This is the first chapter of The Found World, the brand-new pulp by my alter ego, Hugo Navikov. It’s a quasi-sequel to Spinosaurus, but you don’t need to have read that to love this new one. (It’s a good read, though! Check it out!)
The man sitting alone at the center of the middle bench seat of the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter barely looked out either window at the jungle foliage as they landed a few hundred feet from the clearing made for the carnival. Six heavily muscled commandos in tactical gear sat three across on the bench in front of him and the one behind. Up front sat the pilot and the also—heavily muscled commander of the paramilitary troop. The man’s name was not Lathrop, but that is what he went by when on assignment. The mercenaries were under his nominal command, but they were not under his employ. The people he worked for had contracted these “soldiers,” much to his dislike. The fact that they were paid by the same entity didn’t mean he had to sit next to the beasts, however.
If Lathrop had been given his druthers, it would have been himself and the pilot in a much less ostentatious mode of travel. His tasseled attaché, which matched the tassels on his pair of Bolviant Verrocchios, was his weapon of choice. It was loaded with ammunition—contracts and legal papers that served as modern letters of marque, enough to take down entire governments if his employer wished. But not just ammunition: within the galuchat attaché case were untraceable bearer bonds each worth millions of dollars and pre-signed deeds to properties in Dubai and Tokyo worth even more. It contained carrots as well as sticks.
Lathrop had once been asked by a contracted assassin why he didn’t simply take a few for himself and disappear. Lathrop laughed and told him that owning every single piece of property in Hong Kong wouldn’t be worth losing his life, which would be lost horribly, once his employer found him again. And—make no mistake, he told the assassin, who was erased from existence once his mission was completed just for asking the question—his employer would find him again in short order.
Just like they had found Brett Russell, the man he had come to see. This man used to work for Lathrop’s own employer before he uncovered a shocking truth, but then went underground, promising to exact retribution one day. This didn’t bother the Organization; one man, or an army of them, or even a nation full of oath-sworn revengers couldn’t do any real damage to those pulling the world’s strings.
What did bother them was losing a man of Brett Russell’s talents. He once liberated an entire mining village while simultaneously fighting what the Organization believed was an actual living Spinosaurus in the depths of the Congo Rainforest. He was the perfect candidate to help them secure an asset so valuable that made the entire contents of Lathrop’s galuchet case look like bag of glass marbles. The Organization would have him hand over the attaché in a second if Brett Russell would accept it for the job.
But they knew he wouldn’t. All the wealth in the world meant nothing to a man wanting only revenge. So, the man not really named Lathrop would offer him revenge.
He allowed the commandos to exit one side and come around to slide open the door on the other side for allow to get out. He stood on the soft dirt, the heels of his astronomically expensive buffalo-hide shoes sinking half an inch or so. They would need to be discarded after this adventure, he thought, but others would be waiting for him when he stopped in New York on his way back to Geneva. It would amuse him to have his man drop the old pair of $2,000 shows into a box at the Goodwill. Maybe he’d see a hobo wearing them next time he was in the city and chuckle to himself that the bum could have bought himself a car to live in.
A small beetle almost immediately alit upon the right lapel of his bespoke Ermenegildo Zegna suit, which made Lathrop very nearly smile; the bug had good taste. He swept it off and looked at the spectacle drawing cheers and excited gasps from the loose crowd of farmers and their lead-poisoned children. He believed he was near the “city” of Ipixuna in Brazil, a settlement of about 17,000 and one of the most difficult to reach anywhere in the Amazon rainforest, which was saying something.
To the Organization, however, nothing was terribly difficult to reach. To get Lathrop and the troops to the spot outside Ipixuna, the 12-seat S-76 was dropped out of an enormous Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo plane, having first been loaded onto an automated Chase XCG-20 glider, which descended to and leveled off at 5,000 feet, at which time it was slowed to stalling speed. At that moment, a radio signal was sent to set off the bay door’s explosive bolts, which blew off the hatch and allowed the Sikorsky to slide out, its rotors already in motion. The glider crashed somewhere nearby and the helicopter flew the thirty miles or so to the target location, this godforsaken bit of swampland where the idiot carnival was set up to entrance the dullards hired to destroy their own habitat. The Organization had no hand in that, but Lathrop thought it sounded like something they would do if it suited them.
