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Death by poison dart. Forest fires. Government greed. Murder is never simple.
When an environmental scientist studying indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest is murdered, Raja and Vinny are called to Brazil to find out why. Solving the murder takes them deep into an amazing world where nothing is small. Not the towering trees, the millions of species, or the human greed that threatens it all.
In a place where illegal soya farmers, wildcat loggers, and human traffickers run rampant, and wildfires burn the evidence, the question still remains. Who killed David Winters?
WHAT READERS ARE SAYING
“If you like a murder mystery, some humor great friendships, and unusual and a little unorthodox, then this book is for you.“
“Another nail bitting adventure…Left me wanting to keep reading til the end.“
“Colorful, entertaining and educational. The detail that Jack provides in this and all of his books is incredible.“
Prologue: Death by Dart
A young man stood on the banks of the wide creek studying the wildlife in the area before crossing. In the Amazon jungle, it was the prudent thing to do. Plenty of dangers could lurk in the dark waters. An apex predator like the black caiman might be cruising through looking for an easy meal. A crocodilian that could grow as large as six meters long, the black caiman was designed with nostrils and eyes on the top of his head, making him nearly invisible in the water. Of course it was past the rainy season and the waters had already receded, making it unlikely that there would be any caimans this far upstream. Nonetheless one couldn’t be too careful.
David scanned the surface and spotted a family of capybara swimming across the creek. The largest rodent in the world, an adult capybara grew as big as one meter long and could easily weigh forty kilos. David watched as the female paddled across with half a dozen pups following behind her. Although large, they were herbivores related to the guinea pig and posed no threat.
The wide variety of plant and animal life in the Amazon rainforest was interesting but merely a side distraction to David. An anthropologist, he got a degree in biology from the University of Miami and was now working on his master’s in anthropology at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, highly ranked for the field. He was in the Amazon rainforest to study the indigenous tribes.
David waited until the capybara had reached the other side and then began to wade across, moving quickly. There was no sense taking any unnecessary chances. As he approached the far side he saw a small school of piranhas in an eddy, but wasn’t alarmed. Despite the sensationalized movies made about piranhas attacking humans, the little fish were actually quite shy and fearful. They hid among the reeds and gathered close together to defend themselves from attackers. Because the waters had receded the creek was only one meter at its deepest point and David was able to reach the other side quickly. He stopped on the muddy bank and scooped up a handful of dark mud, rubbing it on his arms, legs and head. Besides providing camouflage it would also deter the ever-present mosquitoes from biting.
David had surveyed the area for several weeks looking for a tribe that had been reportedly seen somewhere nearby. He discovered several skeletons of capybara which was a favorite meal for a number of the tribes. The one he was looking for hunted with blowguns, disabling the animals with poison on the darts they used. David made his way through the jungle as quietly as possible and stepped over a trail of leaves that seemed to be magically moving across the jungle floor. They were being carried by leaf cutter ants who didn’t actually eat the leaves but carried them back to their underground nests. There a fungus would grow on them and feed on the leaves. The ants ate the fungus. It was a perfect example of the symbiotic and interwoven relationships that many species of plants and animals had in the Amazon jungle.
David reached the group of low palms that he had chosen as a blind to watch the tribesmen. After taking the field glasses from around his neck he carefully parted the palm fronds and peered out on the other side. What he saw sent a jolt of adrenaline through his entire body and his heart began to pound. Two men, short in stature and dark skinned, wearing only a small loincloth around their genitals were in plain view from his perch. One of the men appeared to be standing guard, while the other was gutting a capybara with a bone knife. They would take nearly everything, all the insides for food, some of the bigger bones for tools and weapons and the skin to carry water. They were skilled and efficient and within minutes had the animal completely butchered and the meat wrapped in the skin.
