Chameleon 7

© 2018, Jack H. Tyler

It was mid-morning by the time Douglas rose.  He wasn’t normally sloth, but he had stayed up most of the night waiting for information about his operation, and he woke with the same questions on his mind.  He dressed quickly in white shorts, a flowered shirt, and sandals, then sat down at his desk and flipped an intercom switch.

“Wilson,” came the reply after a long delay.

“Douglas here, Nick.  Coffee and eggs, please, and I’ll take it on deck.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did any information come in while I was sleeping?”

“No, sir.  All’s been quiet.”

“Damn.  All right, then, include a secure phone with breakfast.”

“Yes, sir.”

Douglas made a quick stop at his private head, and extracted a Michelob Dark to take up and drink with his breakfast.  He swung by the quarterdeck to pick up the daily copy of La Posta that his staff provided, and went up forward to his deck chair.  Settling in, he reclined in comfort, thumbing through the World section of the English language daily.  Ne noted in passing that the day had started out sunny, but a wall of gray clouds was scudding in from the Caribbean.

Maybe some relief from this infernal heat, he thought idly.

Nick Wilson arrived, his personal assistant, snappy in his starched boat whites with blonde crew-cut, bearing a tray with coffee, scrambled eggs, toast, and a bulky phone with the dimensions of a military walkie-talkie, its thick, stubby antenna looking like someone had attached the wrong part.  Nick arranged all this on the folding tray he carried under his arm, weighted a cloth napkin under the cutlery, and stepped back.

“Anything else, sir?”

“Not just now.  Keep yourself available.  I may have an errand or two for you later.”

“Yes, sir.”  The man left, almost unnoticed in his silent deck shoes.

Douglas looked out across the city, wondering for a moment what could have possessed him to use the infamous Colleen O’Reilly for a job like this.  The thought died stillborn; there was not the slightest doubt why he had chosen her.  So, what had happened?  Where was she?  He hated being kept in the dark, and now he took measures to alleviate that.  Removing a small green memo book from his shirt pocket, he located an entry, picked up the strange-looking phone, and dialed a number.

The phone was answered on the first ring.

“United States Consulate, Barranquilla,” came the crisp reply, a young local woman with a remarkably mild accent.

“This is Johnny Weismuller,” Douglas said.  “I need to speak with Mark Spitz.”

There was hesitation at the other end, then, “One moment, please.”

There followed some clicking and beeping as the scramblers synchronized, then a man’s voice came on.

“Good morning, Mr. Weismuller.  Are you secure?”

“Of course,” Douglas said, referring to the telephone.

“Good.  I’ve made several inquiries about your operative.  I’ve placed a number of my own contacts at risk doing so.  I hope this matter is one of importance.”

“I assure you, it commands the utmost priority.”

“I appreciate that.  Now, this operative of yours, Colleen O’Reilly, a.k.a. Kelly McGill . . . What is she working on for you?”

“For us, Mr. Spitz, and you know I can’t tell you that.”  Douglas knew his contact would assume she had something to do with the War on Drugs from the information he had, and that was fine with him.

“Of course, sir.  You know that she’s a known felon, don’t you?”

“This isn’t a job for Mary Poppins.  Now, have you found out anything or not?”

“Well, in the negative sense, we know where she isn’t.  She hasn’t been back to her hotel.  That’s current as of a half-hour ago.  Housekeeping found her room empty, but of course, you know that part.”

“Of course.”  Douglas didn’t, buy why appear fallible?

“My contact up-country tells me she was a guest of Mr. Rodriguez last night, but that she left unexpectedly.”

“Alone?”

“Yes.  Why?”

“Never mind.  What I need to know is, where is she now?  Get hold of your man up there—”

“Mr. Weismuller, that contact is classified Upstart.  I’m only allowed one contact per three hundred hours, and I’ve just had one.  I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”

“Maybe you’d  like me to speak with the CEO.”

“Those orders came from the CEO.  If he wants to change them, I’ll be happy to comply.”

“All right, I’ll look into that.  This job is vital, and I don’t even know whether my key player is alive or dead.”

“My contact was specific.  She left unexpectedly.  Unless a snake bit her later, she’s alive.”

“So where is she?  Why hasn’t she made contact?”

“Perhaps she is still working your job.”

Douglas thought about this.  That would be O’Reilly’s style, all right, to keep hammering until the job was done.

“All right.  I haven’t seen my partner since last night, either.  Anything on him?”

“Who is he?”

Douglas described Bradford.

“No.  I’ll get some feelers out and see what I can find.”