Some 200 feet ahead was a dome made from chain-link fencing, the onlookers gathered around its perimeter. The two dozen spectators turned and glanced briefly at the site of a massive helicopter unloading black-clad soldiers carrying assault weapons and a polished white man wearing intentionally incongruous city clothing, but then turned back. Whatever was inside the 200-foot diameter of that fenced dome must have been compelling, indeed. Lathrop knew what was inside the dome: Brett Russell. God knew what he was doing, but it was enough to make sustenance farmers walk away from their crops in the middle of a spring day perfect for planting.
The dome itself had been erected in such a way that some jungle trees were almost entirely within it, full of weird rainforest creatures that Lathrop, frankly, could do without ever encountering. He spent his days in Geneva, one of the most civilized places in the entire world. His friend the beetle had been a novelty; one just didn’t encounter insects where he conducted Organization business. That said, a poisonous monkey or spitting lizard would be more than a novelty and would constitute something entirely unwelcome on or near his person. He might have to ask one of the commandos to remove it for destruction, and he preferred not to ask anything of the thugs if it could be avoided.
When Lathrop finally made it to the fence, the farmers parting more in suspicion than awe at his appearance at the dome, he saw what they were all gaping at: inside was the man whom he knew to be Brett Russell. There weren’t going to be a lot of Caucasians this deep into the jungle, making it easier to identify the man he was looking for—this was fortunate for Lathrop, because the man inside the caged area was almost unrecognizable as the man in the photograph he had been given by the Organization. Whereas Russell in the picture had been a man in the field locating and, when necessary, fighting cryptids that usually turned out to be “only” giant bears, undiscovered killer condor-like birds, and that dinosaur in Congo: lots of muscle and hard as hell. But what Brett Russell was now made the old Russell look like an agoraphobic accountant. Lathrop had never met the actor they called “The Rock,” but he imagined Russell looked like what The Rock was 5′ 11″ instead of his ridiculous 6′ 5″ and had earned his muscles by fighting man-eating monsters instead of lifting free weights with personal trainers.
Russell’s muscles, as impressive as they looked, weren’t for show—they couldn’t be. This was because inside the dome, standing in the waist-deep brown water of the inlet dug to drain from the main river a hundred feet, the man was wrestling with—Lathrop literally had to blink a few times to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing—a black caiman crocodile. It wasn’t the 16-foot monster that full-grown adults were, but the adolescent was at least 10 feet long, bigger than most man-eaters in the world already. It was huge and Russell could barely keep his gigantic arm around its neck as it thrashed and tried to take him apart.
Lathrop’s mouth actually dropped open, and he looked at the farmers on either side of him for confirmation that he was seeing what he was seeing. But they didn’t look away from Russell being thrown around as the caiman tried to fling him off and escape through a submerged gate in the fence that led back to the river. (There was a man, probably the fight organizer, squatting just outside the fence with his hand on a handle for the gate; he must have been the one who would let the monster back into the river once the fight was over, one way or another. This told Lathrop that Russell didn’t intend to kill the animal, which agreed with the dossier he had read on his target.)
The black caiman may have been trying instead to fling him off and then kill him, which it could do easily if it could get Russell got in front of his giant maw. Alligators and crocodiles, Lathrop knew, worked to tire put their prey by spinning and thrashing; if Russell got too tired to hold on, it would be the end of him.
It seemed impossible that this wasn’t the first time the man had fought for a few Brazilian reals … but it also seemed highly unlikely it was the first time, since it looked like he was the one who was getting his enemy too tired to fight and not the other way around.
