© 2018, Jack H. Tyler
Red miniskirt, sleeveless yellow blouse, all satiny, topping black stockings and comfortable flats, the better for running. The contact lenses turned her eyes blue, and the wig was the black number from the boat ride off the other night, only now it was teased and ratted up to a look of bedroom mischief. She stepped out of the bathroom to answer the phone.
“Your cab is here, Miss McGill.”
“Thank you. I’ll be right down.”
Back to the mirror to make sure no stray red hairs were peeking out from under the wig, and she added a small black clutch to the look, snapping a long spaghetti strap to it. Perfect. She pulled the skirt’s waistband out, slipped the Balisong into a pocket she had sewn for the purpose, and smoothed the blouse down over it. One last look in the mirror to see that all was well, and it was down to the lobby to meet the cab.
She took her cue from Pablo’s information, and remained sullen and untalkative on the way up to the villa. Not that she didn’t have reason; the look the concierge had given her would have curdled milk. Fortunately, he had no idea who she was.
When the cabbie, who had long since given up trying to make small talk, pulled up to the base of the path leading to the villa’s gates and she paid him, adding a nice tip, he took his revenge by not thanking her. She didn’t mind. It was merely confirmation that her mannerisms went with the disguise.
Waiting for the cab to pull away, she sauntered up the path, swinging her little purse in a circle. The gate came into view, and two men in fatigues, machine guns on their backs, ceased their conversation and stared at her. Brazen, street-wise, every inch the whore, she continued on up to the gate, squinting at them like she couldn’t figure out why they were in her world.
“‘ello, ducks,” she said in a lower-class British accent. They continued to stare at her. “I’m ‘ere for the party.”
The guards looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and one of them said, “There ain’t no party here, lady.”
“Oh, come on,” she said, taking the tone one uses with a backward child. “Pablo called Engracia and asked for a white girl. It was Mavis’s turn, but she’s afraid to come up ‘ere. ‘ad a cryin’ fit, she did, so I just took over. I ain’t afraid to make money, no sir!”
“Who is Pablo,” one of the guards asked the other in Spanish.
“I don’t know. One of the new guys, maybe.”
“Okay, we don’t know no Pablo,” the first one said to her, “and there ain’t nothin’ on our list about no party, so what we want to know is, how’d you find out about this place, who sent you up here, who are you working for, and all that kind of stuff.”
“Look, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout that stuff. I work down in town at the Red Macaw. Engracia, that’s the ‘ostess, said somebody up ‘ere called for a party, and sent me. Now, if there ain’t no party up ‘ere, then ‘ow ’bout you blokes call me a cab. That’d be the least you could do after wastin’ my day.”
“Look, girlie,” one of them said as the other stepped into the shack to open the gate, “we told you we want some answers. Now, there ain’t anyplace around here for you to run to, so if you want to do this the hard way, that’ll be fine with us.”
* * *
Rodriguez lounged on the plush sofa he kept on the back patio, his lean six-foot frame stretched out, feet on an ornate coffee table. This was more an open-air room than a patio, a depression in the house with one wall missing, and the frequent cloudbursts never reached back into the cozy cave it formed, so he furnished it in splendid opulence. It was his favorite room of the villa.
He visited now, as he often did, with Charles Beasley, the disgraced doctor he had rescued from the gutters of eastern Europe. Once one’s name is tied to the inquisitors of a hated dictatorship, it becomes difficult to get back into mainstream medicine. Beasley’s loyalty accordingly knew no bounds.
“Association is going to crush United this year, my friend,” Rodriguez said.
“No gaggle of wogs from a third-world jungle is going to upset United, I can assure you,” the doctor replied, lowering his glass of planter’s punch.
“You sound very certain, my friend,” Rodriguez said. “Perhaps a small wager would sweeten the match?”
“Perhaps it would. What did you have in mind?”
“Just a friendly sum to pique the interest, say, ten thousand American?”
“I say, you’ve a liberal notion of friendly! I couldn’t possibly risk more than a thousand.”
“I thought this was a sure thing.”
“There are no sure things in football.”
“You just said—”
“Never mind what I said. A thousand, tops.”
“All right, a thousand it is. I’m going to have to raise your pay.”
