Time To Die by Jackie Ivie by Jackie Ivie - Read Online

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Time To Die - Jackie Ivie

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CHAPTER ONE

This is it.

Steady, Kat.

Steady...

The mountain starling in her lens suddenly spread its wings, ruffling the sooty brown-colored feathers that lined its under-belly. The distinctive black mark on its forehead was glossy and dark. Kat held her breath, while pressing down on the camera’s button. The bird settled. She exhaled slowly. The bird wasn’t alerted to her. It was simply enjoying the tropical rain.

At least something was enjoying it.

This island chain was known for rainfall. Seeing that in a guidebook, and making massive preparations were not remotely close to the reality of her situation. Kat made a face beneath the mosquito netting that masqueraded as protection against the elements. It was a failure at the latter. She wore mesh headgear that also covered her camera, and a large cape fastened about her neck, mainly for the insect protection and camouflage effects. She’d given up on fighting the rain. She’d been here five days already. She didn’t have anything left that wasn’t soaked through. Not even her underwear. And those she’d washed and hung in her tent to hopefully dry. She’d packed rain gear. A tarp covering for her campsite. Water-resistant clothing. Supposedly water-tight boots.

Everything was saturated.

She wasn’t a beginner. She’d been to some of the world’s most isolated places.   That’s what you did if you wanted to find and photograph the world’s rarest birds. It was her passion. And all she’d ever known. She’d been born into the life. Because it had been her parents’ career, and now it was hers. She knew what she was getting into every step of the way. She’d packed so much the float-plane pilot had charged extra. She’d brought enough supplies for seven days, but he should have known most of her cargo weight was drinking water. This was an uncharted island. Nobody ever came here. Nothing could be counted on. Natives didn’t even fish the waters. Something about an ancient curse.

The customs fellow had regaled her about it, and then the official who’d come out to the building that doubled as an airport to have a picture taken with her. Everyone she met seemed dedicated to making certain she knew the dangers of this expedition. As if that would stop world renowned nature photographer, Katherine Clark.

Heck, it had taken two days just to reach Micronesia, another day to get her VISA approved, and then she’d spent a day-and-a-half finding a pilot willing to fly her out here and return in a week. And that was only because she had cash. In US denomination.

A lot of it.  

The pilot had been named Frank. He’d been un-groomed, uncouth, and uncivilized. Frank’s plane was on a par with its owner. But, it got her here. That’s what mattered.

The starling continued grooming in the rain, unaware there was an observer about twenty-five yards away, with a scope that brought every detail into perfect focus. A shiver ran Kat’s frame more than once as she took photo after photo. These starlings were difficult to see amidst the lush jungle. Their coloring so dark it was almost charcoal. This one had been seen only due to its flight amidst the trees. It had moved like a black arrow shot from a bow, and was nearly as difficult to follow.

Wow.

She was photographing a real Aprionis pelzeini! An island mountain starling!

Double wow.

These birds had been listed as extinct until a guide brought a kill into a field office in 1995. Ever since then, they’d been on the critically endangered list. Three previous expeditions had failed to find one. Getting this series of photos was not only going to quiet her sponsors, but it would really bolster her career, especially if she could get them developed and printed in time for her showing.

The bird moved suddenly. Kat followed its flight with her scope up a mass of green. As if a hill all of a sudden sprouted from the jungle floor. Her finger stayed on the filming button, catching the shadow of...was that an arch? Stonework? Maybe even...a man-made structure?

Kat twirled the lens to bring what looked like bricks into focus. Or, they were stones cut to resemble bricks. The top had been assembled into a series of arches. It was jaw-dropping. Unbelievable. This was an uninhabited island. Nothing of import was supposed to be here...certainly not ancient ruins. That didn’t change the fact that she was viewing a human-created wall. It stood at least thirty feet high. The top was overgrown and nearly impossible to delineate in spots. The entire structure was covered with moss and decaying foliage, and...

Oh.

Heavens.

There was a nest up there!

She was going to cry. The lens fogged with a hint of tears. Kat pulled it away and swiped the moisture with a thumb. Put it back to her eye. Scanned the wall’s height until she found the nest again. The starling she’d found had a mate. Both birds circled and swooped about a mass of foliage that clung to the edge of the wall. They might have eggs. They might even have chicks. What she wouldn’t give for a satellite link-up right now! To beam this to the board of directors!

And then, as she watched in a slow-motion sort of horror, a long-shafted spear smacked into the wall she gazed at, just beneath the base of the nest.

A spear!

Shock stilled her for half a second. The other half was filled with anger. The starlings reacted with all kinds of cries and swooping, and flustered flying about their home. Kat’s anger rose to rage. If these low-life poachers hurt one feather on either bird, or harmed one egg...

Another spear thudded into the wall as she watched. Kat lowered the camera to the sodden mass of foliage she knelt on. Slid her left hand to her can of pepper spray. These jerks were about to meet a blast that could stop a charging elephant – or so the shop keeper had informed her. She flipped the cap open on the pepper can. At the same time, her right hand was on her blades. She always traveled with knives. It usually made getting through customs a bitch, even with the proper permits, but she wasn’t leaving them behind. These blades had saved her more than once. She had a dozen knives, double-sided. Razor sharp. Identical. A finger grip was at one end, exactly six inches of pain beneath that. They were pocketed in two leather straps that crisscrossed her torso. She was an expert with knives. Any knife. Her father had made certain of it. But it might not get to that. She had the element of surprise. With any luck she resembled a swamp creature.

She stood. Turned. And instantly realized her error.

They weren’t poachers.

Somebody had the statistics on this island entirely wrong. The place had ancient ruins. It was home to at least one critically endangered bird species. And it wasn’t uninhabited, either. Two men faced her, wearing a lot of bright feathers on their heads, a colorful coating of paint, and very little else. And as she watched, two men became four, and then eight, while the damn netting might as well be glued in place, clinging with moisture. She couldn’t even get an arm out.

One of them said something. Sounded like an order. He gestured toward her with his spear as if that clarified things. The starlings were still putting up a ruckus above her. The rain was muting the entire episode. All Kat could think was they resembled characters from a cartoon show she used to watch. It was difficult to take these guys seriously. Besides, this was the twenty-first century. She wasn’t that far off-grid.

The spear leader guy spoke again. Louder this time, as if that made his gibberish intelligible.   Kat cleared her throat. Lowered her voice to a tenor-range. And yelled back at him.

You want to try English, buddy?

Apparently not.

He jabbed his spear into the ground before him, and now he really sounded pissed-off. The feathers atop his head bobbed with his arm gestures. That made it a lot easier to realize