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lost lagoon

I didn’t have to be here, I reflected, as I watched the bandit emerge from the jungle at the far end of the bridge.

I could be at home—or, what was home for the moment, anyway—in Belize City, with my wife, Ariadne, and our newborn son Archie.

Or perhaps I could be in Aberdeen. The Hogmanay had been a little over two weeks ago, but it really didn’t seem like New Year at all in a tropical climate. I missed the damp, the rain, the lowering clouds of the land of my birth. I swatted a mosquito as another bandit emerged from the dark forest and joined the first.

In fact, I thought, as the number of the bandits doubled once more, I’d rather be almost anywhere than here, which was central America, a hundred miles from the nearest city where anyone spoke English, where the rule was “Do what the cartels tell you.”

The jungle disclosed several more bandits to join the swelling group facing us across the ravine. They were dressed in a more or less similar fashion—dirty shirts and trousers that had once been white or pale blue, but were now darkened in patches, battered hats, strings of bullets crossed over their chests. A couple of them held sticks of bright orange dynamite; another carried a coil of fuse-wire over his shoulder and a plunger in one hand. The rest carried an assortment of rifles and shotguns, slung casually over their shoulders as if they were nothing more harmful than walking sticks.

Nevertheless, as they arrived at the far end of the bridge, they took up offensive positions. In the end, there were about a dozen of them on the far side of the bridge. On the near side, just me and José. Two of us left to guard the bridge until the detachment of British soldiers we had been promised turned up at nightfall.

Seeing all these bandits, José cleared his throat. He had been my guide, and was now my good friend—dark-complexioned, with the chiseled features of his people, we had been in a number of scrapes together in the six months I’d been living and adventuring in the British Honduras. And he was a good man to have around—I once saw him get a jaguar between the eyes with his throwing knife at forty feet, though he claimed it was more luck than accuracy.

“I do not think I like this, señor,” said José. “There are a lot of those bandidos.”

“It’s taken us two months to build this bridge,” I said. “I’m not going to let them blow it up.”

José made the Sign of the Cross, and started praying. Since he was praying a Latin prayer familiar to me from the Mass, I prayed with him.

One of the bandits stepped onto the bridge. I fingered the Webley at my hip. He shouted across to us in Spanish. While he was talking, I leaned over the side of the bridge and spat into the roaring waters below—it took for ever to drop the sixty feet to the water, which foamed about the rocks below. If Ari had been here, she would have known what he was saying, and would probably have known a few choice insults to shout back at him. Not for the first time, I regretted her absence. She could not come on this expedition because she had just had a baby, whom I had seen for only a couple of days during a weekend’s leave.

“Señor McCracken,” said José urgently, breaking in on my reverie, “this hombre, he says this bridge will be bad for business.”

I nodded. “Bad for his business, you mean,” I said. “Now your villagers will be able to get to the markets in a day, not in two and a half days, and he won’t have to act as their broker.” Their broker, I thought, who charged a very high percentage on all their goods, who made sure they were always poor and dependent. With my bridge, the villagers could get to the markets more quickly, and under the protection of the British police.

The bandit spoke again. José translated: “He says that you should turn around and walk away from the bridge. This is not a good place for you. If you stay, he says he will not be responsible for what happens next.”

“Tell him I built the bridge, and I’ll stay here and protect it for the villagers,” I snapped back. José translated, and the bandit talked back. I knew what he would say—he would repeat that the bridge was bad for business.

Another bandit, who was a good bit wider in the girth than the others, stepped forward, shoved past the spokesman, and stood boldly, legs astride, on the bridge. His shotgun was slung over his shoulder, two huge knives were tucked into his belt. His chin bristled with whiskers and he held a fat Havana cigar between his teeth.

bridge“Well, look at this,” I said, very quietly, so as not to show my surprise. “It’s the head hombre himself, Calavera.” In the two months we had been building and guarding the bridge, Calavera had sent his men against us, but had never showed up himself. And now, here he was, as large as life, twice as fat, and four times as ugly.

Calavera spoke, and he actually spoke in English. He said, “Señor McCracken, be wise. Why do you want to help these miserable little villagers? They cannot do anything, other than grow sugar cane and bananas. All I am doing is helping them to fulfill their… Hey, José, how do you say potencial in Gringo?”

“Potential?” suggested José.

Si, potencial,” returned Calavera. “I am helping them to fulfill their potencial. They can either scratch out a miserable living from the soil here in the jungle, or they can help Don Hernando Calavera del Armario—which is me—expand his empire. On the one hand, they can be nonentities; on the other, part of a machine that is destined for glory.”

