Wiping fog off of the mirror in her bathroom at the Hotel d’Or, Amy beheld a face like a police photo of a beating victim. She wondered when the hell her cheeks and forehead had gotten so banged up, then remembered walking into the tree right after her tumble down the hillside. She remembered Barrel Guard roaring away above her, and almost smiled, thinking his single injury would take a lot longer to heal than her multiple ones.
At twenty-five euro a night, the Hotel d’Or was the most expensive place on Avenue 9. Amy tried to live cheaply wherever she went, conserving the money Andre had left her, saving it for the work that had become her whole life. She stayed in low-budget guesthouses with backpackers and managed to hide the fact that she could afford far more comfort.
Avenue 9, though very broad, was only one block long. Along with the several guest houses, there was a snack bar, a place to get some nasty instant coffee, an erratically open Internet café, a clinic, and a food market frequented by travelers and locals alike.
In and out of these establishments, crisscrossing the dusty pavement, went young Westerners: women in silks and cottons they’d picked up elsewhere during their round-the-world trips: lime greens and intense lavenders alongside pale blue-gray peasant dresses. Men wore blond dreadlocks, braided beards or shaved heads. Woolen Rasta caps had somehow stayed at least marginally in fashion decade after decade.
The clinic staff told her she’d gotten back to the city just in time, that her wounds were infected and her condition was mushrooming dangerously into sepsis. She’d known something was wrong. A slithery sensation had been rushing through the muscles in her neck and shoulders for the past three hours. Her face was burning hot, and intense nausea came and went in waves.
She’d been ignoring the symptoms, fearing that this might be the mystery fever, contracted from one of the animal carcasses, but the clinic staff assured here that there was nothing new or mysterious about her condition. They gave her an injection and sent her away with two weeks’ supply of cephalosporin tablets. It surprised her how quickly the symptoms began to noticeably subside.
At the Internet café, the woman at the counter asked, “What happened to you?” Amy got the same question from eight backpackers in five languages over the next half hour.
The camera she’d carried all the way from the camp was encrusted with her blood, but the data had survived. In French and English, she typed out rough transcripts of her interview with the hunter. She sent these, along with the original audio file, and her images of the carnage on the truck, to three dozen environmental watchdog groups and six dozen news outlets worldwide.
She wanted to use her real name, but resisted. If the logging company sued for libel or slander or whatever, they could bankrupt her just on court costs. That was how these people operated. Andre had known that because that was how his dad’s pals at Ovation Energies used to snuff out their adversaries. Andre had explained all that the night he first proposed – not proposed their marriage, but the work he wanted them to do together.
Besides the court issues, there were unproven stories about Sanderson Tropical Timber’s subsidiaries using violence to intimidate activists, media – even elected officials. One of the company’s non-tropical subsidiaries operated in California, where the state government had mysteriously failed to stop its illegal logging of old-growth redwoods. A couple of state assembly members had started an official investigation of the issue, but had abruptly called it off after one assemblyman’s adolescent son got slammed off his bike by a hit-and-run driver. The kid had lived, but the assemblyman had two even younger children to think about. That had been years ago, and any connection between the child’s accident and the terminated investigation was just rumor. But why take a chance when the stakes were so high?
And then there was that business about the big mobile lab at the logging camp, and the armed men in biohazard suits searching for a missing American scientist. Those events had occurred mere days before Amy’s own visit to the camp, and if that coincidence came to official attention, it might be sticky to explain. All the more so these days, when anyone who regularly contributed large amounts of money to activist groups, even environmental organizations, was automatically the object of intense scrutiny by all Western governments. She might be viewed as some kind of eco-terrorist, accessory to a biological attack on a logging company – a ridiculous conclusion, but that didn’t mean Homeland Security wouldn’t come up with it.
She sent everything under the pseudonym “Caroline Yi.”
Around ten at night she settled into a surprisingly comfortable bus seat, closed her eyes, and immediately entered a familiar half-dream state in which she almost always encountered Andre.
The past couple of days would have been less of an ordeal had they gone through it together, although she would probably have taken the lead for most of it. Andre had been the more experienced one when it came to handling complex gear – the Nitrox equipment for extended dives over expanses of contaminated coral, or the high-tech cables and harnesses for ascending into the forest canopy. But Amy had been better at navigating without a GPS, at reading the land to guess what kind of terrain lay ahead and what sorts of things lived there.
