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The opening chapter of Dead in the Water

The entire novel is now available on KINDLE


the first week of May

1 The Amazonas Region of Venezuela

A sudden screeching rasps through the tree tops. Rachel looks up from her perch in the precarious tree hide, hoping to catch a glimpse of green-wing macaws, but the trees dissolve into a blanket of dismal grey. The cloudbase has been no more than fifty metres above ground all day. Somewhere in the invisible canopy, the birds are shrieking wildly, but she can see nothing of them.

To pass idle moments she sometimes pretends to be a wildlife camera operator, looking out for rare birdlife or studying the secret love life of near extinct tree frogs. But she doesn’t have the patience. It’s human intruders she’s supposed to be filming. The villagers call it a watch, but she’s more of a listening ear, alert for mechanical sounds beneath the restless cacophony of forest life. When the bully boys come again, it’ll be by jeep.

She’s not yet seen them herself, but she’s heard the stories. They come roaring into the village, loosing off rounds of gunfire into the air, smashing cooking pots, killing dogs, terrifying children. Then, as quickly as they arrive, they disappear back into the forest. The intimidation seems impossible to stop – the loggers, the ranchers, the gold prospectors and their enforcers are as much part of the undergrowth of the forest as the army ants. The
One World organisation is supposed to be offering support with modern technology: video cameras, satphones and high speed internet connections. Gather enough evidence, and maybe somebody in government can be persuaded to set up proper enforcement. In her gloomier moments, however, she wonders whether they can make the slightest difference. Several villages have already abandoned their settlements.

She’d thought she was well travelled, imagined she was well prepared. But nothing out here is as she expected. She knew about the heat and the humidity, of course, but not this absence of sun and shadows. There are times when she feels it pressing on her physically. She’s frightened. And she doesn’t know why. She only knows it’s not the obvious dangers of the forest: the snakes, the scorpions, the spiders, the biting insects. They keep you wary and alert, but this stifled fluttering dread, this is something else.

In the past she’s always found it easy to talk, to open up about her feelings. But this she has mentioned to nobody: not to Mum – who’d worry; not to Dad – who set the whole thing up; and certainly not to Stephen, her younger brother – he’d just laugh, tell her she was crazy for going to Venezuela in the first place.

In those idle moments when there’s time to dream, she fantasises about talking to Jeremy Peters, Dad’s friend in Caracas, the guy with all the local contacts. But what would she say?

When it’s good, I love it. The people, the laughter, the children. Today I made a flower necklace with a little girl. I learnt how to say, ‘You look so pretty’. And she tried to say my name but it came out Wayshah. Trouble is…

And Jeremy nods wisely and squeezes her hand

Trouble is … when it’s not good …I never thought I could be so lonely. And …

Jeremy tells her it’s OK, and he gives her one of his big safe hugs.

Except that she could never say any of that to Jeremy because she has a horrible feeling that he fancies her.

She wipes her forehead and, to distract herself, zooms the video camera in on kids playing football in the clearing below, then pans round to Pablo, sitting on a wooden stump outside the hut where he’s billeted. He picks his nose, rubs the back of his hand on chin stubble, yawns; then stands up, stretches, scratches his balls and wanders slowly back into the hut. Rachel smiles as she imagines the wild laughter later tonight as that little sequence gets replayed several times on the portable TV in the large communal hut. The whole village gathers to watch these screenings. The anthropology student in her is slightly worried by it – they are here, after all, to support the community, not to interfere in its way of life by dangling the temptations of Western culture. But the people of the village love these ‘home-movies’ and not showing them would imply secrecy and exploitation. She makes a wry note to herself that when she gets back to England, she must explore this little conundrum in her PhD. Whether she’ll ever own up to the kick she gets from seeing Pablo humiliated is a different matter.
Pay back, Pablo. Culturally, of course, the behaviour of a predatory Latin American male in its natural habitat could be the subject of a thesis in its own right. Personally, he’s made her life hell. Bastard.

“Raq – hel.” A shout from below interrupts her daydreams. The rope ladder twitching. Half a minute later José’s face appears. Thank God for that. José, not Pablo. He rests his chin on the wooden platform. “I come to take over your place.”

She forces a smile; and her mood begins to lift. She could climb down now, but she enjoys José’s company and is in no hurry to go back to the big village hut, which would be filled with smoke and noisy chatter. There’s hardly room for the two of them. The tree house her dad made for her as a kid was bigger and sturdier than this. The other nearby hide has walls and a roof. But this, the one they call base camp, is nothing more than a raft of hardwood planks the size of a small garden shed, built around the trunk of the tree, with two climbers’ ropes strung around the edges as a token safety measure.

