Thursday, May 30, 2013

Read the first chapter of Lair of the Serpent!

Here it is! Enjoy!


CHAPTER ONE

Nāga! Nāga!”

Cries of warning rose in the jungle and men turned to the terrified sound. Strewn like tiny human islands through the muddy water of a Cambodian river, the men packing supplies over their heads froze, eyes searching for the deadly creature.

Ahead of them, near the edge of the jungled bank, water splashed and a man screamed in terror. The event spurred the others into action and they tried to run through the murky water for their own safety and to help. Cargo and current slowed their trek.

Again water boiled and the man who screamed vanished beneath the surface. Those already on the bank set down their burdens. Some held back, taken with fear. Two men grabbed machetes and rushed forward.

Out of the brown churning and frothing water rose a great head, but it did not belong to the man. Instead, water ran in sheets off the flattened head of a giant snake, its glistening body wrapped in gold and brown coils around a man battling for life and air.

A loud warning hiss came from the creature and the first man with the machete stopped. All his life he had heard of demon snakes in the jungles…Nāga large enough to swallow men whole. They could spit paralyzing poison from their mouths and shoot deadly fire from their eyes. The man had not known what to think of the stories…until now.

Though its deadly body writhed and roiled in power, constricting and drowning the thrashing man in its coils, the snake’s head stayed upright, out of the water, almost motionless at it stared at the men with razor-edged knives.

One human body length away, the second man hesitated, not sure he wanted to step into the water and the lethal fight. Then, his decision made, he lowered his machete and stepped back, just as the first man also made his decision and lunged forward. In that moment a mighty explosion of fire rocked the earth near the second man. Mud and blood and water blew upward into the sky, throwing both rescuers backwards, into the thick growth.

The giant serpent did not even blink, its cold, red eyes watching and memorizing the faces of the men. Then it sank into the water, taking the now lifeless prize in its coils.

* * * * *

The team of medical volunteers arrived at the impoverished shanty town of Preak Torl. The smell of the notorious garbage dump, Stung Meanchey, permeated the air. Plumes of smoke drifted upward from the dump and the stench of raw sewage wove its way into the acrid smell of smoldering trash and moldering refuse. Even though the team had been working in Preak Torl for almost two months, the first assault on their senses overwhelmed them each morning.

Arriving at a shack built out of plywood and balancing on stilts, the South American crew began the tedious task of unloading the day’s supplies. They would treat those scavengers injured while digging through the rubble of Stung Meanchey, inoculate the children, tend to an endless array of rashes and skin infections, and continue to train a group of seven Preak Torl residents to take over their duties when they left.

It was hard to get the residents to stop digging in the garbage dump and study medicine each day. Every family member in Preak Torl, including the children, dug in the dump for recyclables, food and anything of value they could resell or use. If they were fast, they could make fifty cents an hour. If they were lucky they would do it without getting cut or pierced by the trash yet, to leave the sea of human discards and study basic medical care meant they wouldn’t earn money that day. Few could afford that loss so they would come for a while, but then the need to feed their family pulled them back into the dump.

In an effort to encourage those with the mind and ability to work in the medical field, each morning the team with World Medical Corp also unloaded bags of rice and fresh vegetables. Every day the trainees came to work and learn with the team, they received three pounds of rice and a small bag of yams, beans and other vegetables. It was enough to feed an entire family two meager meals for the day and it worked to keep seven dedicated residents returning to learn medicine and, hopefully, work their way out of the Stung Meanchey dump.

his morning, some members of the World Medical Corp worked to unload the truck of medical supplies and food while the trained emergency response workers and their medical assistants set up the small clinic. Fear of theft forced them to dismantle and reconstruct their tiny clinic each day and they could now do it in just a matter of minutes but, already, they had patients waiting to see them.

One child grabbed a medical worker’s hand and tugged her toward the shanty town, talking urgently, gesturing for her presence. In broken Khmer, the worker tried to convince the child to bring the person to the clinic but the child persisted. Finally she turned, smiled at a team member carrying a bag of rice, and let the young boy pull her down the dirt and trash strewn road.

Burdened with a large bag of rice on his shoulder, the worker watched her go, uncomfortable. It was never good to go far from the clinic, from the other team members.

The young woman brushed tendrils of long, dark hair off her face. A careful French braid fell down her back. As the child pulled her along, she tried to communicate with basic words she knew of Khmer and Vietnamese. Animated, the child pointed toward a narrow road that disappeared between houses made of scavenged dump finds.

She hesitated. The trek would take her farther from the clinic than she wanted to be. Turning back, her dark eyes met the worried gaze of the worker still watching from the steps of the clinic.

Then several men burst out from between the closely packed shacks and rushed the young woman. The child, job completed, released her hand and scurried to safety. At the onslaught of men, the female medical worker gasped in shock then, as they grabbed her and lifted her into their control, she screamed in protest and fear.

From the steps of the clinic, a desperate hundred feet away, the worker dropped his bag of rice and jumped to the ground, shouting her name, calling for the men to stop. Other workers froze in surprise and then moved to help the young woman being dragged away.

