Authors: Alex Scarrow
The next day, it was Liam’s keen eyes that picked it out first. A curious thing. Nestling in the drooping branches of an guanacaste tree that was overhanging the river on their right – the Nicaraguan side.
It was almost completely hidden among the dense foliage.
‘What is that?’ he shouted over his shoulder. He had been sitting up front, his – now usual – perch on the prow: bare feet and legs dangling over the side, enjoying the cooling up-spray of water as the launch chugged relentlessly down the chocolate-brown Río Coco, mid-channel.
Billy joined him up front and squinted at where he was pointing, finally picking out the mottled green-brown wreckage dangling amid the branches of the tree.
‘Helicopter, did you say?’ Liam had never seen one of those up close. He’d seen them regularly enough from afar, crossing the ever-blue September sky over New York – hedge-fund managers, Wall Street traders, billionaires commuting to and from work. That, or news choppers. ‘Oh! Could we go take a closer look at it?!’
Billy shrugged cautiously. ‘You the client.’ He turned and gestured at the wheelhouse. Mr Pineda was already spinning the wheel. The riverboat swerved in a lazy arc towards the right bank.
Fifty yards upstream, the grumbling burr of the engine was cut to an idling chug and
drifted slowly beneath the enormous sweeping spread of the guanacaste tree.
Liam gazed up through the lattice of creepers, vines and branches at the dangling wreckage above him. Adam and Maddy joined him at the front.
‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,’ said Maddy. ‘Is that a US army chopper?’
‘American, yes. But it is unmarked,’ replied Billy.
Adam squinted up at it. Sunlight was lancing down between the branches, spears of light dappling the deck, the awning, their upturned faces. ‘US Army all right, but look – all the identifying markers are painted out.’
Maddy made a face. ‘Oh come on … the US army doesn’t creep around anonymously. They do
, not subtle –’
‘Covert operations,’ said Adam. ‘The Americans weren’t
to be in Nicaragua. Not
to be interfering in their civil war in any way.’ He reached out and grabbed a branch to help stop the riverboat’s gentle drift. ‘Of course they were. They were bankrolling the war against the Sandinistas.’
Adam nodded at the riverbank on the far side. ‘They set up training camps over there in Honduras, training thousands of Contra rebels. They equipped them with ex-US army guns, vehicles, helicopters – everything they might need to fight the Nicaraguan army and bring down the socialists. And, of course, made sure they painted out all the US army identifiers.’
‘I’m going up to get a closer look,’ said Liam. He pulled himself up on to a low bough. The tree creaked under his weight, a gentle breeze whispered through the dangling vines, stirred the reeds sprouting up from the shallow water.
‘It was a dirty war, Maddy,’ said Adam. ‘I’m surprised you don’t know about it.’
She shrugged. ‘Well obviously I’ve heard of it, but, you know, it’s not a period of history that I’ve read up on.’
‘It was a war President Reagan had to act like he didn’t know anything about. So it was waged on his behalf by the CIA. And because it wasn’t a
war – if you can accept such a ridiculous idea as a “legal war” – there were no rules of conduct, no Geneva Convention. It was
Billy nodded. ‘Many, many bad thing done.’
Liam pulled his way up into the tree. Reaching himself from one creaking bough to the next. Closer now, he could make out more details of the rusting camouflage-green bulk of the fuselage. The helicopter’s plexiglas cockpit shield, right next to him, was cracked, mottled green and fogged by a thin layer of algae and moss. He gently rubbed at the moss, cleared a foggy gap and peered inside. He could just about make out the pilot’s seat and the pilot still strapped in it; a skeleton wrapped in desiccated flesh, wearing a camo-green flightsuit and a faded yellow neckerchief. He must have been killed on impact.
Liam worked his way around the side. Midway along its fuselage, an open gun bay, the rusting barrel of a heavy machine-gun protruding, and from its open breech, the long drooping loop of a high-calibre ammunition belt, the brass shell casings long ago oxidized and turned a bright mint-green.
