Chameleon 13

© 2018, Jack H. Tyler

Takeri was still in awe of the woman.  Here they were on the run for lives, and she continued to act like she had the upper hand.  At least his hormones weren’t distracting him this time.  He was too frightened for that.  In the cell he had been safe, if only temporarily.  Now that he had helped her overpower a guard and joined her in this flight for freedom, the guards would feel free to set dogs on them, shoot them, boil them in oil if they were taken alive.

Too late now for second thoughts.  He followed her awkwardly over the edge of the awning, sliding over feet-first and almost falling despite his caution.  She was tossing the cheap padlock aside as he steadied himself.

Opening the large single door a mere crack, she slipped inside.  He followed her into a cluttered world of garden tools, bags of mulch, and chemical smells from weed killer to turpentine.  Three four-wheel ATVs were parked in the middle of the darkened building, two of them with simple box trailers attached.

He tried to locate her by the soft metallic sounds she was making back in the shadows, and had given up, deciding to watch the door instead, when a flashlight came on in the far corner.  Pulling the door shut, he joined her at a locker for whatever didn’t belong anywhere else.  Every kind of junk imaginable had been thrown in haphazardly.  Pocketing a book of matches, she handed him a pair of wire cutters and returned to her ransacking of hand trowels, aphid spray, sprinkler heads, you name it.

“Hold on to those,” she said.  “The wall’s topped with razor wire all the way round, and if only one of us can get out of here, it will be you.”

“Miss Colleen, I can’t—”

“Quiet.  You’re the mission, so no argument, then.  Do you know how to drive those cycles?”

“No.”

“Figures.  Don’t worry, it’s easy.  I’ll show you.”  She was shining the light around the room now, muttering something he didn’t catch about a distraction.

“How will we fare on them if the dogs come for us?”

“Probably not well.”  She was studying a wall-mounted map of the grounds, running her fingers from point to point as she made little clicking noises with her tongue.  “If we go out this door and go right, left, right, we’ll come to the wall nearest the Magdelena Highway.  That’s where we’ll go over, then.”

“Miss Colleen, please, I can’t drive one of those things.  Perhaps I should ride behind you.”

“No, that won’t work.  I may have to stop and fight so you can get away.  You can’t get away if you don’t have a bike, then.”

“But—”

“No buts.  Look, here’s the clutch and accelerator, the brake is on the other side, and the gear shift is under your foot.  Forward for up, back for down.  Nothing to it, then.”

“Miss Colleen—”

“We’re out of time.  Stop stalling, and get on the bike.”

Something in her tone told him not to protest further.  He straddled the one with no trailer as she removed the trailer from a second one.

“Now for the distraction.  I’m sure there’s enough fertilizer in here to blow up Buckingham Palace, then.”  She moved around the room, opening caps and sniffing contents until she arrived at a small drum on a dispenser rack.  He could see her eyes light up even in the dark.

“Petrol,” she breathed with satisfaction, leaving the petcock open, allowing a stream to flow onto the floor.  “Get off.”

“Get on, get off, get on, get off,” he whined.  “Make up your mind.”

She stepped up to the front of the ATV, reached over the handlebars, and slapped him hard in the face.  When his head snapped back to lodge his protest, he found her index finger under his nose, and those flashing green eyes inches from his own.

“Do you have any idea what’s at stake here, boy?  If you want to see the sun come up again, you’d better get your head out of your ass and start listening to me.  We’re going to push these bikes out of here, roll them down the hill, and start them after we’re already rolling.  While you’re getting started, I’m going to set fire to this place.  I’ll easily catch you because you aren’t an experienced rider.  While they’re up here fighting the fire, we’ll be down there going over the wall.  Is that too hard for you?”

“No, ma’am,” he replied sullenly.

“Never mind the hurt puppy crap, then.  The only way you’re going to hurt my feelings is by getting caught again.  Questions?”

“The dogs.  They frighten me.”

“They frighten me, too.  Look, if they get too close, I’ll shoot them, okay?”  She chucked him under the chin with the top of her fist.  “You’re almost home, then.  All we have to do is make it to the bottom of the hill, and whatever else happens, you’re out of here.  You just need to be brave for a little longer.  Once you get rolling, just turn on the key, put it in gear, and let the clutch out, and it will start right up.  Don’t slow down.  I’ll be right behind you.”

