Chapter 1

Monday and Tuesday were the quietest nights of the week. Obviously you’d expect Friday and Saturday to be crazy busy, but often it was Sunday too. The good thing about Sundays was they wanted to be tender. Only when the men went back to work on Monday did the girls find a few days’ peace.

The plane flew in every Wednesday and that could go any number of ways. Sometimes they were homesick and missing their wives; maybe they had something to celebrate; or they brought her presents. Hard to tell what kind of a mood they’d be in.

If Alexandra had any hope of succeeding, it had to be Tuesday. It had to be tonight. She lay on her bunk, visualising every stage of her plan, trying to convince herself she could pull this off. Her pulse sounded like a gong in her ears and she stroked her hands over the butterflies in her belly in a reassuring caress. The camp lights went out at midnight. It would take another hour before the last stragglers had left the bar, returned to their bunkhouses and the camp was asleep.

Just before one o’clock in the morning, Alexandra slid out of her bed and onto the wooden floor. She waited several minutes for any change in the breathing patterns of her three roommates, then lifted her bag from beneath the bed. The weight simultaneously comforted and concerned her. She had everything she needed. Her clothes, a few gifts from her regulars, her toiletries and a blanket to protect her until dawn. But it was so heavy. How could she run carrying such a burden? She steeled herself. She had no choice.

With nimble fingers, she lifted the latch and bore the weight of the door with her arm. She’d practised the move a hundred times but never in the dead of night. As expected, it swung open with no more than a whisper. Alexandra slithered through the gap like a ghost and closed it behind her.

Night air came as a relief after the stuffy room filled with the breath and overly perfumed bodies of four young women. She waited a moment until her eyes adjusted to the starry but moonless sky, breathing in the smell of sawdust, chopped timber and diesel fumes. Nothing moved other than the jungle trees swaying in the warm winds. Everyone was asleep, dreaming of tomorrow and what the plane might bring. Alexandra focused on what the plane might take away.

With one last look over her shoulder, she crept away from her sleeping co-workers. When they awoke, her roommates would assume she’d gone out early with her best friend. She wouldn’t be missed until five o’clock that afternoon, when she was expected to turn up for work. By the time they came looking, she would be far away where no one could touch her. Despite her qualms, Alexandra sensed a bubble of triumph.

Her planned route was longer than necessary to avoid Dona Candida’s sleeping quarters. Why that bruxa needed sleeping quarters, Alexandra had no idea. If Dona Candida slept, she did it with her eyes and ears open. The slightest sound of conflict or fear in any of the rooms or huts and she arrived as fast as her broomstick could carry her. Usually to punish the girls.

The long way round involved passing the other girls’ bunkhouses, circling the medical shack and tiptoeing past the brothel to the priest’s place. Wandering around in the half-dark, Alexandra knew one false move could prove fatal. The camp was littered with life-threatening objects and machinery. Vigilance was a hard-learned lesson; she had the scars to prove it. One cautious step at a time. After all, she had all night.

The Rio Negro camp was roughly divided into four uneven sections. Logging work took place at the westernmost point. Chainsaws screamed, earthmovers rumbled and trees crashed with such force into the undergrowth, you could feel the vibrations beneath your feet. North was where the loggers lived, in portable bunkhouses like the one Alexandra had just escaped. That quadrant, the other side of the solitary road, also housed the canteen-church-cinema building, occasionally used as a meeting-room for pay disputes or safety problems.

East lay the cargo area, where pyramids of felled timber awaited the river boats or long-haul trucks. Huge yellow machines with grab hooks and caterpillar tyres sat under a semi-circular shed when not in noisy use. Beyond that ugly mess of torn-up earth sat the landing strip, the only way in or out, unless you were dead wood. The weekly plane delivered provisions, letters, or sometimes people. It represented a distant promise of escape. Because everyone wanted to escape this hellish confusion of mud and metal and its relentless assault against the natural world.

Alexandra and her colleagues were quartered in the south, on a scrappy section of barely-cleared jungle. Southside, as the inhabitants called it, was what passed for infrastructure in this far-flung corner of the Amazon. Three rows of three buildings provided all the camp could desire. Row one contained a shop and two bars. The bars were differentiated by entertainment: one had a TV, the other a jukebox. Behind them lay three buildings: the doctor’s clinic to the left, the priest’s surgery to the right and in the middle, Alexandra’s own workplace, the brothel. The rest was four basic bunkhouses. Three for the girls and one for their hateful shrieking boss.

Never show weakness! You may not get sick, have a period or contract anything which renders you unable to work. Nothing can interrupt our business. Three months working these camps and you’ll have more money than you can ever imagine.

If Alexandra was honest, she could imagine a whole lot more cash than the bundle of notes wrapped tightly inside her bra. Another week’s pay was owed her but Dona Candida could stuff it. She suppressed her own aggressive thought as if that evil witch could hear her. Fewer than fifty metres from where Alexandra stood, her boss was lying awake, ears cocked for any hint of an escapee.

