The Golden Jaguar: An excerpt
Updated: 2 days ago
Next year will see the end of the Steamfunk adventures of Zeke, Pauline and Famara with the release of 'A Onça Dourada (The Golden Jaguar). This adventure will span from Freedonia, to Haiti and finally to Bahia, Brazil. There will be appearances by some old faces from the previous novels, as well a a few new faces. With the cover art by Marcellus Shane Jackson, it will be a fitting end to an exciting story. I'm glad and a bit sad to bring this adventure to a close, and I hope enjoy the finale. Here's a sneak peak from the novel...
Citadelle Laferriere loomed over the valley from its verdant perch, its massive corners jutting over the mountain edge like the prows of a landlocked fleet. Mist obscured the structure, the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere built to protect Haiti in the event of another attempt by its former French masters to regain the new nation. From its heights, the ruins of Sans Souci could be seen, the former palace of Henri Christophe, the former king. The fear of French incursion had long since waned as Haiti established itself as a formidable sea power with its expansion into Louisiana and the support of Freedonia. The once pinnacle of Haiti defiance now languished as a thinly manned outpost, a reminder of a more volatile past.
The men scaling the steep slopes were not concerned with the fortress's recent past or subdued presence. They'd traveled weeks in obscurity, avoiding cities and villages despite their similar dress and appearance to the island's inhabitants. Only when they spoke was their true origin revealed; the lilting French patois did not escape their lips. Instead, a form of Portuguese would be heard, a dialect familiar to the people of Bahia, Brazil.
The men, five total, took their machetes from their rope belts as they reached the base of the fort. They carried shotguns as well but preferred to use quieter means if discovered. They hoped to avoid any type of confrontations for they had no hard feelings against Haitians; in fact they greatly admired them. However, some things transcended respect. One of the men advanced on the gate, hoping their information on the fort would hold true. He took a deep breath then pushed; the gate opened noiselessly, revealing the innards of the citadel. A quick scan confirmed what they were told; Citadelle Laferriere was empty.
They relaxed then hurried across the wide courtyard to the main building. The man who pushed open the door raised his hand and the others halted. He took a leather tube from his waist, twisting it open at the top then extracting a yellowed sheet of paper detailing the floor plan of the fort. He looked back and forth from the map to the building, a slight smile forming with each scan.
"This way," he said.
The men sprinted across the wide foyer to a door opposite them. It was open like the gate. They entered single file then closed the door behind them. The door led to a stairway that descended to the lower level of the floor. The interlopers’ footfalls echoed off the stone walls as the clambered down the worn stairs. Once they reached the bottom, their leader studied the map again. He ambled down the hallway stretching out before them, the walls revealing a series of numbered storage rooms. He continued until they reached the last room. The leader twisted the door handle then frowned. It was locked. He looked at one of his comrades.
Paulo, a slim man with a thick moustache and serious face, nodded then stepped forward. He knelt before the door then took a small toolkit from his waist belt. In seconds the door was open. The afternoon sun did not penetrate the chamber, so the interlopers lit their torches and stepped inside. The room was bare as expected. Their objective would not be in the open. The men proceeded to the far end of the chamber, their torches illuminating the brick wall.
“Spread out,” the leader ordered.
The men separated, their light revealing the entire wall. The leader took a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. The sheet contained a diagram of the wall. He shifted his eyes between the diagram and the wall. After a few more minutes of study, he approached the wall.
He placed his fingers against a brick in the center of the wall and pushed. He frowned.
“What is the matter, Jeraldo?”
Jeraldo raised his hand, silencing Paulo. He pressed the brick harder and the mortar crumbled. The brick sank into the wall and Jeraldo grinned.
Jeraldo repeated the gesture across the wall in a random pattern. He pushed in the final brick then stepped away. The others gathered around him.
“What now?” Paulo asked.
“I don’t Know,” Jeraldo replied.
No sooner had the words escaped his lips did the sound of stone grating against stone fill the chamber. Everyone looked about for the source, waving their torches about the room.
“There!” Magne exclaimed.
The men aimed their torches where Magne pointed. A dais sat in the center of the room, crowned with an object that resembled a small crypt. The men surrounded the dais.
Jeraldo gripped the lid but it would not budge. He took his machete from its sheath then cut into the edge of the crypt. He shifted the machete then hit the lid. It broke free. Jeraldo lifted the lid then peered inside. His eyes widened as a wide smile came to his face.
