21 June 1943 • Rio Mamore
120 miles northeast from Trinidad
Despite Reuben’s optimism, it was a good two days before they encountered any concrete evidence that Ramos and his companions had passed. And it was very different from what any one of them could imagine. It had been two days since they had departed La Paz, and the two FBI agents had wrapped themselves in a mood of persistent silence despite Indiana’s energetic questions about their destination or ultimate goal. All he knew was that they had taken a boat down one of the countless small rivers that cut its way through the Bolivian high country and driven eastward. By noon of the second day they had reached the Rio Mamore, and just before sunset Trinidad, the last considerable city before the Brazilian border. They had stayed overnight in a shabby hotel, then continued on the next morning. Indiana became increasingly convinced that Reuben and Henley had no more power or influence in this country than he or Marian had. They were becoming more uneasy since they were no longer alone: they had started the journey with only themselves and the captain of the small, flat-bottomed square boat called a punt, but were now transferring to an old but extremely robust steamboat which was manned with half a dozen shady characters that were armed to the teeth. To Indiana’s surprise there were also two Bolivian police officials on deck with them, and as Indiana and Marian boarded Henley was loudly engaged in an on-going conversation in perfect Spanish with them, gesturing wildly with his hands as he spoke. It was barely an hour after sunrise and they continued the journey northeast. Shortly after noon, the land and vegetation on the riverbank began to change – the grass and leafy trees of the highlands was green-brown and patchy, but it was slowly transforming into the sprawling verdant green of a tropical rainforest. The river had widened and branched in various places, and Indiana was no longer certain they were still on the Rio Mamore – perhaps they had already taken one of its countless branches, some of which were as wide as or wider than the Rio Mamore itself, but not marked on any map. It was one hour before sunset when they came upon the destroyed Indian village.
More accurately, it was the Indians who found them because the jungle on the right and left of the river had become so dense that it was an impenetrable green wall of vegetation as far as the eye could see. Indiana had given up on asking the two FBI agents further questions because he got no answers anyway, and had moved to the nose of the small steamboat. He stood there alone, staring into the distance, away from his companions and the men Reuben and Henley had hired. He recognized mercenaries when he saw them. And the eight dark-skinned, broad-shouldered men that had received them on-board that morning were definitely mercenaries if he’d ever seen any. He asked himself over and over, what in the world were two FBI agents expecting to find in the Bolivian rain forest.
Indiana shrank away from his deep thoughts when he heard footsteps coming up the deck behind him. He half-turned recognizing Henley, who was wrapped in a light tropical jacket and had the inevitable cigarette dangling from the corner of this mouth, leisurely strolling toward him. He turned back towards the front of the boat. The river wound its way around countless bends and turns, cutting through the jungle, and a warm wind was blowing in his face. Although the sun had already half-disappeared behind the vast canopy of treetops and its glow had turned red, it was still very hot.
Henley stepped up next to him and put his hands on the rusty railing, staring emptily ahead in silence for a minute. He then flicked his cigarette butt into the water, and then reached into his jacket pocket to withdraw another. “It is truly beautiful here,” he said, snapping open his lighter and lighting the new one, blowing a cool blue cloud into the air.
Several seconds passed without Indiana answering. He turned and leaned back against the railing, pondering the FBI agent thoughtfully. “It would be even more beautiful,” he said, “had you not brought that here.” He pointed to the holstered pistol the man had dangling from his gunbelt, which Henley had removed from his backpack.
The FBI official smiled mockingly. With the glowing tip of his cigarette, he motioned to Indiana’s own belt, which not only had a curled bullwhip attached to it but a pistol as well. Since they had left the hotel in La Paz, Indiana had changed into the attire in which he felt most comfortable – a threadbare brown leather jacket, rough linen trousers and patched shirt, and brown fedora, and looked as if he had already travelled around the world three times.
“But you are also armed, Dr. Jones.”
“A bad habit, I guess,” confessed Indiana with a smile. More seriously, he added: “But I did not bring an army with me.”