“I appreciate that.  Now, one other favor, if I may ask.”

“One may always ask.”

“Could you check with the hotel periodically?  I suddenly find myself short of staff here, and I have plenty to do myself.”

“Of course, Mr. Weismuller, that will be easy.”

“Thank you.  If you hear anything—”

“I’ll call at once.”

“Thank you.  Good bye, then.”

Douglas switched off his phone and laid it down.  Where the hell could the girl be?  The job wasn’t done, he was sure of that.  She’d have been back looking for him by now.  Was she down in the bush somewhere, injured, maybe carrying a bullet that the Consulate’s CIA man didn’t know anything about?  Was she still in there, thinking on her feet, working to get the kid?  Or did she suspect something?  No, that was silly.  She couldn’t possibly suspect anything.

So, where was Two Eighty Three?  Had she become suspicious and ambushed him?  Why else wouldn’t he have called?  He rubbed his temples and picked up his beer.  He was getting too old for this.  Soon, he thought, so he would have a change to a simpler, more elegant lifestyle.

But where the hell was that girl?

 *          *          *

Takeri remained in the sweltering container, though he was no longer chained to the floor.  He sat with his back in the coolest corner contemplating his uncertain future.  Though he wasn’t yet ready to admit it to himself, he instinctively understood that he was in this fix as a result of one of his pranks.  The only missing piece of information was which one.

No, that wasn’t true, either.  Someone had reached out from this place hundreds, thousands of miles away and plucked him off the streets of El Paso.  They had then spirited him off to the heart of a tropical jungle in a private jet.  The flight time didn’t allow for a trip to Asia or Africa, so South America was the remaining choice, and big South American money meant to him only druglords.  Druglords, he knew, would kill their mothers over pocket change.  He suddenly felt sick.

For a moment he thought he might simply deny any involvement in whatever these people thought he had done, but a moment’s consideration dissuaded him of that.  The man in charge had set in motion a machine that had spanned a sea and two continents to pick him out of a population of billions.  He hadn’t done that on a hunch; he knew who he wanted, and why.  Another, stronger wave of nausea washed over him.

But against these nameless terrors was set the woman.  His guardian angel, she called herself.  Why was she interested in him?  No matter, she obviously was.  The soldiers had dragged her in like a pack of dogs dragging a kitten, and thrown her into a cell.  It hadn’t taken her a full two minutes to get back out again, and instead of saving herself, she had tried to get his cell open.  When she had finally been forced to give up, she had disappeared like a mouse in a warehouse, and had probably been within yards the whole time they had been searching for her.  Here was a woman worthy of her own comic book!  Did these goons have any idea how outclassed they were?

Were they outclassed, though?  He tried to be objective, and decided that, yes, they were.  The only thing he found to question was how the hell they had caught her in the first place.

That, and whether she would find him again in time, he realized, as the sounds of the lock being removed from the door echoed through his dark chamber.  The door swung open, the sunlight blinded him for a moment, then he saw the tall man from last night framed in the opening.

“Well, young Mr. Takeri,” the man said amiably.  “I regret that we weren’t able to talk last night because of that rude young lady.  I am Lorenzo Rodriguez.  I am a modestly successful businessman.  You are what your American countrymen call a computer hacker, and by your inconsiderate and self-centered activities of last week, you have cost me and my employees a great sum of money.”

“I didn’t take anything, sir.  I—”

“I never said you took anything.  You have deprived me of the use of my property.  Even in the United States, where everyone is rich, that is considered a crime, is it not?”

“I guess so, but I didn’t—”

“Listen to me, young man!” Rodriguez snapped.  Then his voice was back to syrup again.  “I have a computer expert on my staff who makes your skill seem like the random keystrokes of a monkey.  We have captured every detail of your pathetic manipulations.  We know how you did it, we know your passwords, we know what machine you used, and we know where our assets went.  In accordance with the laws of your own country, you will be punished.”

“I have to be tried in a court of law first.”

“You have been tried and found guilty by me!  Your punishment will be a fine.  After examining your father’s finances, I have decided to assess a fine of one hundred thousand American dollars.  Your father will be notified within a few hours.”

“My father doesn’t have that kind of money!”

“You had better hope he does, little man, because the alternative is not nearly as painless.”

“What does that mean?”  Takeri was really frightened now.

“It means there will be punishment.  Now, that woman who escaped last night, who was she?”

“I don’t know.  You brought her in.”

“Yes.  She broke into my home for no reason that I can see, and we caught her searching the house.”

“Maybe she was a burglar.”

