It wasn’t even past 10 am in Guatemala City and already Detective Rick Rhodes was sweating bullets. Traffic snarled outside the decrepit café that survived in this derelict avenue, attached to a boarded-up hotel where lizards scampered in the early morning shadows. Rhodes had seen his share of slums – this dank and dusty pothole, where bums sweated out rubbing-alcohol flavored Tequila from their pores and the prostitutes were all either under thirteen or over fifty-five, just might have been the worst.
No. Maiduguri was worse. But Africa’s a whole other planet. At least Guatemala City was in the same hemisphere as America. Still… it was bad.
Rhodes waited in the café a good ten minutes before a pock-marked sweating server in slick black hair came to take his order. At first, the investigator thought the kid was going to ask him for spare change. Maybe he still would.
Rhodes ordered a coffee, but nothing to eat; hopefully, the rats hadn’t got into the sacks of coffee beans he’d seen unceremoniously dumped behind the counter.
The place started to fill up after, with various slit-eyed scumbags taking up their places in the corner booths. The man he was there to meet was a half hour late. Rhodes was just about to get up and walk out of there when Sergeant Dwayne Colville bumped his leg, looking down at the detective with a mug’s face that was glistening from the heat. A silver talisman hung from his neck on the same chain as his dog tags, dangling from his open shirt that hadn’t been buttoned.
Rhodes knew it was Colville from the photograph, but damn, the man was no soldier anymore. He was sewer-rat skinny, with a chest that was practically concave. Rhodes looked from the man’s damp tropical shirt to his arms and scanned for telltale scabs, but didn’t see any; if the man was an addict, he wasn’t injecting in the usual telltale places.
If the story about this man was true, according to the Professor, he’d only been missing for three months. Either the US army was getting lazy with its recruiting standards for its Special Forces, or this wreck of a man had got put through a real wringer.
“You look surprised to see me, Mr. Rhodes,” Colville said.
“Just not what I pictured,” Rhodes replied.
“The image you had is from when I was still alive,” Colville said. “I’m a dead man now.”
Rhodes shrugged. “Sit down and stop making a scene,” he said. “You’re no good to me dead, so quit it with the melodramatics. Drink some of this awful coffee and let’s get you sorted out.”
Colville sat down carefully, like he was a man fifty years older, in danger of cracking a hip at the slightest misstep. Rhodes decided he wasn’t on drugs – no, this man was just exhausted. He had big bags under his eyes like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Rhodes almost wished he had a dimebag of coke to perk up this loser.
Rhodes was thinking back to the briefing he’d got from the Professor back in Boston. Colville was a good soldier; he’d done tours in the hellholes of the Middle East and Central Asia where the Cult pretty much ran things. After that exercise in futility, it was back stateside for retraining before he got shipped down here into the jungle. It was some kind of joint training mission with America’s latest unlikely ally in the War on Terror: Guatemala. Who knew?
But something had gone wrong in the jungle. That was no training exercise – and from the looks of things, Colville was the only American who managed to get out of that place alive.
“The Professor said you’d be bringing a map with you,” Rhodes said. “Show me where it happened.”
Colville hesitated. He looked around the café, then back at Rhodes. “You brought money, right?”
Rhodes nodded. “Sure. That was the deal. I can get you a passport, too. The Professor knows a guy down at the embassy. Depending on what you know, we can make it worth your while. Don’t you want to go home?”
Colville shook his head. Without answering, he took a folded, fading army map out of his pocket and opened it on the table. The ex-soldier pointed to where they were, then showed Rhodes a spot in the wild hinterland of the country where he’d drawn in three red circles. “That’s where it is: the Temple of the Old Ones.”
Rhodes let himself smile. “Good. So we know where they are. Why don’t you send that into the Pentagon? Your flyboy buddies can take that place out before the locals know what’s up.”
The withered man did not smile back. “You and your friends know how deep this goes. The Cult is working with them – maybe not all of them, but enough that they’re not going to sabotage the people they’re working with. This temple… our government is sacrificing people to those… those things.”
“Yeah,” Rhodes said. “So how’d you get away from them?”
Colville stared past Rhodes. The detective could see he was thinking back to that moment when his eyes had first been opened to the dark reality of this universe: that we were not alone – and that the others who were sharing this place were not friendly.
“There was a man next to me. One of the local ringleaders, I guess. He wore this talisman around his neck,” he said, pointing to the one he was now wearing. “He said it was for protection. I figured out what was in store for my platoon and – well, I don’t know why I believed anything that bastard told me, but when the time came, I rolled our truck, snatched the bling right off him and hauled ass into the jungle. As far as I know, I’m the only one that made it out. It took me a week just to find a way out of the sticks.”
