The Hydra Effect

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public.”
—Winston Churchill

Zihuatanejo        Book 1

Chapter 1

A pair of headlights rushed my old VW camper, assailing me with their high beams. I moved over as far as the  causeway allowed. The vehicle pulled into the oncoming lane, honking furiously but didn’t pass.

“What the—? Pass you idiot!”

Ahead, light strobed through the trees, and a bus barreled around the oncoming curve. It headed straight for the honking moron, and its brights reflected, blinding me through my side mirror. I tensed, gripped the wheel and laid-on the gas. The overloaded VW accelerated inch by inch while I rocked forward and back like a kid willing motion. “Go! Go! Go!” I yelled.

Just in time, the daredevil dropped back into the southbound lane of Ruta 200 and the bus roared past, spewing diesel fumes across the Mexican landscape on its route to “Cd. Obregon.”

Stupid kids, I thought. But I kept my grip on the wheel and my foot to the gas pedal. Taking a missing persons case had seemed like such a good idea at the time­—a working holiday, and a chance to take a good look at my life. Now I felt anxious as I drove south through Michoacán on the narrow, winding Pacific Coast Highway on my way to Zihuatanejo.

Beep Beep Beeep. The vehicle roared into the other lane again. Did the driver see something wrong with my camper? Lights out? Hatch open? Cargo falling off the roof? Through the mirror, I saw a white pickup. Colored lights set in the grill blinked back and forth—the kind that camioneros adorn their trucks with. The honking became more insistent. BeepBeepBeep Beeep.

Pepper, woke up from his nap on the back seat and growled at the side window, his hair standing on end. Confused, I toggled the lights off and on. They were working just fine. What did this asshole want?

BEEPBEEPBEEP—The cab pulled parallel with me and two porky men waved frantically. I slowed down—there must be an emergency—until it registered that they had baseball caps pulled low over their faces and the driver even had a bandana tied like a western bandido. BEEEEP BEEEEP. I stiffened with fear. Why didn’t I keep Pepper up front with me? Could they see him? The driver revved his motor and shot forward just enough to reveal a third masked man sitting in the back, pointing a double barreled shotgun at me. His brown belly poked out of his dirty, open shirt and my headlights reflected off the thick gold chains he wore. Pepper went ballistic, clawing at the window with his forepaws and barking; I felt light headed.

Suddenly the pickup sped off around a bend, its taillights vanishing as quickly as its headlights had appeared.

My heart thudding fast in my chest, I scanned the forest for a break in the trees, somewhere to hide. What on earth am I doing in Mexico? I asked myself this for about the billionth time since I’d crossed the border three days before. But now more than feeling lonely, I felt scared—and I couldn’t rely on Dex this time.

Twilight faded into night too fast, and the forest turned to a black void. Anyway, I’d be safer if I kept moving. “Keep driving—don’t stop. Just keep driving.” A mantra against fear.

Truthfully, my feelings had morphed into edginess and irritation hours before. I hadn’t had cell service or seen a road sign since Tecomán, and the few villages I passed were poor, sparsely-populated assemblages of huts and corrals, surrounded by plots hacked out of the forest and planted with scraggly still-green corn. Thin burros and even thinner children stared with large, sad eyes as I passed, posed like the ghastly velvet paintings in the tourist traps. Didn’t anyone feed these kids? Cultivated fields stretched along the narrow littoral between mountains and coast. If the corn wasn’t ripe, there were bananas, coconuts and mangoes, but all this bounty didn’t help me relax—or put meat on those skinny little bones.

Pepper had stopped barking, but whined from the back, perhaps voicing my own question, where did they go? The forest looked ghostly under the beams of my headlights and I floored it when the road dipped down toward sea level. The camper shimmied, reminding me of my mechanic’s warning, “If you’re crazy enough drive in Mexico, drive slowly. Sonora will be dangerous, but don’t stop for anything until you get to Mazatlán, especially not in the state of Sinaloa—not even for gas. And stick to the coastal route through Michoacán. It’s safer.” Well, maybe I am crazy. But what did he know about fleeing armed Mexicans?

Keep driving—don’t stop. Just keep driving. I turned—off the heart wrenching Mariachi music playing on the radio. My mind raced. It’s not my day to die. Nothing is going to happen to me. Just keep driving.

Out of nowhere, the pickup reappeared and stopped in the middle of the highway, blocking both lanes. The fat guy in the truck bed sighted his weapon on me and I exercised my only option—to brake. Gasping, heart hammering, I clamped my hands to the wheel to steady myself and braked to a stop. I sucked in a ragged breath. One, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. Exhale.

The two thugs from the cab lumbered out of the truck. The masked driver positioned himself to my right and pointed his handgun in my direction. My legs ossified and clacked against each other, the tremors attacking my body. The other man came up to my window and I smelled cheap tequila, tobacco and rancid sweat—possibly my own. All I could think of was bad Mexican movies and guessed they didn’t plan on showing me any “stinking badges.”


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