“Nobody likes machines more than I do, Calavera,” I shouted back at him. “But I think they have a right to make their own living without being terrorized by crazy men who don’t care if they live or die.”

Calavera shrugged, puffed on his cigar, and said, “It’s no different than your big industries in Europe—the industries that are making bigger and bigger machines to kill more and more soldiers.”

I tried not to let on how deeply that one stung—it was true that the War was getting more and more intense and violent back in Europe: More and more nations had entered the conflict, and the Germans had just, a few weeks ago, executed a nurse for spying, so they claimed. I said, “That’s a different matter, Calavera. Here and now, what you’re doing is wrong. And I’m going to stop you.”

Calavera held up a hand. “There is nothing you can do to stop us, Señor McCracken,” he said. “But I will permit you to leave this place with your lives, on one condition.”

I cocked my head. “And that condition is…what?”

“The gold you have discovered, the gold of the Mayans. Let me have it, and I will not kill you and your friend.”

José’s eyes widened. “How does he know about the gold, Señor McCracken?” he asked. There was a glint in his eye.

“How indeed?” I wondered. I shouted back to the bandit leader, “That gold is way north of here, in an underground cavern. There’s none here.”

Calavera sauntered a few yards further onto the bridge. “Come now, Señor McCracken. I know you have found Mayan gold here. Why else would you build this splendid bridge for these pathetic little paletos?”

I rested my hand on the hilt of my revolver. “You’ve been misinformed, Calavera.”

Calavera’s lips widened into a grin. “I do not think so, Señor McCracken. My informant is someone…very close to you.”

I turned to José. “You?” I asked.

gold“That is correct, señor!” cried José, backing away and stepping off the bridge. To Calavera, he cried out: “Come across the bridge, mi amigo! I will show you where the gold is—remember my porcentaje!”

“Filthy traitor!” I cried, lunging after José. He ducked behind a great moss-grown rock, and I leaped after him. I could hear cries of gold-lust and the tramping of boots on the wooden bridge behind me as the bandits dashed across it.

Behind the boulder, José had his hand on a lever. He winked; I winked back.

I peered around the side of the boulder. Most of the bandits were on the bridge now. The last of them stepped onto it. “Now!” I shouted.

Laughing wildly, José threw the lever. A pulley quivered as the rope moved through it. A hook pulled on a catch on the under-side the bridge. And then, a trapdoor the length of the bridge swung downwards. In a split second, the exultant cries of the bandits were turned to terror and dismay. They flung their arms wide. They cast aside their rifles and shotguns. For a few seconds, they seemed suspended in mid-air, and then they plunged through the misty void towards the seething river below.

Not one was left on the bridge.

“I wish they could have seen reason,” I said, my stomach queasy.

“It is a shame,” agreed José. “But if they had, it would have been the first time in many years—since I have known them. Gracias, Señor McCracken!” he added. “Now my village can live in peace, and prosper!” He reached to the other side of the lever and pushed aside a fern to reveal a crank, a bit like a ship’s helm. He gave it a few turns and, under the bridge, a telescopic arm extended, pushing the trapdoor slowly back up into its place.

“You were very convincing, José,” I said. “I was almost convinced you’d betrayed me. You should think of a career in acting.”

“Señor McCracken,” said José soberly, “I would never betray you. You owe me too many tequilas!”

Suddenly, his eyes widened, and his lips pulled back from his teeth. His right hand clutched across his chest.

The hilt of a dagger protruded from his left shoulder.

fernI spun round. To my horror, I saw that Calavera had survived. Being closest to the near bank, he had not fallen quite so far as the others, and perhaps he had landed in ferns or something soft. I leaped forward and grappled with him. He balled his fist, and struck me in the face. Pain exploded in my cheek, but I didn’t let him go. I pulled on him, trying to get him over the side of the ravine. He reeked of cheap tequila and cigars. I lashed out with my foot, trying to kick his legs out from under him, but he dodged—he was quicker than he looked. He wrapped his foot around my leg, and I felt my knees give way.

With a shout, I dropped from the side of the ravine. But I wasn’t alone—Calavera tumbled with me. We bounced through ferns and palmettos, rolling, our arms and legs flailing. Finally, we came to rest on a wide, grassy delta, around which the river roared. The far side of the river was steeper than this side, which was shallow enough for us to have taken very little harm falling all the way down. Nevertheless, we were both shaken and got only slowly to our feet. The delta was fringed with shallow rock-pools and pock-marked all over with little grey hills. The body of one of the bandits lay, his arms and legs at weird angles, about ten feet from me.