As Lathrop looked closer, he could see that Russell had anchored himself onto the caiman’s back with a strap, so it wasn’t quite as impossible as it looked. It still looked completely impossible to him, but maybe not so ridiculous as to be entirely unbelievable. Russell had his arm under the strap and this helped him get his flesh raked open by the spines on the giant animal’s hide. He also had black sleeves, really long black gloves, almost all the way up his arms that, Lathrop was sure, kept him from being sliced open by the rough skin of his enemy.
The equipment, however, seemed to be there just to make it possible for Russell to last long enough to get tired and be ripped to shreds by the croc. The fact that even with all the thrashing, the caiman hadn’t been able to get Russell into a position where he could bite him in half was testament to the power of the mountain of muscle the man had become. And not just muscle, of course—the way Russell moved with the animal showed that he knew what he was doing.
This was definitely not the first time he had done this, which was almost literally unbelievable. Lathrop’s superiors hadn’t been exaggerating. Before him was perhaps the only man for the job they wanted to hire him for.
The squatting fight organizer craned his neck, looking at something in the water trench leading from the river to the gate. He smiled in surprise, then very obviously looked at Russell fighting the caiman, then looked back at the trench … and lifted the handle to open the gate.
The assembled onlookers let out a collective oooh when they saw what had happened. Lathrop couldn’t see what was going on, but then, he didn’t know what to look for like the locals. Soon enough, though, it was unmistakable: a thick snake, a giant snake, swam into the enclosure, where Russell and the enormous crocodile didn’t notice it since they were fighting possibly to the death.
He fumbled out his secure smartphone, thumbed open the translation app, and said into it, “What is that thing?” He held it out to the sweaty brown man next to him, to whom it spoke in weirdly British-accented Portuguese, “O que é essa coisa?”
The wide-eyed man laughed and said at the phone like he was speaking to a person inside it: “Anaconda verde.”
Lathrop didn’t need the phone to translate that: it was a green anaconda. The green anaconda was the largest snake in the world. And it was now swimming in a wide circle around Brett Russell and the enormous crocodile. It could kill a human pretty easily—and since anacondas were constrictors, once it wrapped around a man, he couldn’t get out no matter how strong he was. Lathrop noticed a large dagger on Russell’s belt—why the hell hadn’t he used it on the killer crocodile?—but if the snake wrapped around his torso, there would be no way for him to get it out, let alone do anything with it.
Finally, one of the farmers pointed and shouted to Russell, “Serpente!”
In the middle of trying to heave the caiman toward the gate, which the little promoter fellow still had open, Russell stopped and looked to where the farmer was pointing. He didn’t have to search—the 15-foot-long anaconda was hard to miss, especially as its new circle was smaller than the first as it moved closer to Russell and the crocodile. Then he whipped his gaze at the promoter with steely anger, a look that almost made the little man fall over with fright.
As if he’d heard Lathrop think of the dagger, Russell pulled it from its sheath. The crocodile took advantage of the distraction, however, and snapped at his hand, making Russell drop it into the opaque water. He took only a moment to recover from this, however, and threw himself around the caiman’s neck. In a series of heaves across the water, Russell got the huge animal to the gate, which was all the croc needed to get the hell out of there.
Lathrop marveled. Could he have done that at any time? Was he just making a show for the paying customers?
The look in his eyes at the approaching anaconda, however, betrayed real alarm—maybe even fear—and he moved to duck under the gate and get himself out of there as well. But when he ducked, the promoter let the fence fall the whole six feet to the bottom of the trench leading into the enclosure.
In surprise and real anger, Russell yelled at him: “Deixe-me sair, seu bastardo!”
Lathrop needed no translation to understand that. But the promoter gestured toward the crowd, which was now in a frenzy of betting with a man that had to be the man’s gambling agent. He must have been willing to part with his star attraction for whatever money the ecstatic wagers would be bringing in, because no human, not even one looking like The Rock’s big brother, could survive an encounter with a trapped and possibly panicked green anaconda.
