Chameleon 10

© 2018, Jack H. Tyler

She had put the small table lamp on the floor and left the curtains closed.  She talked almost to herself as she flipped the pages of the guidebook she had purchased at the bus station in Bogota.

“There’s a possibility we can get you on a boat to Panama from here,” she said quietly, tasting the idea.

“You said the American Consulate.”

“They’re watching this place, then, they’ll be watching that one, too.  If I can be sure you’re on the boat and gone, I can lead them off to Argentina.”

“But, why Panama?”

“According to this guide, there’s regular service to Panama City.  They’re on good terms with the Americans there, and mostly, it isn’t here.  A cab ride to the embassy and—

Knock-knock-knock!

“Miss O’Reilly, are you there?  It’s Four Twenty Seven.”

The balls of the man!  First he sat in front of the hotel in the most conspicuous car in Barranquilla, and now he had the brass to come up here and knock on her door?  Did he know that Two Eighty Three had compromised him?  Probably not, or he wouldn’t be up here.  Who would he have with him?  His CIA crewcuts?  No, they had to follow rules, and that would be inconvenient.  If he had anyone with him, it would be Rodriguez’s goons, and them she could handle.  Raising the pistol to a ready position at her shoulder, she used her left hand to ease the lock off and snatch the door open.

A sweeping glance showed her that he was alone before she pulled him into the room and bolted the door.  She turned and pointed the gun at his face.

“Here, you can’t—”

“Shut up and grab the wall!”

“What?”

“You know the bloody position.  Get in it!”  She shoved him face-first into the wall, and not gently.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he asked, placing his palms against the wall and opening his legs.

She kicked the insides of his ankles hard to force him into a more aggressive version of the law enforcement search posture, and said, “Two Eighty Three’s a mole, though I don’t imagine that’s any big news to you.  So, what’s your role in this little daytime drama?”

“A mole?  That’s impossible!”

“Impossible?”  She patted him down as she spoke, taking a Glock 21 from an old fashioned shoulder holster, and his cell phone, which she tossed on the bed.  “He sold me out to Rodriguez, even told him about Takeri Senior’s work.  So, like I asked, what’s your role?”

“I can’t believe it.  Are you sure about all this?”

“They discussed it all right in front of me while I was shackled guest of Rodriguez.”

“This is incredible!  I say, do you mind?  My knee, you know.”

“Yeah, fine, sit down right where you are.  Keep your hands in plain sight.”

He did.

“This could have repercussions all the way to the oval office.  I must call Washington at once.”

“Sorry, old boy, you won’t be calling anyone until I sort this out.”

“My dear young lady, I don’t think you realize how serious this situation is.”

“My dear old man,” she countered, “I don’t think you realize how serious your situation is.  You’ve double-crossed a terrorist with PMS and a gun, and then your cohorts let her get away.  That’s what I call serious, then.”

“Are you going to kill me, too?” Takeri asked.

She looked thoughtful for a moment before replying, “Not until I figure out what’s actually going on here.”

“Please, Miss O’Reilly,” Seven said, “national security is bigger than all of us.”

“Uh-huh.  I don’t know whose security you’re interested in, I don’t know who you’re playing against who, and until I sort some of this out, you’ll just have to relax and enjoy the stimulating conversation.”

“What are we going to do now, Miss Colleen?” Takeri asked.

“The same thing we were going to do before,” she said.  “Hand me that guidebook.”

“You mean the—”

“Shut up!”

“I assure you, Miss O’Reilly, I am not your enemy.”

“You shut up too, while I think this over.”  As she opened the guidebook, Four Twenty Seven’s cell phone began to ring.

“Oh, dear,” he said sadly.  “It seems that I’m about to be missed.”

 *          *          *

“Damn it to hell!” Rodriguez roared, fingers balling into fists as the thug trembled before him.  The man had a bandage around his head and a purple swelling was setting in over his fattened lip.  “You ignorant bastards told me you were the most feared enforcers in all of Colombia, so I pay you good money, and what do you do?  Just let the most dangerous woman I have ever laid eyes on waltz out of a steel box, freeing the most valuable hostage I have ever held in the process, and killing two of my guards into the bargain!  How does this happen?”

“Señor Lobo,” the huge man whined, “none of this is my fault.  I was marching my rounds when a pain exploded in my head, and I woke in your infirmary.”

“Thereby proving your lack of value as a soldier!  I pay for excellence, and I get imbeciles.  I will make certain you never rob another honest businessman!”