“Señor Rodriguez,” Escobar called from the French doors leading into the main house.
“There is something going on down at the gate.”
“The guards are talking with a señorita. They look aggressive.”
Without further comment, he opened the front of the liquor cabinet to reveal a black-and-white TV monitor showing what was obviously the view from a security camera. He switched to the appropriate camera as Rodriguez walked over to him, and they stood for a moment watching a sluttily dressed girl, hands on hips, exchanging words with his gate guards, one to her front, the other on her left side.
“She amuses me,” he said after a moment. “Bring her up here.”
“Si, Señor,” Escobar said, and disappeared back into the house.
“Is that wise?” asked Beasley.
“As I said, she amuses me. Why?”
“We Europeans have long known that attractive women make the most effective spies and assassins.”
“Ah. We are in Latin America, doctor, not Europe, and we Latin Americans know that attractive women are simple diversions to be used and discarded at a whim. Come, my friend, freshen your drink. You may find her amusing as well.”
The doctor kept his seat and sipped at his punch with knitted brow as Rodriguez drained his daiquiri and expertly built another. The sound of a jeep pulling up out front came as he was finishing, and shortly, Rodriguez’s burly aide ushered the brightly-clad damsel into their presence.
“Ah, please, take a seat, my dear,” Rodriguez said as she gaped at the rugged view from the patio. “I am Lorenzo Rodriguez, owner of this estate, and those are my guards that you have been annoying. May I prepare you a drink?”
“A drink? Oh. I’ll take a beer if you got one, ducks.”
“A beer?” Rodriguez smiled. “Escobar, por favor?”
The big man went back into the house.
“This is Doctor Beasley,” Rodriguez said as she flopped on the couch across from the doctor, being none too careful about the view as she crossed her legs.
“How do you do?” Beasley greeted her hemline.
“Charmed,” she said, getting up again and going to the edge of the flagstone floor. “This view is great. I’d love to get a place up ‘ere.”
“You will need to be very frugal with your pesos, then,” Rodriguez said, coming up behind her. “These estates are quite costly. Now, what would your name be?”
“Sandy,” she said, taking in the slope with its sparse trees, committing it to memory.
“Sandy of the Red Macaw. Look, I don’t know what everybody’s bein’ so bleedin’ secretive about. If there ain’t a party up ‘ere, why’d you call for a girl?”
“A girl? Oh, I see, you’re a . . .”
“A prostie. ‘oo do I look like, the bleedin’ queen of Siam? Where’s Pablo, anyway?”
“Pablo would be your customer?”
“Good a word as any.”
“I’m afraid we don’t know any Pablo.”
At this moment, Escobar came in with a beer, a Dos Equis, still in the bottle.
“Carlos, do you have a Pablo on your staff?”
“No, Señor.” He handed her the beer with an appreciative scrutiny.
“Well, I’m afraid he would know if we had a Pablo here,” Rodriguez told her.
“Where’s Mr. Echabarria? I’m sure ‘e could clear this up.”
“Echabarria? Is that where you think you are, the Echabarria estate?”
“Well, mystery solved. Señor Echabarria’s villa is another eight kilometers up the mountain. I’m afraid you have been misdelivered.”
“Bloody wog cabbie!”
“Not to get excited, my dear. I’ll have my driver take you up there. Here, for your inconvenience.” He opened his wallet and handed her a five hundred peso bill. “Now, I have matters to attend to. I’ll let you and the good doctor catch up on news of the old country while you wait for the car. Do have a pleasant visit. Escobar.”
He led his henchman into the house and directly to his bedroom, where he turned on another monitor and watched her study the grounds while she made small talk with the doctor about old times in London.
“Who do you think she is, my friend?”
“Little lost whore?”
“I’m not so sure. Maybe the doctor is right. She is, after all, a European like him. Well, have Miguel get a car out and drive her up to Echibarria’s place. Then give this tape to William and have him hack into every government database he can access. I want to know who this is.
* * *
O’Reilly sat on the bed drying her hair and studying two maps, the one Two Eighty Three had given her, and the one she had drawn herself following her two visits. The discrepancies were so glaring they might have been maps of two different places.
