Chameleon 3

© 2018, Jack H. Tyler

She was just one more Nortamericano tourist as far as the bus driver or anyone else could tell, popping her gum, fiddling with her camera, and wearing that pinched look around the eyes caused by suffering in the too-tights jeans.  She greeted him without smiling in a harsh Brooklyn accent, and took a seat across from the back door.

“The Mansions of the Magdalena Coast,” the tour billed itself in grand fashion, screaming from a red, green, and yellow pamphlet.  Refreshments were promised, and in fulfillment, she was dutifully handed a warm bottle of spring water by a young girl in traditional costume as she boarded.  No matter; she hadn’t come for the food.  Many stops and walking tours were promised, and while she didn’t imagine El Lobo Gris would offer a tour of his drug empire, a nearby stop with some concealment would suit her purposes nicely.

So she settled back in the seat and listened to the noisy engine start up; she hoped the attractive young woman with the peasant dress and boom microphone had good lungs.  At least the air conditioning worked.  The woman began a long-winded dissertation on the glorious history of Barranquilla the moment they started to move.

Thankfully, they took Avenida Olaya Herrera, the most direct route out of town, and by the time they had rolled past the UFO-gothic Metropolitan Cathedral and the modest but modern university at the south end of the residential district, O’Reilly had learned more than she had ever wanted to know about Spaniards, Indians, and man’s oppression of his fellow man.  The road to Puerto Colombia began to climb immediately into the low, picturesque hills above the town, hills that were in reality the northernmost tip of the great Andes Mountains.  The rich had begun to build wherever elevated ground provided a decent view, and the bus began making stops and slowdowns within a half-mile of town.

Now O’Reilly really had to put on a show of interest in things she couldn’t care less about.  Here was the home of Enrique Garcia Santa Maria Jorge Lopez, third assistant to the province’s under-undertaker, or some such bull.  She quickly discovered that no one was interested in her, and if she stayed at the fringe of the group and sighted through her camera at the right moments, no one paid her any mind.

No one except a fifty-fivish man at least that many pounds overweight who was more interested in the charms of Colleen O’Reilly than any house in the hills of Colombia.  He attached himself to her at the first stop, making a humorously derogatory comment about the architect, then moving away.  He took her lack of hostility as approval, and when they reboarded the bus, he sat on the opposite side of the aisle one row in front of her.

“Mark Skidmore,” he said, turning around to address her as the bus began to roll.

“How’s that”

“Me.  I’m Mark Skidmore from Austin, Texas.  I’m in oil.”

“That must be frightfully inconvenient.”

“Ha!  Danged if you ain’t got the cutest little sense of humor!  I’m a dealer in petroleum.”

“Oh.  How nice.”

She made a show of examining her tour brochure.

“Danged uncomfortable, craning my neck like this,” he said, and the next thing she knew he was sliding into the seat beside her.  “Didn’t catch your name.”

“Didn’t throw it.”

“Ha!  There’s that sense of humor again.  Dang, I love that!”

Good God!  Just what she needed, a guy hitting on her in the middle of a job.  Dealing with this sort of crap was what separated the amateurs from the professionals.  The last thing she needed was a guy old enough to be her father with a stick so far up his ass that he’d wear a business suit on a vacation tour following her around like a lovesick puppy.  Still, she couldn’t afford to cause a scene with him; if she did, everyone on the bus would have one eye on them for the remainder of the trip.

“Sandra,” she said.  “Sandra Deitz.”

“Pleased to meet you, Sandra Deitz,” he said, taking her hand and pumping it so vigorously her teeth rattled.  “You must be from New York.”

“Are you sure you’re not a detective?  What gave me away?”

“Why, that accent, honey.”

“Didn’t think I had one.”

“Ha!  That’s a good one!  So, what are you down here for?”

“Vacation.”

“Now come on!  Nobody vacations in this dump.”

“Got a mirror?”

“What?  Oh, shoot, I’m not on vacation.  I’m down here to buy a house.”

“In this dump?”

“I dabble in land speculation.”

“I see.”

“Now, ladies and gentlemen,” their guide announced, “we have another stop coming up a mile ahead.  This is a highway rest stop, and as well as the beautiful view of several choice homes, there are rest rooms, and sometimes vendors of traditional foods and art objects.”

“Art objects?  Now that shines!  Stick with me, hon.  I’ll buy you the Mona Lisa.”