His spirits soared.  His dream woman had just said he was brave!  He caught her hand, still in front of her chest, and searched for words.

“Miss Colleen, I . . .”

“I know,” she said.  “I’ve done this before, remember?  Let’s get these bikes out.”

Reclaiming her hand, she cracked the door, looked around, and satisfied, swung it wide.  He pushed his ATV out into the faintly lit night, her following with the second one, and swung it around to face the wire-topped wall, invisible in the darkness.

“Break a leg,” she said, and unexpectedly gave him a push.  As the ATV started to roll down the slope, he glanced in the rear view mirror to see her setting fire to an oily rag.

 *          *          *

Rodriguez joined Douglas at the open end of the patio, handing him a glass of expensive port.

“A beautiful night, is it not?”

The stars were out, and a fresh, tangy breeze blew off the Caribbean.  Douglas, leaning against a huge terracotta plant stand, took the wine glass and held it disinterestedly about waist-high, starting off into the distance above the boiler house.

“It is, indeed,” he said.  “Beautiful.”

“You seem almost as if you are watching for something.”

“Hmm?  Oh, no, just wondering whether you’re doing irreparable harm to my package.”

“What, the girl?  She may be a little fatigued when you take possession, but it won’t be anything that a few weeks bed rest won’t cure.”  He snickered.  “I just know she’s a treasure trove of useful information.  Take her intimate knowledge of yourself, Mr. Douglas, or Zuckerman, or whatever.”

“Bah!  The information she has is random, and probably not much more than half of it she made up as the need arose.  Besides, she may be tougher to crack than you think.”

“Nonsense.  Torture is a fine art, and there’s a lot more to it than just pain.  For instance, I was interrupted by a phone call.”

“Important?”

“As a matter of fact, it was your colleague, Mr. Bradford.  He wanted to let me know that he has picked up the rest of her equipment from the bus station.  So I stopped to have a drink with you.  All the while, she’s down there wondering when I’ll return, when the next round of pain begins, what I’ll do to her in our next session, and whether she’ll be able to resist.  In a sense, while I relax up here, she’s softening herself up for me.”

“I don’t know, amigo.  Our research indicates that she’s a lot tougher than appearances would suggest.”

“I know, amigo.  And she is down there right now sobbing her heart out, if not physically, then mentally, and that is even better.”

At this moment there came a tremendous thundering explosion from behind the converted boiler house, an orange mushroom of fire roiling into the night sky as bits of wood and metal began to rain down all over the compound.  Douglas lurched forward, sloshing some of his wine onto the flagstones.

“Mother of Christ, what the hell was that?” Rodriguez exclaimed.

“Could it be that frightened girl who’s softening herself up for you?”

“Impossible!  She is wrapped in chains from head to toe and hanging from the ceiling.  Houdini himself couldn’t get out of there!”

“Houdini was an entertainer.  She’s playing for keeps.”

Rodriguez noted the amusement in Douglas’s voice, and made a note to find out what caused it to be there.  Running feet began to converge on the spreading fire from every direction.

“I warned you about this one, Lorenzo, repeatedly, but you never took me seriously.  How do you think—”

“Señor!” Escobar shouted from the doorway, “what are your instructions?”

“Get the fire out.  No, wait!  Take a couple of men to the basement and check on the woman, just to be sure.”

“Right away.”  The big man disappeared back into the house.

“Not that it could actually be her,” Rodriguez added.

“Who else could it be?  Who else are you holding here?  The boy?”

Rodriguez mulled this over for a moment, interrupted by another of his guards approaching to ask if he was needed here.

“No, no, I’m all right.  Get the fire put out, and then find whoever caused it.”

“Si, patrón.”  He, too, disappeared.

“Quite a professional staff you have here,” Douglas remarked.

“Yes, my friend.  I only accept the most proficient applicants.  They are an extension of my will.  If it really is that damned woman, she’d better be ready to deal with everyone but the dishwasher.”

“Amazing,” Douglas said.  “And everyone knows just what to do when something like this happens?”

“Oh, yes.  Their section leaders control everything.  The first ones on the scene will extinguish the fire, and the rest will quarter the estate.  Whether it is her, which I sincerely doubt, or some misguided rescue attempt, the interlopers will be dealt with harshly.  In fact, if you are a betting man, I will give you odds on it not being the woman.”

“You shouldn’t make any bets tonight, Lorenzo.  Your luck is out.”

