WARNING: Contains violence and strong language.
TWO A.M., Thursday
“In a vast labyrinth of caves beneath the
Island of Madagascar’s Ankarana Nature Reserve off the coast of Africa, scientists are studying cave-dwelling crocodiles – perhaps the only ones in the world . . .”
Joe Kruklan peered at a copy of the National Geographic through enormous eyeballs as he read it aloud for the umpteenth time. Rommel, Delaine, and Hardlock crammed together in the back seat of the jeep almost spilling into the front seat as they listened with piqued interest.
‘Our job is to get in, get one croc alive and get out. Our contact said, one million bucks,’ said Kruklan.
‘But boss, we don’t have to deal with just one party now, do we? The cave crocs are points of interest in the scientific community. Let’s say, we accidentally acquire a couple other crocs for our use? More bucks to go around, right?’ said Delaine.
There was a smattering of applause in the truck.
‘I’ll ask your opinion when I do need it, Delaine.’
The dank and remarkable smell of the Nile came up into their noses as they listened to the quiet rumble of the ancient river. Zanutti, the man behind the wheel, steered the high-sided jeep as he negotiated a curve, and they caught glimpse of a shadow looming in the distance like a lone sentinel in a forest.
'There's our million dollar baby', Kruklan said. He twisted in his seat and faced his crew. 'You ready for this, boys? Any of ya’ll as excited as The Krook?’ The Krook was Kruklan’s pseudonym.
Inside the darkness of the jeep, voices responded with equal zest. ‘Yes, Boss’. As men shuffled eagerly in their seats.
Five flabby men, the tallest of these a little over five feet, two. Every man strapped in brown leather jackets looking like characters from an Indiana Jones movie and as eager as the legendary actor to die for a piece of the mysterious, even if it came down to poaching. Men, who grew up in the same 'hood, finished off at the same college and kept the connection years following. Like a Facebook thing.
Four weeks before this night, they were angling for right of entry into Ankarana Reserve. Promising the Range master a cut off the bounty. At a point, the Ranger master had refused them access outright, declaring poaching, outlawed. Fate turned the table in their favor and Delaine got wind about the Ranger’s daughter being classmates with his daughter. They napped the Ranger’s girl and promised to hand her over in a little bit. Every man has his price. Even Ranger masters.
He summarily gave them the key to the city.
The jeep stopped short of the cave opening. 'Okay, let's earn ourselves some quick buck, boys. Rommel! Delaine! Come with me. Zanutti and Hardlock, you two, watch the truck.' Kruklan said as he snatched his Garand off the dashboard. 'Don't forget your toys, now. You don’t wanna be caught dead without heavy firearm in there.' A cone of gnats swam in the beam of the jeep's headlight like living particles of dust. Kruklan and his crew crashed their little party as they marched past, armed and dangerous like a horde of murderous park rangers.
What waited in the cave was bigger than what toy guns from old Clint Eastwood cowboy movies could succumb. But the men did not know that or they would not stick a toe into Croc Cave's portal for all the dimes this galaxy had to tender.
THREE A.M., Thursday
'Hope someone's home to welcome us,' Rommel said shuddery puffs of air rising from his mouth. The air in the cave was clammy and oozing a pungent tang. Cold wind whipped grit against their ankles as they descended the steep angles of Croc Cave, looking all of a team of militarized spelunkers invading a treasure cove. 'The locals have always known that crocs were living in the caves, but nothing was known about the population.'
'Why have crocs ventured into caves?’ said Delaine checking the banks to see if any was lying around.
'And how do they survive the frigid habitat? Heard 'em bastards were eroterms or something . . .’ Rommel said.
'Ectotherms,' said Delaine. ‘They bleed when the environment bleeds.’
'You guys come down here to hunt crocs or to catch up on old times?' Kruklan had moved out farther into the heart of the cave. He was standing by the cold lake, the reflection from his flashlight bouncing off the water to cling to the roughhewn ceiling of the enclosure. ‘These cave crocs gonna fetch me millions if I can snatch one out of these freezing waters alive. Get over here and get useful, I need men down here not a bunch of sixth graders making laundry lists outta botanical names of greens they had for breakfast.'