Most obvious was the ravine. She had used it as egress during her first visit, careful to avoid the moving camera mounted on the wall at the head of the little canyon. She had seen no other security, though noting the prints of military-style boots that suggested it might be patrolled occasionally. Three’s map showed motion sensors, cameras, and heat detectors strewn throughout the area.
On her visit inside on which she had met Lobo Gris himself, she had observed none of the motion sensors which so profusely dotted the grounds on his map. They wouldn’t make sense anyway; they patrolled the grounds, and the patrols would be constantly setting them off.
Her assumption was that he was CIA. He was certainly American, a minion of their vaunted intelligence services. Could an organization of that stature be so blindingly, disturbingly wrong? Of course, the implications if they weren’t were even more distressing. They had hired her at a price that made her head swim. They were the client; she was their agent. If they were deliberately feeding her false information about the security . . .
Two Eighty Three. She suddenly realized his code name was probably chosen to reflect the number of hidden agendas he had going.
“Just a moment.” She folded up her map and slid it under the mattress, leaving his out in plain view. Wadding the wet towel up around her hair, she answered the door.
“While you’re signin’ up for classes, you ought to add sensitivity training to the list, then.”
“It’s good to see you, too,” he said, stepping in as she closed the door behind him.
“It’s not good to see you,” she replied. “Do you see that lamp?”
“You didn’t see it from the street, then, did you?”
“And thanks to you, everyone on this floor now knows that my name isn’t Kelly at the very least.”
“Colleen, nobody cares what your name is. This is a third-rate hotel where a lower class of tourist and smaller business travelers stay.”
“And agents on the taxpayers’ shilling. Do you think if anyone is looking for cloak-and-dagger stuff, they might get around to looking here?”
“And anyone looking here is now looking at me, with my phony name, and my Brooks Brothers visitor. What the hell do you want?”
“It’s what Four Twenty Seven wants, actually. He sent me over to see what the holdup is.”
“Holdup?” She had to clamp her teeth over the urge to tell him that she would have been in and out by now if it weren’t for the need to check up on their faulty information. Instead, she said, “An operation like this takes preparation. I don’t suppose a milquetoast like yourself would know anything about that, though.”
“Listen, sweetheart, I was doing field ops when you were still in diapers.”
“Are you trying to impress me, sweetheart? I was doing field ops when I was still in diapers! If this is a social call, feel free to push off.”
“Actually, it’s business. Four Twenty Seven says that it’s necessary for you to quit wasting time seeing Barranquilla on the taxpayer’s dime, as the phrase actually goes, and make your move on the boy. He sent me to find out when that’s going to happen. If you need more help, you need only ask.”
“Oh, you’ve helped plenty already,” she said with a gesture toward the map on the bed. “You can tell him I’ll be going in tonight.”
“Splendid. He’ll be pleased to hear that.”
“I’m sure he will. I do have one question.”
“By all means.”
“If you were doing this job, where would you go in?”
He came to the bed, looking pleased that she had asked for his opinion, and took his time studying the map. After a moment he pointed to a section opposite the ravine.
“Here,” he said. “The sensors are masked by foliage, and the view from the house is the poorest in this area.”
“That’s the same thing I noticed,” she said.
“Great minds think alike.”
“Yes, well, you’d better take your great mind out of here. I’ve a lot of preparation to do, and not as much time as I’d like. Thanks for the help.”
“My pleasure,” he said as she held the door for him.
She closed the door behind him and put her back against it. Confirmation. He had just gone out of his way to steer her away from that ravine again. Something else to check.
* * *
She waited inside the glass doors of the lobby for the cab to arrive, then trotted down the steps and slipped into the back seat.
“Good afternoon, Pablo,” she greeted the driver.
“Buenos tardes, Señorita Kelly. Where would you like to go? And please, not to the bad man’s house.”
“No, Pablo,” she said with a smile, “not to the bad man’s house. I need to use the internet.”
“Drive, Pablo, drive, Pablo. I don’t know where we are going, but here we go.”
He pulled out into traffic.
“I need to use a computer.”
“Where do we go for that?”
“You’re the local here. I need to get on the web.”
“Oh, why you don’t say so? Do you speak French?”
“What does that have to do—”
“Do you speak French, Señorita Kelly, yes or no?”