“Yes, that is what she said, but she walked past several valuable items that were extremely easy to carry off.  We thought she might be employed by your father.”

“My father?  I told you, he doesn’t have access to that kind of money.  We can’t even afford to hire a cleaning lady.  Besides, how would my father know where to send her?”

“Yes, well, someone sent her in here, and since you don’t seem to know her, I would suggest, should you see her again, that you not trust her.  She will probably get you killed by my guards, if she doesn’t do the job herself.”

Takeri tried to decipher where the truth of this statement lay, but lacked the experience to puzzle it out.

“Anyway,” Rodriguez continued, “your father will be receiving my requirements shortly, and I’m sure you’ll be on your way home soon after.  I must leave you now.  Business calls, you understand.  Remember that that woman is not to be trusted.  Rafael, have a good meal sent down.  Our guest must be hungry.”

With that, he stepped out and closed the door, returning Takeri to stifling darkness.

 *          *          *

It had been child’s play to avoid the wandering, poorly trained guards throughout the day.  To someone with the skill to evade British Paratroop patrols and even duck the lightning raids of their vaunted SAS, these directionless, undisciplined street thugs were little more than animated mannequins.

The dogs were another matter, but careful observation showed her that they stayed near the house, and as the estate had huge, well-foliated grounds, all she had to do was wait for a gap in their coverage, slip down a drain pipe, and disappear into the brush.  After that it was a simple matter of keeping quiet and out of sight.

It quickly became apparent that no one was looking for her.  There had been the mad search of the grounds immediately following her escape, while she huddled among some debris within a dozen feet of the cell that had held her.  Later, they had found the guard she had left bound on the roof, and there had been another brief search of the immediate area, but they had quickly assumed that, having overcome a guard, her only thought would have been to escape, and things had soon returned to normal.

She wiled away the day, resting, disappearing before the occasional wandering sentry, and listening to their pointless radio chatter.  She had even dared to take a nap, wedged into the fork of a tree, but now it was dusk.  Time to complete the mission.

She hadn’t had a drink all day, but it would be tomorrow before that became any more than an inconvenience, and by tomorrow the boy would be on his way to Texas, and she would be at the Bogota airport awaiting her flight to Rio and wondering how to spend two million dollars.  A few inches of tape tied back her hair, and she used some mud to darken her face.  Hiding the radio in the leaf litter, she headed out to work.

The container where they were holding the boy was up the slope nearer the house, and there was a risk of encountering the dogs up there, but that was just an occupational hazard.  Anyway, the MP5 would cool any dog’s enthusiasm in a heartbeat.  Cocking the weapon, she thumbed on the safety and headed up the hill.

The foliage here was a two-sided blessing.  It provided excellent cover for her approach, but its attendant leaf litter crunched and rattled underfoot, giving away her position as surely as if she were carrying a torch.  She found she could move through it fairly quietly, utilizing the same technique as she had in the littered alleys of Irish slums, but it took her forever to get up there.

That’s all right, she thought.  It’s a long time til sunrise.

Finally, she arrived in a crawl at some low bushes near the big steel box, and stopped there to make her final observations.  First, the cover of dry leaves had faded away at the treeline, so her natural stealth could be used to its fullest advantage.  Second, there were two guards.  They would meet at the doors to the container, exchange a few words, then stroll away to opposite sides for ten to twenty seconds, then return.  She waited, watching, her mind racing to find an advantage in that pattern.

The guard nearest her strolled around the side again and stopped quite near her, less than ten feet away, looming over her like a giant.  She almost thought he had seen her, but then he took a cigarette from a pack, put it in his mouth, and fumbled in his pocket for a moment, finally drawing out a large kitchen match.  When he put that flaring match to the tip of his cigarette, she realized, he would be completely blinded for a brief moment, and that was when she would strike.

He scuffed the match against the seat of his pants.  Nothing happened.  Again; again, nothing.  The third time brought it flashing to life, and as he raised that miniature sun to a point five inches from his eyes, she came in right behind it.  He sensed her motion, raised his eyes with a questioning look, and then the butt of the MP5’s pistol grip hit the side of his jaw with all the strength the wound-up spring of her body could muster.

He went down like a paralyzed falcon, but he gave a sharp grunt as she hit him, and along with the flop of his body hitting the ground came the sound of the other guard calling his name.  She knew she couldn’t play games with him.  As soon as he saw his partner’s unconscious form, he would be on the radio.  She pressed herself against the side of the container, and when the other guard rushed around the corner, she didn’t give him a second to analyze the situation.  She kicked him viciously, low and hard, trying to dislocate his knee.  She missed the joint, but did knock him off his feet.  She was on him instantly, not giving him a chance to think, but he reacted well considering what was happening to him.  She narrowly missed dropping her knee on his face, and only delivered a glancing blow with the machine pistol butt as he rolled away.