Douglas turned, holding a small pistol.  No, it was really quite a small pistol.  It was the attached silencer that made it look big.  He fired once, and the low velocity slug hit Rodriguez high on the right shoulder, spinning him around, the sudden pain driving him to his knees.  Shocked, stunned, Rodriguez scrabbled for the .32 Beretta in his waistband holster.  Before he got near it, he heard the squeaking pop again as Douglas shot him in the back of his right thigh, forcing a sharp grunt from him and driving him forward onto his face.  He felt it as a faraway sensation when Douglas’s toe under his ribs turned him over onto his back.

“You should have listened to the girl,” Douglas said.  “She would have saved your life.”

Douglas aimed the pistol at his face, he opened his mouth to protest, then he saw the flash.  By the time the sound reached his ears, the soft-nosed hollow-point had already scrambled his brain.

 *          *          *

O’Reilly clattered down the rough dirt path in Takeri’s wake, standing on the foot pegs to absorb the cascade of shocks and willing her senses to superhuman alertness, the better to detect the inevitable pursuit.  The explosion had been magnificent, better than she had dared to hope, and the idiots up the hill were making so much noise dealing with the fire that she doubted they could hear them if they’d had jet engines.

She had closed with Takeri until he was clearly visible only a few feet ahead.  He needed to go faster.

“Watch for a path to the right,” she shouted to him.  “It should be any second now.”

“I’m watching.”  His voice dripped stress, and she was glad it would soon be over for him, this part at least.  What she hadn’t told him was that she wasn’t coming out with him.  That would be pointless.  If they both went over the wall, they would reach the road to find Rodriguez’s whole army waiting for them with a dozen dogs and a hundred guns.  No, once she put him over, she would have to make some more noise, start some more fires, steal a truck and crash the gate, and with any luck, she’d be the one to pick him up out on the highway.  She hadn’t felt this was the best time to tell him she would be leaving him.

A shadow lunged from the darkness to her left, and without thinking, she swerved the bike toward it.  She was rewarded with a satisfying yelp as the two left tires ran over one of the stinking dogs.

“Ami,” she shouted, “you have to go faster!”

 *          *          *

My God, the woman is mad!

Takeri was riding like the wind through total darkness, branches slapping his face, the rough ground threatening to flip his ATV at any second, and O’Reilly, so close her voice made him jump, was shouting for him to go faster!  He added all the speed he dared, maybe half a mile per hour, and almost missed the turn to the right, crashing through some brush as he overshot the corner.

She flew past him at unimaginable speed, shouting something he couldn’t make out, but that only could have been an exhortation to pick up the pace.  He added more speed, following her mostly by trying to stay in the trail of flying debris, the stones, dirt, and leaf litter thrown into the air by her passage.  If she stopped suddenly, he’d kill them both.

Fortunately, she gave him some warning, slowing down before stopping completely.  He pulled up behind her, and saw for the first time the wall towering above them.

“Kill the bike,” she said, leading by example.

He switched off the key, his ears assailed by the sudden silence, then heard the unmistakable sounds of guards working their way down the hill.

“Miss Colleen!”

“Shh!  Do you have the wire cutters?”

“Yes.”  He held them up to prove it.

“Good.  Go up and cut the wire, then.”  She stood on the seat of her bike and made a stirrup with her hands.  He stared at her.  “Come on!”

He scrambled up, then, hands on her shoulders, and stepped into her interlaced fingers.  He was amazed yet again at her strength as she lifted in unison with his thrust, and his head rose easily above the wall.

“Stand on my shoulders,” she said, “and get to work on that wire.”

He did, snipping at the stubborn wire until it parted, and forcing it back to create a narrow pathway to freedom.  He felt her raise her arms, and she said, “Up you get, then.  Step up on my hands.”

Again he followed her instructions without question, stepping into her upraised hands and wriggling onto the broad top of the stone wall.  He worked himself around until he was facing into the compound, leaned down, and extended his hand.

“It’s all clear, Miss Colleen.  Let’s go.”

“I’m not coming,” she said.

His breath caught in his throat.

“Miss Colleen, you cannot be serious!  We have to get out of here!”

“I have unfinished business with this lot.  Now listen carefully.”

“Miss Colleen, for God’s sake!”

