Chapter 1: The First Bracelet
The Forest Without Time stretches endlessly in all directions in a dimension that knows no passing of hours, no limitation of space. Its lush trees and colourful flowers give the impression of paradise, but this is illusion. Creatures terrifying beyond our wildest nightmares lurk behind the beauty, the most feared being the Golden Jaguar of the Sun.
This beast, once the scourge of hapless captives of the ancient Aztecs, would ensure none escaped ritual sacrifice to its master, the Great Sun God, when called to a different dimension by warrior priests. But in the world of Man there was another power. A force unknown to the dark-cloaked priest as he stood beside the stone altar, his raised brown hands firm around a razor-sharp obsidian blade, poised whilst he waited for the golden fingers of the ancient Sun God to touch the temple platform. The moment when he could plunge the blade into the bared chest of the Chalchiuhtlicue maiden, a young Native princess dressed in a green jade skirt and held down across the altar. Only then could her beating heart be ripped out so that, when still, the release of her warm blood into the lake might bring rain to a parched land.
Or was this merely Tezcatlipoca’s excuse to destroy that other power, having banished Quetzalcóatl by trickery?
“Close your eyes!”
The gorgeous Mexican girl sitting beside Adam Winters on the Boeing 767 bound for New York grinned as she reached for her purse under the seat in front.
“Sure!” Grinning like the Cheshire Cat. the boy screwed up his eyes. He could not believe his luck. Ten days in New York with María López whilst she recorded her first album. How could he not have fallen for the loveliest girl in his junior high school in Houston, Texas, when she got up on that stage and sang like an angel for the school singing contest? But she was Spike’s girl. Spike, the handsome hulk of a quarterback with a brain small enough to balance on a pinhead. A guy all the girls were crazy about and who had made the shy, studious Adam’s life hell…
“Hi, Snowflake! Pretty warm today. Y’all might kinda melt, huh?”
The jerk particularly enjoyed teasing Adam in front of María. His overfed sidekick, Carlos, would wobble like a jelly in an earthquake as he shook with fake laughter in response to Spike’s remarks.
One day, Spike went too far. Beat Adam up in front of María for calling him ‘Santa’ in retaliation. How that boy hated his real name, Klaus. María’s Latin temper exploded when she saw him hammer Adam with his bully fists. Gave Spike one hell of a slap across the face and told him he’d blown it. Adam, who had never dared tell María how much he loved her, thought he was in heaven when the tearful girl came over and hugged him. That evening was even better than heaven. In the privacy of his room at home, he and María had their first kiss. It seemed to go on forever. Afterwards, they became inseparable.
But Adam’s self-esteem had been beaten down by years of bullying from the likes of Spike. He feared their blissful relationship could never last, and the fear gnawed at his brain like a cockroach. Perhaps he was too hurt to know that the girl loved him for reasons no one on Earth could possibly understand. No one in that dimension we call ‘reality’. Also, she had faith in the young nerd who was so very different from Spike and others who had dated her. After all, it was he who had persuaded her to enter the talent show in San Antonio where a scout for a New York label had heard her sing and had organized the contract for her first album.
Nevertheless, Adam refused to believe his luck as the plane flew on towards New York.
“Happy birthday!” the girl said.
Adam opened his eyes. He stared in amazement at the object on his lap.
“Wow, thanks, María! Cool! Ancient Mexican, right? Man, it looks kind of… well, genuine like.”
Oh shit! What did you say that for, Adam Winters, you goddamn bird brain? You’ve offended her. But ‘genuine’? Could a girl like María possibly be genuine about having feelings for me? Sorry, dude, but no way.
The girl’s frown vanished. She smiled.
“Oh, it’s genuine all right. Been in our family hundreds of years. The Native Mexican side. Not the Spanish. There’s another one hidden somewhere in Mexico. And there’s a story about them. Any guy wearing the two together used to be protected from the Golden Jaguar of the Sun who prowled around the base of an ancient Aztec Sun Temple during human sacrifices. The mythical beast was said to kill people who tried to rescue their loved ones. But whoever wore the bracelets became its master. Like the warrior priest. They were safe.”
“María, it’s… I don’t know, just awesome, I guess. Priceless! I can’t possibly—”
“Adam, you must have it. My grandpa gave it to me. Mamá’s daddy. He said something before he died. Can’t say what but…”
‘Can’t say what’? Huh! Heard that before!
María peered through the window at the plane’s shadow skimming the blanket of cauliflower clouds spread out to the far horizon.
“But what he said means I have to give it to you. No one else. One day you’ll understand. Your birthday seemed the best time. Anyway, it frightens me!” Turning to face him, she chuckled. “Fifteen, ay? For the Aztecs that meant you’re now a man.”
