When I titled a post “Do You Like Changes?” I received emails, Facebook IMs, Google+ comments, and a comment on this site from readers concerned about Pia’s narrative. So, I’ve put together a sneak peek at my work in progress.
This gives you a 3,000 word (10 minute) look at how Jacob Stearne will handle his responsibilities for Pia Sabel’s adventures in the next book. When they go in separate directions, Pia will have her own chapters.
Leave a comment! Let me know which you prefer: Jacob in first person or Pia in third.
I raised my ear off the pillow and listened to the noises coming from down the road. I knew those noises. There was a time when I’d been the one making those noises. Three hundred yards away, soldiers were opening motel doors, dragging sleepy eco-tourists from warm beds, shoving them against the wall, pushing a photo in front of them, and barking in whatever dialect they speak on Borneo, “Have you seen this American?”
They were looking for the perpetrator of something.
I hadn’t perpetrated anything, but I was pretty sure I knew who had.
Whatshername drew lazy circles on my chest with her finger. She was about to say something when someone pounded on my door. Four bangs, all rapid and demanding. The way MP’s bang on doors. My heart stopped until I heard Agent Tania whisper-shouting. “Jacob. Damn it. Wake up!”
Crap. I definitely knew who the perpetrators were.
My eyes rolled to the ceiling and I thought about life and death and love. I’d thought I was dead twenty-three times and didn’t care much for the experience. I’d never been afraid of it. I’d killed all the people who tried to kill me. I just didn’t want to check out on someone else’s schedule. But that was war, and I thought I’d left all that behind.
My job at Sabel Security had become a matter of careening from one ill-conceived, spur-of-the-moment crusade to the next. Death had been more remote when I walked point in Kandahar. If all I cared about was life and death, the choice was obvious: re-enlist.
But then there was the love part.
“You gone answer door?” Whatshername said.
Thinking of her as Whatshername was a bad thing, I knew that, and I even felt bad about it, but she had one of those Asian names with sixteen syllables, all vowels, and I was raised in Iowa where the toughest phrase was crop rotation.
It was the love part that kept me on the job. I was in love with my boss, Pia Sabel. Six foot and built like a tiger; she was the kind of woman a man like me would die for.
Tania pounded on the door again.
I extricated myself from under Whatshername’s naked body and savored the scent of the jungle motel’s ancient battle with mildew. A glance at the clock didn’t help much, 3? 4? I snapped on the light and blinked at the mirror until my reflection came into focus. I looked like hell.
I yanked the door open and Agent Tania glared at me, her nostrils flaring.
The only thing average about her was her height. The rest was sleek and exotic. I’d fallen in love with her ages ago when I’d pulled her from a burning Humvee in Nuristan Province. She refused to date me until after we’d both left the Army. It lasted fourteen glorious months. Then I blew it.
“I hope you’re not paying for that,” Tania said pointing her nose past my shoulder.
“HEY!” Whatshername said.
“Hey,” I said.
“Wait, the hotel lady?” Tania half-asked. “Really. Never mind. Just MOVE.”
“Yeah, I heard them down—”
Tania was already trotting away. “Get the translator, we leave in thirty seconds.”
I kicked my t-shirt in the air, pulled my boxers up, and slipped into my shirt on its way down. Five seconds later, I had my trousers on and was scooping a handful of toiletries into an open kit. I zipped my travel bag closed and kissed Whatshername on the lips while I pulled my Glock from under the pillow.
I said, “Happy birthday.”
“Best Birthday yet,” Whatshername said. “Jacob Stearne come back next year?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” I lied and bolted.
Tania tossed our duffels from the second floor walkway to Ms. Sabel in the alley below. Ms. Sabel caught them and stuffed them into the back of our SUV. An Olympian, soccer star, boxer, and billionaire, she worked harder than any man I knew.
Our translator, a little stunned and sleepy when I dragged him out, scratched his head and watched the women as if it were a tennis game. A Borneo native studying at Georgetown, he was one twenty soaking wet, so I picked him up and tossed him to Ms. Sabel. She broke his fall, landed him on his feet, and spun back so fast her ponytail hit him in the face.