As they moved off into the jungle, David pulled the notepad from his waterproof pouch and began to furiously make notes, trying not to miss anything he had observed. There were hundreds of indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest. When civilization intruded, some tribes farther south and east had made contact and some had even begun to assimilate. Many others were slaughtered. The tribes that did not want to have any contact with outside people moved deeper into the jungle.
David scribbled notes estimating the size of the two men he had seen, as well as descriptions of the tattoos that they wore. These two men had red and white tattoos on their face and arms. Each tribe had unique tattoos and other distinguishing markings as well as their own language. There were several major tribes in the region with red and white tattoos. However one of those tribes also had a particular fashion statement of stretching large holes in their earlobes and the others wore pieces of bone piercing their cheeks and nose. These two tribesmen had neither. David could not recall having ever seen the tattoo pattern documented before. His excitement rose as he realized it was likely that he had found an undocumented tribe.
David quietly moved back from his blind and left the area. He reversed his course and eventually got back to his camp. It wasn’t much. A small pup tent and a campfire he had dug into the ground. He had been living there for the last month and a half. He pulled out his SAT phone but the battery was low. Itching to tell someone about his discovery, he tried making a call anyway but was unable to get a signal. Instead he finished making notes on the men he saw. Both of them carried blowguns, uncommon in this region of the Amazon. It was the weapon of choice of the Awa tribe of which there were over 350 members much farther south. However, the Awa had a very specific and distinctive tattoo that looked like a jagged representation of lightning on each of their cheeks. These two had nothing like that.
David closed his eyes and pictured the two men and their tattoos. He began drawing in his sketchpad. The tattoos on both sides of their cheeks were star-shaped and red with several white marks arced around them. The white spirals on their arms might have been snakes, or simply geometric shapes similar to those used by several native Australian tribes. When he finished he looked at the result and nodded his head. He was certain he had found a new tribe. He had to tell somebody about his discovery.
That would have to be Sarah. She was the closest civilized human and the only one he had seen since coming out to the rainforest. Her camp was a kilometer east of his location. He only knew she was there because he had passed by once during his exploration of the jungle.
David looked at himself in the small mirror he had in his tent. With his mud-matted hair he looked like a wild native. Thinking he should clean up a bit, he went down to the creek and washed off the mud. After combing his hair which had gotten long since he came out into the Amazon, he decided a change of clothes would be in order. He put on a clean pair of pants and short sleeve poplin shirt, and combed his hair again. Now he was ready.
The trek to Sarah’s camp would take half the day. There were no roads or paths and the thick green undergrowth made the going slow. He reached Sarah’s camp just before dark. The large tent that she had put up was a mansion compared to the one he slept in for the last month. Calling her name got no response. He unzipped the door and walked inside. Sarah was nowhere to be found. He went back out and carefully scanned the forest. Sarah was several hundred meters to the north taking photographs of a group of monkeys. David brushed back his hair and walked in her direction. When he got close enough he called out to her.
“Sarah, you’ve got a visitor.” At the sound of his voice the monkeys chattered loudly and played follow the leader scampering up a large kapok tree, disappearing into the canopy of the forest.
As David approached, Sarah turned and gave him a stern, disapproving look.
“I hadn’t finished my count you know,” she said. Sarah was an environmental scientist who was documenting a wildlife survey in the area for an environmental group.
“Sorry about that,” said David. “It’s just that I have been so anxious to tell someone about my find.” While it was true that David was excited to tell someone it also didn’t hurt that Sarah was a beautiful young woman with the kind of wavy red hair that David found quite attractive.
Sarah folded up her tripod and camera and walked toward him. “What’s this you say about a find?”
“I think I’ve done it,” said David. “I found a previously uncontacted tribe.” Sarah knew that this was the pinnacle of achievements for David’s field of anthropology and immediately forgave him for his intrusion.
“It’s getting dark. Let’s go back to my tent and you can tell me all about it.”