This guy was turning into a real problem.  Her plan had been to simply disappear, a skill she had been given far beyond any normal need.  She needed to disappear at this stop, already in view ahead, but if she did so now, this clown would call out the army to search for his “girlfriend.”  No, he would have to be distracted first.

The bus pulled in, the guide promised more pulse-pounding excitement after they had had a chance to use the facilities and visit the vendors, and everyone stepped out and scattered toward whatever they were most interested in.  In the case of Mr. Skidmore, that was Colleen O’Reilly.

“Come on, hon, let’s go find the Mona Lisa.”

“I have to use the little girls’ room,” she said, heading toward the faux-ancient building at the far end of the stop.

“Well, that shines!” he crowed, falling into step with her.  “If you need any help, I’m here to serve!”

Step into my parlor . . .

She walked at a casual pace, making small talk and examining the ground.  The stop was situated to command a view of the river, which put it well up the hillside.  The vegetation was thick, a miniature jungle that could hide a herd of elephants; it would be child’s play for one little lady dressed in smoke-colored jeans and a green patterned blouse to disappear from the face of the earth in there.  That only left the issue of Tex, here, her own personal Bozo.

The plan formulated as they walked, and she took his arm in preparation.

“Oh, hey, honey.  Getting better acquainted now, are we?”

“I’ve never been out with a Texan,” she said, picking a spot ahead, a runoff ravine free of vegetation dropping some fifty feet at a not-quite vertical angle.  “You kind of grow on a girl.”

She hugged his arm to her and steered him toward the spot, slowing as if to enjoy the view.  Stopping at the edge, she looked around, an observant tourist, and was gratified to see that the whole crowd had either dashed for the rest rooms or wandered off toward the vendor carts; they were as good as alone.  As they stood together looking at the boats on the river in the distance, she released his arm and slid hers around his waist.  When she pressed herself against him, he pressed back as she knew he would, and she suddenly lowered her weight and pivoted away from him.  With his own weight doing the work, he pitched forward and over the side, and the sagging safety chain only served to ensure that his feet would be tangled and unable to find purchase.  He was only able to shout “Hey!” before he disappeared.

“Oh my God!” O’Reilly shouted, suddenly the picture of a damsel in distress.  “Help me, help me, oh God, help me!”

The tourists and vendors looked at her curiously from across the lot, some beginning to walk casually in her direction, but the driver and guide from the bus came running.

“What is it, Señorita?”  the driver shouted as they came.

Good boy!

“That man I was talking to fell over the edge.”  She was pacing agitatedly, hands flapping up and down before her.  The driver turned back to the guide.

“Marie, summon an ambulance.  Hurry!”

He reached the spot as the crowd began to gather; now there was something interesting to see, not just the annoyance of a person who needed help.

“Señor,” the driver shouted to the Texan, who lay in an unmoving heap at the bottom of the ravine, “can you hear me?”

His chest was moving well enough, but one leg was bent at a funny angle, and he didn’t answer.

“Señor!”

“I’m gonna be sick,” O’Reilly groaned, and staggered off toward the bathrooms with no one marking her passage.  She walked unsteadily around the front of the bathroom building and seeing no one on this side, continued past and entered the dense foliage beyond.  By the time the approaching sirens could be heard in the distance, she was across the road and studying Rodriguez’s villa through the powerful lens of her 35mm camera.

The outer wall, traditional adobe, was topped with military razor wire.  Through the gate she could see the occasional guard cross the driveway, one with a leashed dog at his side.  She worked her way around the compound, taking pictures of anything she thought might be useful, though she couldn’t see much save trees and the upper stories above the wall.

Ready to leave, she located a brushy ravine that dropped straight away from the wall to the north, away from town.  It offered excellent cover, and was the last place any pursuit would look for anyone who should be trying to get back to town.  Following this down, she came to the highway.  The guidebook had promised that hitchhiking was quite easy in Colombia, and being a young, attractive female didn’t make it any harder.

The rescue crew was still on the scene when the ancient farm truck that had picked her up passed the rest stop.

 *          *          *

Ami Takeri lay on his back on the threadbare cot they had given him, watching cockroaches cruise the ceiling.  His cell was in a cinder block building that had originally housed boilers and generators.  Now it was a storage room for crates and bales of widely varying sizes, and the three cells had been nooks housing controls and switch panels.  Bars bolted and cemented across the open fronts converted them into holding cells for Rodriguez’s prisoners, and a plain copper pipe had been run into each, with a garden spigot to provide water.  Portable toilets completed the decor, provided not because Rodriguez was compassionate, but so that the doors of the cells never had to be unlocked.

