Chameleon 6

© 2018, Jack Tyler

Nathan Douglas reclined in a deck chair aboard his yacht, poring over a case analysis of the Espectro Solár drug cartel, and occasionally glancing up to take in the lights of Barranquilla.  Cruddy little hole, abominable weather; it would be a joy to wrap this case up and get back to civilization, a concept given to include weather fit or human habitation.

The yacht belonged to the Agency.  Boarded by the Customs Service back in ’96, it had been full to the gunwales with cocaine, hashish, and marijuana, and under America’s zero-tolerance policy, had simply been kept.  When the CIA had needed a high-profile vehicle to distract attention, an inter-agency swap of assets had brought it under the control of the intelligence service.  Douglas liked this life.  When he finally took his golden handshake and disappeared to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, he would have one much like it.  Much like it, but bigger.

One of the agent/deckhands interrupted this reverie, handing him a portable phone.

“Call, sir, for Four Twenty Seven.”

“Thank you, Nick.”  Taking the instrument, he switched it on.  “Seven . . .  Good evening, my friend, and what can I do for you? . . .  The girl we’re running now? . . .  That would be Colleen O’Reilly . . .  I think so.  Let me get down to my files and get you the accurate information.”

Douglas took a leisurely walk back to the cockpit, below to the corridor, and back to his cabin, his callous disregard for his caller’s time a demonstration of his superiority.  Laying the phone down, he opened a file cabinet, thumbed slowly through the folders, and finally extracted a thick one.  Taking a seat at his desk, he opened the folder, studied it for a moment, and finally picked up the phone again.

“Amigo . . .  Never mind that.  I have the information.  Born Colleen Abigail O’Reilly, age twenty-six.  Auburn hair, green eyes, five foot five, usually  runs about one-ten to one-twenty.  Slender build, very athletic.  There are over twenty aliases here that she’s been questioned under, and another two pages that she’s suspected of using.  I don’t suppose you want all those?  . . .  Kelly McGill?  Let me see . . .  Yes, here it is.  That one’s confirmed.”

Douglas opened the heavy door on the left side of his desk and took a Michelob from the built-in refrigerator.  Damn this climate!

“Background?  Well, she was born into an IRA family and indoctrinated from the moment of birth.  Her mother was a principal bomber who took young Colleen on missions to deflect suspicion.  Who’d suspect a mother and child, you know?  By the age of five, Colleen was being trusted to leave her little lunch pail or back pack somewhere, and people were dying because of that.  Her mother was killed in a premature explosion when she was twelve, and she took over the family business without missing a beat.  Operated first in Ireland, usually the Belfast area, then moved to London, where she became the greatest scourge since the Black Death according to this report.  Excuse me.”

He raised his eyebrows at the deckhand who had tapped and then opened the door.

“The Director, sir, on the satellite link.”

“God.  I’ll be right with him.  My apologies.  I may have to ring him back.  Case business.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m afraid I’m a bit pressed for time here.  Was there anything else? . . .  Languages, let’s see.  She’s fluent in Gaelic, English, French, and Spanish.  Gets by in German, and can eavesdrop in a few others.  Speaks in over thirty accents and regionalisms well enough to convince anyone but a linguistics expert . . .  Linguistics . . .  An expert on languages.”

God, these wogs!

“She is also expert at disguising herself through the use of wigs, padding, make-up, dental wax, and various appliances like shoe lifts and colored contact lenses.  I’ve seen her in action.  She’s astounding . . .  Yes, she is an escape artist, in fact, and it goes farther than that.  She can get, no, she has gotten out of places that would have made Houdini sit down and cry.  She has some natural gifts in the field of gymnastics, and we believe she has taken some training to enhance them.  These help with the escapes, and also in hand-to-hand combat.  She isn’t trained in that area, but her natural athleticism makes her dangerous, and she has pretty well mastered the Balisong . . .  The Filipino butterfly knife . . .  That’s her preferred weapon.”

He lowered his head and rubbed his temples.  He had to get off this phone; the director was waiting.

“Why is she here?  Why do you think she’s here? . . .  Oh.  Well, about three years ago, for reasons no one is sure of, she disappeared from Ireland and later turned up, first in Eastern Europe, and more recently in Brazil.  She is making her living as a sort of paladin, taking contract jobs to right wrongs that the regular authorities can’t or won’t touch . . .  We don’t know what happened, obviously some major falling out within her cell, most of which is related by blood, by the way.  Anyway, as well as the sort of governmental most-wanted decrees that you would expect to find her on, the IRA has a huge price on her head, but only if she’s alive.  There have been several bodies found who are believed to be bounty hunters thinking to collect it . . .  Okay, look, I have to go.  I’ve got my boss on the other line.  You be careful up there, and don’t let anything bite you in the ass . . .  Same to you, my friend.  Good bye.”