“Mãe abençoada!” Jeraldo whispered.
The others came close and they fell to their knees.
The men looked in unison at the room entrance. Jeraldo took the object from the crypt and handed it to Paulo. The men doused their torches, returning the room to darkness.
“I’ll handle this,” he said.
Jeraldo strode for the entrance. He stepped into the hallway, his hands raised. The Haitian soldiers were startled. They did not expect an answer.
“Hello my brothers,” Jeraldo said in French. The men raised their guns in response.
“Who are you?” the sergeant shouted. “What are you doing here?”
“I am so sorry,” Jeraldo said. “I’ve always heard stories about the castle, so I decided to see for myself. The door was opened so I just let myself in.”
“This man is not Haitian,” one of the others said in creole.
“No, I’m not,” Jeraldo replied. He walked closer to them.
“Stay where you are!” the sergeant ordered.
Just a little bit closer…
One of the men stepped close to frisk him. Jeraldo grabbed his hand and twisted, throwing the man to the floor. Before the others could respond he crouched low and spun, sweeping them off their feet. He struck both men heads, knocking them unconscious. He hurried to the man he’s thrown, kicking his head and knocking him unconscious as well.
The others ran out of the room, carrying their prize. Together they ran for the stairs.
Jeraldo turned, but Paulo was faster. He pulled his revolver then fired, striking the sergeant in the head. The man was dead before he fell to the floor. Jeraldo glared at Paulo. Paulo shrugged.
“It couldn’t be helped,” he said.
Jeraldo didn’t answer. He took the bag containing the prize then climbed the stairs, his men close behind.
The sun had long since set over Tuskegee, darkness blanketing the quaint town nestled in the southwest forests of Alabama. While the inhabitants settled in for the night, the Institute still buzzed with activity. The center of Freedonian ingenuity, professors, students and scientists worked around the clock pushing back the frontiers of science, their hard work the reason Freedonia led the world in scientific innovation.
Darrell Pendergrass wasn’t concerned about the ground breaking work that took place within the brick walls of the institution. His job was to clean the classrooms and laboratories and make sure the doors were locked and secure. For twenty years he trudged the halls of the venerated institution, carrying out his work with unwavering dedication with little recognition. Until recently.
Darrell recalled the meeting with the man with the strange accent two weeks ago. He was having his usual drink at Sweeties when the man came to sit beside him. Darrell was a private man; he moved his chair away as the man sat down and ordered a drink. Darrell was downing his second glass of whiskey when the man spoke.
“Am I crowding you? If so, I apologize.”
“It’s alright,” Darrell replied.
The man finished his drink then turned to face Darrell. A conversation soon followed, one that became more interesting as the night went on. By the time they finished, Darrell had a different perspective on not only his job, but his life. Then man that was a stranger only a few moments ago offered him the opportunity to become a rich man, if he could only perform one simple task.
Darrell worked his way down the hall to Dr. Carver’s laboratory. A light shone from the room through the door window. Darrell took a deep breath then open the door. Dr. Carver sat before the laboratory bench, his back to the door. His automaton assistant stood beside him, whiffs of steam rising from its head exhaust. They were so focused on their task they didn’t hear Darrell enter. Darrell pulled himself up straight then cleared his throat.
The man and machine turned toward him together. Mr. Carver’s eyebrows furrowed as he gazed at Darrell.
“I’m sorry, but you’re not our usual custodian,” he said.
“No, I’m not,” Darrell replied. “Jonah had sickness in the family and had to take the day off.”
It was a lie; Darrell paid Jonah to let him take his shift. Jonah didn’t ask any questions, not when someone was giving you a year’s pay to lay low. If the man was true to his word, he was probably halfway to New Haiti to start a new life.
“And what is your name, sir?” Mr. Carver asked.
Mr. Carver’s question made Darrell feel kind of bad for what he was about to do. The doctor treated everyone at the Institute with the same respect no matter what their status. He was a true believer in the principles of Freedonia, unlike most others.
“Well Darrell, I guess we should wrap things up so you can get about your work. I don’t want you to be late to your family.”
“I appreciate that, sir.”