“Ah, bueno!” He shot across three lanes of traffic, almost running a bicycle into a lamppost, and made a left turn without signalling. “There is a small French community here. The locals say they are descendants of escapees from Devil’s Island. I don’t think that many people escaped from Devil’s Island myself, but they are here, anyway.”
“There is a coffee house there where they speak only French. You pay outrageous prices for coffee and finger food, and you sit in a booth that has a computer with the, how you say, the dot-coms.”
“So you say. You want to go there, yes?”
“I want to go there, yes.”
Perón, having a destination now, began to weave through traffic, working his way toward the southern part of town.
O’Reilly hardly noticed, lost in thought as she was.
Why don’t I trust these guys? Is it just the map discrepancies, or are they sending other signals? How likely is it they could be so mistaken on their diagrams? They’re based on satellite photos taken from what, a hundred, a thousand miles up? She had no idea, but she knew well the distortion caused by the compression forced by even a conventional telephoto lens. It is possible, then, that it’s just an honest error. I’ve had clients make mistakes before, and it didn’t mean they were out to get me.
What else have they done? Two Eighty Three is an annoying halfwit, but that doesn’t make him evil. Four Twenty Seven is mysterious and sinister, but that’s to be expected from a CIA operative. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re CIA. Chameleons and the Gestapo don’t mix, no matter whose Gestapo it is. Oh, well. I may have a better idea when I’ve finished this little errand.
They had been traveling through a rough-looking part of town, dingy shops with broken windows replaced by sheets of plywood, abandoned cars along the curbs, and vagrants glaring from the cover of alcoves. Suddenly the stores took on a clean, new, lived-in appearance, and many of the signs began to be printed in strange sort of Spanish-flavored French. A couple of blocks into this, Perón turned right into a narrow side street and stopped in front of a bright lime-green storefront with a garish cake-frosting sign declaring it to be the Cafe Mundo.
“Here we are, Señorita,” he announced. “The ride is twenty-three pesos.”
“Gracias, Pablo,” she said, handing him a hundred peso note. “Keep it. I don’t know how I’d find anything around here without you.”
“Señorita Kelly,” he said as she started to get out, “are you really just a poor photographer?”
“What?” She closed the door and turned to face him.
“See, if you are really a poor photographer, how can you tip me a month’s pay every time I drive you somewhere?”
“I take care of people who help me.”
“That is nice. If you are just a photographer, what pictures were you taking yesterday when you were all dirty and beaten up, and asking about the bad man’s house?”
“Part of those tips is so you don’t ask a lot of nosy questions,” she muttered, opening the door again.
“Is okay, Señorita, I don’t mean nothing, but maybe if you need help sometime, you don’t forget about old Pablo.”
“Pablo, I told you, you’re a great help to me. It’s just, well, you take care of your business, and I’ll take care of mine, okay?”
She shut the door on his reply and walked quickly into the on-line diner.
* * *
Nathan Douglas sipped at his cherry cordial, admiring, or at least experiencing the view of the muddy Magdalena as Bradford considered his answer to Douglas’s question.
“No,” he said finally,” she couldn’t suspect anything.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“The fact that she’s going in tonight. She wouldn’t consider that course of action if she had any doubts.”
“She might go in for the boy’s sake, even if she knew.”
“Oh, yes. Colleen O’Reilly, the great humanitarian. Perhaps we can visit her statue next time we’re in Hyde Park.”
“I’ll swear her insolence is rubbing off on you, Martin,” Douglas observed with a smile. “You’re really quite taken with her, aren’t you?”
“How dare you? The very idea!”
“The very idea makes more sense than anything else I’ve observed since we arrived here. Look at you, popping in for two-a-day visits. If I didn’t know her better, I’d swear you two were playing hide the weenie up there.”
“And now she tells you she’s going in tonight, and you just believe her like that. Based on what, how forthcoming she’s been about everything else? Do you know why she’s called Chameleon?”
“Because she looks different every time you see her.”
“No, Martin, not because she looks different. That is a woman’s stock in trade. It’s because she is different. With the majority of people, duplicity is something they resort to reluctantly at time of need. With professionals like ourselves, we are trained to make use of it, the better to accomplish our goals. With O’Reilly, it’s like the blood in her veins. She exudes it like perspiration. It transcends art. It is integral to her being alive. I’m not surprised she fooled you. What surprises me is that she fooled you so thoroughly.”
