On those who step in the same river, different and different waters flow . . .
- Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BCE)
Tom Pilkington was in the lead as the group tramped through the wet squelch of the forest floor. It was a beautiful, pristine autumn morning, warm needles of sunshine piercing the canopy of the branches above with no hint of the rain that had fallen over the last few days. The air was rich with a fecund aroma and the foliage, cleansed by the heavy rainfall, shone a vibrant green.
As they emerged from the forest Tom turned around. “Wouldn’t be dead for quids,” he quipped, bringing wry smiles to the faces of his fellow hikers. Tom’s phrases and expressions constantly amused and confused his American friends and he enjoyed surprising them with his strange English manner of speech. Looking at them fondly he thought about how he had come to be here.
Tom had come to America as a teenager via a global odyssey; his father Cecil was an officer in the British Civil Service, in which capacity he served in various colonial outposts looking after British interests. As a part of his father’s job, Tom and his family picked up and moved to new and exotic locations once every two years, a situation that Tom and his mother Maud found extremely inconvenient. Most irritating had been the need to master a polyglot of phrases with which to instruct and scold assorted cooks, servants, drivers and gardeners. Tom had wholeheartedly echoed his mother’s sigh of relief when the next family assignment turned out to be the British Consulate in the U.S.
The sudden glare of open sunlight stopped his daydreaming. They had emerged from the forest and the beauty of the setting making him gasp. Around him, the others made similar sounds of approval. Before them, a blissfully pastoral scene stretched out. A grassy meadow surrounded them and away to the right the clear water of the river bubbled and cascaded over pebbles and boulders. All was quiet save for the chirruping of crickets and the gentle warmth of the sun on their backs.
Laying their packs on the bank, they removed their sneakers and socks and sat on the boulders dotting the riverbank, paddling their bare feet in the water.
”Holy shit, it’s cold,” yelped Patricia.
“Cold, fresh and pure,” added Roger. “I want to live in a cabin with this river running by. That’s my idea of heaven.”
“Why don’t we follow this river downstream and see where it leads?” Tom suggested. Hearing no disagreement he rummaged through his pack and fished out a large red marker pen and his digital camera. With the pen he marked the boulder he was sitting on with a cross and circle.
“Here’s our marker to where the campsite is,” he said. Then he stepped back a few paces and took a photograph of the rock and its surroundings. “And this should help us find our way back,” he added, squinting at the display screen.
“Let’s get going guys,” he said, stuffing the marker and camera back into his pack. “We have a day’s hiking ahead of us.”
Roger, Patricia and Sebastian fell in behind Tom in Indian file and they began the trek downstream. For about an hour they strode on in sociable silence, everyone immersed in their own thoughts. Unnoticed, the stream began to gradually spread itself out, becoming a larger and fiercer flow. The gentle gurgle turned into a frenzied chatter as water cascaded noisily over midsized boulders littered in its course.
The terrain became hilly and they began to descend, gradually at first and then quite steeply. The surface had changed from grass to gravel and stone and was becoming loose and hazardous. Tom loped on ahead of the others and was the first to come upon a flat expanse of land where the river had spread itself into a placid pool.
A perfect picnic spot, he thought.
The others were still out of sight and Tom yelled out. “Hey guys, guys you have to see this! How perfect is this?” He was already stripping off his T-shirt and pants when the others caught up, “Last one in is a rotten egg,” he dared them as he ran towards the water.
Patricia was the last to wade in. Tom couldn’t help laughing at her cautiousness and self conscious. Dear Patricia. Always the prude in public.
Without any warning the river seemed to shudder and shiver, followed by a deep rumbling sound. Tom began to wade furiously towards the river bank, yelling at the others as went.
“Out, out. Get out. Get out at once. I know this, I know this!” he screamed. “There’s a flash flood coming downstream. We have to get to high ground.”
Tom’s warning came just in time. Patricia had only just entered the water and turning, she flailed for the shore. Roger and Sebastian heard the warning too and did not wait. They surged towards the shore and were out of the water before the front of the flood wave reached them. Tom was almost at the other shore and it was too late for him to avoid the onrush of the massive volume of water. There was nothing to do but ride it out. Turning to face the wall of roiling brown he dived under just as the wave reached him.