“Shut up and listen!  Get down to the road, flag down a ride, and get to my hotel room.  Sneak in like we did before.  At the foot of the bed inside the box springs is a purse.  Inside is a wad of money and an address book.  Find the number for Pablo Perón.  He’s a cabby.”

“A cabby?”

“Yes.  Listen.  Tell him Molly McGill needs a favor.  Have him take you to the American Consulate up by the zoo.  I’ll see you again if I can.”

“Miss Colleen, I can’t do this alone.”

“Yes you can.”

“I can’t!”

“You must.  There’s no other way.  Do you remember everything I told you?”

“Yes, but—”

“No buts!  Make me proud,” and before his horrified eyes, she dropped onto the ATV, started it up, and disappeared into the night.

 *          *          *

O’Reilly followed the wall to the west, away from town to be unpredictable.  She kept her speed down, and with it her noise.  As was so often her way, she had no specific plan.  The guards were getting the fire under control, and she knew she would have to start another.  Following that, she would try to get to the gate and make it to the road.  Straddling this ATV on the highway, she would be free as the wind.

A steep hill rose in front of her, and she opened the throttle, the rise in noise masking her hearing.  As she reached the top and the ground flattened out, she slowed to pick out a clear path, and with her attention on the ground, she missed them.

“Halto!  Halto!”

“Arriba sus manos!”

She had driven right into a pack of them a half-dozen strong, who surrounded her with automatic weapons and two big flashlights.  Instinctively, she reached for her pistol.

“Now, now, Miss O’Reilly, let’s not do anything silly.”  The owner of the familiar voice stepped out of the shadows, and Two Eighty Three’s smarmy grin once again graced her world.  “Do be a dear and drop the pistol.”

She reached for it again.

“No!  No.  Just unbuckle the belt and drop the whole rig.”

She did.

“How many times do you have to be killed, anyway?” she asked him.

“A good deal more than you, I’m afraid.  I’m a planner, Miss O’Reilly, and this whole little evolution is a chess game.  You’ve been up against Kasparov the whole time.  You never had a chance.”

“Let’s see, then.  Four Twenty Seven would be Kasparov, and you would be, who, the flunky that brings him his bottled water between moves?”  She had the satisfaction of seeing him stiffen under the insult.

“Never mind,” he said, visibly regaining his composure.  “I’ll bet you’re a hell of a poker player, Miss O’Reilly.  Unfortunately, in chess there is no bluffing, no grand appeals to the gods of fate.  There is only the mathematical precision of the plan, and ultimately, checkmate.  Do be so good as to step off the vehicle.”

As he took a radio from his belt, she swung her leg over the handlebars, caught her heel, and fell on her face.  As the guards laughed heartily at her clumsiness, she rose, scooping up a handful of the coarse, grainy soil as she did.

“Arthur, this is Lancelot,” Two Eighty Three said into the instrument.  O’Reilly rolled her eyes, hoping he could see it.

“Go ahead, Lancelot,” Four Twenty Seven answered.

“Morgan le Fay is in hand.  No sign of Sir Gawain, I’m afraid.”

“That doesn’t matter now.  Modred has been neutralized, and I have the grail.  Gawain is no longer a factor.  Kill her.”

The abruptness of the command almost caught her off guard, but she recovered even as Martin Bradford leveled his pistol at her.  Throwing the dirt into the face of the nearest guard, she swung behind him, felt the impact as Bradford’s bullet struck him, snatched a short bayonet from his belt, and launched herself back down the hill.

She slid, she somersaulted, now face up, now face down, letting gravity hurry her passage as confused voices shouted discordantly, and bullets whistled by well above her head.  All but one.  As she had dived for the slope, Bradford’s second round had hit her high in the left arm, and the sliding, bumping ride she was taking was painful almost beyond endurance.  Still, she was tough beyond measure, and this was just one more test of her iron will.  She passed.

She allowed herself to come to a stop most of the way down the hill and wormed herself into some heavy brush.  Before she could act, they had to commit themselves.  If they went to get dogs, her next course of action would be far different than if they came right down after her.

They were still milling and shouting some forty yards up the hill, and as she waited, a light rain began.  It was probably no more than a squall blown in from the sea, but it would wash her wound and cover any sound she might make, and she welcomed it as one of those fortunate occurrences she was so proficient at taking advantage of.  No chance in chess, huh?  It didn’t rain on most chessboards.

She tore her sleeve at the bullet hole to let the water in, and directed her attention up the hill.  The random shouts were dying down as Two Eighty Three took charge.