The bang of an explosion echoed in the street, far side of the building. Tania and I vaulted the railing together. Ms. Sabel slipped into the driver’s seat and racked the seat back. Tania lunged across the translator. I took shotgun. Slinging our SUV through the mud, Ms. Sabel navigated the alley by moonlight before turning onto a jungle trail.
We banged through ruts and potholes, across a muddy rice paddy, and onto a cart path, while big green leaves slapped the truck like a drum roll. Finally she found an actual road. A single lane of soft mud. The back end slid wide when she made the turn. I shot Ms. Sabel a slow-down glance that she ignored.
“This road goes to Bandar Udara Yuvai Semaring,” the translator said.
“Do they have an airport?” Ms. Sabel shouted over her shoulder.
“It’s in Indonesia,” he said.
“Shit.” She slammed on the brakes, revved the engine, slipped the clutch, broke the back tires loose, and spun the truck around in the lane. Mud and bugs splattered in our open windows bringing the smell of shredded leaves with them.
“What happened?” I said. “I thought we were here to donate a school.”
“Later,” Ms. Sabel and Tania said in unison.
I shot a glance at the translator. He shrugged.
Apparently, whatever happened since Whatshername poured me that first drink involved pissing off two of the three countries on Borneo. Maybe she’d offended all three, but I wasn’t going to ask about Brunei.
“Where does this road go?” Ms. Sabel asked.
“Gunung Mulu National Park,” the translator said.
“Where’d we leave the jet?” she asked.
“Marudi, on the other side of the park.”
“It’s only a hundred freaking miles to the coast,” she said.
The translator waved his hands at the twisting, unimproved road before us. “Four hours.”
She took his estimate as a challenge and pushed the pedal down. I checked my seatbelt and gripped the A-pillar’s grabhandle. We slipped around corners, climbed up mountains, flew down slopes, bounced our butts through dips and bumps for over an hour before sunlight began to paint the cloud bottoms pink and the fringes in an iridescent yellow. When we hit a patch of smooth road, I began to nod off.
“Bad news,” Ms. Sabel said with her eyes in the mirror. “Lights.”
I craned around to peer between the stacked duffels and caught a glimpse of cone-shaped lights moving through the trees in the valley below. Three vehicles by my count. Three cars could carry four to six guys each, meaning twelve to eighteen hostiles.
Odds like those represented a serious tactical problem. They told me it was a Sabel Charities trip; a simple fly-in-fly-out deal where my only mission was to keep Ms. Sabel safe from purse snatchers. Once again, I’d underestimated how much trouble the young bleeding-heart-philanthropist-CEO could find when she tried hard enough. I glanced at her to gauge how deep a hole we were in. Her solid biceps, visible through her skintight Under Armour, flexed and strained through every shift. Her legs tensed and contracted as she worked the brakes and clutch. Her eyes, intent and determined, never lost their laser-focus on the curves ahead.
I didn’t need to know exactly what went down in the hamlet last night; our pursuers were out to kill us.
Ms. Sabel slowed, her gaze fixed on a figure on the shoulder. Ahead of us on the right, a girl carried someone small. Feet dangled on her left, a head and arms dangled on her right, everything unnaturally limp.
Ms. Sabel slammed on the brakes. We slid twenty yards past the girl and came to a stop. Before I could figure out what was going on, Ms. Sabel was out of the truck, running toward the girl.
Once more she was losing focus on our—hastily revised—mission: get out of the country alive.
I said, “We don’t have time for this.”
“Don’t I know it,” Tania said and hopped out. “But it’s quicker to help than argue.”
With few choices, I followed. The translator pressed his face to the window.
The girl kept staggering toward us and neared the back of the truck. She staggered the way someone on a desperate and hopeless mission would stagger the last mile of a hundred mile walk. In her arms was a string-bean of a boy with long, scrawny arms and legs. His eyes were crusted shut and his mouth hung open. The girl kept walking, her face streaked with tears and her eyes fixed on the distance ahead.