The force of the wave rolled and tumbled him like an object in a washing machine. His fought to avoid the rolling boulders that threatened to strike him and the insistent current that threatened to drag him under. Kicking frantically he swam in the direction of the flow, struggling to the surface whenever he could and taking a deep breath at every opportunity. There might be dangerous rocks ahead and his only chance lay in keeping to the centre of the river.
Somehow, he rode the water until a hissing sound merged with the dull rumble of the flood. Getting his head up he saw what he dreaded. A half mile ahead, spray burst high into the air and the rushing wall of water was split by rocks jutting out like teeth from the surface of the maelstrom. The river was turning to the left, becoming narrower as it approached the rocks and he struck out for the left bank with hands and feet, using all his strength to make for a collection of debris that had jammed up against the shore there.
He grabbed at a large tree branch as he swept by and snagged it, hanging on for his life as the flood rushed on towards its rendezvous with the rocks. For what seemed like an age he dangled there, unable to do anything else until the force of the water lessened and he was able to get a firmer hold of the branch. Pulling himself partially onto the debris, he rested until he regained his breath, and then dragged himself towards the shore with the aid of branches and roots. He was about to step up onto the bank when something caught his eye. He paused, moving leaves and debris to get a better look, then started back in horror.
“Jesus, what the heck is this?”
He looked back upriver and made out the figures of Patricia, Roger and Sebastian running along the river’s edge towards him.
“Hey guys I am here,” he yelled. “Come quickly.”
As they ran up Tom scrambled towards them, gesturing wildly. “There’s a freaking corpse here man, a freaking dead female.”
They all stood on the bank peering at where Tom was pointing. The nude body of a white female lay partially concealed by the leaves and branches. She was face down, hands spread out, her hair drifting in the water. It was Roger who broke the silence.
“Guys we have to take the body out of the water.”
“No way man!” Tom was aghast. “Meddling with this dead chick is bad trouble. Are you crazy?”
“Tom, we have to do it man. We can’t just leave her like this.” Roger was firm. “It’s our responsibility as human beings. We have to pull her out.”
“Then what?” said Tom obstinately. “You’re going to call the bobbies next?”
Roger was not giving in. “We have to report this. Come on, Tom. There’s no way to avoid it.”
“Roger, that’s just crazy.” Tom was furious. “If we go to the cops, they might even lock us up, accuse us of whatever.”
“Tom, I think Roger’s right,” Sebastian cut in. “We should get this body out and inform the cops. There’s no other way to handle this.”
Tom was silent for a moment then agreed. “OK guys, let’s do it then.” He grabbed hold of a tree limb covering much of the body. “On the count of three, when I lift, Roger, you and Sebastian grab her feet and pull her out from under this.”
He braced his feet. “One, two, three, pull!”
With Roger and Sebastian tugging, the body slowly came free and floated out of its cocoon of debris. Together they lifted it onto the bank. It was difficult and squeamish work and they heaved a collective sigh of relief when they had finished.
She lay face down on the grass, her dark brown hair falling on both sides of her face and still dripping with water. Roger, standing at her head took her right arm and tilted the body over, revealing a Hispanic looking female around twenty years old.
Everyone stared at the body in silence and Patricia started sobbing. Tom spoke first, his voice choked.
“Oh my God, her throat’s been cut.”
He moved closer, examining the body. “She’s been stabbed all over. Looks like some kind of design.” He pointed at the strange markings carved into the girl’s torso. “Good God! Who could have done something like this?”
“She’s been sexually mutilated, man.” Sebastian had moved around towards her feet and now he stared at the body in horror.
Tom strode to Sebastian’s side and nodded, visibly shaken.
“He’s right. The bastard who did this must be a freaking maniac.”
Patricia began to sob again and Sebastian moved to her and held her tight, comforting her.
Tom stood up, his face grave. “She sure didn’t drown and this isn’t an ordinary murder. Looks like a ritual killing to me. He took off his jacket and draped it over the body of the girl. “This is bloody dark, satanic business. Saw some of it in South Africa, guys. They have this voodoo cult stuff there too.”
“I think Tom’s right here.” Sebastian nodded his head. “I never told you guys, but once, I saw a body in a similar state in a border town near Mexico, on the Mexican side.”
“You mean Ciudad Juarez?” Patricia’s tone was somber.
“Yeah, that’s the one.” Tom turned a surprised face to Patricia as Sebastian continued. “Lots of young women killed there, mostly young girls in their late teens and early twenties looking for jobs.” Sebastian shook his head in disgust. “Mutilated, just like this one here.”
