Friday, November 1, 2013

Free Fiction Fridays: Isabel, Part Three

If you need to catch up, click through for Part One and Part Two.

As soon as it was light enough to see, Isabel checked her snares. She’d had luck again, as she’d caught two more moonrats out of four traps. Both leopards were just as happy to see these as the other two. They chomped busily away, Isabel eating a durian fruit, when a gunshot rang out, startling the jungle into a symphony of discordant shrieks, whistles and howls. Isabel dropped her fruit; both leopards sprang to their feet, the mother leopard with her trapped paw extended from her body, so she didn’t put any weight on it.

“They’re coming,” Isabel whispered. The shot they’d just heard was probably the poachers finishing off another trapped animal a mile or two down the road. Isabel scrambled across the stream, just as the mother leopard grunted softly to her cub. With several backward glances at its mother and Isabel, it slunk off into the creepers.

Isabel knelt down just outside what she thought of as the ‘leopard’s circle’. Heart pounding, she looked at the leopard, whose eyes were still focused in the direction of the gunshot.

“I know you don’t trust me,” Isabel said. “I know I’m one of them. But you have to let me help you. You know that, don’t you?” The leopard turned and looked at Isabel, her yellow eyes inscrutable.

The leopard stood about a foot and a half away from the edge of her six-foot across circle, which meant that Isabel had to come well inside the animal’s strike range. She crawled slowly, on hands and knees, to the point where she could just reach the release plate of the jaw-hold trap. Bit by bit, she extended her arm, her eyes never leaving the cat’s face.

Up until this point, the leopard had remained perfectly still except for the white tip of her tail, which twitched as she watched Isabel’s approach. Now, as Isabel’s hand came close to her foot, the leopard pulled back slightly and swiped at Isabel’s arm with her good paw, lip curled in a warning snarl. Isabel snatched her arm back to her chest, but luckily the swipe had been a statement, not a true attack.

Another gunshot.

“Please,” Isabel said, meeting the leopard’s eyes. “Please.” They stayed there for almost a full minute, Isabel on her knees, the leopard a few feet away in a half-crouch, their eyes locked.

It was the leopard who broke eye contact first. With a grunt, she lay down, her trapped paw extended, her other paw tucked beneath her chest. A peace gesture. Or so Isabel hoped.

She edged forward again, extending her arm once more, watching the cat for any sign of a reaction. There was none. After what seemed like an eternity, her fingers touched the release pad. Isabel took a deep breath and pressed.

The trap didn’t budge. It was old, dirt-and blood-caked, left outdoors in several monsoon seasons, and the parts simply weren’t gliding against each other like they used to. Isabel pressed with her fingers until she thought her knuckles would crack, but the pad didn’t give an inch.

With a shaky gulp, Isabel inched closer, until she was kneeling right next to the trap. The leopard’s whiskers were mere inches from her arm; she could feel warm breath tickling the hairs below her elbow. Isabel straightened up, placed her hands one atop the other on the pad, fingers interlaced, and pushed down with all her weight.

The trap groaned open, and before Isabel could even turn her head, the leopard was gone, a spotted flank and white-tipped tail disappearing into the green.

Isabel stayed in her position, kneeling by the trap, her eyes focused on the place she’d seen the leopard disappear, not even aware she was smiling, before the sound of a not-so-faraway human voice snapped her out of her reverie. She crossed the stream and grabbed her pack, then jogged several hundred meters back in the jungle and threw herself down under a curtain of creepers, still grinning.

There was a soft rustling in the distance which grew louder as the minutes passed. At last, four men stepped into Isabel’s vision, whom she immediately recognized as the four who’d killed her guides.

Three of the men gave angry shouts at the sight of the sprung trap, but the fourth simply went quietly to the steel jaws and squatted down, brows knit in concentration. He ran his forefinger on the inside of the closed trap, then held his hand up to his face, rubbing his thumb and finger together.

The other three men had stopped talking, and were intently watching this fourth man as he directed his attention away from the trap and toward the ground. His dark eyes scanned the disturbed leaves of the forest floor. Suddenly, he reached out and gingerly traced a shape in the dirt with his pinky. He looked up at his companions and said a few quiet words in Luru.

A subdued tension fell over the group. One of the men still standing snapped a question at the man who still squatted on the forest floor. The first part of his response was phrased seriously, then a slow smile spread over his face for the second.

Two of the men still standing laughed, and the third just smiled and shrugged. The fourth man stood, and they walked back the way they came, disappearing into the forest.

As the jungle noises slowly trickled back on after the men’s departure, Isabel let out a harsh breath and let her forehead fall onto her folded hands. Even though her fear of the poachers was still making her heart race, a thrill of rebelliousness prickled under her skin. They’d taken something from her; she’d taken something from them. They still weren’t anywhere near even, but it was still a victory, something to keep her going on her grueling journey back to civilization. She wriggled out from under the bushes, brushed herself off, and set off the way she’d been going, the opposite direction from the poachers.

Around mid-afternoon, Isabel found another small stream and dropped her pack for a short break. She mixed some iodine tablets with a fresh bottle of water, drank the whole thing down, and then made up a new one, putting it into the side pocket of her backpack. She took off her hat so she could fix her ponytail, grimacing at the film of sweat and dirt soaked into every strand of her light brown hair. Civilized women took things like clean hair and toilet paper for granted. She worked her fingers experimentally through a snarl, realized all she was accomplishing was ripping her hair out by the roots, and twisted the whole tangled mess into a wild bun at the back of her neck. She would have to soak her head in a bucket of detangler for three days to get this mess out.

Isabel looked around her and spied a durian tree. Her stomach cramped. A diet heavy in fruit was wreaking havoc on her digestive system; most of the vegetables she was finding now required cooking. She could happily kill someone for a steak and a baked potato. With a sigh, Isabel gathered three of the fruits to put in her pack, knelt quickly by the stream to freshen her protective layer of mud, and set off once more.

She’d just stepped over the stream, though, when a prickling sensation on the back of her neck made her whirl around and peer into the forest. She squinted into the thick, leafy green, trying to discern a flash of movement, a patch of color that didn’t belong.

She saw nothing.

You know, Isabel thought, your parents spent about a hundred thousand dollars of college tuition on your mind. They’ll probably be pretty annoyed if you lose it in the middle of the Bornean jungle.

Shaking her head, she turned and was on her way.

By her estimate, Isabel had about two more days of walking before she reached the small village she and her guides had set out from. Someone there could probably arrange transport for her back to the city, and once there the Embassy could get in contact with her university, get Professor Keegan on the phone so she could explain everything that had happened. Keegan was in charge of several field biologists, and had been for years; she often thought of him personally, and not the university itself, as base camp. He’d be able to sort everything out. After all, it wasn’t as though she only had to worry about getting out of Borneo a month early; there was the investigation of three murders which had occurred in the presence of a foreigner to think about. She’d probably need a lawyer.

Her stomach growled, and Isabel stopped, kneeling and swinging her pack off her shoulders to dig for the fruit she’d gathered earlier. She should probably think about setting up camp for the night soon…

Isabel was so lost in thought, she didn’t hear the man approaching until the steel barrel of his gun was pressed to the base of her neck.

“Take your hands off the pack,” said a heavily accented male voice. “Move very slowly.”

Tune in next week for the conclusion!

Like me on Facebook, follow me on Tumblr, add me on Goodreads, and stalk me on Twitter!

No comments:

Post a Comment