And here it came. If Brett could get to the other side of the water, which was at least fifty feet away, he could get onto the ground and be safe for at least a few minutes from the snake, long enough to tear his way through the cheap fence if he had to. But the anaconda was between him and the other side and would be upon him long before he could wade or swim the distance.
It approached. In ten more feet, it could start winding around him, and death would be swift after that. Lathrop knew that it was a myth that constrictors cut off the air of their victims and so those attacked had three or four minutes to be rescued; in fact, boas and anacondas squeezed their prey so hard that it cut off the blood to the heart. Without immediate CPR—highly unlikely inside a cage surrounded by illiterate farmers in a tiny village in the Amazon rainforest—the stopped heart would stay stopped, and Brett Russell would die before Lathrop got the opportunity to make the Organization’s offer.
He motioned to the commander and said, “Shoot the snake.”
The commander didn’t laugh or ask why. Instead, he immediately called over one of his troops—his second-in-command, probably—and said, “Mister Lathrop wants that snake killed.”
The second-in-command laughed and asked, “Why?”
“Since when do you ask why, soldier?” the commander barked.
Lathrop shook his head. The time it took for that exchange made it impossible to get a clean shot at the snake before it would go behind Russell and begin coiling around him. Brilliant, he thought. All the guns in the world and not a brain cell among them. He didn’t look forward to reporting this immediate failure to his superiors.
Russell, however, seemed to know that no help was coming, not from the promoter, the spectators, or the man in the suit and his idiot brigade. His eyes darted around, taking in the snake coming nearer, the wet ground around the makeshift pond, the snake, the fencing, the snake, and the trees above. Maybe he would try to … no, Lathrop had no idea what Russell was thinking about doing. Russell was a dead man, and maybe Lathrop would be as well when he returned. The Organization had done more for less.
Then a look of recognition appeared on Russell’s face, and even though he strained to see what the man could have spotted in the tree branches fifteen feet above him, he could see nothing but bark and shiny leaves.
The snake curled around Russell now, and there was nothing in the world that he could do to stop it. He must have known it, too, because he ignored the anaconda even as it finished the first coil and moved around for the second, not squeezing yet, just getting into position.
But Russell put both hands under the water and swept his belt out through its loops, keeping his hands above the level at which the snake was about to tighten around him. He closed one eye and aimed and whipped the belt up at a specific point on the lowest tree branch. The buckle struck something, which fell as a yellow blur and splashed in the water not two feet away from him. Right before the anaconda finished its final coil and was about to crush the arteries of Russell’s heart, he threw himself forward to grab the object with his glove-covered hand. Squeezing his eyes shut and turning his head with his mouth tightly closed, he crushed the thing against the snake’s skin. Lathrop could see that Russell was crushing it because a strange ooze burst from under his palm, seeping out against the green scales of the monster.
What the hell is going on? Lathrop literally had no idea what he was watching as the anaconda not only didn’t finish the job and fatally tighten around Russell’s body, but it shook, jerked, and finally slackened unto death, floating now without moving at the surface of the water. Russell held up his hand so the crowd—and the promoter, who looked very much like he had just emptied his bowels into his pants—could see. Lathrop didn’t understand what the yellow—crusted pancake of unidentifiable biomass represented.
Words spoken in admiration, even awe, rippled through the crowd: “Sapo veneno.” Every single man present muttered it, even the ashen-faced promoter.
Lathrop was about to say the words into his phone when mercenary commander Crane said, “That’s a goddamn poison dart frog.”
“That guy just knocked that poison dart frog out of that tree and smooshed it against that goddamn killer snake.”
Lathrop goggled. “He just killed a fifteen-foot green anaconda … with a frog?”
“Sir, that right there is—well, was—a Golden Poison Frog. It’s what, two inches long? That little sucker has enough poison in it to kill twenty full-size men. That damn snake never had a chance. That dude would also be dead without whatever those gloves are. I’m thinking Kevlar, like the gloves shark hunters wear. I want some of those now.”