He seemed to be moving, but as I stared at him, I saw that something was moving on him, and then I knew what the little grey mounds were.

They were red fire-ant mounds. The red fire ant, that could strip a beast to the bones in less than a minute.

But I couldn’t reflect on this, because Calavera was on his feet, a wicked-looking knife in his hand, which he whirled this way and that, grinning over the flashing silver of the blade.

I reached to my hip and drew the Webley, my thumb on the hammer as I raised it.

Calavera’s hand flashed out, and there was a metallic “Ding!” sound as his knife hit my revolver. For a moment, I saw it flying through the air. Then it landed with a thud in the middle of one of the ant mounds.

I like the gun, I thought, but not that much.

“Give up, gringo,” snarled Calavera. “It is too hot to be fighting.”

“You give up first,” I told him. I ran at him, pummeling aside his knife-hand. My attack drove him back a little way. His feet slithered to a stop just inches from one of the ant-mounds, but then he regained control of himself and pushed back against me. I took a step back, but he had extended too far, and I took advantage of him, launching my knee up into the soft flesh beneath his ribcage. He leaped away, clutching his stomach, dancing this way and that to avoid the ant-mounds. I was after him in a moment, but he dropped and swept at me with his leg. He got me by the ankles, and I fell on my side with a thud that drove the breath from my lungs.

My face was just a few inches from the grinning face of the dead bandit. Fire-ants, some of them an inch long, swarmed over his back. I could hear their jaws and legs clicking faintly, beneath the roaring of the river.

Calavera cackled with laughter. He grabbed my hair and pushed my face towards the ants. I strained against him, but he had the advantage of height and weight, and I knew I could not resist long.

Buenos noches, Señor McCracken,” said Calavera. “Be a nice meal!”

But then he gave a sharp cry and released me. I squirmed around to look. Blood trickled down the side of his face—something had hit him in the head. I wrenched myself from under him and leaped to my feet. He struggled upright too, shaking his head. On the ground nearby lay a knife. I stole a glance upwards. José stood at the top of the ravine, his hand clutching his wound.

“More luck than accuracy, Señor McCracken!” he cried out, and started to pick his way down the slope towards us.

Probably—and he had only distracted Calavera a moment, not incapacitated him. In a flash, the bandit was on me again, his eyes glowing, his teeth snarling. But I drove my fist up into his stomach, where I had hit him before, and with a grunt he stepped backwards.

ant moundRight onto an ant-mound.

In his terror, he spun away from the swarm of little red devils and overbalanced. He fell over a slick rock and into the shallows beyond. I followed him, fists at the ready. For a few moments, we traded blows, neither of us moving backwards or forwards. I circled about in an effort to find a good opening, but found none; and now, my back was to the raging river. I could feel the cool spray over my back.

But Calavera was impatient. With a howl of rage, he rushed at me. I dropped to one knee and, when he was close, shoved him upwards so that his momentum carried him, spiraling, over my head. With a terrible splat! and a bit of a crunch! he landed behind me. I spun round. He was among the rocks at the very edge of the shallows, but from the waist down he was actually immersed in the river, which foamed white all about him. His fingers scrabbled at the slick rocks, and I knew he could not hold on much longer.

I dashed forward and bent down to help him. But when my hands were close to his, he let go of the rock and seized my wrists in a powerful grip.

“You and I,” he said, “we go together, gringo!”

The river took him, and he pulled me towards the waters. I dug in my heels, but the rocks were slippery, and I could not get any traction. I thrust my shoulder against one rock, my knee against another, but still, the waters were pulling on Calavera, and he was pulling on me. My foot slipped, then my shoulder slipped. I slid nearer to the water, and nearer still.

Then the bandit released me. For a moment, I glimpsed his face, snarling with anger; and then he was gone, and only the rapids remained. Slowly, in a daze, I got to my feet.

It took me quite a while to climb back up the side of the ravine, and when I finally got there, I found José, as I might have expected, surrounded by pretty villagers who were binding up his wound.

Sixty feet below, the river seethed away, carrying with it the menace that had hung over the village for almost a decade.

This is chapter one of Mark Adderley’s McCracken and the Lost Lagoon (forthcoming Easter, 2016 {find previous books in the series here}) and is published with the gracious permission of the author.

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