She’d also tamed his risk-taking behavior to a functional level. High-adrenaline sports had been his whole life until the day his snowmobile had broken through the surface of an ice-covered lake, the same afternoon she’d first met him. Amy had been monitoring gray wolf populations in the icy vastness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, part of a project for her undergrad program in environmental science. Andre and a friend had been riding snowmobiles illegally on the same stretch of protected land. Through binoculars, she had seen them zoom down a hillside, and had cursed them as they disrupted the movements of a sizeable pack she’d been watching for days. A storm would arrive within hours, and it would be hard to find the wolves again if she lost them.
* * *
The wind had kicked up the powdery snow in the valley and sculpted ridges that disguised the surface of a small lake. Amy knew the ice hadn’t yet thickened enough to hold the snowmobiles, which were heading straight for the lake. Seconds later, the sound of their engines abruptly died.
Sprinting toward them, she watched one of the men repeatedly try to pull his companion up onto ice that kept giving way beneath him. By the time she arrived, Andre Kellet was alone, weeping and shivering on his knees at the edge of the vast pool of floating ice chunks.
Drained of strength by the cold, he leaned on her shoulder most of the way back to her yellow nylon tent at the top of the rise. “The rescue services have helicopters,” she told him, “but I don’t know if they’ll fly with this storm coming on.”
In the tent she stripped off his wet clothing and found that, in the middle of winter, his skin was solid bronze except for a milky Speedo tan line. She dried him with one blanket, then wrapped him in another.
“We can get the air inside my truck a lot warmer than the inside of this tent,” she said. “I’ll drive you to a clinic in the town. It’s only sixty miles.” But even as she spoke, Amy suspected that the storm had already made that drive impossible
Andre’s only response was to lie staring at her, blinking softly, shivering in sudden bursts. His long eyelashes arced in a way that played off Persian-looking curves at each corner of his mouth. He had Nordic flat-plane cheeks, but a rounded chin and nose, and hair that curled in a very Mediterranean way. Amy found it a strangely pretty mix of features. A few days later, when she found out that he had no French ancestry at all, she concluded that whichever of his parents had decided to name him Andre must be intolerably pretentious. About that, she never did change her mind.
“I don’t think you were out there long enough to get seriously frostbitten,” she said.
He responded with another calm blink, pushed aside his drying black curls, flopped to the floor of the tent and went unconscious. He slept for fifteen hours.
He remained mostly silent during their time in the tent. When he spoke, it was usually to ask about Amy’s studies. His comprehension of the answers surprised her. He would be quiet for long spells after she explained things like the effect of shrinking forest cover on wolf populations, or microorganisms trapped in glacial ice far to the north. The prettiness of his face always made it seem as though he had just shifted into some mindless ecstasy, thinking of nothing at all, but he always followed his silences with questions that showed he’d been paying attention.
“So the changes in the weather,” he asked over their feast of instant noodles, “are already affecting the wildlife down here as well as at the polar caps, huh?”
“Uh-huh. God bless the fossil-fuels industry.” She slurped a spoonful of scalding broth. “Even things like tick infestations are less predictable now because of human interference in the ecosystem.”
Her mini lecture on the balance of wolf, beaver and moose populations seemed to get him concentrating particularly hard, as though the two of them were working out a strategy of immediate importance. She tried to get him to talk about himself, but he stubbornly stayed on the subject of her work.
Early on the third morning, she went outside to pee and found Andre standing in the snow, looking into the sky through her binoculars. He was following a hawk that had spotted something far away. The storm had temporarily abated, the cloud ceiling was solid but high, and the visibility wasn’t bad.
“Look,” he whispered, and handed her the binoculars. She saw that the bird’s underside had rows of arching black stripes.
“Cooper’s hawk,” she said. “We’re lucky to see it. There are only a few places in Michigan where they stick around all winter.”
“Awesome. What’s it see?” He was still whispering, and she wondered whether he thought they might frighten off the bird miles away, or if he was speaking softly out of reverence for the moment. The morning was still and quiet as it had not been since before the storm, and with the silence came a heightened feeling of the immensity of the place. Amy lowered her voice, too.
“Maybe another bird. Maybe a rabbit or a field mouse that came out for the break in the weather.”
Andre became so deferential toward Amy that it got to be an annoyance. She was already angry with herself for feeling an attraction to some rich jock with no regard for the wilderness, and when he made no advances at all, it pissed her off more. She felt she deserved the choice of either rejecting him or squeezing some fun out of him.
He sometimes glanced furtively at her figure, but never attempted a seduction. More than that, he took meticulous care never to touch her. Once, when she handed him some instant ramen, he was so fussy about avoiding contact with her fingers that he got a weak grip on the bowl and spilled the scalding broth on both their laps.