For a while, nobody spoke, and once again it was Tom who broke the silence.
“I think we should get out of here. I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he said, looking around as he spoke.
They were standing in the center of a bend where the river turned sharply around them. The tree line stood far back from the river here, and a glimpse of movement there caught his eye. As he stared, someone or something emerged from the trees and stood still, watching them.
“I don’t think we’re alone here,” he said softly, gesturing surreptitiously towards the trees. The others spun around with alacrity, Patricia moving closer to Sebastian, who put his arm around her shoulder.
“There’s more than one,” Roger gasped, his voice rising in pitch.
Tom saw that Roger was right and his heart sank. At least six more figures had appeared, forming a dark line that seemed like an extension of the forest.
They seemed strangely tall, shrouded in robes of some dark hue that blended into the forest behind them and swept down to their ankles so that they appeared to sprout out of the grass. All wore masks of some dull material, metal or plastic that did not reflect the sunlight. The figures looked like pools of shadow in the middle of a sunlit meadow. As if controlled by a puppeteer, all seven of the watchers stepped forward in unison and began to converge on where they were standing with a relentless creepy gait.
Tom was tired from his ordeal in the water but this new threat seemed infinitely more dangerous than the flash flood he had just survived. His heart beat frantically as the adrenaline kicked in.
“Run,” he yelled, grabbing at Roger’s sleeve and beckoning Sebastian to get Patricia. “These guys are no friends. We have to get out of here now!”
Legs pumping, he took of downstream, followed close behind by Roger. Behind them the watchers picked up their pace. They moved with an eerie cross-country skiing motion that made them appear to be gliding over the grass. Tom heard splashing behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Sebastian dragging Patricia into the water, striking out for the opposite bank and the shelter of the encroaching trees that came down almost to the water’s edge on that side.
Just behind him, Roger’s face appeared flushed, his eyes bulging and his breath coming in wheezing gasps as he struggled to keep up. In a separate part of his mind Tom noted that the watchers had split up. Three of them made straight for the waterline, following Sebastian and Patricia’s noisy progress across the river. The remaining four angled across, attempting to cut Tom and Roger off before they reached the end of the bend and the cover of the forest. Their synchronized actions and unified movement reminded Tom of the front of the flash flood he had just weathered. Their advance had the same inexorable momentum. He wanted to laugh but he didn’t have the breath. Fighting the burning in his lungs, Tom pushed harder towards the junction of the water and the trees.
“Keep up, Rog, keep up,” he gasped as he ran. “Whatever you do, don’t fall back.”
Roger’s ragged breathing behind him didn’t sound too good. Better let him catch up, he thought, analyzing the distance to their goal in his mind.
He slowed down a bit, turning his head for another desperate exhortation and just then, Roger gave a despairing cry and Tom heard a thump behind him. Skidding to a stop, he spun around, his worst fears realized. Roger was down, his face contorted, a look of utter panic frozen across his features. He was clutching his ankle and staring bug eyed at the swiftly looming figures, now only about two hundred meters away and still approaching with that purposeful terrifying manner.
“Roger, for God’s sake, we have to move, man.” Tom ran back to his friend and pulled Roger’s arm over his shoulder, trying to get him to his feet. The action must have hurt Roger badly. He screamed in pain but struggled up, throwing his other arm around Tom’s neck.
“Get me out of here, Tom.” The fear in Roger’s voice was audible. “Don’t leave me, please. Don’t leave me.”
It was no use. Tom took two more steps and stumbled. Roger was no small burden under normal circumstances, and right now, he was a dead weight. The next step brought them both crashing down to the grass. Twisting around, Tom saw that the watchers had closed the distance dramatically. They were now just thirty meters away and there was no way Roger could get away from them.
Dear God, I’ve got to get out of here, he thought, struggling to free himself from Roger’s clasp. Roger clutched at him like a drowning man and Tom frantically beat at his hands, pushing him away. Suddenly Roger dropped his hands and began to cry, a hopeless despairing wail. The sound almost broke Tom’s heart. Shame for his weakness flooded him and he put his arms around his friend, hugging him close.
“It’s ok, man. It’s ok,” he said, tightening his grip. “I’m here. Don’t worry. I’m not leaving you.”
Taking a deep breath to bolster his fading courage Tom watched as the shrouded figures approached him; watched as they spread out to surround him and his injured friend.