Something was rising out of the waters like a Zombie resurrecting. Right into the glare of Kruklan's flashlight. But Kruklan was too deep into reading his men the riot act to notice he was distracted to his own detriment . . .
It happened so fast but for Kruklan’s left limb chopped off clean, as if by some giant razor blade it could have been a dream. He hit the floor writhing in mortal agony and screaming his balls off.
Delaine let out a throaty cry.
'Boss!’ Rommel squealed.
They both broke into a run. At the scene, though they saw nothing but broiling water, they pumped pellets and darts into the river. Nothing else surfaced. Nothing but the left leg of Kruklan's hunting boots bobbing on the ripples like a ship certain to sink.
Kruklan was bawling, ‘My foot! My foot! The croc’s got my foot!’ He was on the verge of hysteria and nipping the edge of unconsciousness.
The sight of gushing blood churned Delaine’s stomach, and had him puking into the river. Rommel propped Kruklan up against a stalagmite. Beside the rock, he chanced a femur flanked by a human skull painted over by green mold. Rommel shut his eyes and muted a scream. Delaine finally suppressed his extreme allergic reaction, took off his jacket, and tore off his T-shirt. He made a provisional bandage and applied pressure on the stump of Kruklan’s left limb. Kruklan was too feeble to moan.
‘You think the others heard us yelling, Rommel?’
‘Not even the sound of gunshots, really?’
‘Fat chance. We’re too deep in the earth’s gut to have impact on the outside world.’ Rommel fetched Kruklan’s flashlight and Garand and strapped it across his neck with his .22. ‘Come on, let’s get Boss to a Doc before this gets worse.’
They lifted Kruklan, set his arms, an arm each over their shoulders, and walked him outside. But some weird creature stood at the exit. The croc at the portal was a forty-footer, a bipedal monster. Standing vertical like a mountain boomer; a lizard that runs on twos and packs heat.
It gave off a green glow, and in the blaze of their lights, the massive crocodilian seemed to grin at them.
‘I think things just got worse, Rommel.’
‘Exactly. But, let’s not set him off. If he charges, we land him.’
‘But, we’re stuck in here,’ Delaine said. ‘The Krook’s losing blood so bad soon it would be too late for us to be able to do anything with him.’
‘Still got your onaye poison, don’t you?’
‘Well use ‘em. They oughto do a lot more damage than these toys.’
Rommel lifted Kruklan and backed him much like an African mother would bear her child, blood from The Krook’s stump snaked down his pants, while Delaine worked the venom on his harpoons. The beast stood his ground seemingly enjoying the show.
‘Miss the bitch, Delaine and we’re fucked.’
‘I won’t.’ There was a glint in Delaine’s eyes. A thirst for blood finally catching up with the hunter. He raised the harpoon to shoulder level and aimed for the kill.
He never had the chance. Out of the darkness, a larger bipedal croc stepped up and grabbed Delaine with its snout, harpoon and all. Good Old Mr.-I-Stand-At-The-Door-and-Watch was a red herring, after all. A diversion while the others crept up behind them, silent as death.
Rommel caught movement from the corner of his eye and fired two shots into the shadows. Something staggered and Delaine listened for the familiar crashing sound. None came. He dropped Kruklan and ducked to his right all the time pumping lead into the gloom as he heard heavy footfalls closing in, barely aware he was screaming his head off. A pinch of curiosity prompted him to look up toward the cave exit. Mr.-I-Stand-At-The-Door-and-Watch was gone. Tough luck. He got up to run, not the best time to play sitting duck, he thought. But he tottered as he ran into a wall, which was not. For it was Good Old Mr.-I-Stand-At-The-Door-and-Watch come to get his dinner.
A few yards away Kruklan was howling, the final moans of a dying man as a third bipedal began feeding off him. In his position, it would be as easy as clawing crackers from a cripple.