Ms. Sabel stepped into her path and held her arms out, a passive offer to help, but the girl didn’t slow or change direction.
“What’s wrong?” Ms. Sabel asked and walked sideways with the girl.
Tall, with sandy hair, and about as muscular as a woman could get without losing her femininity, she looked like an alien in Southeast Asia. The girl looked up as if a mythical giant had spoken.
I waved the translator over. At the same time, I caught a whiff of something odd. I sniffed again and traced it to the boy. He had a strange acidic smell, like burnt vinegar.
“Is he sick?” Ms. Sabel asked. “I can help.”
The translator said something in Malayo and the girl realized we weren’t tourists. Her eyes fluttered and closed, relieved and exhausted. She started to collapse. Tania steadied her and Ms. Sabel slipped the boy from her arms.
“He’s hot,” she said looking at me. “Really hot.”
I knew nothing about kids and less about sick ones. I shrugged.
Tania huffed and ran to the SUV to rummage through the back.
The girl spewed her language in a frantic voice with pleading eyes. Her voice broke up and she blubbered through a phrase that she kept repeating. Ms. Sabel and I shared a glance. We didn’t need the translator to know the boy was dying.
“Uh, her name’s Kaya,” the translator said, trying to keep up with the girl’s words. “Lost her grandmother two days ago. Grandfather too. Mother went for help with blue eyes yesterday but never came back. Her brother came down with it this morning.”
“Came down with what?” Ms. Sabel asked.
“I don’t know. She’s Melanau, a small tribe, hard to understand.”
Tania returned with a couple of wet bandanas. They wiped the boy’s skin.
“Where was she taking him?” Ms. Sabel asked.
“A clinic over the ridge.”
“Wait a minute,” I said and held up my hands, “we have a ten minute lead on—”
“Let’s go,” Ms. Sabel said. Her gray-green eyes stabbed through me, ready to leap on anyone who defied her.
I drove while all three women sat in back with the boy stretched across their knees.
Ms. Sabel and Tania made soothing sounds, cooing and reassuring the kids, but I could hear the boy shiver and shake and gasp.
I stepped on the gas and drove up the hill. The translator pointed to a break in the dense jungle where two tire tracks disappeared into the bush.
When the tracks went straight for a bit, I took a look in the back and saw the boy try to open his eyes. Ms. Sabel stroked his forehead with the wet cloth and dragged her hand down his brown face. The burnt vinegar smell grew stronger. She wiped the gunk out of his eyes, tugged at the crusty bits, and dabbed at the corners. His eyelids fluttered, then opened.
They were blue.
Not the iris but the sclera. The part of his eye that should be white was robin’s egg blue.
I turned back to the road and blinked.
In another two hundred yards, the track opened into a clearing where two small trucks and a shiny minivan were parked on the left. A giant awning covered half an acre of folding cots.
Two musclemen in black with holstered guns on their hips watched us from under the awning. They weren’t Americans or Europeans, but they weren’t Malaysian either. More men in black hovered in various parts of the jungle, just shadows in the trees. Off to one side were two expedition tents. A short man in a lab coat poked his head out then stumbled forward with a woman and another man in black right behind him.
The woman, a dumpy, home-dyed blonde in white shorts and a Lakers t-shirt, ran toward us waving her arms. “Go away. Go away. Quarantine. You have to leave.”
Ms. Sabel, out of the car with the boy, headed straight for the woman. “He’s sick. We need a doctor.”
A man in black shoved the lab coat guy. Lab-coat said, “I’m Doctor Chapman, what can I—”
“We don’t know what’s going on,” the Lakers lady said. “There’s been some kind of outbreak around here. You have to leave.”
Ms. Sabel marched between them, headed for the cots. Chapman and the Lakers lady glanced at each other. Tania and I started to follow Ms. Sabel when Lakers lady pulled my shirtsleeve. I gave her my soldier look, let go or die. Her lips flopped as if she were going to say something but changed her mind. Her eyes dropped and so did her hand.