Henley took a deep draw of his cigarette and shrugged his shoulders. “You never know what you’re going to run into.” He twitched his shoulders again. He looked at Indiana briefly, and then stared back out at the river. “If our information is correct, then Ramos has nearly a dozen men with him. Not to mention, your friend also accompanies them.”
Indiana wanted to sharply reply that Stanley was not his friend, but he swallowed the words and forced himself to calmly respond. “What in the world are you scared of, Henley?” Several seconds passed as Henley stared thoughtfully at the reflections in the river waters, which the blunt nose of the steamship had split evenly for the past several hours. Then the man bent forwards, resting his forearms on the rusty railing and sighed deeply. Indiana didn’t really expect an answer from Henley, so it surprised him when the man finally spoke.
“I don’t know, Dr. Jones,” he said. “And that, in fact, is the truth. No one knows what Professor Corda is here looking for.”
“Then why have you followed him to the ends of the earth?” drilled Indiana next.
Henley looked back at him very seriously. “What he has found could be of enormous importance.”
“And because of this, you and Reuben risk your lives – not to mention the diplomatic repercussions that could result?” Indiana asked, doubtfully.
Henley nodded. “If it is, in fact, what we suspect, then there are many more than two lives at stake in this game, Dr. Jones.”
“You don’t really believe Stanley is a traitor?” asked Indiana.
“No,” admitted Henley with amazing openness. “I…” he hesitated, and took a further draw from his cigarette in order to gain a little more time before continuing. He glanced around the deck to ensure no one else was present to listen in on their conversation. “No,” he said again. “You see, Dr. Jones, we know pretty much everything about Professor Corda. You are quite right – he is a thief and a fraud, but he is interested in politics and power about as much as I am interested in the fertility rituals of New Guinea.” He smiled fleetingly at his own joke. “But it is possible that he has found something here, and he doesn’t even know its importance. Something that is very, very valuable. And in the wrong hands it can be very dangerous.”
“This does have to do with the Manhattan Project,” suspected Indiana, and this time Henley nodded.
“I want you to know the truth, Dr. Jones. Reuben will have me drawn and quartered if he finds out I told you. But you have a right to know.” Again he hesitated, ad if pondering whether he should go one. Indiana could feel how difficult it was for him to continue. “We already have told you that some of Corda’s customers became very ill after their dealings with him.”
“It was not a mysterious tropical illness,” confirmed Henley. “Or a curse, as the dean of your university seems to believe.”
“It wasn’t? What then?”
“The gold Professor Corda found,” Henley explained, “is radioactively contaminated.”
Indiana stared, absorbing the implications of what he had just been told with fright.
“Some of the pieces were so hot that the scaled of the Geiger counter were not sufficient to measure. Others were only weakly radioactive, but all of them were contaminated. What do you know about radioactivity, Dr. Jones?”
Indy shook his head slightly. “Not much,” he confessed.
“We have something in common, then” Henley said. “I only know what I’ve been told, and that isn’t much. But I do know that radioactivity in dangerous or lethal amounts does not occur naturally. But the pieces Corda brought back with him were contaminated. Whatever he has found, he doesn’t even realize it, is a phenomenon which we have no explanation.”
“And now you’re afraid that…”
“We are afraid of nothing,” interrupted Henley so sharply that at first Indiana did not understand. Then he realized that the FBI agent was afraid, plain and simple. “I do not know whether you are aware of it, Dr. Jones – but at this moment in history there is a race taking place between us and the Germans.”
Henley nodded and stared into the river, foreshadowing further. “We are not the only ones with a ‘Manhattan Project’,” he said. “The Germans say otherwise, but they are just as intensively working on a nuclear weapon as we are. It’s only a matter of time before one of us is first. I believe that it will be us, but you can never be sure.”
“Stanley would never cooperate with the Nazis,” said Indiana with conviction.
“I know,” said Henley. “But you have to understand, Dr. Jones – the United States cannot afford even the tiniest risk.” He saw the fear and uncertainty in Indiana’s eyes and the slight shudder. “Do you understand what a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Nazis could mean?”
“No,” admitted Indiana fearfully.
“Neither do I,” said Henley. “No one really does. But I really don’t care to find out.”