Switching off the portable, Douglas drained his beer and got up to go to the communication room.  Time to see what the boss wanted.

 *          *          *

The group of men entered the sunken stairway that led to the old boiler room, morale high, the two soldiers happily speculating on the possibility of spending some “quality time” with the ninja-girl.  Rodriguez said nothing to discourage this.  It was good to keep the men’s spirits high, and besides, what was it to him if they wanted to have a little fun with a prisoner; just so long as he had his first.  Between Dr. Beasley and his drugs, and Ramon with his pain-and-relief techniques, the woman would soon be singing like a canary, and after she had sung, what could he care what her guards did with her body?

Such was the mood as the heavy key turned in the antique lock.  That mood evaporated like mist when the first thing that met their eye was the portly form of the cell guard laid out like a pig at a luau in the middle of the floor.

“Son of a bitch!” one of his soldiers snarled, swinging his MP5 up to the ready position and stepping carefully into the room, his partner at his side.  They were capable, dangerous, like a pair of lions investigating a watering hole.

Once it was apparent there was no immediate danger, Rodriguez and his interrogators came in, each holding a small pistol at the ready.  Rodriguez immediately looked into Takeri’s cell, and seeing the boy standing at the bars, barked, “What happened here?”

“That girl you brought in kicked fatty’s ass and left,” Takeri replied, grinning from ear to ear.

“Where did she go?”

“I don’t know,” the boy answered.  “She didn’t say.”

Takeri was no genius, but he knew her chances, and therefore his, would be much better if he could convince these men that the incredible woman was long gone.

“Left how?”

“Through the door, how else?”

“The door was locked.”

“She took fatty’s keys.”

“Is that right?  Well, tell me this.  How come she didn’t take you with her?”

“Maybe I’m not her type.”

“No, that’s not it.  You’re just a little too pleased with things.  I’ve got my torturer right here, little man.  You’d do well to tell me the truth right now.  What really happened in here, and no lies from you!”

“I wouldn’t change a word.  She tricked fatty into going into her cell somehow.  He walked in and flew back out.  She must have hit him with a sledgehammer!  She took his keys and his gun, and said to me, ‘payback’s a bitch,” and out she went.  You just missed her”

“God damn it!  Enrique, raise the alarm!”

“Si, patrón!”  One of the soldiers rushed out of the building.

“Julio, guard the door.  And as for you, young man, we wouldn’t be proper hosts if we left you alone down here with a dangerous terrorista running loose, now would we?  Doctor, something to help him sleep, I think.”

Beasley looked up from fatty’s snoring form.  He had wandered over, prodded him with a toe, and produced a flask.  Now he took a swig, and joined the other two men.

Rodriguez motioned to the cell, Ramon produced the key and opened it, and the two men entered, the boy protesting, “No, please!” as Beasley slowly and methodically filled a syringe from a tiny glass bottle.

 *          *          *

O’Reilly watched from the rafters as Takeri was half-carried from his cell by Beasley and Ramon.  His protests had subsided suddenly, and now he was limp and stuporous, drugged with what, she couldn’t know.  That ruled out a rescue attempt; even if she could outshoot the four men below plus whoever else the noise attracted, she could hardly engineer an escape while carrying what was essentially a grown man who couldn’t even stand on his own.

No, that would come later.  For now, well, if they were going to kill him, they would have just done it, and that would have been that.  They were keeping him alive for something, and that meant that, at worst, she would have to locate him anew and start all over; no problem.

As Beasley and Ramon guided Takeri’s drugged form up the stairs, the soldier remained with Rodriguez, who stepped over to the fat guard’s still unconscious form.

“Canteen,” he barked at the soldier, who passed the item from his belt.  Rodriguez opened it and poured a stream of water into the fat man’s face, who woke up suddenly, spluttering and wiping his eyes.

“Having a nice rest, you fucking fool?” Rodriguez shouted at him.

“S-Señor Lobo,” the man stammered, scrambling to his feet.  She had cracked him a good one, and as he rose into the light, she was pleased to see the whole left side of his face turning into a giant welt.

“Where is the boy?” Rodriguez snapped at his confused expression.