THREE-thirty A.M., Thursday
Zanutti felt the damp grass seeping moisture through his pants as he sat on the ground.
‘The Krook and ‘em guys have been in there so long it’s getting on my nerves. I think we ought to go check up on them.’ He heaved himself up by the jeep’s fender. ‘Things might be awry in there.’
Hardlock was cupping a smoke and scouting the perimeter. His walk had the confident edge of a night guard making his rounds. ‘Roger that,’ he said.
They retrieved their rifles and as they turned to go into the cave, Hardlock popped the trunk of the jeep, pulled out a brown khaki backpack. ‘Just in case,’ he said, a devilish glint in his eye. In the trunk, another package rested. Gagged, bound and soaked in her tears and sweat. In the morning, a gang of rangers would find the Range master’s daughter. But the men who put her there would have moved on to a better place.
Croc cave looked normal when they entered. No trace of the previous carnage. The crocs' IQ was undergoing the same hideous mutation as their bodily members.
‘This don’t feel right,’ said Zanutti swinging his flashlight around frantically.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘This place is as silent as a church cemetery. You know, Delaine, chatterbox like he is. 97 kilometers of underground rivers and passageways, or not this place is still too damn creepy and quiet. There’s nobody here.’
‘Except, maybe dead people.’ Hardlock said, observing the mold-covered skull Rommel had seen a few minutes back.
Swish of giant feet dragging on wet sand came up the rear. The men swung around, spines chilled. Three bipedals stood shoulder to shoulder appraising them. Zanutti stifled a chuckle, thinking the three stooges in alligator costumes.
Propelled by a startle reflex, they opened fire and pumped slugs into the creatures. The beasts shrugged off the bullets like iguanids pelted with flakes of snow wiggle off the cold, unharmed.
Hardlock grabbed the khaki backpack he brought with him and dashed in search of a hideout in the cavern. Someplace to buy himself time. ‘Our weapons are useless against this pack of crocodilians. Make yourself scarce while I set this shit up.’
‘I think I’ll try and hold them off just make it snappy. Damn cartridge’s running empty.’
‘Use my weapon instead and try to hold up.’ He tossed Zanutti his .22 rifle and took on his heels.
Hardlock found a recess, dumped himself into it, and went to work. Thankful for the respite, the bipedals had not given chase. He knew it was only a matter of time before Zanutti’s cartridge ran empty. He propped up his flashlight against a shelf. And that was when he spotted the eggs. Giant croc eggs. Layers of them.
Barely a minute passed and there was a scuffle of heavy feet around him.
‘About time you bastards showed up,’ Hardlock said. ‘Glad you finally made it. And look what I found? Your freaking generation next. But Zanutti was ya’ll last supper and here’s guarantee.’
He showed off his blocks of C4 explosives. Powerful enough to eraze an entire block or two. ‘See this?’ He raised his hand and displayed the trigger between his fingers. ‘This is your one way ticket to he . . .’
With terrific speed, one of the crocs darted forward and hacked off the hand with the trigger. Hardlock hit the floor thrashing about like a run-over rattlesnake, pain gnawing at his sanity. He crawled on the ground, wriggling away from the crocs. He felt something too cold to be a rock brush against his cheekbone and briefly forgot his pain to steal a look. It was the C4 trigger he held moments before. He thought the crocs had it.
‘Oh, you made a big mistake, you freaking harelips.’ He said, steeling himself for a leap. ‘No more sneaking up on folks for you. You guzzled my team, and now I got you all, back against the wall. And this time nobody goes home.’
He squeezed his eyelids shut, willed all the force in his limbs and hauled himself at the trigger. When he opened his eyes, the blocks of C4 were in one piece. The crocs, like crowds at a circus were waiting and flashing the trademark Crocodile smile. There was no hurry. They had all the time in the world.
This is a work of fiction. Names of people, places and events are used fictitiously or are product of the author’s imagination.