The big room outside the bars was lit by a series of skylights through which nothing but the sky was visible.  They had provided him nothing to read, no radio, no diversion of any kind.  It was solitary confinement and sensory deprivation combined into one non-activity, and it wore on Takeri relentlessly.  It wasn’t sensory deprivation in the strictest sense though, since the boy could mark the passage of time by watching the sky.  That only served to make it worse.

He sat up on the cot at the sound of a clang out of his view at the end of the big room.  This would be the culinary delight they sarcastically referred to as the midday meal.  Shortly, the guard he had nicknamed Bobo, a three-hundred pound caricature of a racist’s idea of a lazy Latino, shambled into view, an automatic rifle hanging down his back and a tin plate of green lumps in pearly gray sauce held before him.

“Oh, good, you’re not busy,” the man said with a sneer.

“Have you heard from my father yet?”

“They don’t tell me that stuff.  I’m just the waiter.”

He passed the plate through a slot in the door.  Takeri stood to take it, and held up one of the green objects with the spoon provided.

“What’s this stuff?”

“Vegetables.  Eat up, mijo, is good for you.”

Takeri dipped his finger in the sauce and touched it to his tongue.

“What, no salt?”

“Sorry.  I’ll have a seagull shit in it tonight.  That’s pretty salty.”

The guard shuffled back toward the door, laughing to himself in leisurely bursts that continued until Takeri heard the metal-on-metal grind of the locking mechanism.  Placing the plate on his cot, he filled the tin cup from the faucet and settled down to eat.

 *          *          *

O’Reilly had called her friend Perón after the farmer had dropped her off in the northern outskirts of the city.  She had torn the knee of her jeans, brambles clung to her hair, and she didn’t know what all else, and feeling conspicuous, she wanted to hide in a friendly taxi for the trip back to her door.

“Pablo, what do you know about the big house above the rest stop?” she asked her driver.

“Is bad place, Señorita,” he said without hesitation.

“What makes it bad?”

“Many bad men go there, men with guns instead of hearts.”

“And you know this yourself, or are you just telling stories for the pretty tourist?”

“Oh, no, Señorita!  I am often called upon to take a fare up there, or bring one down.  The men wear suits.  They have scars.  ‘Look ahead, peon,’ they say.  ‘Don’t talk to us, peon.’  They never smile, even when they have the women with them.”

“What women are these?”

“Las putas.  The whores.  Sometimes locals with too much paint and not enough clothes.  Sometimes Nortamericanos who look like movie stars.  Even when they call down to the city, and I drive the women up alone, they do not smile, either.  They know what is in store for them.  Once, one of them was taken right in my cab.  Women mean only one thing to men like these.”

“Mmm hmm.  Pablo, if I need a ride up there later, will you be available?”

“Señorita, please!  A nice young woman like yourself?  These men will use you up and throw away the skin.  It is out of the question!  You cannot be serious.”

“It was just a thought.  Take it easy.”

She tipped him another $10.00 when they arrived at the Victoria.  Bounding up the stairs, she checked at the desk for mail she knew wasn’t coming, and rode the slow, ornate elevator to the third floor.  Emulating the gait of a weary tourist, she walked to her room and knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” a man’s voice answered.

The Balisong appeared as if by magic, baring its single fang as she replied, “Housekeeping,” in a thick Spanish accent.

Fortunately for Two Eighty Three, she had recognized his voice, so instead of thrusting the blade into his throat, she struck him smartly over the cheek bone with the base of the handle when he opened the door.

“God damn!”

As his hand went up, she rolled in beside him and drove her knee into the side of his thigh.  He collapsed like he’d been hit with a baseball bat.  Pushing his falling form to the side, she closed the door and dropped her knee on his throat in one smooth motion, holding the tip of her knife a quarter of an inch from his eye, an easy target due to its surprised dilation.  His left hand, the one she wasn’t sitting on, went up beside his face in a gesture of surrender.

“You are, beyond any doubt, the biggest imbecile it has ever been my misfortune to work with,” she told him.  “What is your function in the CIA, assistant librarian?”

“O’Reilly, where have you been?” he asked, ignoring her tirade.

“Never mind that.  What are you doing here?”

“I’m lying on the floor under an attractive young woman.”

“You’re in no position to be making jokes, then.”