We reached the awning with the doc and his lovely assistant in hot pursuit. The place smelled of mud and jungle when we got out of the car, but under the awning it was all burnt vinegar. More than thirty cots were neatly arrayed, most had people in them. I’d been in a few triage clinics on battlefields, but nothing like this. Judging by the stiff and uncomfortable postures, half the patients were dead and the other half were dying.
Something tugged at the back of my brain, a subliminal observation not yet fully formed. I looked and listened. Green canvas flapped above us in a slow breeze, bugs and birds chirped and droned in the jungle, and some lone animal gave a dismal cry that echoed through the trees. Everything else was quiet.
The cots had letters and numbers on them, lettered columns and numbered rows like a spreadsheet. At various intervals there were cots used as tables, with racks of vials and various doctor-looking things on them. Beyond the awning, a path ran into the jungle.
“These are very serious cases,” Dr. Chapman said.
Pia pushed the boy’s limp body into Chapman’s chest. “Do they all have blue eyes?”
Chapman squinted up at Ms. Sabel. He hesitated, taking another look at her, then examined the boy. Ms. Sabel shifted the boy’s weight and pulled his eyelids open with her free hand.
Dr. Chapman gasped.
“Put him down, um…” Chapman looked around for an empty cot, eyed one and pointed. “Over here. Put him there.”
They huddled around the cot and I backed away. Next to me, an old man’s hand flopped out from under a sheet and made a weak grab at my leg. His eyes were blue and lined with crusty gunk. The skin around his mouth and nose was gray and dirty under four-day stubble. He shivered as if suddenly freezing and opened his mouth. He said something. Behind me the translator stood stunned and scared.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Bad cloth,” the translator said and shrugged. His eyes darted around the area, doing his best to avoid eye contact with the men in black.
Tania tugged my shirt. “We’ve got to get out of here. Those guys were right behind us. You need to get Pia moving.”
“Me?” I asked but she didn’t answer. “Going to tell me who we’re running from?”
“Local militia. We need to move.”
“You notice anything wrong with this place?”
“Yeah, we’re in it. We should be on the road to Marudi.”
“No, I mean something’s off.” I scanned the area again and moved to one of the cots with equipment on it. There was a rack filled with vials of what I guessed was blood. I picked one up for a closer look. Next to them was a paper pad with numbers all over it that matched the cot numbers. The test tubes had matching numbers too.
“Don’t be touching that stuff,” Tania said. “Don’t you know what contagious means, moron? Get Pia, we need to go.”
Without looking, I could sense the translator vigorously nodding in agreement. I grabbed a dirty gray rag and wrapped up three vials to show Chapman and stuffed them in my cargo pocket. As I passed the old man again, I stopped. I’d seen enough dead men to know one at a glance. His eyes were open and deeper blue.
Gruff, guttural noises drew my attention back to Ms. Sabel and Chapman. Two of the men in black were pointing guns at Ms. Sabel. Tania and I drew our weapons and fanned out. Tania had the guy on the left while I took the guy on the right, but we were outnumbered. As long as everyone kept their cool, we could walk away.
Ms. Sabel shouted and turned away, leaving Chapman, Kaya, and her brother behind. Kaya said something that could only have been, ‘don’t leave me’.
The two men followed close behind Ms. Sabel, their pistols locked on her. One guy sent a warning shot into the dirt near Tania’s feet and she replied with a bullet that grazed his ear. He lifted his weapon and put his hands up with a mocking grin. Three more men came out of the jungle, ready to kill.
Ms. Sabel brushed past me, making a beeline for the truck. Tania and the translator ran ahead and jumped in. I held the gunmen at bay and backed up.
Ms. Sabel opened the driver’s door, put one foot in, and glared back over the hood at Chapman. “I’ll be back with the authorities, Chapman.”
I still had one foot on the ground when she floored it. I tried to take a picture of the thugs but the sudden jerk turned my phone toward the parking area. Mud spewed on my arm and leg before I could get all the way in. I grabbed the door and pulled it closed. “What kind of clinic is that?”
Do you prefer the story told from Jacob’s point of view or Pia’s third person?