Imagine traveling deep into the Amazon Jungle, where every step is a struggle through thick undergrowth, any rock or tree may mask a venomous creature and somewhere, at some time, you will run up against a mysterious Hemorrhagic Fever.
River of Desire tells the tale of Leah Roberts, a reporter on assignment in Peru, who hires professional guide, Dylan Hart, to escort her into the Amazon jungle on the trail of a deadly Hemorrhagic Fever. On the river, Leah and Dylan encounter treacherous rapids and carnivorous creatures, but what they fear most is the attraction growing between them. Their travels finally lead them to a reclusive doctor who holds the answer to the sudden appearance of the lethal viral strain.
Don’t expect the ordinary when you begin a trip down the River of Desire. So, hop on board the boat and take a thrilling, sometimes life threatening, but always action-packed ride down the mighty Amazon with Leah and Dylan, who face daunting adventures, but know that love is the most amazing adventure of all.
Mysterious Epidemic Strikes Amazon Indians
Scores of Peruvians Contract Unidentified Disease
by Leah Roberts, Los Angeles Daily News Staff Writer
CUZCO, PERU—June 15, 2003 The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) today released a statement regarding the deadly epidemic in the Amazon region of Peru. They have now quarantined the lower Amazon and discouraged tourists from vacationing in nearby towns. Since the first reported case in March, eighty-five people have fallen victim to this disease.
Dr. Debra Mann, Chief Epidemiologist at the USAMRIID in Frederick, Virginia, reported findings of the preliminary study of blood samples. “Although a Level Four Hemorrhagic Virus, the blood samples do not match any known Hot Virus to date.” The possibility has been suggested by Dr. Mann and other scientists at the USAMRIID that the virus is a mutated form of microbes already in existence.
Dr. Mann cautions against alarm. “This would not be the first instance of a Hot Agent surfacing in South America. So far the epidemic has been localized. No hospital workers have contracted the illness. At this time, we have no reason to consider this disease a threat to anyone living outside this remote Amazon region.”
Dr. Ernest Plotkin, Director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, described the impact of the virus on a population in the June issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). “With a sudden onset, a Hot Agent progresses rapidly from general discomfort and fever to full-blown disease.
The Hot Agent then undergoes extreme amplification transforming cells into a replication of itself. Huge bruises appear all over the body and the organs begin to liquefy. Since no effective treatment exists to combat this rare affliction, victims progress to a violent and painful death.”
* * *
Leah Roberts peered into the gloom of the Cusco chicha cantina, past dim shadows on grimed walls and tried not to think of the warning well-meaning co-workers had given about her assignment. A naked light bulb hung from the low-slung ceiling. The air smelled of stale beer, urine and cigarettes. Rats screed in the corner as they chewed holes in a garbage bag.
The boy who accompanied her pointed toward the bar. “Señor Dylan.”
“Muchas gracias,” she said, and handed the boy a coin.
Moments leaked by, her eyes growing accustomed to the semi-darkness. A shadowed man, his long dark hair tied back with a leather strap, towered over others at the bar. He lifted a bottle and drank deeply. Could he be Hart?
She made her way toward the heavyset cantinero in traditional llama sweater and peaked cap. “I’m looking for Dylan Hart. I’ve been told I can find him here.”
The shadow turned and eyes as green as the Peruvian jungle met hers.
“I’m Hart. What can I do for you?”
“I’m Leah Roberts of the Los Angeles Daily News.” Sizing up Hart, she skipped the formality of a handshake. A day-old growth of beard speckled his jaw. His jeans and blue plaid wool shirt were beyond laundering, they needed to be burned. “I hear you’re the local authority on the Amazon region, and I need an immediate escort downriver.”
His eyes narrowed. “Why so much advance notice?”
“Sorry, but this was a rush assignment. I didn’t have time to make prior arrangements.”
Hart turned to a skinny woman by his side in a mini-skirt and knee-high boots. “I need to take care of business. I’ll catch up with you later.”
The woman eyed Leah with obvious disdain, turned and marched away on high heels. Leah watched her sway from the bar, to an admiring cat-call and raised bottles of pisco, before turning back to Hart. “Can you handle my request?”
Hart reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a worn notebook, flipping through it. He glanced up and slowly looked her over, nodding what seemed to be his approval.
“I wish I could do it, but I’m booked for the next two weeks. I can pencil you in after that.”