A man? And half the size of Spike? Why did she laugh? God, she was making fun of me. But why? Pities the weakling who dared to face up to that flathead ex-boyfriend of hers, I guess. Okay, but why this ancient gold bracelet?
He stared at the bracelet’s primitive, chunky design of a symbolic sun face entrapping the head of a large cat with dagger teeth and a lolling tongue. The eyes of the cat seemed to be…
No, can’t possibly be. My imagination. Gold cannot catch fire.
Adam slipped the precious relic over his wrist.
“Will it protect me from the beautiful creature sitting next to me?” he joked.
“I told you,” María replied, giggling, “you have to have two if you’re needing protection!”
Needing protection? From the likes of Spike? Is she now teasing me?
“Sure!” Adam smiled feebly. Perhaps coming to New York with the girl wasn’t such a great idea after all. “Better keep it on in the Big Apple. Could meet a mugger the size of Spike, huh?” he added, looking for a reaction. There was none.
Has she already slept with Spike? the boy wondered.
“You may need this, too,” added Ann Winters handing her son a new Smart phone
She was seated the other side of him. Adam’s mother, now a good friend of the López family, had been asked to accompany the girl to New York. No way could Mrs. López take time off from looking after a large family to go with her daughter. Ann agreed but only if Adam were to join them. It wasn’t María’s idea. Was the girl just trying to be polite?
“Happy Birthday!” Ann Winters added, kissing her son on the cheek.
So why doesn’t María kiss me?
It was María’s first visit to the great metropolis. She adored every minute. The recording went perfectly, and the record label arranged a party for the girl, convinced her album, A Gentle Loving, would be a success. Adam had never been one for parties, but bubbly María was in her element. Whilst she happily chatted away to designer-stubbled media guys, bursting into fits of giggles at their loathsome wit, Adam sank into the background as a deeply ingrained insecurity resurfaced, now a thousand times worse because of María. He could not take his eyes of the girl, but it seemed he no longer existed for her. Boy, the pain of jealousy hurt like a firebrand from hell.
“Can’t trust those Hispanic girls.”
Adam turned to see who had spoken.
“Hi! I’m Chrissy. My daddy, he owns the company.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Adam, feeling confused. His eyes widened, for Chrissy was a stunner. Fifteen, possibly sixteen? Long golden curls down to below her shoulders and a mini skirt that revealed ninety-nine percent of her shapely legs.
“Party tonight. Brooklyn. Do come. Bring Miss Taco Shell if you must. Bound to be some hunk there who can keep her happy. Satisfy her if you get my meaning.” She winked. “Then you and me, we’ll have real fun!”
Adam glanced again at María smiling coyly at a bunch of handsome hunks.
‘Can’t trust Hispanic girls’? ‘Satisfy her’?
Just as Chrissy, without warning, kissed Adam on the cheek and pressed a piece of paper into his hand, María glanced at him, then frowned. Adam avoided her for the rest of the party.
“I saw that white girl kiss you,” she said frostily in the taxi back to the hotel. “What was that about?”
“Chrissy’s the boss’s daughter. Asked us to a party tonight. Anyway—” He was attempting to muster courage to accuse her of throwing herself at the lecherous media guys when María interrupted his muddled thoughts,
“Asked you. Right?”
The girl turned away and stared glumly at the bustle of New York from the cab window. No further comments were offered by either of them.
We’ll talk about it later. Of course I won’t phone the number on that piece of paper! I love María. No one else. And perhaps, in her own way, she does care about me? A teeny bit?
In his room at the hotel, Adam vowed they would kiss, make up and forget the whole goddamn business, but it did not turn out like that. Adam’s mom knocked on his door, then entered. She appeared embarrassed.
María’s just told her she hates me and wants me to return to Houston on my own?
“Dinner tonight, Adam… with… erm… with Spike. Spike and his sister. See—”
“Spike? Spike here in New York? How could you, Mom? Are you crazy? You’ve no bloody idea!”
“Honey, his mom and I, we were real, good friends at work, in the beauty salon, before she died from cancer. I kept up with his big sister, Rachel. She and her husband live here. Spike’s had a hard time, you know. He’s staying with Rachel over the summer vacation and wants to apologise. To you. That’s all. Give him that chance, Adam. María says it’s okay!”
“Okay? For her, maybe. Give her back to him, then. Go on. And tell her to goddamn sleep with the bastard if that’s what she wants. Like she did before, I guess. See if I care! I’m staying right here!”
Ann Winters’ eyes flashed anger.