Had he realized he was fighting a woman, he might have been more aggressive, but he didn’t, and that decided the issue.  He continued to roll away from her, coming finally to his knees and clawing for his pistol.  Finding the handle, he looked up to fix her position, and she let fly with a handful of dirt, scoring a direct hit on his face.  Blinded by the grit, he lowered his head and pawed at his eyes, and in that second, she scrambled to her feet and kicked him under the chin.  The butt of the machine pistol finished it.

She moved quickly now, not knowing who might have heard their scuffle.  A quick look showed a padlock on the trailer door, but it hung open, perhaps in anticipation of a meal being delivered.  No matter the reason, luck was with her, and it was time to get the boy out of there and be on her way.

She struggled with the locking bar, rusted by the humid climate, and accordingly difficult to operate.  The door hinges were in similar condition, and she had to pull the heavy door open with a great groaning of hinges; all the more reason to hurry.

Stepping back around the open door, she found herself looking into half a dozen gun barrels.

“Arriba sus manos!”

The key to O’Reilly’s survival was that she was always thinking ahead, never caught flat-footed, but this time she was, and as she stood with gaping mouth, looking at the squad inside the container as four men stepped out, took her gun, and bound her hands behind her, enough of her mind was functioning to note how much she hated the sensation.

“Boss,” one of them said into a radio, “we got her.”

“Tie her up and watch her,” came Rodriguez’s voice.  “I’ll be right down.”

They pushed her into the container, forced her to the floor, and stood around gawking and making lewd comments until Rodriguez stepped in, and then they parted like the Red Sea before Moses.

“Well, well, we meet at last under our true identities, Colleen O’Reilly, aka Chameleon, late of the IRA.”

“And what is your true identity?” she asked.

“I am as you have known me, Lorenzo Rodriguez, Lobo Gris, the richest man in all of South America.  I have no need of all your stagecraft and deception, being but an honest businessman.”

“Businessman?  You’re a drug dealer, a merchant of the worst kind of death.  How about that deception?”

“Do you think I would be rich without a market?  Beer makes spend more than I will ever see convincing young people to consume their product.  The same with tobacco products.  Do you see my ads on television?  Have you ever seen a magazine layout touting the wonders of using cocaine?  Of course you haven’t.  I provide a product that sells itself, and if everyone in the western world weren’t desperate to obtain it, I would be a poor coffee picker like my father, and his father before him.”

“And what of me?  What will this ‘honest businessman’ do with his captive?”

“As I would do with any other commodity, I will sell you to the highest bidder.  You are on the most wanted lists of several countries, and I’m sure your old friends in the IRA would appreciate the chance to make an offer.  You see, Miss O’Reilly, I am not going to mistreat you in any way.  I will simply help you reach a place where you are wanted.  You look worn.  Would you like a drink?”

“Yes.”

He took a canteen from one of his men and held it carefully until she had drank her fill.  She had accepted a basic necessity of life from his hand, and the symbolism was lost on neither of them.

“Shackle her to the floor,” he ordered when she had finished.  “I am sorry to have to treat you this way.  I have quite enjoyed our little game, but you have been such a nuisance to my men, not to mention the injuries you have caused them, that I fear I have no choice.  Not too confining, Alfredo.  Leave her a little room to stretch, just not so much that she might escape again.”

“Your hospitality overwhelms me.”

“Don’t push your luck.  You have in reality been quite a headache to me, and things could well be a lot worse.  You must pardon me now.  I must attend to my business ventures.  Watch her closely.  If she escapes again, I will have someone’s eyes on a shish-kabob!”

He departed without further comment.

 *          *          *

God damned stupid bitch! O’Reilly railed at herself.  How she could have gotten herself caught by this bunch of sods was beyond her ability to excuse, and the hardest part to take was that she had done all the work for them.  All they had to do was put some soldiers into the container, post a couple of guards outside, and wait for her to discover it.  Incredible!

She pulled slightly at the chain on her left wrist, testing the tension and play.

“Relax, girlie,” one of the guards said at the clink of links in the darkness.  “We got you this time, and you ain’t going nowhere.”

“Care to bet a month’s pay on that?” she asked, the little show of bravado mainly for her own benefit.

“Well, you just take off whenever you’re ready, then.”  Several voices laughed at the suggestion.