She swallowed her annoyance. “This is not a casual request.” Something about the way he looked at her made her feel like a frivolous, wide-eyed American reporter out to do a feature on the Amazon. She wanted to be sure he understood her mission. “I’m here to do a story on the epidemic that’s killed so many of the Amazon people. The publicity will call attention to the seriousness of their situation.”
He took a slug of beer and drew a sleeve across his mouth. “I’ve done my part for others. I’m retired. If you’re looking for a fellow do-gooder, you’d better look elsewhere.”
“I have, but everyone I’ve talked to pointed me to you.”
A wry smile parted his lips. “I still can’t help you, unless you’re willing to wait.”
She had a sudden sense of urgency. “You don’t understand. I really don’t have that luxury.”
“Look, Mr. Hart. Dylan. Is it okay if I call you Dylan?”
“Okay, Dylan. If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a little out of my depth here.” She saw the smirk, but ignored it. “My sources tell me the river is unpredictable at best, deadly if you don’t know what you’re doing. I need an expert…and you’re it.”
He pushed his bottle forward. If he was reconsidering, his expression told her nothing. It struck her that his fingernails were immaculate. Odd, given his otherwise derelict appearance. Clean fingernails and, she also noticed, well maintained hiking boots. Quite a paradox. She pulled out the stool next to his. “Mind if I sit?”
With a dismissive shrug, he turned to the cantinero. A look passed between the two men and the bartender chortled.
“Felix, mas cerveza, por favor.”
Leah would just as soon eat the grilled beef heart sold on the streets than press again for help, but she was running out of options. “I wouldn’t ask you to put aside your prior engagement if this wasn’t important.” She shoved the article from USAMRIID under his nose.
He briefly glanced at the headline. “Hasn’t your government sent enough people to investigate this virus? What can a reporter uncover that the experts haven’t?”
“I’m here to give this virus a human face. To try and raise awareness of the toll it’s taken on the locals.”
“What do you know about this disease?”
“For one thing, the last death in the infected area was over six weeks ago, and they just lifted the quarantine. So far, only the scientific team has been allowed in. I would be one of the first reporters to enter.”
“The Peruvian government hasn’t said much yet. They may be too frightened to say or do anything. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, they didn’t have the facilities to handle this epidemic.”
He whistled through his teeth. “That’s an understatement.”
Encouraged by his agreement, she continued. “The guy in charge of virology for the National Institute of Health is Dr. Harvey Samuels. He spent two weeks here visiting with a number of infected tribes.” She stopped at his impassive expression, broken only by a twist of his mouth. “You’ve heard of Dr. Samuels?”
“He’s an expert on hot viruses like Ebola and Marburg. This virus is similar to Ebola, but it doesn’t follow the same pattern. They don’t know what it is. There’s even those who think it may have been started by a terrorist cell testing out a biological weapon.”
“There’s conspiracy theorists everywhere. I hear that kind of talk all the time in the bars.”
“But wherever it comes from, it’s caused havoc in— ”
He raised a hand. “I’ve read the papers, but what you haven’t explained is your stake in this story.”
Before she had a chance to answer, a man to her right stood abruptly, lost his balance, and almost fell into her. Hart rose instantly and shoved the man upright. He stumbled from the bar.
She offered Hart a grateful smile. “Thanks.”
“De nada. Dagobertos’s as drunk as a politician on power. He would have bowled you over before you had a chance to tell me if you’re really here to help the locals or just to advance your career?”
She jerked back. “You certainly have a way of putting things.”
“Judging from your reaction, I must have hit a nerve.”
“I have my reasons for wanting to be in Peru, but they’re none of your concern.” She studied the bar where glasses had etched wet rings in the dust. Since this guy was obviously no humanitarian, she had better come up with a different angle. “What if I were to make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?”
A mischievous twinkle lit his eyes. He leaned back, elbows against bar. “What do you propose?”
“Felix, agua mineral para me, por favor.” She waited until the cantinero bought her mineral water. “I could offer you quite a bit of money for your help.”
He cocked his head in a surprisingly boyish gesture, drawing attention to the cleft in his chin. He was too damn attractive for his own good. Probably knew it, too.
Again a glint of irony filled his eyes. “Ummm. Sounds tempting.” He finished his beer and slapped a nuevo sol on the counter. “But keep your money. There’s no way I can help you, but maybe I can think of someone else who could. Have you tried Jorge Ortiz? He’s a reliable guide.”