From what the Professor had told Rhodes, it was the usual setup at the temple: some whacked-out ruin built by creatures that weren’t really from around here — back when most human beings were still running around naked chucking spears at the local wildlife. Thanks to the Professor, the detective had seen enough of these places up close to know that whatever dark tentacle-happy thing was in that temple, it was up to no good. Even worse, whenever these slimy mutants showed up, it didn’t take long for the Cult to set up shop around them – and their business mainly seemed to be about kidnapping, torturing and chopping the heads off of everyone who wasn’t in agreement with their religion. It was up to folks like the Professor and Rhodes to put a stop to them; the problem was dealing with shifty weirdos like Colville who you never quite knew whether they were on your side.
Right then, Rhodes was thinking maybe Colville wasn’t a prospective ally. The gun he was holding under the table, pointed at Rhodes’ gut, pretty much clinched that for him.
“I figured it was something like this,” Rhodes said in a low growl. “You could have scanned that map and we could have wired the money to you without me coming down to this slum. Guess they converted you to the cause.”
“If you thought this might happen, you should have stayed back in America,” Colville said.
“I came here to get you,” Rhodes said. “The Professor said it was too risky. But I thought maybe you could be redeemed. Work for the right side.”
The gun cocked under the table. “It’s nothing personal, buddy. They got to me. They worked on me. Any man can break.”
Rhodes thought back to the personal treatment he’d got in Cairo at the hands of the Cult. He knew Colville was telling the truth. Torture does work – depending on what you’re really trying to achieve. The ones in Egypt didn’t seem all that interested in knowing what Rhodes knew, so much as just seeing how much punishment he could take. By the time Rhodes was rescued, he would have told his captors anything they wanted to know – if they’d only bothered to ask.
“I have to kill you or they kill me,” Colville said.
“You’re not really in with them, then,” Rhodes said. “You’re just their errand boy. You know they’re just going to kill you after you do me in.”
“Why would they do that?” Colville asked. “I’m nothing. I’m no one. I’ll disappear.”
Rhodes shook his head. “They want you to kill me to give our side a message. Then they’ll kill you to send another message that’s just as potent.”
Colville seemed unsure of himself. He stared at Rhodes’ face, trying to read the investigator’s intentions.
“They’re in here with us right now, aren’t they?” Rhodes asked.
Colville just kept staring. Rhodes was sure he was going to pull his trigger any second. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded once.
Rhodes pushed the table up into Colville’s face and dove to the side behind another table. The soldier fired, though the shot went wild. Rhodes didn’t see whether it was on purpose or by instinct when he got slammed by the furniture, but he wasn’t taking any chances. His gun was out in a flash, cocked and ready to take on all customers.
The customers – the real ones – were the unfortunate targets of the Cultists who had been watching from the other side of the café. Just in front of Rhodes, a skinny old man and a fat middle-aged mamasita got plugged with a full clip between them. They went down with blood spurting out of them like someone had just pricked a garden sprinkler hose. Rhodes took aim at the one man he had a clear shot towards. Blam! Blam! The bastard was down.
Another bullet ripped into the wall just inches from Rhodes’ head. He swung his gun towards the assailant, an ugly douchebag with long greasy hair and a scar running from his ear down to his chest — but he’d never get there in time. In that split second, Rhodes made his peace with the world.
The long-haired freak went down, shot with three bullets in a two-inch grouping on the center of his chest. Rhodes shots had gone wild, and they were too late anyway – but Colville had struck true. The man didn’t look like much now, but he could still shoot like a motherfucker.
Colville was scanning the room for more bad guys, but everyone else had cleared out of the café. There might be more lurking nearby – and if they stayed, the local police would shoot and ask questions second as they took care of the crazy gringos who shot up their town.
“You can really get me back to America?” Colville asked Rhodes, his eyes still scanning for danger. “No commercial flights. We’ll have to finesse that.”
“First let’s get out of here,” Rhodes said. “Then we can talk to the Professor’s travel agent later.”
“You can trust me?” Colville asked. “After what I tried to do?”
“You came through in the end, like I figured you would,” Rhodes said. “But I’m not the one you need to prove yourself to. If you try to double-cross us, the Professor will sniff you out in a second – and he doesn’t have my sunny disposition. Now let’s blow this banana stand.”
The two men moved back into the broken streets that were not unaccustomed to random violence and gunplay. The locals in the slum averted their eyes as Rhodes and Colville made their escape — but others watched from the shadows. They watched… and sent a message to other interested parties.