“Line up,” he was telling them.  “Line up side by side.  Keep small intervals.  Be alert.  When you find her, shoot to kill!  Come on, muchachos, let’s move it!”

So, they were coming down as-is.  She burrowed deeper into the thick, concealing foliage, and fingered the blade of her liberated knife.

 *          *          *

Douglas was having a better night than he expected.  He had paid off the arrogant drug lord in lead, then had all the time he had needed to conceal the body in a little-used guest closet, and had retrieved the man’s most precious treasure from the hiding place he had been so careless about concealing.  To top it off, Bradford had been able to finalize the legendary Colleen O’Reilly, maybe the most wanted terrorist outside ISIS, and while the IRA would only pay their fantastic ransom if she were alive, the British Crown had a substantial offer for her in any condition at all.  Of course, he would have to find a pigeon to turn in the body if he wanted to see any of that reward, but all in all, it was quite a night’s work.

And it wasn’t over yet.  Even as he had pried the bottom out of Rodriguez’s desk to expose the hidden compartment, he was downloading the files from the man’s PC onto a thumb drive.  Even if there was nothing there that would give him direct access to his vast, ill-gotten fortune, surely there would be someone to blackmail, some Senate aid, some drug enforcement official with his hand in the cookie jar.  Ah, the possibilities!

“Arthur, this is Lancelot.”

Splendid.  Here was Bradford to report the deed done.  Too bad in a way.  The world would be a less interesting place without that little firecracker in it.

“This is Arthur.  Go ahead, Lancelot.”

“Le Fay has disappeared.”

“Marvelous,” Douglas replied, misunderstanding him completely.  “Come up to the house, then.  We have plenty to do before we go.”

“I don’t think you understand, sir.  She’s gone.”

“Gone?  What do mean, gone?  You’ve lost her, haven’t you?”

“Sir, she’s smoke.  She’s a God damned ghost.  Keeping her in hand is like trying to hold quicksilver.”

“A fact I tried to impress upon you from the beginning of the operation, but all along, you’ve insisted on treating this matter as if it were the abduction of a six-year old after Sunday school.”

“You’ve tried to impress upon me?  Mr. Douglas, I’m absolutely appalled that you could think that.”

“No need to apologize, Martin.  Just find her.  Round up Rodriguez’s goons, track her down, and punch her ticket.  I’m absolutely sick of this abominable climate.  I want to end this operation, and get back to the lovely cool breezes of home.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.  You run along now.  I’ll just sit here and think about the wording I’ll be using in your fitness report.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, and Martin.”

“Yes, sir?”

“If you stumble on Sir Gawain out there, cancel him as well.  He’s caused quite enough trouble for one lifetime.”

 *          *          *

She listened to the noise of the undisciplined thugs moving away to the east.  She had had a bad moment when two of them had stomped and prodded her thicket, but her dark blue clothing and breathless freeze had defeated them; they weren’t really good for anything other than intimidating unarmed peasants.  A good thing they hadn’t had the patience to send for a dog; this would have come out much differently.

She examined her wound as best she could using her fingers and the nerves around the injury.  As nearly as she could tell, the bullet had gone right through without doing any major damage.  It was a good thing that effeminate little twit used a woman’s gun.  A real man’s round, a .44 Magnum say, or a .45 ACP would have torn her arm off.  As it was, she was barely bleeding.

Tearing her sleeve into strips, she made a makeshift dressing and considered her options as the rain died away.  The gate was out.  Rodriguez would have doubled the guard, and incompetent as these wogs were, four machine guns made for longer odds than she cared to face.  Of course, climbing out and getting through the razor wire without tools with her arm perforated and already stiffening was a daunting prospect as well.

She laid back and closed her eyes, rubbing her throbbing temples and trying to formulate a plan.

Of course, the obvious fact was that she needed help.  Less obvious was where that help might come from.  She had no friends within miles of here.  The authorities wanted to take her freedom; the underworld wanted her blood.  Her life depended on avoiding both of them, but they could, on occasion, be played off against one another.  Here, for instance.  Colombia had an aggressive American-backed Joint Drug Task Force, and if they could be convinced that a cartel had kidnapped an American child to use for extortion, they might be inclined to lay on a raid.  That should cause enough confusion for her to disappear into.  Nothing for it but to try.

The phones would be up at the main house.  Time to get moving.