“I like this position.  It’s really quite enjoyable.”

She sat up straight, then rose, the knife disappearing as mysteriously as it had appeared.

“Never mind, then, wise-ass.”  She picked up a light robe and stepped into the bathroom.  “I asked what you’re doing here.”

“I was looking for you, and I asked where you’ve been.”

“Why are you looking for me, then?”

“I’ve told you, liaison.”

“And I’ve told you that I don’t need a liaison.  You keep coming around here with your CIA suit and your CIA badge, you’re going to blow my cover, and if that happens, you’d better hope I don’t survive the experience.”

“Miss O’Reilly, we’re part of your cover.  While a half-dozen druggies are down at the marina watching our yacht with hundred-power telescopes, you’re free to come and go as you please.”

There was a long silence before she stepped out of the bathroom, barely covered by the skimpy robe.  The effect wasn’t lost on Two Eighty Three, whose eyes widened again.

“What about you?” she asked, more civil now.

“Me?”

“Aye.  If they’re watching you, they must watch you come in here.”

“Oh.  We’re trained in losing tails, and I have help.  From the yacht, you know.”

“All right.  So I repeat, what are you doing here?”

“I come by daily to see what you need.  Now I repeat, where have you been?”

“Getting a closer look at the villa.”

“What?  That’s madness!”

“That’s what I do best.  Why else did you hire me?”

“Okay, okay.  So, what’d you find out?”

“Precious little.  I couldn’t get within a mile of the place,” she lied.  “This might be where you come in.  I need detailed plans of the outside security system.”

“That could be difficult.”

“Of course it’ll be difficult, then.  You told me you were good.  Was that true, or was it just a ploy to get into my knickers?”

“Well, we do have extensive resources.  I’ll see what I can do.”

“Splendid.  You do that.  And there’s another thing.”  She went to the window and looked out.  “I can see several blocks down the street from here.  When you leave, I’ll stay in the window until I see you identify it, and from now on, when I need something I’ll move that table so the lamp is in the window.  If you don’t see the lamp, I don’t need you.”

“All right.  What if I need you, though?”

“Then you do what you have to do, but the less you’re in and out of here, the safer I feel.  Now, good day.”

 *          *          *

“You wished to see me, Señor Rodriguez?”

The man’s face had been ravaged in childhood by some particularly unfortunate disease whose pocks and craters had left his face resembling a map of the moon.  Now in the prime of his health, his powerful frame filled his extra-large tropical suit to the bursting point; as he stood in the doorway to Rodriguez’s lavishly appointed study, he filled that as well.

“Ah, Escobar,” he was welcomed by a tall, dapper man of around fifty, perfectly trimmed hair graying at the temples, the very picture of distinguished maturity.  “Come in.  Close the door.”

As the pockmarked giant did this, and settled into the chair indicated for him, Rodriguez took a seat behind his desk, activating the hidden tape recorder as he did so.

“I have called you here to prepare a package for our prisoner’s family.  They must be punished for failing to provide their son with a proper upbringing.”

“You want me to send them the little prick’s finger?”

“No, no, Carlos.  The key to this business is subtlety.  We can do that later.  We want to start them out easy.  Now, their little snot off a son has cost me over a million American dollars.  William’s search indicates that the father is a research scientist with a chemical laboratory.  He will not be able to replace that kind of money, but I should think that, oh, a hundred thousand dollars should cause him a comparable level of discomfort.”

“I do not know about those things, Señor Rodriguez.”

“No, I suppose not.  Well then, we shall ask for a hundred thousand dollars.  The note must be carefully worded.”  He took his rosewood pen from its holder and sat for a moment with it poised above a notepad.  “I know.  We will send him the boy’s shirt.  Now, the note.”

He scratched at his temple with the end of the pen, then with a satisfied “Ah,” leaned forward and began to write.

MR. TAKERI,

I AM SURE YOU RECOGNIZE THIS SHIRT.  IF YOU WISH TO SEE THE CONTENTS AGAIN, YOU WILL COLLECT $100,000 IN SMALL BILLS AND PLACE THEM IN A BRIEFCASE.  YOU WILL BE CONTACTED WITHIN EIGHT HOURS.  YOU MAY PROVIDE THE MONEY, OR A LAST MESSAGE TO YOUR SON.  BE READY.

DEATH

“There, Carlos, what do you think?”

Escobar read the message, and a smile touched his lips.

“That’s nice, Señor.  A last message to your son.”