If everything worked out, this would be the first time one of Dona Candida’s girls had succeeded in getting away. It would work out. The alternative was unbearable. Alexandra paced behind the bunkhouse, testing each step before putting any weight on her foot, along to the second hut where Juliana was sleeping. The thought of leaving her friend behind constricted her throat, but she pressed on. One girl would have a chance. Two? Forget it. Juliana only had a few more weeks to go and they would be reunited at the beach. Please God. She missed the sea almost as much as she missed her family.

Not a single light shone from any of the buildings. Alexandra took a wide detour, closer to the bars and the shop, aiming for the priest’s hut. Her intention was to hide, wide awake if she could manage it, beneath his place until morning. Everyone knew he used earplugs to get to sleep. When the plane landed, she would wait until the pilot had unloaded his cargo and gone to the canteen for some food. His routine was so predictable, Alexandra knew exactly what he’d eat. While the men filled their bellies, she would run like the wind, cross the landing strip and bury herself somewhere in the cargo hold. The pilot would finish his meal, load whatever needed taking to Manaus and, if she got lucky, by sunset Alexandra would be home.

Or as close as she could get. Assuming she didn’t get caught, she could walk from Soure Airport to Praia do Pesqueiro. What happened after that was anyone’s guess.

Juliana’s voice echoed in her head. Don’t waste the present worrying about the future.

Her own voice responded. But it’s not just my future anymore, is it?

She edged around the final corner and judged the priest’s hut around ten metres ahead. Almost there. Before she took her next step into the shadows, a repetitive noise made her stop. Beneath the wheels of the hut where she planned to hide, a silhouette of spiky ridges and steady scraping indicated an iguana had got there first. Generally, she wasn’t afraid of iguanas or any other reptile, but had no intention of sharing two square metres with a huge lizard. She squatted on her heels, reassessing her plan. Patience.

A watery sound preceded an unpleasant smell. Piss. Strong beery urine with an overtone of black tobacco assaulted her nose. The association rang alarm bells before he lit the match. The sulphuric glow illuminated his face as he took a drag of his cigarette and gave her a lopsided leer.

Alexandra didn’t hesitate. She whirled around and ran straight back the way she came. No more guarded paces but a blind bolt from danger. When she passed the final bunkhouse, rather than turning left to her own cabin, she ran into the jungle. No matter what predatory creatures lay in wait, she’d take her chances. Anything was better than Bruno.

Her breath short, she stumbled her way along the path, her arms raised and crossed in front of her face for protection. The ground was dangerously uneven so she slowed and controlled her panicky panting, balancing hazards ahead and behind. Bruno’s crunching boots had slowed to a halt. The stupid lump knew better than to approach the girls’ cabins or he’d be banned for another month. Drunk and unimaginative, he would never think she had run into the jungle. In ordinary circumstances she would never attempt such a crazy move, but what was the alternative?

Alert to every sound and ready to leap from harm, she moved along the path like a cat. A derisory snort escaped her nostrils. More kitten than cat. She was no nocturnal panther or jaguar prowling its domain but a terrified teenager in total darkness with all the jungle savvy of a domestic tabby. Alexandra took several deep breaths, calming herself. Stress was not good.

If she could find it, the pool would be a safe place to hide until daylight. Their pool. Even the thought of it soothed her nerves. Juliana, always the braver of the two, had gone exploring and found a little stretch of limpid water, just a short way into the jungle. A minuscule beach between two huge rocks hid them from everyone and everything. It was nothing more than a collection of pebbles and silt, really, but they named it Copacabana and called it their own. The two of them sneaked off there as often as they could, sure no one would follow. Two silly girls swimming, sunbathing and talking about the future. Such plans! Such dreams! Four more weeks and if she was lucky, those wild imaginings might come true for Juliana. For Alexandra, it was too late.

On bright sunny days, it took the two girls around ten minutes to walk to the pool. How long it would take at night, Alexandra had no idea. Mosquitoes pierced the skin of her neck and the damp dripping of condensation from the trees began to penetrate her clothes. She stopped, wondering if it might be wiser to turn around. Her plan was still achievable; she had to believe that.

A sound up ahead caused her to freeze. It wasn’t a voice, more like a sigh, but it didn’t sound human. Something freakish was coming along the path, soft-footed and making a gentle hum. She dropped to a squat, her eyes wide. What kind of animal hums?

Alexandra clutched her belly, frozen in a petrified crouch. Her stomach began to cramp. She peered ahead, searching for the yellow eyes of a jaguar, demon or cuca. The spasms got worse, all caused by fear. She had to relax and get control of herself. The hum grew louder. Rigid with fear, she took long steady breaths on all fours, her head swivelling to make out any kind of shape in the darkness. The tone, alien as it was, didn’t seem threatening. It sounded like a lullaby.

A dim glow, no bigger than a firefly, floated towards her. She was crying now so didn’t trust her vision. Two human figures approached, carrying a ball of light. Their faces, in shadow, looked like Mexican sugar skulls.

Alexandra scuttled backwards until something sharp and painful stabbed her knee. Her observers didn’t move, simply watching as she whimpered and keeled over.

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