A red Camaro body with bulbous truck tyres on a jacked up frame blasted through the oily waters of the Louisiana swamp. Jockeying for position amongst twenty or thirty other swamp buggies it had CHILLY FISH - SWAMP GATOR emblazoned down one side while a picture of a Shark with snarling teeth covered the hood. Sheriff Duke Lanoix clung on to the grab handle of the bucking machine as it flew across the muddy swamp.

Each landing sent shudders through the powerful vehicle’s chassis and served to remind him that his back wasn’t what it used to be. His dark skin helped to conceal that he was headed for his fiftieth birthday, but his joints told him otherwise.

His muscled frame was still in good shape but he hadn’t had the time to work out as much as he used to. “Man this is a blast!” The driver of the Camaro, his deputy, Wayne “Chilly” Fish yelled over the screaming engine as it rocketed past another couple of competitors. In his thirties Chilly was enjoying the ride far more than Duke.

Duke reminded himself that the annual Devil’s Swamp race was for charity and also a good way to mix with the local community. Devil’s swamp had stirred up some controversy after the clean up contract had been awarded to Blackburn Industries. The swamp had been the site of an oil drilling operation during the so-called black gold rush back in the 30s.

The plant had been devastated during one of the many storms to sweep Louisiana and as a result the swamp had been badly polluted. When Senator Blackburn had been awarded the contract to clean up the swamp it had been discovered that it came with drilling rights as an incentive. This had stirred up a hornet’s nest amongst local businessmen and animal rights activists. With the current craze for fracking and shale oil it was seen as more evidence of palm greasing on the hill.

The Camero hit another clump of vegetation and soared through the air. They were now in the lead having overhauled the other twenty or so contestants. Chilly leaned over and yelled at him. Punched the air in triumph. “It’s in the bag Duke!”

Duke forced a grin, being careful not to open his mouth too far for fear of biting his own tongue off as the machine twisted and bounced along the surface of the muddy water.

His official designation as navigator seemed more of an honorary title, as there was precious little in the way of landmarks in this featureless piece of oily water surrounded by rotting vegetation. Each time the Camaro hit a patch of mud pockets of “swamp gas” were released. Clouds of putrid air strong enough to make your eyes water.

Up ahead Duke could make out the crowds of people cheering from the causeway as they headed for the finishing line. And then he saw it. Rising out of the swamp like some prehistoric monster… “Look out!” He yelled to Chilly. But it was too late.

The Camaro smashed into a shape that reared out of the water. Spun, one eighty and rocked onto two wheels before miraculously righting itself and coming to a lopsided halt. The rest of the field roared past. Chilly sagged into his seat. “Dammit we just lost an axle, and the race.” Duke stared at him. Gave a rueful grin. “Axle? We just hit a damn horse!”

Duke nursed a flask of coffee as the winch whined. The early morning mist still clung to the surface of the water as the divers gave the thumbs up for the crane to swing its load across to firm ground.

The corpse of the horse already lay on a tarpaulin spread out across the causeway that ran alongside the swamp. Perfectly preserved by the mud it looked like it was sleeping. Two large wooden spoked wheels rose into the air…as the mud slid away from the square shape Duke saw it was an old coach, the empty stays where the horse had been harnessed were still in place.

The coach was swung over their heads and lowered by the crane until it settled on the causeway. Chilly munched through his third Twinkie of the morning. Gestured to the coach. “I’m guessing we ain’t gonna find this in no database.” Duke took a slug of his coffee. Wiped his lips. Saw paperwork rather than a crime. “Nope. Been all kinds of shit coming out of the swamps since Katrina done torn us up.” There’s a flash of sadness behind the eyes in his amiable face....and then it’s gone. One of the officers struggled to open the coach door with a jimmy.

Encrusted with weeds and years of slime and swamp mud it’s resisting their best efforts.

Chilly finished off the last piece of his Twinkie, looked over at the dripping coach. “How long do you reckon that’s been in the swamp” Duke shook his head. “Difficult to say. There were villages out here till the big storm hit in 1893, ‘course they was just huts on stilts in those days. It could be over a hundred years old.” Chilly let out a sigh. “Jeez, how come the horse ain’t a damn skeleton?”

Duke smiled, this was something he knew about. “It’s to do with the swamp mud. The acidity in it preserves things, halts the natural decay…I gave a talk on it a while back.” Chilly nodded. “No shit.” There was a shout from the officers working on the coach. The door burst open. Spewed black mud and wriggling fish onto the ground. One of them peered inside. He recoiled, called out to Duke. “Better take a look at this chief.” Duke ambled over. His eyes widened at the sight that greeted him.

Five mummified corpses twisted together by mangrove roots like some grotesque human sculpture.

Next Chapter: CHAPTER 5