“Señor Lobo, please!”

“Telephone, Señor Rodriguez.”  Escobar stepped from the living room offering a cordless headset.  “It is Mr. Bradford.”

“Put him in a cell.  Chain him to the wall.”  Rodriguez took the phone.  “Rodriguez.”

“Rodriguez,” the familiar voice greeted him, “Bradford here.”

“I know that.  What do you want?”

“Testy, aren’t we?”

“Busy is what I am.  What is it?”

“Too busy to save your own ass?”

“I’m going to ask you one more time what you want, and then you can go to hell.”

“Oh, that’s a fine attitude, coming from the man who let O’Reilly get away.  You told me your men were capable.”

“And you told me this bitch mortal, not fucking Wonder Woman!”

“Oh, she’s mortal, Lorenzo.”

“Don’t call me—”

“And you’d better get some of those capable troops you’re so proud of down here into town, because if she gets that boy out of here, we’re all screwed, and I assure you, I do not intend to go to hell without some company.”

“You dare threaten me?  You’re a long way from home, white boy!  Anyway, I already have men down there.  What do you think I am, stupid?”

“Exceedingly.  I have the few men I can spare watching her hotel.  That number includes Mr. Douglas, who in the last ten minutes has stopped answering his telephone.”

“Maybe he had to take a shit.”

“Now you listen to me, you son of a bitch, the only thing taking a shit around here is going to be your cozy lifestyle if you don’t get some troops down here and turn this cesspool inside-out!  I promise you, if she gets that kid back to the States and he tells his story to the FBI, the government in Washington isn’t going to rest until they nail you to a cross, am I getting through to you at all?”

Silence.

“Hello, anybody there?”

“I’m thinking.”

“Well, you’d better think fast, amigo.  I don’t know what she’s doing right this minute, but I’ll bet you wouldn’t like it!”

Madre de dios!

“All right, I’ll be right there.”

He broke the connection and pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting off an approaching headache.  What had started this?  That fucking boy!  Son of a bitch, his trouble-making days were almost over!

 *          *          *

“Listen carefully, Miss O’Reilly.  I’m not your enemy, I’m your employer.  You seem to have gotten yourself into quite a little mess here, but I can help you get out.”

“Miss Colleen,” Takeri said as Douglas finished speaking, “can you trust him?  He was waiting for us with the rest of them.”

“Shut up, boy, you know nothing of what—”

“Shut up, the both of you,” O’Reilly snapped.  Takeri had seen her kill, and Douglas had seen her dossier, and neither of them spoke up to argue.  She stood for a moment, pistol pointing unwaveringly at Douglas, listening to the night as she thought.  Though it was early morning, traffic still rattled through the street below, a drunk man haggled with a prostitute, and tinny music came from at least two different sources nearby.  All so normal.  She wondered what the people around them would think of the drama being played out in their midst.

“All right, get up,” she said to Douglas, moving the gun to her hip, but keeping it pointed straight ahead.

“Now you’re making some sense,” Douglas said, climbing to his feet.

“Lie on the bed,” she said, giving him a shove.

“That’s not very smart,” he warned, looming over her, making no move to comply.

“I’ve been accused of that before,” she replied.  “Get on the bloody bed.”

“Or what?”

Shifting the pistol to her left hand, she took her butterfly knife from the dresser, and the blade appeared as if by its own volition.

“Do you want to find out, then?”

He stared her down for a moment, then, with a sneer, moved to sit on the bed.  Reversing the knife, she struck him hard with the squared-off base of the handle just above the eye.

“Damn!” he shouted, doubling over.

“I said lie down, now didn’t I?”

Her voice was a growl, her eyes were narrow slits, and it didn’t take an expert of Douglas’s caliber to see that the terrorist who had snuffed out a thousand dreams was lurking just below the surface, eager to emerge.  He laid down.

“Cut the cord off that lamp,” she said, handing the knife to Takeri.

“You’re making a big mistake,” Douglas said.

“The only mistake I made was taking this stinking job,” she responded.  “Now that I’m here, I finish it.  The job is the boy.  Anything else is a target.”

“You’ve only been able to rescue him because I told you he was here,” Douglas said.  “You have to see the logic in this.”

