JUDITH KERRIGAN RIBBENS
THE JAGUAR HUNTS
CREATIVITY UNLIMITED
WRITER
ARTIST
PHOTOGRAPHER
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                                                                                       Chapter One
Green Bay
Journal            
            ​My nightmares are relentless. Vivid. Brutal. A confusion of past and present that catapults me into stomach-twisting terror and back. Pieces of dreams. No peace. Nothing makes sense. I’m writing in the hope of stopping them—a false hope so far.
            ​Always, before, writing brought me relief, some sense of control. A delusion. I have no control over what’s happening. In this strange fey world, even the control I hope to have over myself is slowly slipping away.
           ​ I dream my mother is alive again and crying for Art to come back to save us. He is on a boat in the middle of the ocean searching for drugs in the cargo hold of a giant ship while Johnny O, fishing for marlin from the deck, pulls AJ’s body from the sea.             
            ​I have a recurring dream that Ardith sends large black and red wolves to chase Alex and Cory and Marnie. The chase goes on for days and days. First Cory, then Alex, then Marnie drop, exhausted, and are caught and torn apart until the dream becomes a red haze of blood.

 
Nightmare...            
​            I rip the meat off the peccary and gorge myself. It has been long since I ate like this. She is not yet dead and screams in pain.
The sickening odor that clung to the man is gone. I sniff at him and I know he is rotting even though he is alive. I watch him for a time from the tree I climbed. Two spirits drift with him. The Woman-spirit cries. The Mother Spirit leans over him and sucks his breath in and out, keeping him alive. I leave them to hunt for more fresh food. My hunger is endless.            
           ​ I turn my ears and listen. In a far distance monkeys howl, their sound moving closer. I sink my teeth into this meat and drag it to a small cave.
The sounds grow louder. Anger howls. Fear screams. Birds scatter from trees, fleeing from cracks and slashes and breaking branches. Small creatures scurry past, panic in their scent. Noises from angry men whip the leaves of the trees. Raw shrieks tear from the throats of human women and children. Sharp gunshots warn me hunters come this way. Humans are killers. I must flee. The spirit of the dead woman flees with me. Why does she follow me?  

And yet another…            
            I sweat and stumble and hack my way through the steaming jungle searching for AJ. No one will help me. I ask. I beg. They all turn away. I must search alone.
I meet men who tell me they saw him. I put no trust in what they say. They have red lust in their eyes and greed dripping green from the open holes where mouths once were. They want money, reward, my body. Everyone in a clamoring crowd holds out a price tag. Ardith is among them but before I can make out the price she is asking, the scene changes.
            As I move over the matted jungle floor, I see it covered with thousand-dollar bills. When I try to pick them up, they dissolve into bloody slime.  

​​And yet another…            
            ​AJ’s spirit disconnects from his body. I see it happen. I see the spirit of the woman who follows him. She begs him to help her, to love her, to come to her, and he wants to go but his body won’t die. His heart refuses to stop beating. It is not his time to die…
            He will die if I don’t find him. He’s my son so I know when he’s supposed to die. This is not the time. I must find him first, before she takes him forever.             
            ​A voice whispers to me, “You must join with the goddess and she will help you save him.” What goddess? There is no goddess! Only cruel men, sounds of shots, screams of children.
           
            ​I run now, toward them. AJ must be there. I must save him…
             

            ​​Slowly, unable and unwilling to move my tired body, unwilling to feel more pain, I come out of the nightmares into the darkness of my room. The ache across my shoulders tells me sleep won’t come again soon. My bed is soaked with sweat. Knowing the aching will become much worse if I don’t use something, I sit up, turn on my bedside lamp and reach for ibuprofen and water.                                        
           Mac suggested I get a stronger prescription from a doctor. I don’t want to see my doctor. All this stress has worn my body down but there is no way I can promise to take life easier. I already know that’s what my doctor will tell me. She has no idea. No idea at all.              
            ​Mac.  This aching for him is intense and adds to my sense of loss. He’s gone. There’s a hole in my life. To fill the nothing, I am forcing myself to write the events of last week in my journal. He walked out without even saying goodbye. We disagreed completely on what should be done next.

       ​    This one thing is now very clear to me. Ardith wants everything I inherited from Conrad and I know she’ll do anything to get it. I believe I should hold a press conference and use a large ransom to smoke her out, to challenge her to contact me directly. I believe I can use the same tactic to bring El Cocodrilo into the hands of the Mexican Federales. Mac was totally opposed to that. He argued that we should go to Mexico secretly and use his contacts to find AJ, to connect with Ramón and Jorge. We had what was as close to a fight as it could be.
            ​I am so hurt. No. More than that. I’m scared. I’m so alone in this.
Ardith. Another unknown. Where is she? I want to know Alex and Cory are totally safe from her. She’s supposed to be in police custody in England. They said they’d contact me. They haven’t. I have a call in to Louie asking her to find out what’s happening. She hasn’t answered yet.
             