“Really, sir, I’m not as gullible as you think.”
“Perhaps not. It’s certainly understandable for you to claim such, anyway. Really, from where I sit, all you need is a little more exposure to her wiles, and she’ll have us trying to sanction each other.”
“Never mind, Martin. I see what I see. Now, you don’t think she’s suspicious?”
“Not of us. She’s certainly guarded and careful, but that’s just part of her normal survival strategy. A person in her line of work doesn’t make it into her late twenties by taking things at face value.”
“No. Still, what if she does suspect the larger plot?”
“It could make things more difficult, but she will try for the boy, of that at least I’m certain.”
“Well, I’m not. Of course, I haven’t been exposed to her particular brand of kryptonite for anything near as long as you have, so we’ll go with my judgment. Get over to town, keep an eye on her, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that she moves tonight.”
* * *
O’Reilly walked down the crowded, noisy street, noting that it was just like Rio, only without the money. No, there were more cars in Rio. Everyone there seemed to have a car, even if the most dignified thing about it was the name. People here did well to have bicycles.
She nearly snapped her fingers as the thought solidified, and she turned her steps toward a taxi stand a couple of blocks up the street.
The three cups of overpriced coffee she had bought during the hour in the internet booth had been her best investment since she had arrived here, she decided. It was amazing what could be had with a little knowledge, a good contact, and a couple of fortuitous links. Of course, O’Reilly had more than a little knowledge; a girl in her profession couldn’t afford not to be internet-savvy.
The cab ride to the airport was only a few miles, but with the traffic at this time of day, she had some time to think. Her view of her employer was solidifying, at least of Four Twenty Seven. Two Eighty Three was the sort of pest any reasonably attractive girl had to deal with on a daily basis.
Or was he?
There could be more than one chameleon in the woods. He would bear watching more closely. Dealing with these two had made her start thinking that America would really be a horrible place to live. At least the old Communist regimes didn’t pretend to be all about individual liberty while they were mistrusting and spying on everyone they could see.
She was in her cover as Kelly McGill, photographer, which meant that part of the ride was spent assuring the driver that she loved Barranquilla, and would be sure to produce an article that would flood the region with free-spending tourists. Who could say, maybe it would happen by coincidence, and she would be . . . never mind. All she needed was for her best travel cover to become famous!
At the airport, she walked purposefully into the terminal, playing the role for any fans who might be in tow. Making a few pointless loops around the maze inside, she slipped under a barricade and exited via a baggage handler’s door, finally making her way to the crummiest car rental agency on the grounds, the one her guidebook said should be avoided at all costs.
The guidebook was shockingly charitable, she decided, as she stepped into a flaking stucco outbuilding with a sickly green linoleum floor (to hide the vomit?), cheap cafeteria chairs, and an indefinable bouquet somewhere between axle grease and a spoiled tuna sandwich. She spotted the axle grease at once. It was holding down the hair of the proprietor, a skinny young Colombian in a dark suit with ridiculously padded shoulders.
“Buenos tardes, Señorita, and welcome to Colombia.”
“Buenos tardes,” she replied with a horrible accent. “I need a car.”
“But of course, Señorita, and you have come to the right place. This is the home of the finest cars in all of Barranquilla.”
“Well, I just need something cheap.”
“Cheap? For a goddess like yourself, only the best will do.”
“I’m afraid I’m a working goddess on a twenty-pound expense account. Much as I’d love to drive a Mercedes, my boss is more inclined toward a Yugo.”
“A Yugo? Not while I live! Come, I will show you some moderately-priced Chevrolets and Datsuns. My name is Ramón, by the way.” He offered his arm.
“Kelly,” she said, taking it and smiling. “Kelly McGill.”
The worst part of this role-playing work had to be pretending to fall for a sleazeball’s charms. She disengaged herself as soon as they reached the small back lot, and feigned interest in the cars.
“This is an eighty-two Chevy, low miles, good condition, very affordable.”
“Nice,” she said. “Is it the cheapest thing you have?”
“Cheap, Ramón, cheap. I want a car that will cost me less than breakfast.”
