I was unable to analyze it. But I would surmise some variation of cryogenics."
"Amazing!" said the scientist within her. She paced a few steps outside of the Island, taking an occasional glance back at the unmoving bronze man. Then, without warning, she spun on her heel and swiftly walked away.
Gumball had been sitting on the far side of the island during their exchange. Now he came close and spoke. "I know you didn't have much of a choice but to tell her the truth, Doc. I just hope it doesn't backfire on us."
"As do I," he replied. "Perry, did you all hear that?"
The preacher's voice echoed softly in their ears. "We all did, loud and clear."
"It looks like we're going to be having company soon," added Dot.
"Unfortunately," concluded Clark. "Can you find a safe place to hide?"
"I doubt it. Our best bet is to keep going and pray that God blinds their eyes from finding us."
"Very well. I'll be praying for you. Keep us posted."
"Gotcha. Perry out."
Maneuvering through the jungle growth was a pain. Our inexperience was beginning to show in spite of the 'special compensations' provided by Drake & Company. The waterproof duffles were resting within lightweight titanium frames on our backs, distributing the loads sufficiently.
The greatest obstacle was the jungle itself. We didn't dare use the established paths by day for fear of discovery, so we cautiously cleared a trail using special high carbon steel bush knives.
We'd been at it for a few hours, and were preparing to make a rest stop in a small natural clearing, when we suddenly came face-to-face with the subject of Woodward's search.
To call her a madwoman would've been an understatement. Her eyes were wide with insanity, and her Tom Peterson-style buzz cut was slicked down with sweat and dirt. She had scratches over her bare arms, and blood showed where her clothes had been torn, but she was oblivious to it all. Oddly, the preacher in me couldn't help comparing her to the woman mentioned in the gospels, the one possessed with many demons.
But that one wasn't packing an automatic.
We were sitting ducks, weary from hiking through the jungle, our packs slowing us down. We barely had time to scatter when she let out an animal-like half-growl, half-scream, and opened fire on us.
I heard the shots, and felt something hit my leg. Losing my balance, I fell in a clumsy tumble to the ground. Smacking the quick-release buckle with my palm, my pack fell free and allowed me to assess the situation.
Dot was to my right. She had also ditched her pack and -- closest to our assailant -- was going on the offense. Amy was behind us, trying to free herself from a stubborn buckle.
I looked back to Dot as she closed in on the armed woman, and thought I recognized an odd hesitation in her approach. However, reflex took over as the gun leveled on her chest. With an easy high sweeping kick, she knocked the gun into the bushes and sent Janie sprawling backwards onto the ground. As she landed, the contents of her bag emptied around her, and she grabbed one.
"Oh God!" I breathed at the sight of the hand grenades, and scrambled for the superfirer in my pack.
I reached my pack and looked over my shoulder just in time to see Janie toss one of the grenades at my wife.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and I was powerless to do anything but watch and pray as the explosive rolled over and over.
As it passed too high and too fast to endanger Dot, I breathed a sigh of relief -- cut off abruptly as I saw just where the explosive was going to land ... less than a dozen feet from Amy.
She'd also come to the same conclusion, and was quickly trying to scramble clear.
She didn't make it.
The concussion from the blast flattened me against the ground, and I heard a crunching thud to my right a moment later. Looking back, I saw Amy's limp body slumped across some bushes.
Praying fiercely, I rushed to her side.
Now was NOT the time for a personal crisis, decided Dot to herself.
But there SHE was.
Everything about this crazy lady -- her clothes, her hair style, her attitude, and even her name -- reminded Dot of that seedy smoke-filled bar in San Francisco, where she came disturbingly close to killing the other 'Janie'.
Dot was trying not to admit it, but she was scared. Scared of her own capabilities. She'd vowed to God that she'd never again allow herself to become such a berserker, that she'd always be able to control her inner animal.
But then the grenade exploded, and Amy was tossed by the blast. Dot's eyes went blood red with rage as she looked at the originator of the grenade. Screaming an obscenity, she leapt upon the camouflage-clad terrorist without a second thought.
Straddling Janie's midsection, Dot struck out repeatedly, feeling no pain in her fists as they collided with flesh and bone. At that moment, one single thought kept going through her mind ...
Amy was alive, but unconscious. The Paradox wetsuit seemed to have absorbed a fair portion of the blast, thank God. And she didn't appear to have any broken bones.
I looked up from my examination long enough to see what was going on with Dot. My wife was straddling the chest of the woman Janie, and I could see her arms flailing down in a wild rhythm.
Without hesitation I yelled, "DOT! NO!"
My yell had the effect of a slap to the face of a hysterical person, bringing her out of her rage long enough to see what she was doing. She jumped back from Janie as if touched by a high-voltage power line, and staggered back a few steps.
I called her name, and she turned to face me. The look on her face was pure horror. I called her name again, and she moved woodenly over to Amy's other side, dropping to her knees.
"Is ... she ... ?" she asked, her voice quavering.
I nodded. "She's alive. The Paradox took the brunt of the concussion. No telling how she is inside, though." I looked into her shocked eyes and probed compassionately, "How are you?"
She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. As she saw the blood on her hands, she began sobbing uncontrollably. I reached across Amy and shook her shoulder. "Dot, come out of it! Please!"
Just then a shadow crossed Amy's body, followed by several more. Groaning within myself, I looked up into the faces of several Mayan natives. They were armed with short knives and farming implements, and the expressions on their faces told me they weren't heading out to harvest.
I dropped my head and sighed, "Oh, God."