THE SQUALL WAS OVER by the time Delaney arrived at Mayacatán.
At first it looked just like any other island.
This is partly because a calm sea is fairly flat and all land on shoreward approach looks relatively uniform – unless, of course, it is monstrously rugged and mountainous or has other glaringly unusual or unique features.
There were mountains in the interior of Mayacatán, but they were set well back on the horizon – all blue and misty, fading almost into the azure sky, with pale wispy cloud cover drifting around their peaks and softening them.
The Aphrodite’s approach was in calm blue sunlit waters and everything now looked so serene and motionless in the aftermath of the recent sudden brief storm, so common of these tropical regions. Delaney cut automatic and put the engine on standby letting his sea-launch drift forward under its own momentum.
Aside from the hush of the now stilled engine, there was only the sound of distant seabirds and the nearby peaceful lapping of the waves.
Delaney was looking for an inlet, a bay that led through a broadening creek into the island’s riverside Staging Post. There was a wide sandy beach confronting him, fringed sporadically with tall palm trees.
Further inland, how far he could not tell, the island began to slope up towards the mountains. Apart for the beach and the mountains, from this angle it looked as though forest cover dominated the land.
The island seemed serene and uninhabited, but he knew it was not.
Delaney restarted the engine of his launch and started steering inward manually.
The beach now curved out of sight to each side and he began to circle the island, searching for the inlet to the Staging Post.
He soon found it, rounding a seaweed-strewn curve of beach not more than several hundred yards into his search.
Delaney steered the Aphrodite into the creek.
Mangroves raised their spindly legs. They were like walking trees frozen in motion. It was as though they were alive and just holding still, waiting. Delaney felt he was entering some dark, living, breathing tunnel. The smell of warm moist earth and luxuriant botanical growth became almost overpowering.
The moment he was enclosed by it all, competing choruses of eerie noises started up. Croaks and whoops and whistles at first, with what sounded like some very windy raspberries soon joining in.
There were popping, scratching and slapping noises, too – as if percussion had come to accompany the equivalent of nature’s brass and woodwind sections.
This auditory plethora gained in stature like some wild orchestral cacophony, gathering momentum and heralding him on all sides, while the creek twisted and turned capriciously in its course. Soon these bizarre sounds were accompanied by yet more, in the form of disturbing creaking and rattling noises, and some very sinister slithering sounds from the boughs all around.
It was as though the whole creek had turned out in force to warn him away – or welcome him in to his doom.
As Delaney rounded a sharp turn, the creek suddenly widened and he was in a more open stretch of water with the banks clearer to one side. Here the mangroves had given way to reeds and small waterside shrubs.
The next turn brought another widening and a long clear stretch of bank.
He was on the river now; the Atapucca River and suddenly – there was the Staging Post in front of him: a wide clearing surrounded at a respectable distance by the lush green bush and further back, the jungle.
A wooden sign proclaimed: STAGING POST MAYACATÁN – bold black capitals on a white-painted background; the paint peeling and flaking at the edges, beginning to blister and fade in the sunlight and in the early stage of yellowish algal invasion blooming like dried puddle-stains. Next to this, a small sign pointed back the way Delaney had come saying: UP THE CREEK. It jutted out from a two-pronged sign. The opposing corner was marked: ATAPUCCA RIVER.
The staging post itself looked hardly more than a collection of ramshackle tin shacks and thatched huts. Here and there were a few battered old vehicles, with bits of machinery and packing crates strewn about between them. Tethered olive tarpaulins covered a couple of large stacks, one of which appeared to be supported beneath by some sort of rectangular framework.
Beyond, was a flat landing area with an aircraft hangar. A couple of antiquated aeroplanes parked in the shadows of its entrance, poked their noses into the sunlight streaming down out of a cloudless blue sky. From the hangar, a runway cut through the jungle; long and wide enough for an air-approach or take-off.
On the bank there were mooring posts set along a landing stage, where several river craft were tied.
Delaney guided the Aphrodite in to the landing stage, stopped her engines, pocketed the key and tied up to one of the posts. He stepped down on to the creaking wooden stage and then onto to the grassy soil atop the riverbank.