“In his cell?”  I wasn’t a statement.  Rodriguez backhanded him across the right side of his face, his two large rings undoubtedly starting a companion to the welt O’Reilly’s boots had given him.  The man recoiled and cowered, realizing the worst.

“That’s what I thought.  What did she do, offer you a blowjob if you’d open the door?”

“No, Señor!”

“So, how did she get out?  She didn’t have a key when I put her in there.”

“She tricked me.  She is the devil, that one?”

“Wrong, fat one.  She is an imp.  I am the devil.  Bring him to the house,” he said to the soldier.  “I think we have found the subject for the new drug that Dr. Beasley wishes to test.”

“Oh, no!” the guard shouted, pulling back as the soldier reached to grasp his elbow.  “Señor, please!”

“If he offers the slightest resistance, shoot him in the knee.”

“Si, patrón.”  The soldier reached for his pistol and the guard acquiesced, accompanying the soldier to the door as he made a soft whimpering sound in his throat.

Rodriguez remained a moment longer, pistol in hand, looking first into her cell, then upward around the room.  she was in scant danger of being seen, as she was nestled into a nexus of beams and light fixtures, and she studied him in return.

He was handsome, enjoying the progression of a Latino who was aging well.  She thought for a moment of Desi Arnaz.  No, Ricardo Montalbán, she decided.  That sort of old-world elegance.  The casual way he inflicted pain and suffering on others didn’t fit the image, though.  Adolph Eichmann must have been like him, she thought.  Or Colleen O’Reilly, answered the incriminating little voice that never took a holiday or allowed her a moment’s peace.

“Oh, you’re good, bitch,” he said in a tone so conversational that she thought for a moment he must have spotted her.  But no, he was just giving voice to his frustration.  “I shall enjoy the challenge of running you to ground, and I will have you.”

Blowing a kiss into the rafters, he turned and left, closing the metal door, but not locking it.

Maybe he had seen her.  Maybe he just felt that she was still in the room hearing his every word.  In any case, if the black-hearted bastard wanted to have a contest, then let the games begin!

Deciding to start by letting him stew a bit, she descended to a shadowed nook, turned a dusty drop cloth over to its cleaner side, and curled up for one of the refreshing catnaps she had learned to take at need.

 *          *          *

Nathan Douglas had a tendency to keep to the yacht when he was forced to visit these third-world countries, vast collections of poverty, squalor, and violence.  Not that he couldn’t mix it up.  In his younger days he had been hell on wheels as a field agent, usually operating behind the Iron Curtain, fearless, resourceful, and efficient.  But Father Time was demanding his tribute, and as a man leaning hard on fifty, he had lost the thrill.  He had become a byzantine collector of plots, an operator of globe-spanning activities that would make a Rube Goldberg mousetrap look like a straightforward device.

All these schemes had the goal of keeping his country safe and strong in the confusing post-Soviet Union world.  The American people thought the dragon was dead, and so it seemed to be, but what they failed to realize was that the dragon had been replaced by a nest of poisonous snakes.  That, and that the dragon had left offspring behind.

That was where Nathan Douglas came in.  A brilliant spook born of the Cold War, Douglas was devoted to America and her golden, shimmering promise of plenty.  He knew, of course, that he would be excluded from that plenty.  His government salary, which varied based on a multitude of odd factors undoubtedly agreed to by a bean counter and a union rep, brought him change over fifty thousand a year.  Travel and expenses brought it into the neighborhood of seventy.  A single man, he certainly wasn’t living payday to payday, but it would take two years’ salary to buy the car he favored, and twenty for the house.  When he retired, which could happen in seven years, he expected his pension to amount to about forty, with no extra benefits.

For a man of Douglas’s tastes, that was abject poverty, and he had no intention of sitting in the rec room of the retirement condo trying to catch the eye of the old women.  No, there was more to Nathan Douglas than that, and what it was required money in almost unlimited supply.  His razor-sharp mind had developed ways to provide it.

No longer a field spook, he coordinated operations all over the world.  This one in Colombia was one of a baker’s dozen he had in various stages of completion throughout Latin America.  The agent on one job saw what was in front of him.  The agent on another saw his part.  Nathan Douglas saw it all, and what stood out like reflective tape to him were the money trails that ran through it all.  His hidden talent was directing those trails to his secret accounts hidden throughout the world.

Take this job.  The mission was to rescue a kid whose government couldn’t give a rat’s ass about him, but he could become a pawn in a game to steal a terrorist’s dream weapon.  The boy was being held by a druglord, and who had more money than a druglord?  And when his money was connected by implication to the corrupt government office in Venezuela that he had another agent working on, the opportunity to steal from both and have them blaming each other was simply too great a temptation to ignore.