        ​    When I awoke this morning in another cold sweat, it was the eighth straight night of constant nightmares. Every muscle in my body feels weak, drags at me when I try to move. I know it’s not just my own exhaustion and fear. I feel AJ. He’s very ill and in terrible danger. I feel the threats to him and his reactions almost constantly. I want to be in Mexico looking for him. Every day is one more frustrating twenty-four hours of delay.            
            ​There are some comforts. Marnie is at a Swiss treatment center, safe for now, thanks to Louie de la Vergne. Cory and Alex, in our apartment in London, are watched over by Vincent Grant’s security detail. Cory has been seen by a doctor and I’m waiting for the news about what it will take to heal his leg. After that—that one last thing—I must go to Mexico. I can’t delay any longer.            
            ​Cait and two of her sons, Andrew and Seamus, Caroline and her twin boys, Jake and Jim, and Marthe—all are somewhere Stacy has sent them—again going through the files Art left so long ago in our attic. Perhaps they’ll find something this time. I don’t think so. Greg told me that the clues I found in them led, after a thorough police investigation, to nothing. I think that’s why Captain Schwartzkopf released them. Actually, I think he released the files, giving them a harmless task, t0 get Cait and company out of his hair. Apparently she gave him a large piece of her mind about Ben, in his undercover police role, recruiting Sean and Mike to become confidential informers. From my point of view, what’s best about what they’re doing is that they are out of the danger they’d be in if they were here in Green Bay.
            Liam is out of danger too. Cait got him into a treatment center. I’ve had no news on how he’s doing. If I’m really honest with myself, I feel a lot of guilt for my part in involving any friends at all in my own problems. Hindsight—the old 20/20. How would I have kept them out? How would I have known, back when this all began, that it would get to this state of affairs?

​​            Stacy Andre has security around me but Mac slipped away without them knowing it. It sent Stacy into a tailspin. She does her best but she’s still working hard to recruit more members for her security team. When she broke with Vincent Grant, he sent word out to the security world that she opposed him. Now, finding and vetting out employees of her own is taking more time than she anticipated. She tried unsuccessfully to contact Melissa. We’ll really need Melissa with us in Mexico. We both wonder if she’s alive or dead but we don’t say that to each other. What has happened to her? She was supposed to leave there with Louie and Marnie.            
​            I have to keep Grant’s firm as my security team for the boys in London. I don’t have the time or knowledge to hire another firm. Stacy said she’s ok with that but I know she must feel inadequate. She’s not. This is one sharp woman. If she—we—could connect with Melissa, we’d both feel better.            
           ​ I’ve tried to contact Ramón and Jorge. No success there either.            
          ​ At least my brothers, Jamie and Pat, and Aunt Carrie, too, are safe here in town. I can be grateful for that. Carrie has her own place to herself now. Jennie O’Keeffe took Jamie and Pat into her huge empty house. Sadly, when Jennie and her mom returned from Ireland, she had to put Mary into a nursing home. The woman, never very stable to begin with, became completely unglued when she came back to that house where Big John abused them all those years. I now believe Big John O’Keeffe abused Mary much more than even Jennie knows and the poor woman couldn’t face all those haunting memories. Jennie, on the other hand, has become much stronger and braver. I can sense it in her.             
           I​’m not braver. In fact I don’t feel courageous at all. Something about me, though, is very different. It’s more than just lack of decent sleep. There are times I feel irritable, on edge, and strangely dangerous—an odd sort of change. My senses become so sharp I can barely tolerate it. That’s when I hear every little sound this house makes and everyone I meet has a pungent smell that marks them different. It goes on and on and just when I think it won’t stop, these odd sensations just melt away. Feeling brave doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it. I’m on guard, but it’s more than that. What more? I don’t know.
         ​ Another strange thing is that I lose my sense of time. It’s October. That I know. There seems to be no time passing, just the unending present. It’s disorienting. My sense of place is odd too. I’m here but not really here. What is “here”? Nothing, and everything. Events seem long and dragged out, yet it’s still less than a week since I’ve gotten back from all the travels. Or is it? It must be longer. At least two to four times a day I go online to check the time. I don’t even trust the clocks. I can’t wear my watch. Something about my body throws it off, makes it run fast.
          ​ Sometimes I blank out on where we traveled. Mexico. Chicago. Ireland, France, Switzerland, Italy. Malta. London. I planned to write the whole sequence down days ago and then I forgot to do that. Now that I’ve done it, it doesn’t seem quite right. Or real. It feels unreal.            
          ​ I don’t have the energy to even care if I know.            
           ​I feel totally alone. My dogs are gone. When we left for Ireland I gave them to Sean and Mike to care for and it’s kinder to the dogs to leave them with Cait’s sons. They’re better off where they are. I miss them.
           ​I miss touch. I miss warmth. I miss joy. I miss…
           This journal is a mess. I have to get my mind in some order.  
           ​The worst of it, the very worst, the thing that haunts me most, and that I’ve been avoiding even thinking about, that sucks my mind into chaotic speculation, is being told by Ardith that it was not Art’s body in that plane long ago. How can that be? How can that possibly be? I can’t bring myself to face that at all. It has to be another of her crazy manipulations. It must be. It’s got to be. That brings up the question of how we all missed her craziness for the past umpteen years. How did Conrad miss it? He was smart. He had a knack for reading people. How did he not see what she is? She and Clayton Foster had to have deceived Conrad for years. How could that happen?
            ​Last night’s dream is the worst of all.
           ​AJ is being tortured, lowered on ropes again and again into the waters of a cenote, struggling underwater to come up and breathe, yanked up, nearly drowning, at the last minute. When he comes up for air, gray waters pour down on him—a river of sorrow formed from the tears of his brothers and sister. Above him a half-formed figure is manipulating small puppets. The puppets are all of us—everyone involved so far—in London, in Europe, in Mexico, in Wisconsin. The puppet master is Art, screaming obscenities and jerking our strings, hatred oozing out of him in bloody drops. Ardith stands with him, smiling, laughing, her eyes adoring him.
           ​Torture.