“He’s one of the people who referred me to you.”
“How about Gilberto Igelsias?”
“Sounds like you’ve already made the rounds.”
She was getting nowhere fast. Since oxygen was a precious commodity at this altitude, she might as well save her breath. She finished her drink and rose. “I’m sure there must be one available guide out there.”
“I wish you luck. Most of us are busy this time of year.”
She wasn’t about to let him discourage her. “I’m at the Royal Inka, in case you change your mind.”
“Don’t plan on it.”
“I won’t.” Hart’s attitude didn’t surprise her, because men had always let her down, and it made her more determined than ever to succeed if it meant proving him wrong. Still his demeanor irked her.
She left the cantina and strode down narrow cobblestone streets toward the town’s main plaza. She hadn’t gone far before she needed to cover her nose against the stench of urine that rose from the open sewer. The nauseating odor reminded her that in a town of so many, with poor services and sanitation, disease would spread like an oil spill over calm seas. This only cemented her resolve.
In the zocalo, the main plaza, surrounded by stone buildings and the ancient cathedral, she found an empty wooden bench in the fading sunlight. Two young girls wearing multi-colored skirts, sandals and straw Panamas herded alpacas past her. The soothing sounds of Andean flute and drums stood in opposition to the reality of poverty and poor hygiene.
The sidewalks were lined with vendors selling Incan knockoffs and handmade tapestries. Just beyond them, she noticed a sign that read, Incan Travels, specializing in tours of Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and the Amazon. Pleased to have found another possible source for a guide so quickly, she strode over to the agency.
A bespectacled woman looked up from her desk while straightening the collar of her gray linen suit. “Buenas tardes, Señorita. May I help you?”
Posters of Incan ruins, villagers in colorful clothes and lush jungle hung from every wall. She’d come to the right place. “I need a private guide into the Amazon jungle to take an Amazon tributary, the Maranon, downriver from the Andes to Iquitos.”
The woman glanced at a sheet of paper on the desk in front of her. “No, no, Señorita, we no go down Maranon. We, ah, fly to Puerto Maldonado. You go Puerto Maldonado? See birds? Muy bonito—how you say, boo ti ful.”
Leah briefly considered, but flying to Puerto Maldonado and hitching a ride down the Rio Ucayali from there would only detour her plans. She had to reach the Machiguengo village. “No, gracias. I need to hire a private guide. I’m willing to pay well-mucho dinero. I must reach the back country and contact the people who live there. Can you help me?”
The woman closely watched her. “No comprende, Señorita. Mañana boss come. Talk to him.”
She wished she spoke as much Spanish as she understood. “Muchas gracias, Señora.”
“De nada.” The woman turned her attention back to the papers on her desk.
Five minutes later Leah was out on the plaza, racking her jet-lagged brain for a back-up plan. A good night’s sleep might be what she needed.
Back at the hotel, strolling across the lobby while fantasizing about a bubble bath and clean sheets, she felt an immediate flush of excitement. Dylan Hart. She spotted him in the lounge, larger than life and disturbingly attractive. She composed herself, offering him a frosty smile.
* * *
Dylan watched Leah make her way toward him around tile-top tables with burgundy tufted armchairs. His glance traveled down her spotless North Face jacket, over waterproof cargo pants to her barely broken-in hiking boots. She looked like a greenhorn if he ever saw one. When she drew nearer, he noted the wariness in her amber-colored eyes.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you again.”
He hadn’t planned on seeing her again either, but urgency had intervened. The work was seasonal; he had to make the most of it when it came. If only she wasn’t so damn certain of her own importance and the significance of her job. That attitude always led to trouble. He should know. Once upon a time he’d been just as cocky and look where it had taken him. He hoisted himself onto an upholstered stool, the soft fabric snagging his roughened hand. “Care for a drink?”
“I’ll pass for now,” she said and lifted herself onto the barstool next to his. “What are you doing here?”
“You said something about money. On second thought, I decided to explore your offer.”
She eyed him with uncertainty. “But you said you had other bookings.”
“Had is the operative word. My tour to Belem canceled at the last minute. I have a week off. The money might come in handy, if it’s enough. How much are you offering?”
Distracted by a couple in a heated discussion, it took her a long moment to answer. “My paper’s offering two thousand dollars a week for two weeks work. How does that sound?”
The sound of laughter arose from a table behind him. A male voice belted out a demand for refills.