A truck, its fully exposed engine welded to a crude frame and axle system, appeared around the corner of a teetering building. The attacking men brutally threw their captive into the back before jumping up behind her. The men shouted commands to the driver and held the fighting woman down. In response to the shouts, the truck lurched into a higher gear and sped up the road, toward the clinic.

Almost to the truck, the worker increased his speed, desperate to reach her, to help her. Without hesitating, he lunged for the moving truck, grabbed hold of the wooden slats that encased the sides, and drew himself up into the vehicle. Half over the wooden barrier, he saw the girl fighting, her eyes terrified and desperate. Reaching out for her with his hand, he called her name. Before their fingers could touch two men descended on him with heavy pipes; beating him off the edge of the truck, kicking him away, knocking him from the side, letting him fall toward the heavy tires beneath.

In the bed of the truck, the kidnapped woman felt the truck lurch as it hit something and she closed her eyes, heartsick with pain and fear.

* * * * *

Even with the ceiling fans moving and the doors open to the small balcony, the early morning air already felt hot and heavy. Outside the hotel room, the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh bustled with a mixture of modern and old. The Raffles Le Royale Hotel stood in four-story grandeur over a modern section of town. Its white columned front rose above a circular driveway to red tile roofs. Open breezeways caught and channeled the cooling breeze into a variety of rooms. A mixture of foreign sounds and smells drifted in through every open balcony doors.

Seated at a desk in the room, Jonathon Bradford tried to ignore the uneasy feeling he had and placed a Skype call to the United States. It took several minutes for the connections to go through over the internet but then his father answered the phone and Jonathon forced a smile, hoping the connection would hide his tension. He should be excited to be in Cambodia, but something just didn’t feel right. “Hi, Dad. I’m here. I’m calling you from the hotel.”

On the other end of the rough connection, David Bradford smiled. “Good. I’m glad to hear that. How was your flight?”

“It was great. No problems.”

“And your ride from the airport?”

The questions allowed him to focus on something else, and he did. “Crazy. This place is insane. It’s still pretty early in the morning and there are people everywhere.”

“That’s what happens in a city of three million people.”

A shrug moved out of Jonathon. “Yeah, well they must have four million tuk-tuks. I don’t know how they even drive here, the streets are so crowded.”

“What’s a tuk-tuk?”

“They’re these things like golf carts that people ride in and haul stuff in. And they have moto-taxis—old motorcycles that have a wagon or cart welded to them and they haul people and stuff in those carts, too. Dad. I took tons of photos already. I’ll try to send you some.”

“Good. I’d love to see them. And when you get to the temple of Angkor Wat don’t stop taking photos until you have recorded every stone, every carving, every statue. You got that?”

A smile of understanding crossed Jonathon’s face. “I will.”

“Your mom isn’t here right now. She left after dinner to take your brother to his basketball practice but she is going to want to know if your luggage arrived.”

Jonathon looked at the suitcase and his carry-on, resting on the highly polished wood floor. “Everything made it.”

“Have you met up with Severino and Delia yet?”

Again the strange uneasiness filled him when he thought of his teenaged friends from Peru. “No. I’m supposed to meet them downstairs for lunch, at the Café Monivong. Severino is taking Delia there for her birthday.”

“So, she doesn’t know you’re coming yet?”

Though nervous, Jonathon allowed a small upturn of his mouth. He’d been friends with the pair since they saved his life in Peru. Delia found Jonathon unconscious in the secret tunnels of the Incas and, with the help of her brother, Severino, got him to safety. Later, when the Shining Path terrorists of Peru took Jonathon hostage, Severino risked his own life to help the American teenager escape.

For a moment, Jonathon’s thoughts eased as a mental image of his friends moved through his thoughts. “No, not yet. She won’t know until she gets to the Café.”

Across the miles, David laughed. “That is going to be one big surprise birthday present.”

“Yeah. She’s excited enough about going on the tour this week and thinks that is her birthday present. She has no idea I’m joining them. It will be fun to see her reaction.”

For a moment Jonathon sobered and looked at his father. “Listen, Dad, I really want to thank you for letting me come. I know it wasn’t easy for you and Mom to agree to this but I do appreciate it. I felt like I wanted to be here, like I needed to be here, for her birthday and everything.”

On the other end of the connection, David nodded. “You’re right. It was very difficult but you’ve earned our trust, so don’t do anything stupid to destroy that, okay?”

“I won’t.”

“And don’t spend a lot of time alone with Delia. I know you like her and…”

“Dad—” The protest came with a roll of Jonathon’s brown eyes.

“I mean it, Jonathon. You’re seventeen, in a foreign country, touring with a girl you like, and you will have your own hotel room…with no parents around. Remember, she is not to come up to your room unless her brother is there with you the whole time. And you are not to go to hers. That was part of the deal before we agreed to let you spend some of your money on this trip. I’m trusting you to keep your end of the bargain.”

“I will.”

David’s eyes didn’t waver. “Jonathon, I’m being serious. I know how easily some things can happen when you like someone.”