He grinned at the sight of the gun. ‘You should see this!’ he called down. He wanted to get closer, to climb into the gun bay and take a look around inside, but the movement along the branches had already made the rusting hulk stir – a warning. It was dangling in the tree, firmly ensnared in the branches and vines like a fly caught in a spider’s web. All the same, there was enough deadweight resting here that it could possibly be shaken loose if he was foolish enough to clamber around inside it.
Anyway, the riverboat and the others were directly below. He decided not to chance his luck. He’d seen enough.
‘All right, I’m coming back!’ he called down to them.
He turned to make his descent, shifted his weight, and to steady his balance he reached out to grab a dense cord of vines dangling beside him. His hand closed round something that felt soft and leathery. He turned to look at what he was holding on to.
‘Oh Jay-zus!’ He lurched backwards, nearly losing his footing.
Weather-worn rope snapped and the carcass suspended from it tumbled down through the branches. ‘Look out below!’ Liam shouted.
It landed on the deck right beside Maddy with a soft thud and a rattle, a bundle of bones linked by leathered tendons that crumpled in on itself as it hit the deck. It took her a moment to realize she was staring at the jumbled remains of a human body.
‘Oh, gross!’ She jumped backwards and placed a hand over her mouth.
‘Crap!’ Adam stared at the corpse.
Mr Pineda hurried out of his wheelhouse, arms flapping. ‘What jus’ landed on me lanch?!’ He joined them along with Bob, a circle of them staring down at the wrinkled cadaver.
‘Relax. It is old body,’ said Billy. ‘From the wartime.’
‘That’s … that’s horrible …’ said Maddy. She slumped down to sit unsteadily on the gunwale. ‘I think I’m gonna puke.’
Bob squatted down, prodded and probed the corpse with a thick finger. ‘Information: the body appears to have been skinned.’
‘Skinned?’ Adam looked more closely. He was right. They were looking at dried tendons, muscle tissue and bones.
Maddy turned and emptied her guts over the side into the river.
Billy and Adam hunkered down beside Bob. Billy nodded slowly. ‘Indian do this. Revenge on
Bob looked up at the wreckage. ‘It appears the helicopter crashed on the way back over the river.’
‘Survivors … found by Indians –’ added Billy.
‘– and made an example of,’ finished Adam. ‘A warning to the rebels.’
‘Jesus,’ whispered Maddy, wiping her chin dry. ‘That’s … horrific. That poor –’
‘He was probably already dead. Don’t shed too many tears for this bloke,’ said Adam. He nodded up at the wreckage. ‘These were the
guys, Maddy. Dogs of war, mercenaries, psychopaths … Guys from the world over attracted by the money, the excitement of a killing field with no rules of conduct.’
Adam prodded the skull tentatively with his finger. It rolled over on to its side, exposing a solitary tuft of blond, buzz-cut hair sprouting from a dark patch of leathery skin on one temple. ‘Think about what atrocities
carried out, OK? How many peasants he gunned down in their fields, how many farms he torched?’
They watched Liam clambering down through the lower branches of the tree, all silently hoping another strung-up body wasn’t going to be shaken loose and tumble down on to the deck like over-ripe fruit.
‘Whatever happened to him,’ said Adam, ‘and any others in that chopper … I suspect they knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for. Maybe they even deserved it.’
The rest of the day passed without event. They spent the night tied up to a tree amid a thicket of reeds, all of them suddenly a little more wary of their surroundings. Billy suggested setting up a nightwatch: three-hour shifts until dawn. Maddy volunteered Bob to do all the shifts. She told Billy and Mr Pineda that he didn’t need sleep.
‘What man don’t ever need no sleep, sister?’
Maddy offered some fluff about him having some sort of medical condition – an anti-narcolepsy that prevented him from doing so.
‘Ain’t natural, your man,’ said Mr Pineda, shaking his head.
You can say that again
, she was tempted to reply.