“Adam! Don’t be so childish. Trust her. She’s not like that. For heaven’s sake, what’s come over you?”
Too tired to argue but upset by the return of the moody Adam she thought had become history after the boy had taken up with María, she stood in the doorway shaking her head. She had grown truly fond of María, and Chloe, Adam’s extraordinary little sister, adored the older girl.
“What do I tell her, then?” she asked.
“Can’t trust Hispanic girls and that’s a fact!” was all Adam said, looking the other way.
Ann Winters sighed.
“I’ll tell her you’re not well,” she finally decided.
Adam remained silent. His mother left the room, quietly closing the door behind her.
“Say what you like,” he said to the door before cursing himself.
What the heck have I done?
Then he remembered the girl laughing with those hunks at the party, wearing the red dress her mother had made for the talent show in San Antonio. When he first saw her wearing it, revealing her curves in a way that would delight any male, he felt pride for the first time. She was no longer Spike’s girl but his. Plus, the matching red shoes—her first ‘proper’ high heels, she said—somehow made her stunning legs even more so. But at the party it seemed to him that the owner of those legs, shoes and dress belonged to others. He imagined the girl sitting beside Spike. Imagined the dude placing a filthy paw on her thigh and saw María respond with a pretty smile. Next thing, in his mind, they were in bed together.
He pulled out that piece of paper and called the number.
“Hi there, Adam! Yeah, sure I’ll fetch you. Be round in twenty minutes. By yourself, then? Miss Taco Shell found her own bit of beef, huh?”
Beef? Spike? María wrapped in his quarterback arms, her gorgeous legs encircling his? Well, how about Chrissy’s legs then? Oh man!
In the taxi on the way to Brooklyn, Adam’s eyes were drawn to Chrissy’s legs to which they remained stuck for the duration of the short ride. They certainly worked their magic. He forgot about María and Spike, until they arrived at that apartment in Brooklyn.
The door opened and a mega-decibel tsunami of electronic noise engulfed the boy. He stepped back. Adam loved pop music, but this was something else, and he could think only of María’s gentle voice as he followed Chrissy into a vision from hell. Dim red lights, snogging bodies groping each other on the floor, seemingly oblivious to the deafening music. It soon became apparent that Chrissy’s idea of ‘real fun’ was to ignore Adam. Abandoning him, she flung her arms around a lanky guy with a face full of pimples and a flashing gold tooth. She, like María, just wished to humiliate him.
Or am I wrong about María?
Had he misread her signals in the taxi? He had never seen her look so miserable but had assumed that was because she found herself with a weakling like himself rather than accompanying one of those media hunks to his apartment for…
For what they’re doing on the floor here?
He tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid looking at a writhing couple, the short-skirted girl’s limbs wrapped around the man, her pink panties on public display, and again he saw, in his befuddled mind, María in Spike’s arms.
No, I cannot even think of María lowering herself to mating in public! Besides, she’s underage.
Adam grabbed a beer bottle and slumped to the floor, his back to the wall. He took out his Smart phone and keyed in María’s number, trying to work out what to text and how to apologise.
Chrissy’s electrifying legs appeared barely (yes, barely) one foot away. Briefly, he forgot María. Chrissy used this freeze-frame moment to reach down and grab his phone. She stooped and kissed the boy as she held the phone at arm’s length, photographing herself, cleavage included, and Adam. Before he could retrieve the phone, she had sent the picture to María. Adam jumped up, angrily snatching back his phone.
“What the—?” he began.
“Calm down, my little Texan cutie. Just letting Miss Taco Shell know what fun we’re having!”
Little Texan cutie? Jesus, man!
Adam felt fist-thumping furious. He had to find somewhere quiet to speak with María. He pushed his way out of the room, stepping over intertwined bodies in the corridor, opened the first door he came to, then…
“Help me, Adam! Stop them!”
It was Lee. Kid brother of Bruno, the friendly African American guy in charge of recording María’s album at the studio. He was being held down on the edge of a bed by two heavy dudes whilst a third attempted to push something into his arm. A syringe with a needle? Without a second thought, Adam sprang forward and hit the syringe-holding man over the head with his bottle. The rest was like a Hollywood movie footage. Stunned, the drug pusher dropped the syringe. The other guys released their hold on Lee who slipped free and ran to stand behind Adam.
“Man, you’re goosed!” threatened a hard-faced bruiser, pulling out something that a glistened in the dim light.
“Run, Adam,” cried Lee.