Darrell watched Dr. Carver and the automaton clean the lab tables and store their chemicals. He watched the automaton, fascinated at the way it moved about without instructions from the doctor. Talk was that this was his most advanced creation, a mechanical man that was almost as intelligent as a normal person. It even had a name, though Darrell couldn’t recall it. One the lab was cleaned the automaton sat in a chair in the corner of the lab. Moments later the amber lights in its eyes faded.
“Well, that’s it.”
Dr. Carver’s voice startled him.
“Ah . . . thank you sir. I won’t be long.”
“Take all the time you need,” Dr. Carver said. “If you have any particular difficulties, please feel free to use the automaton. It’s currently set up in obedience mode and will follow your instructions.”
“Thank you, sir. I won’t be needing it.”
“Well then, goodnight to you.”
“Same to you, sir.”
Dr. Carver left the lab, strolling down the hall to his office. Darrell rolled his bucket and mop into the lab then peeked out the door. He watched Dr. Carver emerged from his office with his coat, hat and briefcase. He continued to watch him until he left the building. Darrell ran to the hallway window. Dr. Carver climbed into his steam car then drove away, his headlights fading into the distance. Darrell waited a few more minutes to make sure the doctor wasn’t returning before he went to work. He hurried back to the lab directly to the automaton. He examined the thing, realizing he had no idea how to turn it on. He placed his hand on its shoulder as he searched for some type of switch and the automaton’s eyes began to glow. Darrell jumped away.
“How can I serve you?” the automaton said.
It took Darrell a moment to get his voice back.
“Stand up,” he stammered.
The automaton stood. Darrell walked around it. Satisfied with what he found, he strode for the door.
“Follow me,” he said.
Darrell led the automaton down the hallway then out the rear entrance where his wagon waited. He climbed onto the buckboard.
“Get in,” he said.
The automaton proceeded to climb onto the buckboard as well.
“No,” Darrell said. “Get into the bed.”
The automaton complied.
Again, the automaton complied. This was going to be easier than he anticipated.
Darrell reached into the wagon bed, grabbed the large blanket at the head of the bed then tossed it over the automaton. He turned around and grabbed the reins.
The mules set out with a vigorous trot. Darrell cracked his whip and they picked up the pace. He looked at his chromometer; he had fifteen minutes to get to the rendezvous. That was plenty of time. He reached under the buckboard and took out a bottle of whiskey to calm his nerves. He was only a few minutes away from a new life.
As he reached the open field near the creek, he spotted blinking lights from overhead. Darrell finished the last of his whiskey then tossed the bottle into the creek. He climbed from the wagon then worked his way to the back. He snatched the blanket from over the automaton.
“Get out,” he ordered.
The automaton sat up then climbed out of the wagon. The lights in the sky became brighter as the drone of an engine drowned out the cicadas. The small dirigible was barely visible as it made a soft landing a few feet away.
“Follow me,” Darrell said.
Two men climbed out of the dirigible, meeting and Darrell and the automaton. One of the men was Darrell’s friend from the bar. The man embraced Darrell.
“You did it,” he said.
“I told you I could.”
The man examined the automaton.
“How do I control it?”
“It’s in servant mode,” Darrell replied. “It will do whatever you ask it to.”
Darrell handed the man a carpet bag.
“All the wheels are inside,” he said.
The man took the bag then hugged Darrell again.
“I have something for you as well.”
The man gave Darrell a leather satchel.
“It’s all there, just as I promised.”
Darrell opened the bag. It was full of gold.”
“I guess we’re done then,” Darrell replied.
“Yes, we are. Take care, Darrell.”
Darrell nodded his head. “You, too.”
Darrell turned and sauntered to his wagon, a wide grin on his face. He was about to climb onto the buckboard when he heard the shot and felt the bullet slam into his back, spinning him around. He turned to see the man who had come with his ‘friend’ holding a smoking handgun pointed at him.
“No, please!” Darrell pleaded.
The gun fired and Darrell’s world went black.
* * *
Javier squatted beside Darrell’s body. He took off his hat then made the sign of the Cross.
“I’m sorry my friend,” he said. “But business is business.”
He turned to the automaton.
“Put him in the wagon.”
The automaton lifted Darrell’s body then placed it in the bed of the wagon. Javier ordered the automaton to the dirigible. His companion joined him at the wagon with a can of kerosene. He doused the wagon and Darrell’s body with the flammable liquid then tossed the can into the creek.
“The Engineer will be pleased,” he said.
Javier nodded. “Very.”
