Into the Fire
Chapter 1: New Faces
Sunshine filtered through the dense vegetation just above the horizon. The sky was a deep orange with scattered thin clouds painted a light pink color. A warm breeze drifted across the landscape and rustled the heavy leaves and tall grass in the field just beyond the treeline. The gazelle herded closely together as they continued grazing in the clearing, some already laying down beneath tall acacia trees. The other animals sprawled throughout the thick jungle bordering the clearing were beginning to call out and awake for the night.
I adjusted the straps on my rucksack and shifted the weight higher on my back before wiping the back of my hand across the sweat on my forehead. As I stared out across the fields I retrieved my canteen and unscrewed the lid to swig away the last of my water. It had been a long day out in the thicket, and my muscles ached from the intense hiking. Oh well, I thought, another scouting in the books. Time to head home.
I stepped out into the open and began the long walk back across the fields to my camp.
Nightfall had approached quickly as I walked up to my tent and tossed my bag down outside the door. The stars were already shining brightly as I lit the fire out front and used a stick to ignite some surrounding torches and lanterns. Exhausted, I sat down on the wooden bench beside the fire and removed my boonie hat which was still covered in twigs and burrs from the woods. I unbuttoned a few of the top notches on my khaki shirt and let out a sigh.
The clearing had grown quiet aside from the crackling of the flames before me and the occasional call from an animal in the distance. I retrieved a flask of whiskey from my back pocket and opened it up, disappointed when I noticed there was only small portion remaining. I quickly downed the liquid and set it aside.
Although my body longed to lay inside the tent for the night my mind was still reeling. I had been expecting a call at some point today from my professor but hadn't received one. I reached over to my bag and opened it up to grab my satellite phone, frowning when the light on top indicated no missed calls.
It had been 6 days now.
My professor had decided last week he would accompany a small crew on a surveying trip, one I had intended to join but skipped due to dehydration sickness I was dealing with at the time. I had planned to meet him later once he called and sent me his coordinates, but no news had been received yet. For the first few days I told myself it was probably because the trip was set some place over 150 kilometers away. Perhaps there had been vehicle issues on the journey, but at this point I was unsure.
Judging by my maps that journey would be possible on foot in under 5 days, and that would be if he left hiking from this campsite. Unfortunately for me, there was little I could do other than ponder possibilities causing the delay...which was eating me alive just as fast as the mosquitoes were.
As I watched the flames from the fire lick the sky in front of me I came to two conclusions. One, I would know nothing if I sat here at the campsite so far away from civilization. Two, I was all out of whiskey.
I tossed a pile of dirt on the flames and extinguished the remaining lights at the camp as I painfully moved my sore body towards the jeep behind the tent.
The jeep bounced across the dirt and I slapped my face awake as I saw the lights of the neighboring town come into view. Although I was beat and could use the sleep, I had decided that even if I had tried to sleep my slumber would be restless with worry. Besides, there was a cheap bar in town and a couple of drinks could at least ease my mind.
As I drew near to the town gates, two local guards in military fatigues approached my vehicle with a hand help up. I slowed to a stop and glanced at their rifles as they made small chat to each other while slowly advancing towards the jeep. I was not worried as this was standard protocol. I rolled my window down as one of the men stepped up to the side.
I could see his eyes light up, "Aye, it is good to see you friend!" the man smiled as he recognized me. I had seen him on a few other occasions before this.
I returned the smile, "Same to you, I spent a little too long out at the camp this time huh?"
He nodded, "Yeah, the jungle makes you crazy I told you," he laughed, "coming in for the night?" he inquired.
I shook my head and put my arm up on the door, "Nah, I just ran out of liquor. Thought I'd stop in Mike's," I explained. Mike was the name I had given the bar owner, considering I had never remembered how to pronounce it correctly.
The man stepped back from the jeep and pointed me through, "wise idea, just don't run me over on your way out, huh?"
I laughed and waved as I drove through into town.
Most of the town was quiet, with the residents all inside for the night. There were normally only a few cars in the area as the total perimeter of the place was only about a mile wide. Most cars were used to taxi locals from this area to larger towns and cities in the region.
As I made my way towards the bar I noticed the usual crowd out front, many of who were already visibly intoxicated. I pulled up to a spot alongside the road and turned the ignition off. As I stepped out I received a few glares which was usual for an outsider, but a quick nod towards them settled the issue. Most of them recognized me by this point as I had been stationed here for about a year now.
I was making my way towards the front door as I noticed another vehicle parked out front - a white van. I found that unusual considering I hadn't seen many other cars around this spot before. Every few months a guided tour would should up in town but their vans usually had some sort of advertising on the side.
I decided it was odd but nonetheless ignored the vehicle and went to head inside. I had all but reached the wooden front door as it quickly swung open and a woman came stumbling out and caused me to recoil. She caught her footing as she hit the dirt road and spun around to face to building.
"Really?!" she shouted back at the door, "Is that totally necessary?!"
I stepped back as the door swung open again and chubby man fell outside with a large camera on his shoulder that he nearly lost as he tumbled into the street. He too turned towards the door and back pedaled away.
"Jesus," he panted as he lowered the camera off his shoulder, "I'm gonna guess they don't like outsiders much."
The duo turned towards each other as they caught their bearings and began getting ahold of themselves.
I smirked, "Nah, they don't. Much less ones with a camera like that."
The two turned towards me in surprised and began to exchange confused glances.
The lady looked me up and down a bit concerned for a moment. She had long black hair pulled up in a ponytail on her head and she adorned clothes somewhat similar to mine with a khaki button down shirt, hiking shorts and boots.
The man had on a Hawaiian shirt and jean shorts, and had shoulder length curly brown hair and a stubble goatee. They exchanged looks once more before the lady stepped forward.
"And who are you?" she questioned nervously.
I stuck out a hand, "Josh Redel, I'm a map maker."
My hand hung in limbo for awhile before she crossed her arms and pulled her shirt tighter while looking me up and down again.
I lowered my hand and shrugged, "there's a local bed house down the road, they take outsiders but it's cash only. And they charge a bit extra for non-residents."
As I turned away and reached for the entrance the lady stepped into my path.
"Wait are you professor Jackson's apprentice?" she asked quickly.
My heart somewhat jumped at the mention of my professor's name, and my lack of response must have been enough of an answer as her mouth dropped into an open smile and she looked back at the man she had exited the bar with.
She stuck out her hand, "I'm Liz Marsh, lead reporter on the missing surveyors. Have you got a minute?"
Thank you for reading!
I am an existing author on this site but have not written in a few years. I'm hoping to start again though and look forward to meeting new authors! I will post again soon as I plan to write 2-3 chapters a week. Thanks again!