He was here at Barranquilla because the agent he had retained for the job was his wild card.  A reformed terrorist, for Christ’s sake, how wild could a card be?  He had known about her for some time, and this seemed like the proper job for her.  An outlaw herself, she would be likely to have no scruples about taking it to a druglord; hell, even the active IRA killed them on sight, didn’t they?  Things that came up missing after the takedown could be conveniently laid on her account, and even if she got killed during the mission, there were a dozen countries on two continents that would pay a hefty sum for that rangy little body.  The girl was literally worth her weight in gold.

Such were his thoughts as he sat in his deck chair half-reading his case file on an ongoing job in Argentina when one of the crew brought him a phone.  He looked up distractedly, saw it was one of the scrambled phones that meant an agent, and took it.

“Seven . . . Oh, you did? . . . Of course, she’s escaped.  Her remarkable skill in that area is why I hired her.  Has she gotten the boy out? . . . Well, do you know where she is? . . . How about Two Eighty Three? . . . I see . . . She hasn’t seen him, has she? . . . Well, you’d better run down some answers and call me back . . . Yes, I’ll be available . . . Sometime in the next hour would be good . . . Good bye.”

He pushed the antenna down a looked at the city lights with a sigh.  This was when you earned your pay, when the fucking job blew up in your face.  Time to make another call.

 *          *          *

He was coming around, finally, climbing through dark cotton toward the world of the living.  The drug had left his system, but had taken with it the alertness, the edge that so often meant the difference in the constant struggle to stay alive.

He examined his body as awareness returned.  He had some numb spots on his thighs and forearms.  These he put down to the drugs, and prayed he was right.  He felt an itch on his cheek, and when he moved to scratch it, found that his wrists were shackled above his head.  They had used manacles with a long chain run through a ring, and he found he could rub his face against his arm.  In the course of pulling against that chain, he discovered that his feet were likewise chained to the cool, hard floor.

He had heard voices speaking in Spanish in the distance and kept his eyes closed, having seen enough movies to believe there was an advantage in them not knowing he was awake.  Now he risked a quick peek, only to find he was confined in total darkness.  The floor he lay on seemed to be metal, and the hollow quality to his hearing suggested that his cage was very small indeed.

Trussed like a hog, he lay in the dark and wondered first what 007 would do.  007 would, of course, switch on his laser ring and cut the chain.  No help there.  He wondered for a while how a high school senior had come to be a prisoner in a South American dungeon.  His captors, Mexican boys his own age, brandishing small handguns as they forced him into their beat-up van, had told him nothing, had not even spoken English in his presence.  Then he had been forced into a private jet by some adults led by that big man, Escobar, who had handed one of the kids a valise and joined his new captors on the plane.  No one had spoken to him on the flight, which he estimated to be of about five hours in duration.  They had been met by another car which had driven them to this palace in the hills, where he had been thrown into a cell and fed slop while a portly man with a British accent had periodically assured him somewhat cryptically that his father wouldn’t let anything happen to him.

So was that it, had he been kidnapped for ransom?  He knew from what little he had seen of the place that whoever owned this villa could buy and sell his father.  No, there had to be something else to it.  Did they mean to kill him?  They could have done that already, could have done it in El Paso with no need for private jets and squads of commandos to pay.

He had no clue, couldn’t begin to imagine why he was here.  And who was that woman?  His guardian angel, she had told him just before the untimely arrival of the sinister man and the Englishman with his drugs, but what could one woman do against a private army?

Quite a bit, if fatty was any indication.  Armed with a shotgun and weighing three hundred pounds, he had left he cell in the air, bounced once on the concrete, and not moved again.  Takeri had often fantasized over women like this who appeared in movies, but here was one in real life, one whose entire reason for being was to get him out of here.

His fantasy had progressed through the romance and into a life of domestic bliss with his mysterious angel of death when an ungodly metallic clanging and banging began that made the whole room ring around him.  The noise had no sooner stopped assailing his ears than his eyes were seared to blindness by a stream of sunlight coming through a large door that suddenly swung open.  When he could finally see again, he realized that he was chained to the floor of some sort of steel cargo container.

“Ah, good, you’re awake,” came the voice of the Englishman.  “None the worse for your little blackout, are we?”

“Blackout?  You drugged me!”

“Drugged is such a harsh term.  How many fingers do you see?”

“That’s what you did!”

“Please yourself.  How many fingers?”

“Two.”