“I’ll tell you what bloodly logic I see,” she said, taking the cord from Takeri.  “Scotland Yard, Interpol, and the bloody SAS have spent years trying to get me, and they haven’t had a sniff, but I come down here to the end of the fucking earth, and some bloody wog who can’t find his ass with a piece of toilet paper wraps me up twice on consecutive days.  I think he’s getting help from somebody, and I’ve got a fair idea of who it might be.  Put your hands through that railing.”

“That’s ridiculous!  You already said Two Eighty Three was a mole, okay, but that doesn’t mean I’m involved.”

“Doesn’t mean you’re not, either.  Hands through the rail.”  She pulled up two loops of the lamp cord to form a clove hitch, and when Douglas’s hands went through the rails of the headboard, she whipped it over his wrists and secured both ends to the bed’s legs.  A sheet bound his ankles, and she tied them to the footboard.

“You’re really going to regret this,” Douglas told her just before she slipped the gag she had fashioned from a pair of pantyhose into his mouth.

“I already do,” she replied.  “If Two Eighty Three lives long enough to find you, tell him he talks too much to ever be a player.”

She pocketed his cell phone, slipped the Glock into the back of her waistband, and rifled his pockets for his car keys.

“Ready?” she asked Takeri.

“Where are we going?”

“Where they’ll never think to live with us.”

Snatching the telephone cord out of the wall, she moved to the door and looked cautiously down the hall.

 *          *          *

The moment he was sure they had really left, Douglas began to struggle.  The cord cut into his wrists as soon as he moved them, and he could barely wriggle his feet.  The God damned girl knew her business, that was for certain.  It was imperative that he get out of here and raise the alarm, but that was going to take some time, and after the way he had berated Bradford, he wouldn’t come up here to meet Jesus Christ.  He would have to do it alone.

He stopped squirming and tested his bonds one by one.  His hands were firmly secured.  He would have to get his feet loose first.  They were secured with a bed sheet, tightly rolled to form a rope.  His ankles were tied together with the sheet twisted between them, and laced through the ornate brass foot board.  He lifted his head, but couldn’t see anything that would help him.  Brute force, then.

Resting his feet against the rails, he straightened his body, pushing as hard as he could, but his wrists were tied back to back with thin wire.  The ends of the cord were then tied to the headboard well out of reach, and the pain that came on as he applied pressure prevented him from taxing the bed’s fasteners at all.

Damn the fucking bitch!

Changing his tactics, he tried pulling his knees up toward his abdomen.  Douglas had been losing some of his strength to Father Time lately, but he definitely felt some slack that wasn’t there before.  He began to jerk his legs up rhythmically, kicking the bed frame on the downstroke each time, and by the time he had to stop for a breather, the foot board was definitely loose.

After what felt like hours, measuring time by his heartfelt cursing of O’Reilly, the ornate grill work of the foot board broke away, allowing him to work his feet out of their restraints.  Twisting his body around, he was able to see at last where the bitch had tied the cord holding his wrists to the headboard.  She had pulled the gag back into his mouth, and with some grinding effort, he was able to bring his teeth to bear on one of the knots.  Once it was loose, it was simple to work enough slack into the clove hitch around his wrists to be able to pull his hands out.

“Now, bitch,” he swore, pulling the gag over his head, “just let me get my hands on you!”

He fairly ran out the door, and took the stairs three at a time, slowing to a respectable pace just before he would have shot out into the lobby.  Nodding to the desk clerk, he strolled through the rear foyer and into the lush garden embraced by the arms of the hotel.  The moment the doors clicked shut behind him, he began to run again, this time to the garden gate that bordered the dark street behind the hotel.

“Bradford,” he stage-whispered into the darkness.  “Bradford, where the hell are you?”

“Here,” Bradford croaked back from somewhere in the shadows.

“Get over here!”

Two Eighty Three emerged from a narrow alleyway, crossed the quiet street, and walked briskly to the garden gate.  Douglas practically pulled him into the foliage.

“Did you see her?” he asked urgently.

“No, she hasn’t been back here,” Bradford replied.  “Did you compromise the surveillance to ask me that?”

Douglas fought down the urge to strike his underling.

“No, you idiot!  She’s escaped, her and that damned boy.”

“What?  Did you see her?”

“Yes, I saw her!”

“Well, if you saw her out front, how would I have seen her back here?”

“Never mind.  We have to alert Rodriguez.”

“Wait a minute.  You went up there to see if she’d sneaked back in, didn’t you?”

“That’s not important now.”

“And you found her, didn’t you?”  A grin was beginning to grow on Bradford’s face.  “That’s why you didn’t answer your phone.  Dare I guess?  You were tied up?”