“Yes, Carlos.  That’s subtlety, you see?  No raving, no threats of epic violence.  Just a simple, reasonable statement from one professional to another.  All right, get Louisa to type it up using sterile procedures.  We don’t want any of our fingerprints on it.  Fly it up to Juarez this weekend and have our friends there handle the delivery.  They are to use their own standard ransom procedure.  Wait for the answer, then get back down here.  And, Carlos.”

“Si, Señor?”

“Go easy on the boy’s fingers.  Anyone with his skills and lack of morals could wind up on the payroll at any time.”

 *          *          *

“Save us, Colleen!”

It was a child this time, floating above the floor of a train station in a tattered, bloody nightshirt.  The children were the worst.

“Save us, Colleen!”

Or was it the mothers, like this one, reaching out from the crowd with long, manicured fingers, her other arm a grizzly, shredded stump, half of her young, pretty face blown away?

“Colleen, don’t do it!” begged a baby from a pram.  “I don’t want to die!”

And the men, with their promises of revenge, men who should be no threat to her whatsoever, but who terrified her nonetheless.

“You’ll pay for this, bitch!”

“We’ll get you!”

“Don’t think you’re going to get away with it!”

Arms, arms, arms, reaching out from their broken, shattered bodies, bodies that shouldn’t be able to move, that shouldn’t be alive, bodies gathered into densely packed crowds, shuffling toward her, reaching out with bloody, mangled arms.

And the drums.  BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM!  BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM!

They would have her this time, reaching, grasping, taking their revenge.  BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM!

O’Reilly jumped awake to the sound of insistent pounding on her hotel room door.  She lay atop the covers dressed in panties and a sheen of sweat.  The clock on the nightstand read 8:55.  The sun was up; had to be morning.

“Colleen?”

Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom.

Two Eighty Three.

“Jussa minute,” she answered around a mouthful of cotton.  Getting up, she put on her light robe and opened the door, admitting Four Twenty Seven’s lackey.

“Are you all right?” he asked, taking in her tattered appearance.

“I will be.  Sit down.”

She picked up the phone, ordered a fruit salad with lots of coffee, and shuffled into the bathroom where she went to work on her face.

“What happened?”

“Had a bad dream.”  She didn’t tell him it was the same one she had three times a week with only minor variations in the details, the one that had driven her out of her chosen profession.  “What do you need?”

“I have the plans you asked for.”

Surprised, she leaned back to look out of the bathroom, and saw him with his trouser leg rolled above the knee, removing the rubber bands from a large piece of paper that wrapped around his calf.  Springing it loose, he laid it on the ancient coffee table.  She idly wondered how many secret conspiracies the old piece of furniture had witnessed.

A moment later she appeared in khaki shorts and a white tank top, and sat down beside him.

“That was quick, then.”

“I told you I was good.”  He unrolled the large sheet, weighing one side down with an ashtray, and holding the other with his hand.  “This was drawn from the latest satellite pass we had, which I believe was two days ago.  The key is right here.  You shouldn’t have any trouble, but if you have any questions, you have the number at the yacht.”

“Yes.”

“Well, I have to get back.  A gofer’s work is never done.”

They both smiled at that, and she walked him the five feet to the door.  As she hoped, the room service cart was in sight, and she waited to roll it in, locking the door behind her.

She poured a cup of world-famous Colombian coffee, a brew that was probably still on the tree yesterday, speared a piece of papaya on a wooden skewer, and sat down to study her new map.

She  oriented herself by finding the ravine she had used to exit the area yesterday.  To her surprise, this diagram showed it being full of motion sensors, and kept under observation by a manned guard tower.  She had been in there less than twenty-four hours ago and had seen no one, and triggered no alarms.  Of course, the local wildlife would set off motion sensors every two minutes, so that made no sense at all, but she had felt no need for evasive action.  She had that ravine marked as the Achilles heel of the fortress, but now this map, provided by her client, suggested that getting near that spot was to invite certain death.  Suspicion aroused, she checked a couple of other places she had seen firsthand, and in one of them, there was a similar glaring error that could easily cause her to be killed or captured should she base her plan on this map.

Alarm bells were ringing in her head that she didn’t like the sound of.  Confident in skills and instincts made sharp by constant use since childhood, she felt that she could take on the world, with one simple condition:  She had to be able to trust the client.

Rolling up the client’s map, she laid beside the bed and slipped it into the bottom of the box springs.  This situation would require a closer look.