“Dad, I’ll be careful. I promise. Besides, she may not even like me or care if I’m here.”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t have to worry too much about that…that’s why your mother and I are counting on you to keep your promise.”

“I know. I know.”

“Okay.” Now David smiled. “Now that you’ve had your daily lecture, just remember to have some fun. A week in Cambodia should be the experience of a lifetime.”

Jonathon laughed and nodded his head, his focused changed. “It already is, Dad. I can’t believe this place and the hotel is awesome. Thanks for helping me with it. I’ll send you pictures of that, too.”

Then Jonathon hesitated. “Listen, I don’t know when I’ll call again. Most of the time we’ll be with the tour group and probably won’t be anywhere near our hotel rooms.”

“That’s probably good,” his father joked. “Just check in when you can, so I know I still have a son.”

“I will. I love you. Tell Mom I love her, too, and say ‘hi’ to everyone, okay?”

“Okay. We love you, Jonathon. Be careful. See you soon.”

When the call ended, Jonathon sat back in the desk chair and stared at the empty computer screen for a moment, trying to pin down the reason for his anxiety. It had started this morning, when he was deboarding the plane. Maybe it was the new country, the new language…

An exhale moved out of his chest. He needed to call his friend, Tallie, and let her know he had arrived safely. The pair had been close friends since childhood and Tallie wanted to come to Cambodia with him to see the country and spend time with Severino and Delia again, but her first year in college demanded all her time and money.

The cooing of doves drifted through the open French doors and he turned toward the soothing sound, needing its calming effect. The world outside the doors lured him away from the desk and to the open balcony off his room. Below him, the blue water of the hotel’s swimming pool lapped and moved with the motions of a couple of swimmers getting their exercise for the day.

Awed by the beauty around him, Jonathon leaned against the railing and drank in the colors, culture, and character around him.

Then his thoughts turned to Delia and he felt his stomach churn with both nervousness and excitement. In just a few hours Delia would be at the hotel with her brother and Jonathon would get to see her again. Though they had stayed in touch with e-mails and Skype calls, he hadn’t seen her since he’d left Peru almost a year ago.

A knock on the hotel door caught his attention and Jonathon startled, wondering if they had arrived early. The pounding of his heart filled his chest. It had not been in the plan for Severino to bring Delia up to his hotel room. They had planned to meet in the café downstairs.

Anxious, not knowing who stood outside the door, Jonathon moved across the wood floor, past the comfortable looking queen-sized bed and opened the portal.

He didn’t expect the sight in front of him. Three men stood in the hallway. Their khaki uniforms, pistols strapped to their hips and semi-automatic rifles in their arms told him who they were even before he read the English word Police on their uniforms.

“Are you American Jonathon Bradford?”

Hesitant, Jonathon responded. “Yes.”

“You have papers to prove you Jonathon Bradford?”

“Yes.”

An officer stepped into the room. “Must see papers.”

A nervous feeling he’d been trying to suppress for several hours surged through him. Trembling, Jonathon reached for his wallet, not wanting to show them his passport. “What is this about?”

“See papers.”

Concerned but not wanting them to think that, Jonathon opened his wallet and showed them his driver’s license. The man in charge stared at it and frowned. “You have passport?”

“Yes.”

“Must see passport.”

More hesitant, Jonathon moved back to his luggage. As he unzipped a pocket on his backpack one of the officers pointed his rifle at him, covering him to make sure he didn’t pull anything else out of the pack. Jonathon slowed, his nerves tight. The police were not here for a social visit and he didn’t relish the thought of facing a foreign arrest and jail time. “Have I done something wrong?”

Holding out his hand, the man waited for the passport and Jonathon reluctantly placed it in his hand. This time the man looked at the image and nodded his approval before handing the passport back to Jonathon. Relieved to have it in his possession again, Jonathon slid the vital document back into his backpack.

Convinced he had the right person, the officer stepped closer. “American Jonathon Bradford, do you know…” To make sure he had the information correct the officer removed a piece of paper from the breast pocket of his uniform and looked at it, trying to pronounce the word on the paper.

Shifting his eyes to the paper, Jonathon saw the handwritten name. Severino Mayuri Quispe. Inside, his blood chilled. “Yes, I know Severino.”

“You come to station then.” The police officer touched the paper, pointing at the name. “We have this person.”

No more explanation. No more information. The police just stepped aside and expected Jonathon to fall into step between their rifles and pistols.

Twenty minutes later, Jonathon sat in a private room at the crowded police station, waiting. No one would answer his questions about why they had Severino or where Delia was. He didn’t know anything—only that his emotions twisted like corded wire inside him. The hammering in his chest had not stopped since he’d opened his hotel door and now it seemed as if it would break through his rib cage. If Severino had been arrested for something…

The door opened and two police officers entered, escorting Severino. Coming to his feet, Jonathon felt his body sway at the sight of Severino’s battered face and body, his bloodied clothes. He stepped forward, awash with concern. “Severino, what happened?”

Dark eyes filled with pain and glistening with tears met Jonathon’s. “Delia’s gone. They took her. I tried to stop them, but I couldn’t!”



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