While David had only the most rudimentary of equipment in his pup tent, Sarah had a full complement including a pedal crank generator, as well as a large lithium battery to store power so she could maintain lights and keep her laptop charged. She could easily charge her cell phone, although making calls was out of the question this far from the city. She used it to record notes.
“I was hoping you would charge up my SAT phone,” said David, pulling it out of the knapsack he brought. “It’s dead as a doornail.”
“I can do that,” said Sarah, “but it’s going to cost you.” She pointed to the small box with pedals on the floor. “At least an hour’s worth of pedaling.”
“Sounds like a fair deal,” said David. “I’ll give you two hours for a full phone charge.” It would give him an excuse to hang around longer.
“You hungry?” said Sarah. She knew he would be because he had complained about eating dried beef the last time he came by.
“You bet,” said David. “What you got?” Sarah opened the small refrigerator that was plugged into her battery pack. A couple of hours a night spent on the pedal generator kept it going on the lowest cold setting. It was more exercise than she had planned to do, but having fresh food was worth it, and it kept her in good shape, something David didn’t fail to notice.
It was nearly dark, so Sarah turned on the overhead LED lights also powered by her battery. “I’ve got linguine Alfredo and I also have a salmon fillet I bought during my last trip to the city.”
“How about both. My treat. I feel like celebrating,” said David, smiling broadly. He pulled out several bills from his pouch and offered them. Sarah refused the money and started the food. David sat down and began pedaling the charger and discussing his find.
“You know, as I told you the last time I came by, I was certain there was a tribe out there not too far from my camp. I found it and there’s no question it’s a unique tribe. I didn’t get pictures. I was afraid to make any noise. But this time I did get a closer look at their tattoos. They are unique to blowgun tribes. And I saw their blowguns.”
“No, and they’re not Awa. The tattoo patterns are entirely different. The distinctive tattoos are worn by all the men of each tribe. There is no written language so each tattoo has a story behind it and is part of the history of the tribe.” David showed her the drawings that he had made in his sketchpad.
“Those are unique. Way to go.”
“I want to call Dr. Sandova. That’s why I need the charge.”
“Plug it in,” said Sarah. “And keep pedaling.”
When the food was ready they both sat at the small table Sarah used for everything. While they ate Sarah told David about some of the plant and animal species that she was surveying. “The pattern is very clear. Obviously the rainforest deforestation is pushing animals farther and farther west into the deeper undisturbed jungle. But habitat fragmentation due to roads and soya plantations is accelerating the process. The monkeys I found are the only ones I’ve seen this close to Manaus. And the sad part is, we may never know how many unique species are being pushed to extinction right before our eyes.” David checked his SAT phone and saw that it had half a charge already. He made the call to his mentor at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.
“Dr. Sandova. It’s David.”
“David. It’s good to hear from you. Where are you?”
“I’m about seven kilometers west of the BR-174, north of Manaus. I think I’ve done it. I’ve found the undocumented tribe we thought was here.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“Yes, and fairly close up. I’ve been observing their hunting activity for several days. They aren’t the naked tribe we thought might be here, but I got a good look at their tattoos. Definitely not Guarani. And get this, they use blowguns to hunt.”
“Blowguns. I never would have expected that so far east. That’s great work, David. Have you found their village?”
“Not yet, I watched two men skinning a capybara, and they carted off a lot more meat than they could eat. Their maloca must be somewhere nearby. Finding that will be my next step.”
“Just be careful. You know getting close enough to see that will be tough. The young men of the tribe will be on guard to protect the women and children. If they spot you they will likely pull up stakes and disappear.”
“Yes, Professor.” David continued the conversation a few minutes, discussing more anthropology until his phone alerted to a low battery.
After the call, Sarah handed David a plastic cup. “Hold still now. I don’t want to mess up my dirt floor.” She poured the cup full of pale liquid.
“It’s sparkling white wine I brought from Rio. I thought we should celebrate.” Sarah filled a cup for herself.