She lay on her back on the floor of the metal container.  Steel manacles embraced her wrists, the two-foot chain between them running through a tie-down in the floor.  A similar set hugged her ankles, and these were also attached to the very box that imprisoned her.  She could move around enough to scratch her nose or her upper arm, and that was about it.  An armed guard sat near her feet, his jokes prompting the laughter of the two seated near her head.  At least they had run a portable fan down to the open door, its draft dispelling some of the evening’s humidity.

“Jaime and Bernardo are going to have to wear dresses after tonight,” foot-man said.

“No shit,” replied one of his mates, “especially after everybody sees this little cunt that kicked their asses!”

“For sure, the showers are gonna be risky for them for a while, at least!”  Everyone laughed it up, including O’Reilly.

“Oh, you think that’s funny, too?” foot-man asked, still chuckling.

“Oh, yes.  I may be in pretty fix, but at least I’ve got one good memory of this place.  You should have seen the looks on their faces when they realized what was going on.”

“I’ll bet!” the guard agreed, laughing again.  “You must have seen a lot of that.”

Good boy, her mind broadcast to his.  I’m not dangerous.  I’m just a little trussed-up chicken.  Rapport was the first step toward carelessness.

“Not really,” she told him.  “My job’s mostly sneaking about.  I only fight when I have to.”

“Well, you fight pretty good, little one.  Maybe when the boss is through with you, you get to fight with us, eh?”

“I can hardly wait.”

They all had another laugh at that, then one of them asked for a cigarette.

Escape is for later, she thought as they passed out cigarettes and fished for matches.  For now there is only patience.  And where the hell is that boy?  By the time I get out of here, Rodriguez will have probably moved him to another country!

 *          *          *

The late morning sun cooked Nathan Douglas as he walked along the bustling street three blocks up from Barranquilla’s waterfront, and that wasn’t all.  Information was very much the base of this man’s power, and having had none since yesterday morning, he was starving.

He felt self-conscious in his pastel blue tropical suit, but then he knew he was being watched, and he knew who was doing the watching.  Part of his job was to make it easy.  Strolling at an unhurried pace along Paseo Bolivar, he stepped onto the patio of an outdoor restaurant on the corner of Avenida Olaya Herrera.  The lunchtime crowd had not arrived in earnest, and he picked on of the many empty tables and sat down.  His back to the establishment, he had a good view of the busy main street, and he feigned interest in the dog-eared menu card.

“You’re late, Mr. Seven,” came a heavily accented voice from behind the newspaper at the next table.

“You don’t worry about my punctuality,  and I won’t worry about your pay.  Where is the girl?”

“You mean the redheaded child you so foolishly entrusted with the most important operation of your career?”

“You obviously don’t keep abreast of world affairs.  Oh, look!”  Douglas made a flourishing gesture toward a passing vehicle, and in that second when any passing eye would be attracted to it, dropped an envelope on the floor from his other hand.

“Pardon me,” the other man said, managing to keep his face obstructed with the newspaper as he bent to pick up the envelope.  “Look at what?”

“Never mind, it’s gone now.”

The man sat back up and adjusted his newspaper.

“I have become aware that your wonder girl is once again held prisoner on the Rodriguez Estate,” the man said.  “My I remind you that you had a chance to retain my whole team for a tenth of what you’re paying her.  I’m afraid the cost of cleaning up her mess will be much higher.”

“You get what you pay for,” Douglas said, “and what I’m paying for at the moment is information.  What is the girl’s condition?”

“She is unharmed, at least for now.  Of course, knowing Rodriguez’s tendency to give ‘gifts,’ should we say, to his retainers . . .  And that doesn’t even address that sadistic bastard, Beasley.”

“I am well aware of Lobo Gris and his henchmen’s excesses.  What would be involved if I wanted you to get her out?”

“Money.  I don’t anticipate a great deal of difficulty, but there is a principle involved.”

“Punitive fees.”

“Call it what you like.  Whatever the case, crooks and officials are two sides of the same coin.  If the palms are properly greased, the eyes always seem to be averted at the critical moment.”

“Perhaps that would best be left to someone with local knowledge.  Could you recommend someone?”

“Of course.  There would, of course, be an additional fee.”

“I would expect nothing else.  Stay up on the situation, and keep your phone turned on.  I may have more work for you.  Never mind,” he said to the waiter who bustled over as Douglas stood up, anticipating a lost sale.  “Just resting my feet for a moment.”

Turning onto Olaya Herrera, he headed back toward the marina, and his air-conditioned yacht.