Javier lit a match then tossed it into the wagon.
“I hope you enjoy your new life, Darrell,” he said.
The men laughed as they went to the dirigible. The flying craft took off moments later, flying to its destination as the wagon burned below them.
Famara Keita held out the throwing knife to his nervous daughter. Henda looked at him with her large brown eyes, her finger in her mouth as she shook her head. Famara smiled at his daughter as he squatted to gaze at her face to face.
“It’s okay, Little Bee,” he said. “Baba is giving you permission to hold it.”
Henda took her finger out of her mouth.
“What about mama?” she asked. “She told me never to touch your knives.”
“That what I told you.”
Famara’s wife emerged from the house into the courtyard, a triumphant smile on her face.
“And my Little Bee always does what mama says.”
Henda ran by Famara and into her mother’s arms. Her mother closed her eyes as she hugged Henda then opened them to glare at Famara. Famara responded with an innocent smirk.
“Dinner is ready,” she said.
Famara followed his family into the house. They sat on the imported Persian rug before the large plate filled with food. Famara blessed the food and they ate. He looked at his family and smiled. His life had become normal, or at least as normal as a horro’s could be. He was still required to meet with the elders once a month to discuss the progress on deciphering the Books and to share experience with the new horros. He also led weapons training among the young warriors and taught classes in scientific field testing. But the majority of his time was now spent with his family and his burgeoning import/export business. The knowledge from the translated Wagadu scrolls was changing Mali in so many ways. Roads were being built throughout the land, and the number of steam cars rivaled that of camels and horses. But the majority of the changes gleaned from the books remained secret, still hidden at the Wagadu site. Mali scientists argued constantly about what knowledge should and shouldn’t be shared with the rest of the world. Until that argument was resolved, it would remain in the ancient city. At least most of it would.
After dinner Famara cleaned and put away the dishes while Kande spent time with Henda. He left the house to tend to his herd, then spent the rest of the day going over his business books. It was a mundane life, but it was what he needed. Most of his youth had been spent risking his life for his people, so it was good to enjoy what he’d spent so much time fighting for.
Famara left his shop at dusk, strolling through the streets of Timbuktu to his home. It had been another good, peaceful day. He stopped by Camara’s sweets shop and picked up a few items for Kande and Henda. As he exited the shop he was met by a messenger. The smile faded from his face.
The man bowed deeply before speaking.
“Honored horro, the elders wish your presence immediately.”
Famara said nothing for a few minutes. He closed his eyes, hoping that when he opened them the messenger would be gone. He wasn’t.
“Tell the elders I will be there shortly,” he finally answered.
“Excuse me, horro. The elders told me to tell you that you were needed this instance. You must not delay.”
Famara handed the pack to the messenger.
“Do you know where I live?”
The man nodded. “Yes horro.”
“Take this to my family. Tell my wife I won’t be long.”
The man took the package then trotted away. Famara took a deep breath then headed in the direction of the elders’ building.
It was dark when he reached the building. Guards were stationed before the doors, a sign of dire times. Famara nodded and they nodded in response as they opened the doors. Famara took off his sandals before walking down the carpeted foyer to the assembly room. The elders were seated in the chamber; Famara walked to the center of the room then sat cross-legged on the floor.
Elder Yefarma stood with the assistance of her staff. Her smile did nothing to soothe Famara’s discomfort.
“It is good to see you Famara,” she said. “It has been a long time.”
“It is good to see you too, Elder,” he replied. “What is it that requires such urgency?”
“You have not changed, horro,” she said. “Always quick to the point.”
“If my life is to be disrupted, I prefer to know immediately.”
Elder Bosso stood, a disapproving look on his face.
“You are a horro,” he said. “This is no ‘disruption.’ This is your duty.”
“I apologize for my words,” Famara said. “I misspoke.”
“Yes. You did.”
Elder Bosso sat as Elder Yefarma continued.
“Word has come from New Haiti that the Golden Jaguar has been stolen.”
Farama’s eyes went wide as he caught his breath. This was dire.
“How did such a thing happen?”
“The Haitians have become laxed on their duties,” Elder Yefarma said. “They spend so much time focused on building an empire their diligence has waned.”
“Do we know who took it?”
“Not exactly. This is why we need you to go to New Haiti and investigate. Take all the time and all the help you need.”
“With your permission I would like to contact Zeke Culpepper.”