But Adam merely froze, protecting Lee. He would never willingly hurt anyone and wondered whether he should simply say ‘sorry’ and walk away. If only he had time to phone María. Ask her what he should do. Dropping the bottle, he stroked the Golden Jaguar bracelet encircling his wrist. Why he did this, he had no idea. Immediately, something snapped into his mind. It felt like a part of him that had been missing all his life. Courage? Strength? Two eyes of crimson fire flashed before him. He held his hand up to shield his face, then turned to follow Lee out of the room, but too late.
At first, he felt a thump on the back. He stopped. Pain arrived moments later. Soon, he was bent forwards as pain turned into agony. It seemed to tear open his chest, forcing him down. His face slammed the floor, and he tasted the dirt of the carpet. There were screams. Whose, he had no idea.
“He’s been stabbed!”
Lee’s voice? Why so far away? Did it refer to that curled-up body clawing at the floor? My body? Then María’s voice. Oh my God! Singing so clearly, it overwhelmed the background clamour. Made no sense to him that he could hear her, but, by Jesus, it was beautiful. It seemed as though he was floating on the liquid sound of her voice, and he reached out for the girl’s hand. She had to be there if she was singing for him. Him, and no one else. He called her name, but no sound emerged from his mouth.
Everything went blank.
Chapter 2: Another Bracelet
“Do not fail me again!” Tezcatlipoca sounded angry. “You know where the girl is. And remember, she’s mine. Nothing to do with the Water Deity. The girl’s blood, her Life Force, might keep the deity happy, but her soul is mine.”
The high priest bowed before the stone image of the god then sent his warriors to the lake island city to seek out the girl.
After opening his eyes, Adam blinked, but what he saw refused to change. Nothing made sense. María’s gold bracelet encircled his wrist but where was María? He could not understand why she wasn’t with him. He vaguely remembered a party somewhere, but that was all, apart from a lingering feeling he had wronged the girl. But how?
Standing up, he glanced anxiously at the strange surroundings.
“María!” he shouted.
Before him was a vast lake and on the lake, in the distance, an island covered with squat buildings above which towered an ominous, grey-and-red, stepped pyramid. Close by, ripples lapped at the reed-fringed shore of the lake and a sturdy canoe, moored to a post, bobbed lazily on the brown water.
“María!” he called again.
Voices, then silence.
Adam turned. A line of men stood motionless on a dusty track staring at him. Behind them was a town of mud and reed huts. Young children played happily in the streets as women worked away outside the huts. They wore colourful, cotton tunics and the men and boys also had long hair, although not as long as the women’s. The faces of these sturdy people were like those of immigrant Mexican workers in Houston. One of the men stepped forward and spoke. A weird language, yet, curiously, Adam understood it.
“Who are you?”
Adam glanced nervously at a stone-studded club that hung from the man’s waist. Also, a quiver full of arrows, and the guy had a bow slung over one shoulder.
“I’m Adam Winters from Houston, Texas. Looking for a girl called María.”
man approached, his hand gripping the handle of his club.
“Where’s Houston, Texas?” he asked.
The man shrugged his shoulders.
What a peculiar question!
“No, of course I’m not an Aztec. They were all dead and buried hundreds of years ago.”
The man studied Adam with interest but there was kindness in his eyes. He spoke again.
“Then we’re friends, Adam Winters. But if only it were true what you say about those Aztecs. Did you come from the sea to the east with the bearded white men?”
“Bearded white men?” Adam shook his head. “Don’t know why I’m here, but I’ve a feeling it’s something to do with a girl called María. She’s my girlfriend. I hope. Maybe she’s here. Mexican. And very pretty.”
“All our women are beautiful,” chuckled the man. He caught sight of Adam’s Golden Jaguar bracelet and his eyes betrayed alarm. “The Golden Jaguar of the Sun?”
How come he knows about María’s bracelet?
“Yeah,” answered Adam. “María gave it to me.” The boy turned to face the island city perched on its reflection. “Tenochtitlan?” he asked uneasily.
Keen on Mesoamerican history since dating María, he knew Tenochtitlan to be the ancient Aztec capital. The man appeared puzzled.
“Of course,” he replied.
“And the language we’re speaking?”
The man laughed again. “Why, Nahuatl! What else?”
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Adam. “Look, I’m only a schoolkid from Houston. I’ve gotta find María. Tell her I really do love her.”
The man addressed the others, “Leave us! He’s no threat.” He glanced at Adam’s bracelet. “Maybe he can help,” he added, smiling and looking up at Adam. “I’m Atalotl.”
“Just call me Adam.”
The other men departed, leaving Adam and Atalotl standing side by side on the shore of that alien lake. Adam remembered María telling him her Native ancestors lived in a city called Tlaxcala.
“This girl, María. Her people came from Tlaxcala way back,” he continued. “Perhaps—”