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CHAPTER ONE

THE CARIBBEAN ISLAND OF FANTOMAS

Isle De Fantomas was a nation born in blood and forged in suffering. Its citizens were the descendents of slaves who, after generations in bondage, had broken their chains. These slaves, who had never known mercy, showed none to their masters. On the first night of the rebellion their scythes and cane machetes slaughtered half the slave-owning colonists; the remaining half were less fortunate.

For a brief moment the long-suffering people of Fantomas were free; but from that newfound freedom sprang even more brutal masters. For two centuries Fantomas endured an endless cycle of homegrown tyrants lusting for power. The latest of these despots, General Manuel Ortiz, followed the violent traditions of his predecessors, filling the island’s cemeteries with innocent victims.

Though countless lives were lost, the human spirit endured, fueled by the people’s unwavering faith in Voodoo. The citizens of Fantomas clung to their beliefs, knowing that someday the Voodoo spirits would crush their oppressors and set their children free.

 

 

Despite two centuries of bloodshed, the jungles of Fantomas remained lush and primordial; unchanged since the dawn of time. But tonight the sleeping parrots were awakened by brush rustling beneath their roosts, and they sang out a warning; men had invaded their domain.

Six armed soldiers crept through the jungle. Swarms of fruit bats circled overhead, following their path, gorging on the insects they disturbed. A bat swooped down to snatch a dragonfly hovering in front of the last man. As he slapped frantically at the invader, the startled soldier’s foot landed on a dry branch; the cracking wood echoed through the jungle like a gunshot.

Their leader, Lieutenant Miguel Ortiz, spun around and glared at the man. “Quiet, you idiot!”

The soldier stood frozen under the lieutenant’s stare until Ortiz turned and continued moving forward. The men followed him cautiously, fearing their commander more than any enemy.

Lieutenant Ortiz hated the jungle. To him it was a steaming, mosquito-laden nightmare of tangled brush and poisonous snakes. But despite the discomforts, Miguel loved his job as commander of the island’s Special Operations Team, an elite military unit the locals referred to in hushed tones as Escuadrón de la MuerteThe Death Squad.

Fantomas’ supreme dictator, General Manuel Ortiz, had handpicked each man, entrusting them with eliminating anyone who opposed his regime. Miguel was chosen as commander in part because the general was his uncle, but it was a job he was truly born to hold. After a childhood measured in escalating acts of sadism, Miguel seemed destined for the hangman’s noose. But all that changed a year ago when his uncle assumed power after a bloody military coups d’état. With Manuel recognizing his nephew’s rare talent for brutality, Miguel instantly rose from being just another violent felon to a vital arm of national security.

Since then he’d hunted and killed dozens of potentially dangerous opponents to his uncle’s regime. The fact that most were unarmed peasants or intellectuals only added to Miguel’s job satisfaction.

His trained ear was attuned to the endless din of insects when he distinctly heard coughing in the distance. He gestured for his men to halt. Slipping on a pair of night vision goggles he studied the trail ahead but saw no one. He heard it again, like a man sneezing, quickly followed by another. Following the sound he looked up into the trees. A troop of Mona Monkeys stared down at him, their tufts of white facial hair giving them the appearance of angry old men. The sneezing sound was their warning call to other monkeys. Miguel fought the impulse to shoot them for fun. Instead he knelt down, allowing his men a moment to drink from their canteens.

His second in command, Corporal Sosa, crept forward. In hushed tones he said, “Sir, the men are nervous. We’re killing a Voodoo priestess tonight and they’re afraid of the spiritual consequences.”

Miguel resisted the urge to strangle Sosa. “Trust me, if there’s such a thing as spiritual consequences we’re already going to Hell, so stop worrying.” He glanced back at his men, sensing their tension. He hoped when the time came their natural bloodlust would overcome any fear, but he knew a little added incentive wouldn’t hurt. “Remind them we are on a personal mission for General Ortiz, and he will probably give us each a generous bonus.”

Corporal Sosa’s innate greed won over any concerns. “They will be happy to hear that,” he said and scuttled back to the men.

The men’s fear of the priestess disgusted Miguel. To him Voodoo was the kind of superstitious horseshit that personified the old Fantomas; an impoverished land full of ignorant peasants and stinking manure. Miguel proudly embraced the modern world of social progress. To him progress meant snorting cocaine off the dashboard of his pearl white Escalade while listening to deafening rap music. Miguel was looking forward to tonight’s mission. The target’s name was Sarafina, and her lofty title of Voodoo Priestess made this a rare pleasure. Miguel had spent the last year working night and day to crush the people’s will. But women like this Sarafina gave the locals hope, and that only made his job harder.

Miguel pulled a GPS unit from his pocket. It indicated that they were less than a hundred yards from their target. He stood, signaling his men to move forward.

As they drew closer to the target, Miguel heard drums and rhythmic chanting drifting through the trees.

“Do you hear that?” Corporal Sosa hissed.

“Of course, I’m not deaf,” Miguel shot back.

“She was supposed to be alone but what if there are there are more people? What if they’re armed?” Sosa whispered, nervous at the prospect of facing someone who could actually fight back.

“Armed with what, drumsticks? If there are more people we’ll just kill them too.” Miguel turned away, wondering if America’s Navy Seals had to deal with this kind of whimpering. Then again, Navy Seals didn’t recruit their men from Death Row.

Miguel crept forward till he could make out a clearing ahead. The drumming was now clear and distinct.

He reached out and slowly pulled aside the branches blocking his view. The moment he did the drums and voices fell silent, leaving only the endlessly buzzing insects; it was unnerving. Probably just more monkeys, he thought.

He looked ahead and his concerns melted away. The priestess stood alone in the center of her compound, surrounded by gnarled posts decorated with animal skulls and weird talismans. Burning torches cast a flickering light on the ghoulish tableau. These Voodoo trappings were eerie enough, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the chapel building itself.

It was a barn-sized structure crafted from wood and mud brick standing in the shadow of a sixty-foot Banyan tree. Over decades, or perhaps even centuries, the ancient tree had grown into the building, entwining it in hundreds of exposed roots and vines until they merged into one organic structure. The firelight cast moving shadows across the chapel, and its network of roots seemed to undulate like some monstrous jellyfish.

Sarafina was stirring a cooking pot suspended over an outdoor fire. The aroma drifted through the air, but it was hard to tell if she was preparing some occult potion or just the typical swill the peasants called food. She sang to herself softly in a French patois.

Miguel took a moment to admire Sarafina. She was tall, her lean body wrapped in the colorful fabric favored by priestesses. She moved with the grace of a dancer, her dark skin glowing in the firelight. Miguel found her attractive, in that peasant sort of way.

She stood and walked gracefully to her chapel, still singing. As soon as she was inside, Miguel reached into his rucksack and pulled out a satellite phone. He whispered, “General, we’re in position with the target in sight. Awaiting your orders.” He pressed the phone to his ear awaiting a response.

His uncle’s voice came through. “Hold your position and await my instructions.”

“Understood sir.” After checking the ground for scorpions, Miguel sat down to wait.