Dr. Enzo Manocarci, as it turns out, had been expecting company. Not us, mind you, but he had lit extra lanterns, cleared some space to his surprisingly well-kept two-room hut, and even put out what one could even call snacks, in a loose sense. A grudging nicety.
He met us out on the small landing next to the crude set of stairs built into the side of the hill
The man himself was larger than I think any of us expected. Bruised and battered straw-coloured panama sideways on his head, whisps of white and grey straggling out from underneath, white shirt barely buttoned together, face wrinkled and wizened despite the climate he worked in.
He called to us at first, as we climbed up, saying he was unarmed and that we were welcome. I tried to catch Graham’s eye to see his response, but his hands were free, getting a face full of Lena’s backpack.
Our intrepid bug scientist was the first to meet the doctor, and the only thing she managed was a quick Allo, and what I swore was a girlish squeak right before. The rest of us barreled up and into the big man, an expression on his face that could best be described as got-off-at-the-wrong-stop-bewilderment.
We all managed our Hellos and Heléne more or less invited us in. The place looked like a temporary shelter rebuilt into something more useful, if a little haphazard. There was a platform leading out of a side door to a back shed surrounded by cages and cases and plastic boxes. The interior was neat and tidy in comparison to the researcher tents back down below. There were plant specimens stacked around the walls to the roof (not a very high one), and several desks full of leather notebooks and moleskines. Any loose paper was curled and smudged and damp, even the occasional computer printout.
One corner was apparently the office, rugged laptop, work lights, printer and all. I noticed that the generator cable led off and away, the machine currently silent.
Lena, the man said, in an accent that was more Brazilian than Italian or British. Why have you come. You know we said we wouldn’t speak until I came back down to you.
He paused and looked like he would say more, but shied away. He gave us guarded looks as we stood in that pregnant pause of a space, pretending it was anything but awkward.
Graham nudged at me with a boot.
Hi again. Grazie, for, for letting us in, I said. Lena–Heléne, offered to bring us to you, I didn’t know it would be so late, though.
The big man sat in what looked to be the only comfortable chair and motioned for us to sit in the other foldouts. He stared hard at Lena for a second, before starting in.
You don’t look like academics or missionaries, and he doesn’t look like a typical student, so how do you know our Ant Lady? Why has she brought you here?
That’s a bit of long story, I laughed, trying to gauge how upset or interested this doctor was. We have been searching for someone for the past few weeks. A woman. We met a man named Jennings in our search, and-
Jennings? Why on earth. Would he, of all people. I. How did you meet him? Manocarci had taken off his hat, fanning away at the thickness of the night air, but almost stood up at the mention.
Graham looked practically at home, sitting in false repose. Três spoke up first. He told us that the woman we are looking for came to the camps, and Heléne told us she would have come up here to you, on her way to her own pursuits.
The doctor did stand, then. Walked over to the corner desk and a heavy duty plastic tub and produced what looked like a polaroid photo. Melanie, he said, tossing it on the table. Yes, she was here. And before you say anything else, you have to know she stole something absolutely priceless from me.