This time Douglas did strike him, and open-handed cuff to the ear.

“If you can restrain your joy over your dream woman’s triumph, take a moment and think about what we stand to lose, should she get him to the American consulate, or anywhere out of the country.  Fifty to life in Leavenworth won’t do a damned thing for your complexion.”

Bradford sobered up in a hurry.

“Just to complicate the joke, she has my gun, my phone, and my car, which should be just about everything she needs to do whatever she wants.  Oh, by the way, she said to tell you that you talk too much to be a player.  What do you suppose she meant by that?”

“How did she get your stuff?  Did you go up there?”

“Yes.”

“And try to present yourself as her only friend?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, what she probably meant is that, back when Rodriguez had her chained to the floor with a dozen guards around, I may have mentioned our little operation.”

“My God, you are an imbecile!  Get on the phone and get Rodriguez down here.  I want every man he’s got in town, and I mean now!”

“How about using the police?” Bradford asked as he opened his phone.

“And have her tell her story to that unpredictable lot?  We can only hope that isn’t where they’re headed right now.”

“With the price on her head?  I think we’re safe on that count, at least.”

“Good.  Then quit running your mouth, and call Rodriguez.”

 *          *          *

Rodriguez ordered his driver to pull to the curb as soon as he recognized the two boorish Americans, standing out like peacocks in their ill-fitting suits.

“The boy is gone?” he asked without preamble.  “What are you standing around here for?”

“We’re waiting for you,” Douglas replied with a nasty undertone.  “Where are your men?”

“On the way.  Aren’t you even looking for him?”

“He can’t do anything alone.  It’s that damned woman we have to neutralize.”

“Fine, then.  Aren’t you looking for her”

“They took my car.  They’ll stick out like a sore thumb, which was the purpose of using that particular vehicle in the first place.  How many?”

“How many what?”  Rodriguez was irritated by Douglas’s attitude.

“How many men, of course!”

“Oh.  Half a dozen.”

“Half a dozen!”

“No sense attracting unwanted attention.  We’ll be able to root them out with these.”

“Like hell!  She got away from more than that when she was chained to the floor, and found time to take your precious boy with her.  We will need every man you have down here.  Call them at once!”

“Do not presume to give me orders, Americano.”  You are a long way from Langley.  Some fine plan you had to send me this bitch.  You might have hired someone a little less competent.”

“So, we made a mistake.  Now she has to be dealt with, and a half-dozen of your incompetent burro drivers will not be able to manage that.  We’ll have to search every rat hole and dog run in this city to find them.”

“How many men do you think I have?  And what makes you think they are still in Barranquilla anyway?  I was not the one who made her a gift of a modern automobile.”

“She will not leave Barranquilla because everything she needs is here,” Douglas explained.  “There is a port, there is an American consulate, and she thinks she has taken my measure.  Why would she risk a move to an unfamiliar location when she is on familiar ground and thinks she is in control?  No, we will catch her here when she makes her play, but not if you skimp on the manpower.”

“Well, you Americans know her.  You went to some effort to look her up and send her to me.  What is in her dossier that we can use against her?”

“Almost nothing,” Bradford said, “just what you know already.  She is a ghost.  The best police and military forces of Europe have been trying and failing to bring her down for nearly a decade.”

“And we are supposed to succeed where these vaunted professionals have failed?”  Rodriguez actually sneered at him.

“We have no choice.  The boy is the weak spot.  She may be a figure of legendary status, but when we find him, we will have found her.”

“Dios!  At least she is a redhead.  The boy looks no different than any Colombian.”

“Perhaps not,” said Douglas, “but he doesn’t act like one.  Look for out of place body language.  Also, he speaks virtually no Spanish, so she’ll do all the talking.”

“An Irish woman with a mute Indian, eh?” Rodriguez asked.  “Now, there is something we can watch for.”

“Jesus Christ!” Douglas swore.  “If you think she’s going to have red hair and freckles the next time you see her . . .  Dogs!  Can you get some dogs down here?  Could they track her?”

“Yes, they can track anybody, but it is difficult to keep a low profile when you are leading an attack dog on a leash.”

“To hell with a low profile, man!  Do you want that little snot telling his story to the consulate?”

“No, of course not, but we still have to find the car, or we have no starting point.”

“Well, the sooner your men start looking, the sooner we’ll find it.  More men would be better, too.  You can order them into town with the dogs.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll see to it.”