“Perhaps this Ford,” he began, turning to the one behind her.
“Ramón, listen. If you’re going to date the pretty girls, you have to be smart. There is one car on this lot that costs less than any other. Do you understand that concept?”
“Si, Señorita, but—”
“That is the car I want.”
“Señorita, please! Never mind. I will change your mind from this silly notion. I will show you the car.”
He led her to the far corner of the lot, around a small delivery truck parked there to hide it, and with a flourish, displayed a battered Citroën of early sixties vintage. It had been a dark olive color during the Vietnam War. By Desert Storm, it had taken on a reddish-brown tinge. The left front fender was light blue, and somewhere around five years ago, someone had attempted to stave off the rust on the roof with forest green paint and a four-inch brush.
“You see, Señorita? This is where my dog lives when no one is using it, which means always.”
“Where is your dog?”
“He ran away.”
She had to smile at that.
“Ninety pesos a day.”
Five dollars; too much.
“I’ll give you fifty-five.”
She became acquainted with her prize on the way back to the hotel. It was rough, it was loud, and it had quirks in the electrical system that would make a professional mechanic cry, but it ran, and more to the point, it was invisible in this city of countless exploited laborers.
* * *
Back at the hotel, she studied her plans of the villa until dusk began to fall, then dressed in a black catsuit which she had accessorized with a jacket, bracelet, and hairband. All that stuff would come off when she put her gear on. Her military boots were in fashion now, which helped her immensely. She took a glance in the mirror, and satisfied that she looked like nothing more than a young woman going out to seek some nightlife, she shouldered her gym bag and headed for her car.
Down the broad staircase and out onto the sidewalk. She enjoyed playing the tourist game, and sometimes wondered what normality would have been like.
Some other life, Colleen.
She made the left turn toward the side street where she had parked her car, and from the angle where the stone staircase encroached on the sidewalk stepped Two Eighty Three, who fell into step alongside.
“What do you want?” she asked without looking at him.
“To give you a ride.””
“Slow down. You said this was the night. Mr. Seven sent me over to provide transportation.”
“Bloody Saint Agnes!” she said, stopping where the light was dimmer. “I could lance a boil. How do I get rid of you?”
“Sorry, hon, I come with the money.”
“All right, then. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Pleased now, he walked her back into the brighter light just beyond the front steps. There sat a gleaming black BMW with U.S. Embassy plates, a few passersby already slowing to stare.
“Great God in Heaven!” she breathed, actually smiling as she stopped a few car lengths away. “We could probably get that fitted with lights and a siren for a nominal fee.”
He looked confused.
“You said I should take pains to look like a yachtsman,” he said with a hurt puppy look.
“That was then,” she said, taking his arm and turning him, beginning to walk slowly back the other way. “We showed them that look before. Now they never see it again.”
“You could have let me know.”
“And you could have let me know you’d be here, then, couldn’t you?”
“This is a covert operation. I just assumed—”
“That no one would notice that BMW? Look, I’m sure you’re well-intentioned. Our styles are simply too incompatible for us to be a team.”
They turned the corner onto a street that was a little dimmer, a little quieter.
“Besides, I work alone, which I thought you would have remembered, given the way I expressed it before. If I wanted a bunch of mates around, I could have stayed with my family.”
“Oh, of course.”
“Well, here’s my ride.” She showed him the battered Citroën.
“Oh my God!” He put a hand to his mouth in an attempt to hide a chuckle. “I thought we paid you the first million up front.”
“I looked high and low for this. Look around, Three. What kind of cars do you see? Any BMWs? This thing’s as invisible as a cockroach around here. No one who might be asked is going to remember seeing it.”
“Yeah, I guess, but . . . Where’s it going to leave you on foot, I wonder?”
“I checked it out. It runs well enough.”
“I had no doubt you were a mechanic, too.”
“I get by. Well, time to run. Let’s complete the cover, then.” Grabbing his tie, she pulled him down to her level and gave him a long, passionate kiss.
“Good night, babe,” she said to two wide eyes and an open mouth.
Walking to the street side, she tossed her gym bag in the back and got in. To her surprise, he climbed into the passenger seat.
“What’s this, then?”
“I’m coming with you.”