The next morning, after a breakfast of refried beans in tortillas and a pot of bitter black coffee, Mr Pineda fired up the diesel engine. It stirred to life with a phlegmy cough and his riverboat nosed its way out of the reeds and into the sedate flow in the middle of the Coco River.
‘You know where we gung still, sister?’ the pilot asked again.
Maddy deflected the question to Adam. ‘Keep going downriver, Mr Pineda,’ he replied.
‘Downriver?’ He shrugged. ‘Tha’s it? Jus’
Maddy met Liam’s eyes for a moment. There was a question in his expression.
You sure he knows where he’s leading us?
the first time she found herself wondering just that. She watched Adam during the morning, pulling his journal out, reading his notes, comparing what they were passing on the riverbanks with the sketches and maps in his notebook.
During the morning they came across the first of two riverside settlements: stick-and-straw shacks on stilts at the river’s edge, canoes overturned and pulled up on shingle and mud. Liam craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the inhabitants, but he saw no sign at all that the place was inhabited, save for the faint threads of recently doused cooking fires.
‘They hear the boat arrive,’ said Billy. ‘Learn to hide from rebels when they come.’
Later in the afternoon they rounded a bend in the river and came across the second settlement. Adam recognized it immediately. ‘We definitely stopped over at this place. It’s just as I remember it.’ He flicked through the pages in his journal. ‘There! This town is called … well, I can’t pronounce it, but in English it means “the Bend in the River”.’
Liam looked at the riverbank. It hardly deserved to be called a ‘town’. ‘This place actually has a
This second settlement seemed to be not much more than a clearing in the jungle, populated by an afterthought of branch-and-reed lean-tos.
‘There’s more to it up there in the jungle,’ said Adam. ‘More a big village than a town really. Couple of hundred people, I’d say. The Zambus here were lovely and friendly last time.’ He turned to Maddy. ‘This is definitely the place; this was the last village we visited before we turned and headed up the tributary on the right and into Nicaraguan jungle. We should pull in here.’
Maddy nodded and Mr Pineda eased the riverboat across the broad river, out of the main flow and into shallower water littered with the rotting red-brown stumps of tree trunks lurking
just beneath the surface. He eased the boat skilfully in among them until it finally rode up gently on a soft bed of silt.
Billy jumped over the side with his knapsack on his back, his AK tucked away inside, the barrel poking out the top – a quick grasp away from being pulled out if needed. Bob splashed down beside him and the pair of them grabbed the line Mr Pineda tossed to them and tied the boat up round the broad trunk of a guanacaste tree.
The others jumped into the ankle-deep water and waded up on to the muddy riverbank.
Adam cupped his hands. ‘Hellooo! Anyone hooome?’
His voice echoed through the rainforest and bounced back at them. The cheeping, chirruping, hooting all around the jungle and coming down from the broad guanacaste leaves above them, seemed to momentarily hush as if also expectant and awaiting an answer. There was none.
Billy called out something in Zambu.
The echo of his high-pitched voice eventually faded to nothing.
‘This place looks like it’s been abandoned,’ said Maddy.
‘No,’ replied Billy. ‘Look. They come.’
The first curious faces emerged from the jungle undergrowth, peering out from behind shoulder-high bushes.
‘What did you call out?’ asked Adam.
‘I say – we
‘Look!’ Liam exclaimed, pointing. More faces had emerged. Dark-skinned. They were darker-skinned than the Miskite Indians they’d glimpsed along the river’s edge so far. Liam grinned. ‘Hello there, people! We … Come … In … Peace!’
Maddy sighed and shook her head. He could be such an idiot.
Several of the bolder Zambu men stepped out of the undergrowth into plain sight. Slender, short men with arms and
legs dark and thin like charcoal-blackened branches and heads that looked one size too big for their shoulders. They stood in the rags and remnants of clothing. Torn and faded T-shirts, khaki shorts. Some of them wore flip-flops.
‘Oh.’ Liam looked vaguely disappointed. ‘I was expecting … grass skirts and bones through noses. Or something.’ He turned to Maddy. ‘Like in them
movies you showed me?’
