© 2018, Jack H. Tyler
O’Reilly had slept off and on for much of the twenty-two hour ride in from Bogota. She expected that the Avianca flight into the capitol might be the last luxury she would enjoy until the job was over, and so far, things were shaping up according to expectation. The bus’s air conditioner gave up the fight two hours into the trip, the soundproofing had long-since been compromised by the humid climate, and the abominable road conditions meant she was pitched nearly to the point of seasickness by the lurching coach. The anonymity of bus travel was all the reason she needed to subject herself to this.
Now, mid-afternoon of a humid June day, the bus driver pulled into a tiny terminal on the southern fringe of Barranquilla, stopped the engine, opened the door, and walked away. She watched as the locals scrambled for their luggage in the underneath compartment, stopped a boy of nine who had thoughts of disappearing with her hard-sided valise, and pulled out her barracks bag. Entering the station, she put the valise into a three-day locker, shouldered the heavy bag’s strap, and stepped outside.
Barranquilla was a modern industrial river port. A dozen miles from the sea, its one million inhabitants crowded onto the west bank of the Magdalena River in a sort of dusty, squalid affluence, at least by Latin American standards. Street people were here, as everywhere, but not hawking and wares in this somber neighborhood. They mostly lounged in openings off the street staring with hungry appraisal at those moving about their business.
O’Reilly’s business was listed on her passport as a photographer for an obscure on-line travel site. She took a small inexpensive Canon digital from the pocket of her photographer’s equipment vest and snapped a picture of one of the loungers, who quickly turned away. Several taxis loitered around a stand up the block, having gathered like vultures at the expected arrival of the bus, and she now moved toward them, watching their drivers stop their conversations at her approach; there were relatively few tourists in Barranquilla. Selecting a portly, middle-aged driver who looked like he had kids to feed and little interest in hitting on her, she got in.
“Business district,” she said in English, settling back to see whether he spoke it.
“Si, Señorita. You have no place especial to go?”
“I’m looking for a sidewalk cafe that serves good coffee. Do you know of one?”
“Señorita, you are in Colombia! Every place serves good coffee.”
“One with a view, then.”
She settled back to watch the scenery and watch the driver sneaking glances at her as he tried to figure out what sort of girl traveled alone through South America, everything she owned in a green canvas bag. She smiled. She’d fill him in soon enough.
“Is a view of the river acceptable, Señorita?”
“Perfect.” She took out a cigarette. “Got a light?”
“Ah, si.” He pushed in the lighter. “You don’t have an extra cigarette, do you?”
“Sure. Keep the pack.”
She passed him the fresh pack of Luckies, purchased at the airport for this very purpose, and took the lighter. She didn’t smoke, but for the price of faking a cigarette, she had just made a contact among the locals.
By the time they reached the little cafe near the crowded riverfront barely a mile away, she knew his name was Pablo Perón, and that he had been married for thirteen years and had six children. He, in exchange, “knew” that she was a photographer for Worldways-dot-com, a struggling internet site that provided budget information for travelers on a shoestring, and that she was a resident of Liverpool named Kelly McGill. He was pleasantly surprised when she told him to park his cab and accompany her to the cafe.
She bought them both a light lunch and cups of steaming coffee, and she plied him with innocent-sounding travel questions as they ate, at the same time getting the lay of the port district. Plenty of river craft occupied the docks, and a couple of fair-sized ocean-going ships were tied up at the downstream end. There was even a small marina, barely worthy of the name, to serve the needs of the few pleasure boaters who made Barranquilla a port of call. She noted in passing one particularly ostentatious yacht, too big for the marina wharves, anchored out in the stream.
By the time the meal was over, she felt, if not like a local, at least as if she’d been here before and knew her way around. When they returned to his taxi she told him to take her to a hotel that offered reasonable comfort, reasonable rates, and no touristy feel. She wasn’t even surprised when he suggested the Victoria.
When they pulled up in front of the stately old dowager of the river district, she had him wait while she went in and cashed some traveler’s checks. Coming back to the curb, she paid his fare, the equivalent of $1.75, tipped him $10.00 and, waiting for his protestations to die down, asked how to get hold of him if she needed a ride. He gave her the number of his dispatcher and said a call there would reach him day or night.
Watching him drive away, she smiled in satisfaction at a good hour’s work and went in to inspect her room.
* * *
O’Reilly lay in the middle of the big bed, stripped down to bra and panties, savoring the humid breeze stirred up by the slow-moving ceiling fan. She had found a station on the tinny radio that played the sensual Brazilian jazz she favored, and the distant signal, drifting in and out, blended perfectly with the sounds of traffic and voices floating up from the street two floors below.
Relaxed by these familiar sounds, aches of the bus ride left behind in the huge, footed bathtub, she planned tomorrow’s activities. Her careful weighing of options was interrupted by a knock at the door. She sat bolt upright, laying the tour brochure on the nightstand and picking up her Balisong. The knock came again, insistent, demanding.
“It’s Two Eighty Three.”
Jesus Christ! She couldn’t have heard him right.
“Just a moment.”
She couldn’t believe Two Eighty Three would be stupid enough to visit her at the job site, but whoever was really out there was a man, and she could make use of that. Stripping off her bra, she opened the Balisong and padded silently to the door, clad only in her Hanes-Her-Ways. Listening for a moment, she heard nothing out in the hall. Steeling herself for anything, she suddenly yanked the door open.