“All right, but I only have one week. I’ll take that four thousand dollars for a week’s tour.”
She stared at him open-mouthed. “What? You can’t mean that. I said two–”
As much as he hated to play her this way, he had his reason. “Your offer came to four thousand. I only have one week, but I can make it count. That’s the deal, take it or leave it.”
She grimaced. “I don’t know if my paper will go that high for a week.”
“That’s up to you. I originally planned on a group tour to Belem that would have paid more. I’ll soon find someone else who will pay my price.” He stood. “Let me know when you decide. I’ll be at Felix’s.” He began to walk away.
“I’ll go three thousand for the week,” she yelled after him.
He turned back toward her. All eyes at the table by the bar were on him. “What about your paper?”
“I’ll pay out of my pocket if I have to. Don’t worry, you’ll be paid as promised.”
He stepped closer. “Okay, fifteen hundred up front and fifteen hundred at the end of a week. Comprende?”
She flinched, but kept her head high. He respected her for that. At least she had spunk.
“Will you be able to take me all the way down the Maranon to Iquitos by then?”
“What?” She would pick the most daunting part of the river. “Why the Maranon?” Her slender shoulders and long, delicate fingers were not made for hauling and digging. She looked totally incapable of handling the Maranon. “I should have asked your plans ahead of time. Why go that way? It’s a more direct trip down the Ucayali.”
“The first victim of this outbreak was an eighteen-year-old Machiguenga from a village along the Maranon. I want to speak with his family. They may have answers to my questions or at least be able to point me in the right direction. Will there be enough time?”
He scratched his head. “Time for what? Time for trouble? There’d be plenty of time for that. Iquitos is as far as I’ll have time to take you. After that, I’ll need to fly back for my next tour.”
“I understand that.”
“Do you have any idea what you’re in for on that river?”
She raised her chin in a defiant gesture. “Of course.”
He saw through her act. While she tried to appear certain, the twitch of a muscle under her eye gave her away. “This isn’t going to be a joy ride. For good reason the Maranon is the least traveled of the Amazon tributaries in Peru. Two people recently lost their lives on that river. Are you sure you need to go that way?”
Behind them laughter rose and subsided. The clink of glass was followed by an exuberant “Salud”.
“I have to.”
“Are you prepared for spiders the size of birds or venomous snakes with bites that kill within hours.”
Her hesitant nod didn’t seem too sincere.
“How about a series of rapids referred to as Pongo de Manseriche, the Gateway of Fear.”
“How many times have you taken those rapids?”
“And you’ve survived. Why shouldn’t I?”
He released an exasperated sound. “I’m a little more experienced than you are. You have been rafting before, haven’t you?”
“How about primitive camping?”
She offered him an apologetic smile. “Does summer camp count?”
He groaned. “Damn. This is going to be even more of a job than I bargained for.”
“How dangerous can the river be?”
A glance at Leah clinched his concerns. The crown of her short blond hair glowed in the lamplight like a halo. Her blue eyes shone with a childlike innocence. “With your lack of experience, I’m more and more certain this is not a good idea.”
“If you want to chicken out-”
Dylan held up a hand. “Whoa. I’m not threatening to leave you high and dry. If anyone should guide you down that stretch of the river, it’s me. At least I know what to expect. I’m just not sure a greenhorn like you should attempt it when it’s dangerous for an expert.”
She leveled her gaze at him. “I’m going with or without you.”
He rolled his eyes. “Are you always this headstrong?”
“Yes. When do we leave?”
“With your itinerary, no later than nine tomorrow morning. I’ll pick you up here.”
“I still need to buy a few supplies.”
He shook his head. “Schedule revised for noon departure.” He rummaged the battered notebook from his shirt pocket and began scribbling. “Here’s where to go. Tell Alessandro what you need. If he doesn’t have it, he’ll find it.” He tore the page from the book.
Leah took the page he held out to her. “I want you to know how much I appreciate your help, but I don’t want you to think you have to baby me. I can take care of myself.”
“I hope you’re right. I’ll just start earning my fee right now, Ms. Roberts.” He saluted her casually. “See you tomorrow noon.”
As Dylan left the bar, instinct told him to look around. Leah leaned forward on the barstool, her arms wrapped around her. In her Amazon best, she looked the least likely tourist ever to succeed on the Maranon. If he didn’t have a promise to repay, this trip wouldn’t be worth the potential risk to both their lives. But he did make a promise. And he always kept them.