A tall, gangling man in green jungle fatigues sauntered down from one of the dilapidated buildings to greet him.
“Ah, Baloney – uh, Maloney?” He stuck out his hand.
“Delaney,” said Delaney, taking the man’s hand. “Daniel Delaney.”
“Sorry. Not always good with names. Heard you were coming, though. I’m Drysdale. Gavin Drysdale.”
* * *
“Step into the comfort of my office.”
They approached a low white walled building with a thatched roof, a lean-to attached at one end and a series of dilapidated greenhouses at the other.
“Better than the tin ones,” said Drysdale as they entered. “You can hear the rain like billy-oh in those. Good job they’re only for storage, or we’d all be driven nuts every time it rains.”
Pulling two bare wooden chairs from beneath a table with a washable top, Drysdale ushered Delaney to one of them and seated himself on the other.
“There is an area of ancient ruins near the mountains,” he said, opening a wall cabinet and taking a bottle and two glasses from a shelf within. He placed them on the table. “The ruins are reputed to contain the ghosts of a previous civilization,” he continued, pointing towards a window-view of distant peaks.
Drysdale poured out a measure of gold liquid into the glasses, handing one to Delaney.
“The island is named Mayacatán after the ancient Mayan city of that name, whose ruins stand in the foothills of the Cumandin Mountains,” he said. “And there are tales of strange beings occupying other parts of the island.”
He paused, gazing thoughtfully into the contents of his wineglass.
“There are also some natives; the Arumachiya, peaceful villagers who live in village clearings a little further inland. They lead a hunting and gathering existence. But they never venture as far as the foothills of the Cumandin Mountains.”
A strange glint entered Drysdale’s eyes.
“As you probably know there are some very strange metallic artifacts preserved in some of the ruins. That is why the area has been visited by a scientific expedition recently.” He paused and added hesitantly. “And – uh – after investigation, the scientists have proposed the artifacts to be the hulks of spacecraft from a distant star, landing here long ago, the occupants helping to build the city and form the society.”
Delaney stroked his chin, amusement in his eyes.
“You sound – skeptical!”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
Drysdale shrugged his shoulders and took a sip from his wineglass.
“I don’t really believe in that sort of nonsense,” said Delaney.
“Well, the Arumachiya seem to set great store by their legends, which do happen to concur with this new theory regarding the artifacts,” Drysdale replied.
“Oh, I’ve no doubt they do! But I wonder why? If they had more than half an education and an ounce of sense, they’d see through it all for the implausible pseudo-scientific drivel it sounds.”
“Hmm, I think they would disagree strongly with your views.”
Delaney knotted his brows and stared at Drysdale wonderingly.
“Are you playing devil’s advocate or do you really believe all this, too?”
“I’m neither,” said Drysdale. “I don’t believe or disbelieve. I don’t care one way or the other. It makes no difference to me. I don’t have to get involved, here at the Staging Post. I’m here for an entirely different reason. But you – you’re intending going right into the interior and I thought I’d try to give you as much information as there is to go on. The Arumachiya take their legends very seriously, probably with some good measure of reason.”
”Well, that just goes to show,” Delaney replied. “You can’t teach the brainwashed, unfortunately – that’s clear – and absolutely frustrating for anyone who tries. But what they believe in just seems so utterly absurd. I’ve heard all these sort of stories before and they just don’t ring true to me.”
“You don’t think there might be any truth at all in these legends and theories, then?”
Delaney shook his head. He drained his wineglass in one gulp before replying.
“Good Lord, no! There’s got to be another, much more reasonable explanation.”
“I have always thought it a little unwise to dismiss everything that doesn’t fit with one’s own ideas,” said Drysdale, still sipping his wine delicately. “However ludicrous some legends and theories sound, there might be some grain of truth in them, with possibly, something of great importance or value to learn. Some legends may just be badly observed versions of reality distorted through reinterpretation or misinterpretation or, merely, by the passage of time. Potential warnings should always be heeded”
“Oh, I believe there’s the risk of danger,” Delaney said. “But it’s more likely to be from hostile inhabitants or visitors such as poachers – or from wild beasts and natural hazards. I’m simply investigating reports of the disappearance of the scientific expedition sent out to examine those artifacts. That’s why I’m here, not for the lure of wild fairy tales nor the questionable thrill of confronting and evading danger.”