“Stay there, Raqhel. Don’t move.” He squeezes through the ropes, a wiry featherweight wrestler climbing back into the ring, and she lifts her hands in a gesture of ‘Who am I to argue?’

“How you sit, Raqhel,” he says. “Like Pablo’s cooking is Organised Confusion. With you, the way you watch is Alert Relaxation.
La Pantera. Silent, hiding in the trees.” He laughs. She grins and wrinkles her nose in embarrassment. Alert Relaxation is not the way she feels.

“José, alright if I ring my dad?”

“If you can get a signal through the trees. Is better in the clearing.”

She has her own satphone. Her mum bought it for her just before she came out to Venezuela – along with every conceivable industrial strength insect repellent: sprays, oils, wrist bands, creams, ankle bands, pills. ‘Don’t fuss,’ said Rachel at the time. ‘I’ll be OK.’ But she rings Mum twice a week, and every
time they talk, she thanks her for fussing; and she’s using insect repellent faster than a beach crazy albino slapping on the Factor 40. She hasn’t spoken to Dad for more than a week. He’s usually working late, but now’s probably a good time – it’ll be far too noisy once she gets back inside the hut.

His phone rings, but he doesn’t answer. Part of her is glad. It’s easier to play the Happy Bunny in a cheery message than in conversation.

“Hi Dad. Me. Rache. I’m half way up a tree with a crazy man called José. He’s come to rescue me from terminal boredom. Weather’s dreadful. I haven’t got any clean clothes. And I’m having a brilliant time. Tell you all about it later. Call me if you can. Don’t know what time it is with you but here it’s about five o’clock. So any time in the next four hours. I know, early nights, or what. Lots of love to Mum. Byeee.”

“A crazy man?” says José, grinning.

“A little bit crazy. Crazy’s good.” She feels easy with José, safe, although she daren’t say anything to him about her anxieties, nor make a fuss about Pablo’s constant low level harassment. José makes her laugh. And he has a daughter of his own in Caracas, about to leave school. He’s shown Rachel photographs, made her promise she’ll come and stay with his family when they finish their stint in the forest.

“You should go,
Pantera. You been here many hours.”

“I like it up here,” she says.

“It’s you who is crazy. Go on,” he says. “Make your other call.”

“What other call?”

“Jeremy. Your special friend. Your Mr. Peters.”

“He is not my special friend, José. And he’s not MY Mr Peters. And I don’t want to call him,” she says. And they both know her denial is too quick and too indignant. She will ring him later; not when José gives her permission, and not when anyone else is around to listen in on the call.

She’s about to say something about Jeremy when she stops herself. She glances at José. He’s heard it too. There’s an unfamiliar sound, a kind of rumbling noise. Neither of them speak. The phone goes into her pocket and she switches the video camera back on and connects it to the
One World satlink. José nods approvingly.

“What is it?” she whispers.

He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

They wait. Sound in the forest is very deceptive. Could be a mile away, or could be twenty miles. Briefly it fades, then surges back. Machinery of some kind. And now something else. A thumping in the air.

“Helicopter,” says José.


“Civilians can’t land in this weather.”

“What then?”

“Must be the military.”

“What do they want?”

José shrugs. “Who knows. It is crazy times. Maybe they come to evacuate us. Who knows?”

A searchlight beams through the misty darkness from above, the thumping of rotors now so close that she can feel in her chest the rhythmic compression of air. Leaves, twigs, small branches are showering down, the wooden platform shaking in the machine-made hurricane.

Instinct forces Rachel down on her belly, grabbing hold of the tree trunk. She’s hoping that José won’t think her pathetic. But José is already making his way out through the ropes. When Rachel makes to follow him, he shouts, “Stay here. Get everything on the video.” He’s out of sight and down the ladder.

With the camera recording, she clambers back to the feet, steadying herself on the tree as it were the mast of a raft tossed loose in a storm.

The helicopter appears immediately above the clearing, mist churning in vortices round the rotor blades, its searchlight illuminating the chaos below: leaves and sticks, clothes, cooking pots, flying in every direction.

The villagers have all taken shelter from the savage wind. The only living creatures in the clearing are a wiry brown dog tethered outside the largest of the village huts and a couple of tame capuchins chained to a stake nearby, their lips pulled back in grotesque parody of circus clowns.