“Say,” Bradford said, “she had a locker at that bus station south of the port district.  Maybe she left the car there.”

“I’ll send two men as soon as they arrive.”

“Do you think you can spare two?” Douglas asked.

“Oh, yes.  You have convinced me,” Rodriguez replied, taking out his cell phone.  “I’ll bring two dozen more when I summon the dogs.”

He opened the cover and began to dial.

 *          *          *

Their names were Sanchez and Reyes, and they were new to the service of Lobo Gris.  They were actually security men, hired to keep undesirable people from getting in to see the boss, and they didn’t understand why they had been pulled down into town to wander the streets with concealed weapons under their dark blue fatigues, just inviting the attention of the policia.  Sure, the boss needed to find this Gringa who had stolen his property, but he had soldiers for that, and the soldiers had dogs.  They sure didn’t need to be out here strolling through the red-light, looking for this devil woman who they knew would be disguised, and of whom they had only a rough drawing anyway.

The red-light was crowded tonight, awash in Indians looking for innovative ways to part with a week’s wages.  An occasional European face crossed their path, but they were mostly men, middle-aged tourists seeking to fulfill some fantasy, and having nothing to do with their assignment.

All there really was down here was Indians.  Packs of men, solitary men, women of every description, and couples whose arrangements were made for the night flowed by on every side.  Singing, staggering, laughing, or cooing, all were oblivious to the two hunters, and none had the slightest hint of Irish features or mannerisms.

“This is crazy,” Sanchez suggested as they parted to let a couple staggering arm-in-arm pass between them.  “We’re not gonna find them down here.”

“Maybe you like to tell Mr. Lobo that we don’t need to look here?”

“Hell no!  It’s just pointless.  If you was white, where would you hide?  In the middle of a thousand Indians, or the middle of a thousand white people?”

“I don’t know.  Señor Escobar said this woman is plenty crafty.”

“Then she’ll know she can’t hide with a bunch of Indians!  Come on, let’s get a drink.”

Sanchez led an uneasy Reyes into a cantina.

Two Indians shuffled into another cantina nearby.  No one paid the least attention as the man, invisible in his white cotton pants and colorful serape, moved to a corner table while the woman, slight, equally colorful, with mysterious mixed-blood features, collected two beers from the bartender and joined him there.

“Are you mad?” the man asked as she sat down.

“Keep your voice down, there’s a good lad.”  She passed him a beer.

“Are you mad?” he stage-whispered again.  “What could possibly be gained by walking right into those two like that?”

“Give you a nice adrenaline rush, then?”

“Adrenaline rush?”

“Shhhhh.”

“Those people want to kill us!”

“No they don’t, they want to catch us.  I needed to find out how good our disguises are.”

“And what if they weren’t good enough, huh, what then?”

“Then they would have had a very bad evening.  You need to relax.  That tensed up body language will give us away.”

“Body language?”

“Shhhhh.”

“You pull a stunt like that, and then complain about my body language?”

“Take it easy.  I know what I’m doing.”

“And what are you doing?”

“We are hiding in plain sight.”

“How the—”

“They are shaking every bush and turning over every rock within a hundred miles of here.  If we’re under a rock, we’re eventually going to be found.”

“All right,” he said slowly, mind racing, “I can see the logic in that, but how long can we keep this up?”

“Until my makeup wears off.  Somebody’ll get lazy by then, and we’ll be on our way.”

“You are an amazing woman.”

“I’ve been told that before,” she said, smiling, and took a long pull on her beer.

“I am not entirely sure that is a compliment.”

“Well, chew on this, then.  I am one woman.  We are being hunted by a hundred ruthless men with guns, and maybe dogs.  I have an inexperienced child to look out for on top of it.  The only thing that gives us a ghost of a chance is that the best manhunters in the world have been after me since before I had tits, and they haven’t come close, so if you want to back to Texas, you had better stop finding fault with everything I do, and start following my instructions to the letter.  Now, keep your head down, make small talk, and laugh when I do, and we may just pull this off.”

He glared down at the table, smarting over this incredible woman calling him a child.

“You don’t look like a man who has just hired a whore.”

“What?” he asked, looking up.

“This is payday.  You have engaged the services of a new and exciting woman.  Smile!”

At that moment, Douglas’s cell phone, tucked in a pocket of her voluminous skirt, began to ring.  Heads turned to stare from every side.  When Takeri jerked back with a horrified expression, his complexion was almost as pale as her own.

To be continued . . .