art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Steven Kahn
Beneath the oldest rainforest in the world, Bakti walked quiet as a jungle cat. Three more hours to check his traps before nightfall. Ndari, equally stealthy, accompanied him. Bakti had warned her it was too dangerous, but her green eyes sparkled at the challenge.
"Why?" she had asked. "Why more dangerous for me than you? I'm just as swift as you. My eyes and ears just as good, and I'm better with a rifle at fifty meters."
He'd hesitated to explain, for it meant admitting the unsavory nature of his trade. Also, he would welcome her company, and the caged beasts that fetched the highest prices were often too heavy for one person to carry.
"You know what I do is illegal," he'd reminded her.
She'd shrugged. "When you first had me, I was only fifteen. That was illegal, but we did it anyway. You seem to prefer my continued presence for that activity. Why not keep me around while you collect your exotic creatures."
"You do understand who I sell the animals to?" he'd asked.
"Smugglers I assume, in boats, after dark."
"Those smugglers sell on the black market, often to men who grow wealthy from cocaine, opium, or Middle Eastern oil."
"So? Isn't one coin as good as another? Once it's in your pocket, who cares what journey it's traveled? It doesn't pick up diseases like a bee picks up pollen. Doesn't pick up karma either, though some might have us believe so."
"It's not a matter of karma. You know I'm not superstitious."
"The men they send pay well for orangutans, pygmy elephants, clouded leopards. But there is one creature for which some would pay far more."
Her smooth brow had furrowed with puzzlement. "What walks these jungles of Borneo and is worth more than an orangutan?"
"You. A beautiful young woman, half Asian with green eyes. You would fetch more than ten orangutans, sold into some harem and never heard from again."
She'd paused mid-step. They each had a rifle in hand. Her jaw tightened. She hefted her rifle into both hands, forearm sinews tightening like ropes. "First smuggler that tries that, I'll shoot his balls off. How much do you think they're worth to him? More than I'd fetch, I'll wager."
"And don't some creepy men like boys?" she'd added. "Wouldn't you fetch some coin as well?"
"Not so much, no." But he had heard rumors of men and women in his trade mysteriously vanishing.