The moment that the helicopter touches down, four men jump to the ground, as if entering a combat zone. They’re wearing camouflage battle fatigues, full face masks, protective goggles. And machine guns. What the hell kind of resistance can they possibly be expecting? The only weapons in the village are arrows, spears and the hand guns carried by José and Pablo.

This is the resistance: a little girl runs from the doorway of one of the stilt-houses. It’s Xiomara, still with the flower necklace that Rachel helped her make. She’s waving to them, excited. Whenever the helicopter people come, they bring presents.

With one arm wrapped round the trunk for stability, the other pressing the camera to her eye, Rachel records everything.
José trusts you. Just do it. Adrenaline pumping, calmer, clearer than she’s been in weeks.

She watches. Through her viewfinder, she sees the flowers torn from Xiomara’s neck by the rotor blade downdraft

Sees one of the men throw a grenade into the largest of the village huts.

Sees the monkeys blasted from their perch, now twitching lifeless in the mud..

Sees the dog in pieces.

Sees Xiomara’s beautiful brown face suddenly distorted by terror, screaming for her Mama.

Then a volley of gunfire opens up, slamming Xiomara’s small body to the ground.

“No,” screams Rachel, her voice drowned out by another grenade.

The helicopter engine is still running, its rotors churning. But for Rachel the world is silent – except for grenade blast after-shock hissing in her ears like radio static. She is now sitting on the edge of the platform, one hand gripping a ladder rung above her head, the other holding the camera. Emotions cauterised. Freezer burn. Can’t scream, can’t move. Can hardly think – except that she has to keep the camera recording.

The caustic smell of grenade smoke slinks up into the trees. Where is her fear now? Eyes wide, she watches, feeling nothing but the anaesthetising chill of physical shock. Time slowing. Accident time, as Stephen called it on the night his girlfriend dumped him, every detail far too clear.

Another dog appears. Skulks over to Xiomara’s body, looks around, nervous, fearful. Sniffs at the pooling blood. Looks round again. Then starts to lick.

It starts to rain.

A woman runs out. Xiomara’s mother. The dog backs off as the woman runs and throws herself down beside the body of her child. Pulls Xiomara’s limp and broken body into her arms and howls.

Where did José go? And where is Pablo? Apart from the big communal hut which has open sides, the only windows and doors in the wooden dwellings are at the front. Short of breaking through a wall with an axe, there is no other way out. If Pablo had come out of the hut, she’d have seen him.

And then she senses another sound beneath the whining of the chopper turbine: a deep booming; something huge, invisible in the night, growling towards the village. She’s expecting a bulldozer or a logging machine, but what now appears on vast caterpillar tracks churning up the forest floor is more like a mobile crane. She is about to climb down the tree and flee, when another man steps out of the helicopter. As she zooms to close in on the face, however, an explosion in one of the huts sends a cascade of burning fragments flying high into the air. Instinctively she takes her eye from the viewfinder and turns away to protect herself from the wave of heat.

The timing of the raid has been carefully planned. Within minutes of the helicopter landing, the black of tropical night has fallen on the forest, flames from every wooden house reaching high into the darkness and blazing lights of the machines cutting through the rain.

In theory, the camera is automatically hooked up to the satlink, and somebody in the Caracas
One World office should be picking all this up. Still holding the video camera in her left hand, she gets her satphone from her pocket. She tries Jeremy Peters. Surely, he’ll still be in the office. It rings. But the signal gives out even before the message service kicks in. Who now? Dad. He must pick up this time. He’ll know it’s her. He’ll be expecting her to ring. The signal’s weak, but there is a connection. Pick up, Dad. Pick up. It rings on through to the messaging service. “Dad, it’s Rachel. They’re attacking the village.” But the signal’s already gone.

Pocketing the phone and the camera, she scrambles down the rope ladder. As she gets to the bottom, her phone falls to the ground. She reaches down to pick it up just as a searchlight scans past. The operator seems not to have noticed her. Then it’s back. The trunks of trees around her explode into splinters as a volley of fire from an automatic weapon smashes into them. She lies flat on the ground, her face pressed into leaf litter. The searchlight scans again, stops. Gunfire shatters a stump that resembles a silhouetted crouching figure. There’s shouting from the clearing. The searchlight moves on.

The phone’s not damaged. The charge is low, but it seems OK.

Then she’s crawling along one of the paths that she and Pablo hacked clear only yesterday. Away from the burning village. Away from the dirt road that ultimately leads back to civilisation. Into the forest.

Copyright Brian Woolland 2010



Copyright Brian Woolland. Last updated May 8th 2013 |

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