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Malay Peninsula, Southeast Asia
"Tell me this isn't a mirage and that I won't wake up with snakes or lizards in my sleeping bag," Thorne demanded for the second time.
"This isn't a mirage. We're actually here," Sasha replied to the wildlife photographer. A second later, her hands finally found the right combination to unfold the portable canvas chair. Even under the shade of the high trees and a tent top, the humidity of the rainforest had beads of sweat popping up all over her forehead. For the third time that afternoon, she longingly thought of her last trip to the Australian Outback. Having flown from an oven to a sauna, she preferred the former to the latter. No matter how much she tried to keep cool and dry, nothing worked. Any day now, she expected fungus to start growing on her khakis and cotton shirt.
"Okay...okay," he rushed. "Now tell me again that we're getting paid for this trip."
"We will be paid once we complete the assignment," she carefully explained. Graced with movie-star looks, blue eyes, curly flaxen hair and an ability to be at the right place at the right time with the right photographic equipment, Thorne Roswell could have pursued a career in fashion or commercial photography. Yet, like her, his love of animals and conservation drove him to seek out some of the world's most elusive wildlife.
"All expenses?" he pressed.
Sasha turned around and backed into the less than sturdy chair. It was their eighth day of a month-long expedition and they had a few hours before the subject of her study appeared to take a drink from the nearby river. Until then they would wait. "Every cent."
"In U.S. dollars?"
"Nope." She allowed a satisfied glance to grace her lips. The foundation funding their trip was located in the United Kingdom. After a few days of wrangling, she'd been lucky enough to get them to agree to settle the contract in the local currency. "British pounds."
Several moments passed and she could imagine the photographer's mind calculating the currency conversion as he pulled out a camera lens from his backpack. "Tell me again that this isn't a mirage."
She chuckled and reached up to push a stray braid behind her ear. "The money will be in your bank account before the plane comes back to pick us up."
"And I don't have to go to some bottom-tier university and lecture to class after class of pill-popping, Internet-addicted, know-it-all undergraduate students?"
"Not this time," Sasha answered. "We just have to combine your photographs with my research, present our finding to the group and turn in our material."
Thorne placed his hands behind this head and leaned back. The camera lens lay forgotten in his lap. "Sasha, my girl, this is the life. Perfect weather, fresh air, civilization is miles away and we're getting paid to lie in the shade."
Perfect. The word echoed in her head. As far as she was concerned the Malay Peninsula was far from the garden of Eden. The Bible had mentioned only one snake in Genesis. So far, she'd encountered over a dozen. "Don't forget we've got a job to do."
"Yeah, and as long as the tapir hides in the bushes, we wait."
"I hate waiting," she stated.
"I really don't mind it at all." He grinned.
Sasha looked upward to the center section of the tent and held in a sigh. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me," she replied.
Thorne shrugged his shoulders. "Out of the practically overflowing list of bug-infested, end-of-the-world locales you've chosen for us to research, this is a virtual paradise."
Paradise. She shook her head at the word. They had arrived in the southern edge of Malaysia only two weeks ago. The land was as untamed and wild as she'd imagined and just as beautiful. Sunrise that morning had been spectacular, brilliant oranges and blues lighting up the clouds. The verdant trees and low hanging patches of fog made it look like a painting without frames. Although the scenery appealed to her on every level, the small details like oppressive heat and the smell of rotting vegetation was never far from her thoughts.
Sasha resisted the urged to pull up her pants leg and scratch the tiny red bumps left by a matching pair of leech bites. Every couple of hours, they would have to check the tents for the most miniscule of holes. In this jungle, one small hole served as a neon open sign to the entire insect population in the area. And she'd had enough of biting ants to last an eternity.
The last instance she'd been less conscientious, she'd woken up in the middle of the night to see a flood of hundreds of ants sweeping over the equipment like a wave of brown water. Outnumbered, she'd had to abandon her tent and slept in the Jeep.
"Glad you like the neighborhood," she replied.
"Why don't you stay?" The sarcastic undertone in her voice was completely lost on Thorne. It had taken her a few months, but she'd gotten used to the wildlife photographer's constant need to compliment or complain.
"I'm serious," he continued. "This is the best place you've dragged me to yet."
"I did not drag you anywhere. You practically begged me to get you on the first plane flying so you could hide from your mother and the vindictive girlfriend who caught you in bed with another woman."