“Then I think you may find more than you bargained for,” said Drysdale, handing Delaney a card. “You have a cell-phone with you?”
Delaney nodded. “Thanks.” He studied the card briefly and pocketed it.
“Can’t guarantee anything, but in cases of emergency we do have a very sturdy Bush Ranger under cover, with crash bars that’ll clear the toughest undergrowth.”
“Much appreciated. I stand warned, then,” Delaney said. “But I’ve got a job to do, and I didn’t come all this way just to back out now.”
* * *
After a light meal, Delaney set out further inland along the river, eventually landing on the banks at the foot of the Cumandin Mountains. Mooring the Aphrodite securely to a large tree with overhanging branches and lush dark foliage shading this section of the river; he continued on foot, backpack, holster and pistol for company. Even if discovered by chance, in the darkened shade the red, white and blue colouring of the Aphrodite’s hull would be muted and virtually indistinguishable from its surroundings; so it was to all intents and purposes, very well-camouflaged.
Entering a cleared area unexpectedly, Delaney pulled up sharp and ducked down hurriedly behind some low-lying bushes, suppressing a gasp and holding his breath. He seemed to have inadvertently stumbled upon an encampment where poachers or smugglers were camped. Freshly killed animal carcasses and unidentifiable cases that might have contained drugs or firearms were strewn about. But he’d noticed it all too late, one of the men had spotted him and called out. Within seconds several large, scary-looking bearded characters brandishing pistols and swords were chasing him.
Heart racing, he plunged into the undergrowth and ran for his life – shouts ringing out and gunshots resounding from behind. Several missiles whooshed close by Delaney’s head, singing in his ears. Taking refuge behind a huge gnarled tree, he pulled out his own pistol and let off a smoking barrage at his pursuers.
Breathless, Delaney finally managed to outpace his pursuers, also running out of ammunition in the process of keeping them at bay.
Panting for breath, bent forward against the bole of a tree, hands on his knees, head between them, Delaney regained his composure. He pulled out his mobile, thumbed the number on the card Drysdale had given him and cursed.
“Damn! Mobiles don’t seem to work in this steamy hellhole.”
Hurrying on along a winding track through the undergrowth, he found himself near the ruins of what appeared to be some ancient temples. They weren’t the ruins containing the metallic artifacts. He pushed onward.
* * *
After another half a mile or so, Delaney halted, looking around desperately.
He was definitely lost now and near the water’s edge again at what appeared to be some sort of fishermen’s cove, several boats and a tumbledown shack in view. Was he still inland on the river system or had he emerged somewhere near part of the coastline? He needed information as to his whereabouts and the location of his objective.
One hand hovering over his holstered pistol, Delaney realized he’d run out of ammunition. He now had only a sheathed hunting knife and a pocketed Mace aerosol for protection. Hoping that it was safe to do so, but with little alternative, he called out tentatively.
“Ahoy, there.“ Nothing stirred. The air was still; the place seemed utterly deserted. His voice hung like a ghost in the mist – a faint whisper trapped in its timeless embrace. Delaney stood for a moment as though entranced, listening intently, then broke the spell with a sudden movement and stepped briskly up to the moored boats, examining each in turn. Water filled the inside of each, the hulls in advanced disrepair and leaking at the seams.
“All useless,” he murmured. “Utterly useless! If only I had my mobile working.”
Delaney was sure he saw something moving at the corner of his vision. Something had moved. What was it – an animal?
He blinked, and then narrowed his eyes for a closer look, in case it was a mirage. But no! He could see a vague mysterious shape floating along through the humid mists of the steamy jungle.
He had the eerie feeling that it been following him for quite a while. A shiver ran across Delaney’s shoulders and down his spine.
The apparition seemed to glide smoothly through the air, rather than walk.
Its visage was sketchy, fluid, shifting constantly, blurred. Yet the expression was fixed, staring frozenly, as if superimposed beneath or above the shifting surface.
It looked like something out of some spooky myth, rather than any natural earthly creature.
“Ahoy there,” hissed the thing and hovered towards him through the air.
* * * * * * * * *