Helen waited on the phone, impatiently tapping her fingers against the plane’s window until the tone rang out and Ashley’s message service clicked on. Helen ended the call; another message wouldn’t make any difference to the eighteen unread ones already in there – no doubt having a nice chat about why their intended recipient wasn’t answering.
“Her phone does work, doesn’t Henry?”
Henry was tucked into the chair opposite, watching the clouds waft past as Helen’s private jet skimmed in over the mountains. He had an unsightly blue rug scrunched up under his nose which he had to fold back to speak.
“Yes, like I said,” he mumbled, simultaneously hungry and sleepy after the sixteen hour flight. “She’s set up on the global roaming thing. If her phone’s not working it’s because she’s dropped it, or drowned it, or one of the many other new and interesting ways that Ashley Magnus had discovered to damage technology. I’m a particular fan of her work on the microwave.”
“Sorry Henry,” Helen realised that she’d been pestering everybody onboard for hours and it was starting to grate. “I’m just worried.”
The plane shook again, falling through an air pocket. Unstable weather went with the territory. High mountains created turbulence – at least it meant that they were getting close.
“Me as well, doc.” He didn’t admit to leaving a few of his own messages on Ashley’s phone. “But we’re gonna find her. We know where she’s headed –”
“Roughly...” added Helen, with an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow.
“I can do a little better than ‘roughly’.” These days Henry was constantly in the presence of a large pile of paper. He had brought Tesla’s print outs with him – not all of them of course, only the ones that were difficult to acquire. At the moment they were neatly filed away in his shoulder bag. “As long as she doesn’t get lost, we should all end up at the same place and you can ground her then.”
Helen really hoped so, otherwise her daughter was out there alone, about to wander into the lair of the most dangerous Abnormal that ever lived.
Far from walking, Ashley found herself clawing forwards through the dirt – torch clenched between her teeth whilst she tried not to dribble all over it.
She was in a bit of a tight spot – lodged between a mound of dirt and the roof of the tunnel. The hole that she had dug for herself was on the small side and so she had to squeeze painfully through it, nearly getting stuck on the way.
“Come on hips,” she grunted.
Finally, she emerged, dusting herself down unnecessarily. They layers of mud and dirt on her were never going to leave her voluntarily.
She perched on the tunnel side of the mound, with her legs dangling over the rise of dirt in front. Prying the torch from her teeth, Ashley panned its light over the area in front. What she found was a narrow, half collapsed tunnel lined with the same trestles of wood as the entrance. Whatever this place had been, its previous life was long buried.
Ashley slid down the mound onto the semi-solid ground, landing in a puff of dust.
“Well, this is better,” she said to the tunnel. At least it showed promise – in other words, she couldn’t see the end of it which meant that it had to lead somewhere.
She progressed through it, slowly at first but soon her patience wore thin and Ashley entered a jog. The air got staler as the tunnel took her down further beneath the ground. Maybe she had been wrong, perhaps this was a mining tunnel and the exit was back the way she had come. What if it was an abandoned shaft, a hunting trap, some useless idea or any number of unhelpful things?
‘Always look before you leap...’ Wise words she usually chose to ignore. In her defence, it was more of a ‘fall’ than a ‘leap’.
Not ready to give up, she took a few more deep breaths and settled into a pace. She was mid-step when she felt it – the lower part of her ankle buckle and roll. Orthopaedics. She couldn’t count the number of times her mother had begged her to wear them yet still she insisted on going without. It was times like these, when she was trapped in a collision course with the eager ground, that she wished she’d listened to her mother.
“Ow...” she skidded to a halt, losing her grip on the torch as her hands spread out, taking the impact. “No, no, no –” Ashley watched as her torch began to roll away from her, catching the sharpening slope of the ground. “You get back here!”
She was on her feet, half-limping half-hopping in pursuit of the escaping torch, grimacing every time that she tried to put useful weight on her sore ankle. It wasn’t seriously injured, just refusing to co-operate with her. Her torch seemed content to continue this chase, gaining speed and distance from Ashley.
Soon Ashley couldn’t see the ground in front of her – only ahead where the torch’s light bounced, unhelpfully illuminating more walls of dirt.
“Don’t make me replace you with a Maglite,” she stumbled on.
It didn’t seem to care for her insults, vanishing from sight as it dropped over the edge of something that Ashley was yet to reach. Darkness, pure and black engulfed the tunnel around Ashley. She brought herself to a sudden stop, reaching out to the wall beside.