“Good.  How do you feel, a little numbness in the extremities?”

“Yes.”

“That will pass as soon as we get you up and you can move around a bit.”

Where was the avenging angel?  This smug pig would sing a different tune when she flew through that door and beat him senseless!

“Why am I here?” he asked instead.

“I’ll ask the questions.”

“My father isn’t a rich man, you know.”

“You mustn’t worry.  He won’t let any harm come to you.  I say, Francisco, get these chains off the lad and help him stand up, won’t you?”

“I demand to know why I’m here!”

“My dear boy, I’m sure you’ve noticed that you’re in no position to demand anything.  Anyway, I’m just the hired help.  You may ask the lord of the manor when you see him.  He’s going to interview you in a bit, here.  I strongly recommend you keep a civil tongue in your head when you address him”

 *          *          *

Back in the boiler room another pair of eyes flickered open as O’Reilly jumped at a furtive sound in the distance.  She took in her surroundings, carefully recalled from her memory the layout of the room, then, making no more noise than a shadow, rose to her knees to survey the floor.

Bright morning sunlight shone through the skylight, and by its harsh glare she saw a huge rat foraging along a baseboard.  Maybe an opossum, she thought.  Things grew huge in this tropical climate.

She stood up and checked the shotgun.  Five rounds.  No chance of shooting her way out with that.  She’d have to go with her original plan.  First, of course, she’d have to find Takeri again, and these people were so clever about hiding prisoners that she’d likely still be looking for him the first time if they hadn’t caught her and brought her right to him.

Oh well, nothing for it but to get started.

Creeping out of her makeshift lair, she finally managed to startle the rat, who shuffled off toward a junction of conduits against the far wall.

“Sorry, brother,” she told it, and walked slowly toward the door.  She didn’t relish using that exit.  It was a prime spot for an ambush, and anyway, dogs patrolled at ground level, waiting to tear her limb from limb.  No, it would have to be the roof.

Studying the corrugated iron roof from the floor, it didn’t take her long to spot a trap door set into one corner, serviced by a shiny, spidery ladder.  Climbing the service ladder into the building’s support beams, she began to work her way toward it.  So intent was she on following the girders to her destination that she almost walked past the old rusty locker spot-welded to one of the support pillars before she realized what it was and stopped to investigate.  Mostly tools, she saw, for working on fixtures around the catwalk, but she took a flashlight, a roll of fabric tape, and an old hunting knife in a battered sheath.  No rope.  Too bad.  Storing her newfound supplies, she moved on the the vertical ladder and started up.

The trap door opened easily onto the slight tilt of the roof, and she was up and through the hole, staying prone so as not to be seen from the ground.  Standing above the roof were the six-inch coamings around the skylights, and up at the peak, a huge unit that looked like an industrial air conditioner.  What the hell?  This machine the size of a London bus must be easily able to control the climate within the building, but it had just been occupied, and the unit wasn’t being run.

Not giving further thought to this little mystery, she crept up to the dormant monolith, then stood in a crouch to use it for cover.  Moving quietly along the near face, watching the ground on the near side as she went, she came to the end of it and turned the corner to come suddenly nose-to-nose with a swarthy face sporting a bushy black mustache.

“Que es eso?” the startled man blurted out before reaching for the MP5 slung over his shoulder as he stepped into her.  Instead of retreating as he expected her to do, O’Reilly set her feet and drove the toe of the shotgun’s stock into the ribs he exposed by reaching back for his gun.  He dropped like he’d been poleaxed, and as he struggled to suck in a breath, she hit him with it again, this time on the side of the jaw, and he stopped gasping and fell to his side, still.  A quick check showed that he was still breathing.  That would be a problem, she knew, but she had sworn off cold-blooded murder when she left the IRA behind, so she taped his mouth, taped his hands behind him, and taped them into the framing of the air conditioner.  Satisfied, she took his submachine gun and ammo belt, left the shotgun, empty, and belly-crawled to the far end of the roof.

She could see the main house, slightly higher than her own elevation, and made a note to keep out of the line of sight from there.  Looking elsewhere, she observed several other outbuildings, some connected by covered walks, and off a service road near some trees, several bulk cargo containers stood waiting, two already loaded on trailers.  A couple of guards lounged in the shadows.  A fresh drug shipment, no doubt.  A fire, or better yet, an explosion down there would make a diversion these people couldn’t ignore, but first she would have to find the boy, and as the radio on the guard’s belt crackled to life with routine chatter, it served to remind her that it was just a matter of time before someone called this guard, and then came to see why he didn’t answer.