Sasha opened her eyes and peered out the opaque camouflage color of the mosquito netting. Less than a hundred yards away, elephants had joined hippos in the slow running river.
"Wrong, I only took this job because no one in their right mind would spend three weeks with you. You, Sasha, rarely talk, don't drink, don't smoke and don't go out to clubs. Honestly, love, you have the social skills of a Tasmanian Devil."
Sasha didn't say a word. What could she say? Thorne was right. She didn't like being around a lot of people and talking was a waste of energy. She'd seen the effects of alcohol too many times to want to partake.
The familiar high-pitched sound of a female mosquito prompted her to roll down her sleeves and turn toward Thorne as he lay sprawled out on the tent's tarmac. She gestured toward one of the bags. "Hey, can you pass the repellant? We've got a hungry guest."
"You didn't forget to take your malaria pill this morning, did you?" he asked. "Thorne." She said his name slowly as he continued to dig through the bag. "I reminded you to take the pill."
Sasha shook the bottle of concentrated bug spray and proceeded to squirt it on the exposed sections of her skin, then she put her research notebook to the side, and completely relaxed in the chair. The little voice in the back of her mind whispered that she should have been entering in more information, but instead she lay back.
With her eyes closed against the warmth of the afternoon sun, Sasha inhaled deeply and smiled at her colleague's relaxed comment.
Their sole purpose was to study the very elusive and near-extinct Malayan tapirs. The nocturnal and reclusive donkey-size animal inhabited only select parts of the tropical forest. They'd been in the target habitat a week and had only seen footprints of the beast. If she hadn't seen a black and white photo taken a few months before by another expedition, she would have given up and moved on to the next project. However seductive the lush tropical weather and abundant the wildlife population, the overabundance of insects still made her want to head to cooler climates. Overhead the trill sound of a bird echoed and a breeze carrying the scent of decaying vegetation made Sasha wrinkle her nose.
At thirty-one, most of her college classmates had settled into comfortable corporate or public careers, married and begun saving for a future child's education.
Sasha, on the other hand, wasn't looking. An ironic smile appeared and quickly disappeared; she'd had marriage offers from men on three continents. The first time, she hadn't even hit puberty. During an expedition in Kenya, her parents'guide had offered her father over a hundred cows. She leaned back and again closed her eyes. Several minutes passed and she'd begun to drift into a light doze when Thorne called her name.
"What?" She opened her eyes slightly.
"Did you hear that?"
"Thorne, how many times do I have to tell you that the local snakes aren't poisonous and they won't come near you, much less bite?"
"Exactly twenty-three. But that's not it."
His powers of observation worked great when they were tracking a subject, but at times like this he made her want to scream. "Then what is it?"
Sasha stood up and focused her attention outward. Straining her ears, she concentrated on putting aside the white noise of the forest. And the same moment, she picked up the whirring noise; every animal alongside the stream seemed to freeze. Sasha's heart stuttered to a stop and then jerked into high speed.
"Damn," she swore. "That sounds like..."
"A plane," he stated simply.
"What would it be doing way out here?"
He shrugged and stood up. "Maybe poachers?"
"Not likely," she growled. "They'd come over land. From the sound of it, I think the plane is headed toward us."
Sasha's gaze narrowed on the milling animals. This deep into the tropical forest, most of the animals had not been exposed to humans or machines. It suddenly occurred to her that the sound of the plane would inevitably trigger the "fight or flight" instinct inherent in most living things. "We need to gather everything we can and get behind the trees."
"They may run the other way." Thorne came to stand alongside her.
"Do you want to put your life and our equipment at risk?"
"So now you're the rhinoceros expert, too?" Thorne said sarcastically. The twang of his cockney accent came out in full force. "You think they're going to stampede."
"I know they will." Sasha drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
She moved quickly to pick up the equipment and dump it in the travel bags. The entire episode reminded her of why she preferred the company of animals to humans. She'd had her pick of group expeditions, but it hadn't taken her long to realize she'd inherited her parents' solitary nature.
Sasha didn't look at Thorne. If she didn't need his talent, she would have stopped using his services long ago. She'd learned from her parents how to take care of herself in any environment. But what she hadn't learned, and it would irritate her for life, was how to deal with people. And that undeniable fact made it easy for her to work and live in undeveloped countries and remote locales around the world on a moment's notice.