“Shit...” she whispered.
They took a boat upriver from Iquitos. Their petrol motor jutted and spluttered its protest at being picked for the trip, but Dr. Helen Magnus had paid good money for its services so their guide whacked the plastic cover with his stick and it quietened.
Henry sat up front, cross-legged on the bow of the small fibreglass boat. He gripped the pale blue bars, dislodging the old paint that had never really adhered in the first place. The wind was pleasant, whipping across his face in something that felt awfully like freedom.
The Amazon rainforest sprawled out ahead, climbing up a set of mountains in front of the river. Beside them, the last field of grass was swiftly running out. Farmers waved to them from the shore and packs of children gave playful chase along the bank.
Helen had her phrase-book out, doing her best to direct the guide to the place on the map they needed to be. It was slow going, like her father – Helen had always been mediocre when it came to foreign languages.
The guide was shaking his head at her last suggestion. At first she thought that it was her poor pronunciation, but the grey-haired man took the phrasebook from her and flipped it open to a page.
“No thank you,” he said. What he meant was that he would not take them past open field. The boat was already slowing, making a gentle curve toward the muddy bank thick with reeds and animal tracks.
John suddenly reached over and relieved the arguing pair of the map.
“We knew we’d be in for a walk,” he said, stoically. “Ashley will have done the same so our chances of tracking her are better if we start where she did.”
Henry’s sense of freedom soon took a turn when he found himself face to face with a sinister line of trees reaching out to him with sticky leaves. The boat had pulled up right on the edge, where the rainforest reared up at them.
“Buck up little one,” John’s hand startled Henry, as it landed on his shoulder. The tall – strange man shook Henry in a ‘friendly’ manner, no doubt his version of encouragement. “It’s not the trees you need to be afraid of.” He leant right down to Henry’s ear and lowered his voice to a whisper, “It’s me...”
Henry gave a small yelp and bounced away, finding himself in the shade of the rainforest. It was cool and surprisingly enticing after hours baking on the runabout. John gave a quiet chuckle, glancing over his shoulder as Helen came marching toward them.
“That’s the spirit Henry,” she said, striding past him and John.
Detective Joe Kavanaugh opened his eyes with a groan. The world hurt and his head most of all. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep in the strange room, but there was daylight creeping between the drapes as the smell of fried eggs swirling around the bed.
The blur of last night began to take shape as he sat up. Tunnels and creatures; gunshots and bickering voices – finally he remembered.
He stumbled across the dark room, took hold of the heavy folds of material and pulled them open, revealing a bright morning over the city. His eyes stung in the sudden light. Joe blinked furiously, turning his head away until he felt his skin warm.
There was a silver tray on the table beside the bed. Its contents were covered by an ornate lid with steam creeping around its sides. Breakfast.
“She never ever listens...”
Helen Magnus had her knees buried in a soft layer of mud beside an angry river. Rough tracks, half washed away led into the current.
“They continue over there,” John pointed to the opposite bank where a skid mark had dislodged a section of weed and leaf litter. “Give me your hands...” he stood between Helen and Henry with his palms outstretched.
They were both hesitant at first, but soon clasped tightly to John.
It was over in a flash. A sharp, dreadful moment as they teleported to the other side of the river. Henry fell over, clutching his head in pain. Helen shook it off, forcing her eyes to focus and not slip into the enticing darkness.
“That’s nasty...” Henry whimpered, clambering back to his feet. “Don’t ever do that again.”
“You would rather take your chances with the river?” said John.
“Yeah,” replied Henry, straightening, “that’s what I’m saying.”
Helen was frowning, twisting the map in every direction possible until she turned to the others. “This is the wrong way,” she said, holding the map up for them to see. “We should be further that way,” she pointed to their left, “up where that line of rocks starts.”
Henry leant backwards, trying to see around the large tree beside him. He didn’t know how Helen could find anything in this mess. There were trees, ferns, creepers, spiky plant things he didn’t know what to call, and general obstacles everywhere. He was struggling to find his own feet.
“It could be the map,” said Henry. “Ours is something that Mr. Tesla drew himself. Ashley has the original.”
“This,” began Helen unhappily, “is why I don’t trust that man.” That, and he had a habit of disappearing when he was needed most.
“Do we follow the map, or Ashley?”
Helen’s eyes flicked between Henry, John, the map and the tracks in the mud.