David sniffed the wine. He hadn’t drunk anything for weeks but slightly muddy water from the creek or rainwater he managed to collect. “You’ve got all the comforts of home out here, don’t you?”
“Far from it.” She thought about the apricot shampoo she had bought in the city and smiled. “Well, maybe a few. I may be an environmental scientist but I am still a girl.”
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
Sarah clinked her cup against David’s. “To your newfound tribe. By the way, I heard you mention a maloca. What’s that?”
“Many of the indigenous tribes live communally in a barrel-shaped thatched hut. It’s similar to the long houses of the Haudenosaunee tribes who lived in northeastern U.S.”
“I never heard of Haudenosaunee Indians.”
“It’s the true name for the Iroquois Five Nations. Mohawk, Huron, Seneca, etc. Iroquois was strictly a French term and somewhat derogatory. The Indians called themselves the Haudenosaunee, which meant people of the longhouse.”
“You know a lot about native tribes.”
“It’s my field. Anyway, when I find their maloca I can better estimate the size of this new tribe.”
The two talked about their experiences in the Amazon rainforest and their mutual desire to protect it. They managed to drink the rest of the bottle of wine, and as sometimes easily happens with young people, an attraction began to percolate into both their thoughts. David was too shy to broach the subject and eventually he said, “I guess I should be heading back to my camp.”
“Are you kidding me right now? Listen to that rain.” David hadn’t noticed. “How far is your camp?”
“About one kilometer northwest from here.”
“Do you really want to walk a kilometer in the pouring rain in the dark?”
“It would be unpleasant, but I don’t want to impose.”
“Who says you’d be imposing?” Sarah stood up and untied her hair, letting it fall to her shoulders.
David and Sarah spent the next several hours oblivious to the Amazon jungle and the rain that steadily pelted the tent. Sarah was the first one to go to sleep and David watched her sleeping for a while. She really was beautiful. He realized the wine had caught up to him, and got up. He quietly unzipped the door. It was still raining steadily, so he grabbed the plastic rain poncho hanging next to the door and slipped outside.
There are no toilets in the Amazon jungle. You have to just find a spot and go. Usually a researcher spending a long time in one location will dig a latrine somewhere nearby to serve. David had no idea where Sarah had hers so he picked a direction and walked out into the jungle. After a half dozen meters he stopped under an ipe tree. “This will have to do,” he said. It wouldn’t matter much since the rain would wash it away.
When he finished, he heard a crack and a chill ran up his spine. Straight ahead of him in the darkness he noticed a pair of twinkling yellow lights low to the ground. As he panned around the forest he saw more twinkling lights in bushes and trees. David knew these were the eyes of night creatures. The Amazon rainforest never slept. While a large contingent of animals were active during the day, an even larger group came out only at night. Most of them were small herbivores that posed no threat. Under the protection of darkness they could avoid predators and eat in peace. While David couldn’t see them, they were certainly watching, frozen in fear and waiting for him to leave. He turned to go back to the tent and heard another loud crack. No animal would ever make such a mistake and announce its location. It certainly wouldn’t be one of the natives. He had seen them walk through the forest in complete silence. David turned in the direction of the sound and peered into the darkness.
“Who’s there?” he said, hoping there would be no answer. He held his breath and heard nothing. Exhaling, David shrugged and turned back toward the tent. As he did he felt a sharp jab on the right side of his neck. He immediately flashed to the time he was bitten by a bullet ant. The bullet is a large aggressive Amazonian ant whose sting is so painful that the locals say it’s like being hit with a bullet. David slapped at his neck and felt a smooth wooden shaft. This was no ant. He pulled it out and when he held it in front of his eyes they were already beginning to blur. Before he could make sense of what happened he began to feel dizzy. His heart pounded in his ears and a strange numbness rolled up the side of his head and down his arm. He tried to speak, but nothing worked. Now it was getting hard to breathe. The glowing, unblinking eyes watched silently from the trees as David slumped to the ground.
Paperback $15.99: Amazon