​​​​​                                                                                                    Chapter Two
Mexico
            His hot feverish brain impaled by the memory of his crucified wife, AJ, arms spread open, trembling legs splayed apart, lay moaning and shaking on his own crucifix of stinking feces piled in the dirty alley where men, dogs, and other animals had relieved themselves.            
             ​Bits of memory made their whirlwind path through his mind again and again…            
             ​…stumbling through a thick swamp, and a brief struggle with a python which lost its life to his fierce rage and bare hands…              …falling exhausted into a swift-running river that swept him through rapids and left him bruised and battered…            
             ​​…kneeling on a path in thick jungle sobbing wildly and uncontrollably…             
             ​…hearing Ramón call his name and, throat swollen with some strange infection, unable to answer…            
           ​  …drinking in a dark cantina filled with short men. One man—far larger than the others, wide meaty shoulders hunched over the bar—the one who bought him shot after shot of tequila, who listened as he poured out his anguish.            
             ​Most cruel of all, Sheila, her hands and feet impaled in the side of the hill, body slashed with cuts, legs open and the trails of blood and semen still dribbling from her mouth and vagina…            
            ​ Sheila, raped and dead…            
             ​Sheila, her ghost following him…            
             ​Sheila, her spirit whispering, or crying, or screaming or…


             AJ did not feel the rough hands pick him up and throw him in the back of the old truck. He did not hear the drivers gloat about the money they would receive when they brought him in for ransom.             
           ​  He only vaguely heard the loud crackling bursts of gunshots and did not feel the truck swerve into a rock, its driver dead. He did not see the man who stumbled from the passenger door and ran for cover into the jungle.              
             ​AJ felt hands drag him out of the truck, but only because they let him fall to the ground. He passed out again before they got him into a second truck and, gunning the engine, raced down a dirt road. He could not hear the men planning the next move for him.              One of the men held a cell phone to his left ear, plugging the opposite one so he could hear.            
             ​“Bring him to Felipe Carrillo Puerto. We’ll pick him up from there,” said the flat hard voice.            
             ​“Sí, Señor. As soon as possible. I will call when we are near the city.”             
             ​He paused to listen.            
            ​ “In about three or four hours. We are far to the southwest and are still on dirt roads.”            
             ​He listened for some moments and then hit the button to end the call and turned to the driver.            
             ​“El Cocodrilo says there will be a ransom to collect for this gringo. He will pay us ten thousand dollars when he collects from the man’s family. We will be rich men!”            
             ​“Sí, and dead men if we turn him over to that animal. He does not keep his promises. He will have us killed to cover his trail. We must find a way to turn him over to his family.”            
             ​Fear flooded the other man’s eyes.            
            ​ “If we do not give him to The Crocodile, he will send his killers after us. We must do it his way.”            
            ​The driver looked back at the body slumped in the rear.            
            ​“If we do not get him to a curandero, there will be no one to ransom. A dead man does not command any price. We must find a healer first.”            
            ​“Es verdad. He is very sick, hot with fever. There is a curandera in a small village just west of Puerto. She is very good. She cured my sister. We can stop there. We can tell El Cocodrilo we have to do this and that this man is dying. It is not far from the truth.”            
            ​He reached back and felt AJ’s neck for a pulse.            
           ​ “Muy malo! I can hardly feel the beat of his heart. We must go as quickly as we can.”            
            ​The driver hit the accelerator and the truck lurched forward, churning the dirt of the road up and spraying it backward. Small animals nearby froze, waited as the rough motor sounds slowly faded. When all was still again, they shook themselves and crept away.


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THIRD BOOK IN THE ANNA KINNEALY SERIES
BOOK ONE: BETRAYAL BY SERPENT

BOOK TWO: IN CROCODILE WATERS​

BOOK THREE:
THE JAGUAR HUNTS​​
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