It’s like daycare with Uzis, Lathrop thought, but said only, “When he gets out of there, bring him to me. Try not to talk too much. You’re not good at it.”
Crane nodded, not sentient enough to know he’d just been insulted, and marched over to where Russell was just emerging from the cage, having swum to the bottom, lifted the gate fencing enough to get through, and emerged like the Predator from the steaming brown water to stand in front of the visibly shaking promoter.
He looked back at Lathrop. “Maybe I should give him a minute.”
Lathrop nodded. The man wasn’t as dumb as he looked. (He couldn’t be.) But letting this play out before interrupting Russell did seem like a prudent idea.
Russell grabbed the promoter by the neck, his fingers reaching almost all the way across. This inspired a renewed frenzy of wagering among the still-engrossed farmers, and the promoter’s second seemed all too happy to cash in on this latest development and probable advancement opportunity.
The scene was taking place only about 150 feet from where Lathrop had been watching, and he could see plainly as Russell lifted the glove that was covered with the Golden Poison Frog’s entrails for the promoter’s careful consideration. Russell said, “Eu deveria fazer você comer isso,” which made the farmers laugh and made the promoter soil himself anew.
He didn’t bother to ask anyone what that meant. You didn’t hold up a hand full of incredibly deadly poison while holding a man by the neck in order to tell him the weather. Russell let go of the man’s neck, but it was extremely clear that he was not to move an inch.
Using the other gloved hand to very carefully remove the first glove, Russell then used the gloved hand and his booted foot to slowly turn the stiff first glove inside-out. Then he lifted it and shoved it against the promoter’s chest, saying, “Lave isso.” The farmers cracked up again, saying “Ooooh!” like they were in grade school.
Lathrop didn’t know Portuguese, but he did know enough Spanish to figure out, along with the men’s derisive laughter, that Russell had essentially just told the pants-crapping man: Clean that. It was more threatening that it sounded, because merely touching the skin of the Golden Poison Frog for an instant would mean paralysis. Anything more would bring a quick but very painful death. He put out his hand, palm up. Pay me.
The promoter pulled a wad of damp bills from his pocket and laid it in Russell’s gloveless hand. Russell looked at it, gave the promoter a smile, then punched him in the gut so hard that nobody watching felt like they’d be able to stand up straight for a week. The little bitch remained on the moist ground, unable or possibly unwilling to move. Russell spit on the promoter to make sure he was still alive, and when the man moaned, he said, “Novo cinturão, também.”
Lathrop turned with a quizzical look at the farmer standing next to him, who laughed. He must have known English, because he saw the look on Lathrop’s face and said with a smile in his heavy accent, “He want a new belt, too.”
The bulk of humanity trudged toward Lathrop and the paramilitary troops, passing them by without a single word or glance. Whatever had happened to Brett Russell in the two years since the Organization sent him to Congo, it had made him into … Lathrop didn’t know what. But it was scary as hell to him, and he thought he had seen everything there was to be scared of in the world. Still, he had a job to do: “Brett Russell?”
The man stopped immediately, then turned his muscled back and neck to fix Lathrop with a gaze so hateful that it made him want to run back to the helicopter, job be damned. “What,” was all Russell said, not turning the rest of the way but just standing there with the rest of his body in position to resume walking away.
“I’m Mister Lathrop, with—”
“I know who you’re with. You’re with a troop of goons and wearing a $20,000 suit. You’re from the Organization.” The sneer in his voice was unmistakable. “What do you want? If they wanted to kill me, they would’ve already carpet-bombed this entire town. So what is it?”
“Don’t you want to know how we found you?”
“It’s the Organization.” He raised his eyebrows. “So, I’m going to start walking again in three seconds. One. Two—”
“I’m on the run myself,” Lathrop said rapidly. “I want to talk to you about your revenge.”
Russell narrowed his eyes at the man, sizing up his claim. Finally, he shrugged and said, “Mister Fancy can buy me uma cerveja. The goons wait outside.”
Did you enjoy? Then maybe you’d like to read the whole thing!