Elder Yefarma frowned. “The Freedonian bounty hunter?”
Elder Bosso stood. “There are many horro that could accompany you. They are well trained and need the experience. They are also loyal to our purpose.”
“That is true, Elder. But Zeke is very familiar with the Haitians. He once served in their military and can speak the language. I need someone who fits the task immediately. I don’t have time to train.”
The elders exchanged glances before nodded in agreement.
“There is one other person I’d like to contact as well.”
Elder Yefarma’s eyebrows rose.
“Who is she?” Elder Bosso asked.
“She assisted us in France when we procured the book stolen by the Prussians. She is Haitian and can provide more detailed information.”
“Granted,” Elder Yefarma said. “I’m sure you understanding the importance of this mission. You must leave as soon as possible. Arrangements have been made for your departure. A private dirigible has been prepared to take you to New Haiti in the morning.”
“I will be ready,” Famara said.
“Then the ancestors be with you,” Elder Bosso. “If you cannot bring the Golden Jaguar back, make sure it is destroyed. Understand?”
Famara stood then bowed to the Elders. He left the meeting room, put on his shoes then hurried home. When he opened the door Kande was waiting for him. She’d been crying. Famara went to her then hugged her tight.
“They have other horro,” she said. “Why must it be you?”
“It is a very serious operation,” he said. “They trust me.”
“I trust you, too,” Kande said. “I trust you to return to us.”
“Kande, I cannot . . .”
“Promise me you’ll come back,” she said.
“Kande . . .”
Famara sighed. “I promise.”
“Now help me pack my things,” he said.
They went to their room and packed his trunks. Once they were done they retired to their bad and made love until they fell asleep. The next morning Famara rose, performed his morning abulation then dressed for the long journey. He crept into Henda’s room. Henda sat in her bed, playing with her favorite doll. She smiled when she saw him.
“Hi baba!” she said.
Famara picked her up then kissed her cheek.
“What are you doing up so early?”
“Meena was hungry and I had to feed her,” she said.
“Well we can’t have Meena hungry, can we?”
“No we can’t!”
He carried Henda and Meena into the kitchen. Kande was awake and preparing breakfast. They ate in silence, Henda unaware of the sadness between her parents. When they finished Famara picked up Henda again.
“Little bee, baba must go on a journey. He will be gone for a long time.”
“What’s a long time?”
“Two seasons, maybe three.”
“Can me and mama come?”
“I wish you could. I need you to be a big girl while I’m gone and look after mama. Can you do that?”
“Yes, baba. I can.”
There was a knock at the door. Kande opened it, revealing three horro. The men bowed and Kande stepped aside.
“Honored horro, we have come to assist you,” the lead man said.
Henda clutched his neck and buried her face into his neck.
“Don’t go baba!” she squealed.
“I have to go, Little Bee,” he said. “But I will come back. I promise.”
Famara looked into Kande’s sad eyes.
“Come with me to the skyport?”
Kande nodded. The family climbed into the steam car. The horros loaded Famara’s belonging onto camels and walked beside them as they made their way to Timbuktu skyport. The sky was filled with the comings and goings of dirigibles, the colorful craft making the airport resemble a festival. The steamcar stopped before the gates while the horros led the camels to the loading area. Henda hugged him tight again; Kande gripped her then pried her away from Famara. Henda hugged her like she had hugged Famara.
Kande touched his cheek.
“Remember your promise,” she said.
The kissed for a long time, but still it wasn’t long enough. They held hands until he was too far away. As he let Kande’s go Henda lifted her head then waved.
“Bye baba! Bye!”
Famara waved back.
“Bye Little Bee! Remember our promise!”
“I will! I’ll take care of mama!”
Famara turned away from his family, his heavy steps turning into a determined march. By the time he reached the dirigible steps his was no longer Famara the husband, father and merchant. He was Famara, horro and servant of the Elders. He climbed the steps of the dirigible, his mind hundreds of miles away.
The dirigible pilots greeted him as he entered the cabin.
“It’s good to fly for you again, Famara,” one of the pilots said.
“I wish I could say the same,” Famara replied. “But we have a duty to perform.”
“I understand,” the pilot said. “It will take us a few days to reach Haiti.”
“We have another destination first,” Famara said.
“Where to?” the pilot asked.
“Alsace-Lorraine: Famara said. “We have one more passenger to pick up.”