‘They’re not frikkin’ Zulus, Liam,’ she replied.
‘The Zambus barter occasionally with the logging companies,’ said Adam, ‘when they venture out here. They hand out a few T-shirts and baseball caps … and some booze for the chiefs and elders. And these poor people are more than happy to trade away their livelihood and their environment for a few cheap hand-outs.’
Billy stepped cautiously forward and began to speak to one of the men in Zambu. The man replied quickly with a shrill voice. There was a lot of pointing. Most of it directed at Bob.
‘What’s he saying?’ Maddy asked their guide.
‘He is very afraid of the giant.’
Maddy noticed how much Bob towered over Billy, even more so over the Zambu man a few feet away. ‘Bob?’
‘Yes, Maddy?’ The rumble of his deep voice startled the Zambu.
‘Can you get back on the boat and stay there for now? You’re frightening the natives.’
Bob looked at her questioningly.
‘I think we’ll be OK, Bob. Go on, we’ll be fine.’
‘Affirmative.’ He turned and waded out, pulled himself back on to the boat and settled down, cross-legged, on the foredeck.
Billy resumed a quick back-and-forth exchange with the man in Zambu and then finally turned to the others. ‘He say we can come up to village.’ He nodded at Bob and grinned. ‘But giant must stay on the boat.’
Mr Pineda pursed his lips thoughtfully. ‘Me staying wit’ me lanch too.’
The Zambu men led the rest of them up a jungle trail, a pathway through the dense undergrowth worn bare by countless feet. Liam gazed up through the dangling vines. The majority of the afternoon sun’s light was filtered by broad leaves, the occasional sunray slanting down to the jungle floor like a shaft of light through murky pond water. In fact, that’s almost how it felt, like being underwater, the light all around them a rich aquatic green.
Since arriving here in Honduras, this was their first time actually stepping
the jungle properly, as opposed to looking at it from the comfort and safety of the riverboat. The sounds of life now seemed to be all around them, drifting down from the canopy of leaves and branches. A soup of lively noises that all but drowned out the intruding clumsiness of their feet.
The path wound up a gentle slope for a hundred yards and then Liam heard the muted sound of children’s voices, the regular crack of something being beaten or chopped, some women laughing. Finally, they emerged from the pea-green jungle soup into a clearing. A rough ring of open clear blue sky above, like the becalmed eye at the centre of a storm system.
The clearing, a hundred yards across, was edged with shacks made from woven branches and reeds cemented with dried mud. The middle of the settlement was kept clear and appeared to be a communal space. Around the village he noticed, here and there, signs of bartered or scavenged modern-world materials: one or two planks of machined lumber, a sheet of scuffed – almost completely opaque – perspex being used as a window, a twenty-gallon oil drum used as a fire-pit, plastic bottles that once contained Coke or Fanta being carried around by some of the men, a murky green liquid sloshing around inside.
The Zambu people turned to look at the strangers arriving in their settlement. All movement and noise stopped. An old woman ushered several children quickly into their mud hut. An old man turned and ran into the jungle. But most stayed perfectly still, watching them warily. Silence, except for the drone of the uninterested jungle ecosystem and the solitary bark of a dog.
Adam turned round to look back at Liam and Maddy. He spoke quietly. ‘Honestly, they were a lot more friendly last time. We felt like arriving royalty.’
The Zambu man who led them up the trail cupped his hands and called out. A moment later an elderly man emerged from one of the huts. Brown and wrinkled from head to foot, he reminded Liam of a very large moccasin. He shuffled over towards them.
The Zambu elder finally stopped short a few yards in front of them, said something and gestured towards Billy. Billy nodded deferentially at the old man and spoke in faltering Zambu, every now and then nodding, gesturing towards Liam, Maddy and Adam.
‘I hope he’s saying nice things about us,’ whispered Maddy.
Billy finished his piece and the old man closed his eyes for a moment before eventually nodding.
The guide turned towards them; his wink indicated the news was good.
‘We are welcome to stay.’