Amy would have been insulted as well as furious if she hadn’t figured out by then that he was in awe of her. His own near death, the trauma of losing a friend, and his helplessness in the hands of this woman with a worldview so far from his own, had combined to put him through a dizzying gestalt shift. He treated her like some inviolable earth goddess, and his abject adoration erased her attraction to him. She became anxious for a clear day when she could bring him into town and come back to search for the wolf pack again.
That day came within a week. A chopper arrived on the same afternoon, with a team searching for the body of Andre’s friend, and the pilot told Amy where to find her wolves. She caught up with them twenty-four hours later.
The next time Andre Kellet showed up in Amy’s life, it was at her small-town Michigan college at the end of the following spring, not quite half a year since their time together in the tent. Just after her last exam, she discovered Andre standing on the lawn outside the life sciences building, wearing shorts and a glaringly colorful nylon windbreaker, looking much more like an Italian soccer player than an exhausted college student. She agreed to dinner.
Over beer and curry, Andre told her he had headed straight back into the wilderness after a medical checkup and a funeral for his friend, but this time it had been with one of the most prestigious research groups in the entire Great Lakes region. He gave her updates on wildlife projects that she was only vaguely aware of, and in the process demonstrated a command of environmental science jargon that would have gotten him a passing grade on the exam that Amy had just taken.
“Wait, wait,” she said. “It takes years to get onto that team. How did you manage it?”
Andre smiled, not the sheepish smile she’d gotten so sick of during the storm, but a confident, even sly one. “You pay a little extra in dues, and they don’t mind waiving a few of the qualifications.”
“No way,” she said. “I can’t believe you just bought your way in.”
In response, Andre became silent and slightly fidgety, running the tines of his unused salad fork across his palm. The waiter brought him another beer and he downed most of it at once, then said to Amy, “My dad was with Ovation Energies.”
So it was oil money. No wonder his conscience had taken him for such a ride when he realized that an environmentalist had saved his life. She didn’t know what to say.
Andre went on, “I majored in business, and I took some business-oriented pre-law classes. I was going to be a corporate lawyer.”
“I guess maybe I can picture you as a lawyer.” She stared hard at his face. “But then again, no I can’t. Not at all.”
He said, “Okay, I wasn’t actually planning on seeing it through; it’s just what I told my family while I was in school.”
“What did you really have in mind?”
“Taking most of what my dad left me and starting up a ski and snowboarding lodge in the Canadian Rockies. But since I met you, I’ve decided to stay with Ovation Energies as a departmental manager. They offered me the position last fall and gave me time to think about it.”
“Now I’m even more lost.”
“We can leave my inheritance invested just as it is now, hopefully never touching the principal, and use the interest to fund our work. Plus, I’ll have a big salary from my position with the company, and we’ll only need a little of that to live on.”
“Andre, you keep saying ‘we,’ and that sounds like you’re— ” Christ, what was this guy thinking? “Oh, man. This…Andre, I don’t even know you.”
“Wait! Wait – don’t freak out. I’m just talking about doing the work together, that’s all.”
“Yeah but…what work? What does that mean?”
Andre suddenly seemed at a loss. He shrugged and made a halting sound like, “Ahp,” then said, “well…whatever you think it should be.”
And she thought, Holy shit.
* * *
Andre had approached championing the environment as one more of the dangerous sports that had been the focus of his life since adolescence, and some of it had actually played out that way. The two of them had made a lifestyle of defying not only the elements, but also laws, security personnel from various corporations, and Andre’s family, always in secret.
None but a few close friends had ever known that a fortune in inherited oil dollars was being spent on a two-person guerilla campaign for the planet. Often the very activists who used the information Amy and Andre uncovered had no idea who it was coming from.
It had continued that way until the day that Amy wasn’t there to save Andre’s life a second time. A fishing boat had hit one reef and Andre had been thrown head-first onto another. Six years after Amy pulled him out of freezing water, he had died in balmy tropical shallows.
He’d been on that boat with several of his fellow Ovation managers, some of whom were beginning to suspect that Andre’s loyalty was not one hundred percent with the energy giant. Company documents had been leaked to the press after an oil spill off the Carolinas, secret internal memos suggesting that haphazard safety measures had been responsible for the disaster. Andre had been one of the few people with access to those reports. Amy still wondered whether his death had been arranged.
* * *
The bus sat at the station in central Prospérité for nearly an hour after Amy boarded, and she remained a little restless, not quite able to fully shake the feeling that she was still being pursued. When the bus finally began to move, it took another half hour of lurching, crawling progress to make it out of town and onto the open highway. Shortly after that, the engine hit and sustained just the right pitch to send her to sleep, like a room full of Tibetan monks o-o-o-ommmm-ing away in their superhuman basso profundo.