There stood Two Eighty Three, mouth open in astonishment, sneaky syncophant’s eyes sliding over her small breasts and coming to rest on a point somewhere below her navel. Grabbing his tie, she pulled him past her into the room, took a quick look up and down the hall, and locked the door.
“And what in the name of the good Saint Agnes are you doing here, then? Aside from blowing my cover, of course.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he replied, looking disappointed as she pulled a robe over her angular tomboyish charms. “If I’m going to be your liaison, it makes it rather easier for me to, you know, be here.”
“Let me explain something to you, farm-boy, and I’ll try to keep it simple enough for you to follow. First of all, I’m not customarily in the habit of taking the client along on the job, and second of all, I’ve never, truthfully speaking, felt the need for a liaison, since I work alone. Does the word ‘alone” convey anything to you, Three, besides its obvious reference to your sex life?”
“There’s no need to be abusive, Miss O’Reilly.”
“And there’s no reason to be stupid, either, but I don’t see that cramping your style.”
“Look, I’ve been sent here for a purpose. Would you care to conduct our business, or should we spar some more?”
“We have no business, Three. You’ve given me the job. I’ll call you when it’s over.”
“That isn’t how it works, at least, not this job. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I don’t plan to go over the wall and do the commando stuff with you. What I can provide is intelligence, equipment, communications, all sorts of things to let you concentrate on the job while I free you up from the donkey work.”
“Donkey work, is it? I’ve always admired a man who knows his role. Fix me a drink, then. Scotch and soda.”
“I’ll be more than happy to fix your drink when we get to the boat, but right now, Mr. Seven wants to see you.”
“Mr. Seven! Is he here, too? Who else did you bring, then, the first lady?”
“Your endless wit really grows quite wearisome. Now, throw on some clothes, unless you wish to come as you are, and let’s go.”
“There’s no way I’m walking out of this hotel with you, Three. Give me a location and I’ll meet you there if it’s absolutely necessary.”
“Oh, it’s necessary. My instructions—”
“Come from me,” she finished.
“If you intend to be my tail during this little escapade, I intend to be the dog that wags you. Now, you can give me a location where I can meet you in a reasonable time, or you can push off and not bother me again. What’s it going to be?”
“I warned them about you, Miss O’Reilly, and it’s going to give me great pleasure to remind them repeatedly of that fact. You can meet me at the marina, and make it within the hour.”
“It’s a small marina, Miss O’Reilly, and I won’t be hiding. Just make it quick, that’s all.”
“I shall. Do you remember the way out? Good.”
She hoisted her bag to the bed and started pulling out clothes.
* * *
The cab stopped at the marina entrance and the woman got out, showing plenty of leg and a hint of panty in her little black dress. Two Eighty Three had been positioned just right for the show, and had enjoyed a lengthy appraisal of her sleek body and elegant carriage as she paid off the driver and walked down to the little pier-head coffee shop. Everything about her was to Two Eighty Three’s liking, from her jet-black pageboy to her taste in sexy yet comfortable Mary Jane shoes, and he felt a stab of envy as he thought of the man she was undoubtedly coming here to meet, and what they would undoubtedly be doing later.
Still, he had enjoyed the show, and his irritation with O’Reilly diminished; had she been cooperative, he would never have discovered this mystery woman’s taste in underwear.
When she showed no sign of coming back out, he returned his attention to the entrance, becoming irritated once again as cab after cab passed without stopping. He felt the change in his pocket; another few minutes and he would call the hotel. Who the hell does this woman think she is, anyway?
“Pardonne, monsieur,” came a breathy, bedroom voice from right behind him. “Would ze gentleman possibly ‘ave a light?”
It was the mystery woman, and she was even more impressive from one meter’s distance, all cheekbones, lips, and deep blue eyes, half-lidded with . . . interest?
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, patting his breast pockets as he spoke. “I don’t smoke.”
“Zat ees all right,” she said, flicking the cigarette over the railing. “Neezaire do I. Let us go.”
“It’s me, then, you idiot,” she whispered in an entirely different accent. “Lead the way.”
“They really need to invest some coin in sending you to security school. Now, take me to your leader.”
Flustered, he started to walk away from her.
“Give me your arm,” she said.
“Do I have to teach you everything, then?” She caught up, took his arm, and they began to walk. “I went to a great deal of effort to look like someone who would be visiting a yachtsman. You might put as much effort into looking like one.”
“Very good!” he said, falling into step with her, finally. “We’re right out at the end.”
Reaching the end of the floating dock, she was disappointed to see an open motorboat no more than twenty feet long.
“This is your yacht?”
“Oh, no, dear, this is my dinghy. That’s my yacht, out in the channel.” He indicated the boat she had seen anchored out that afternoon, a ship, really, the size of a small naval vessel.
“Perfect! Where’s the flashing neon CIA logo, then?”
“More of your delightful sarcasm. Just get in the boat, shall we?”
She did so, feigning difficulty with her shoes, and the ride out took less than two minutes. As they came alongside, the bow was hooked by a tall, tanned crewcut who didn’t need a gray flannel suit to look like a Company man. Two Eighty Three followed her up the ladder, enjoying the view, and they were met by another Company man who led them to a richly appointed cabin where Four Twenty Seven sat behind an opulent desk. She was pleased to note his double-take when she came in.
“Miss O’Reilly?” he asked, squinting at her over his gold reading glasses.
“None other,” she confirmed, sitting down without being asked. “Now, what the hell do you want?”
“Very impressive. First of all, I told you to come at once.”
“And I told you I work alone. Respect involves mutual understanding, then.”
“Hmmm. There’ll be time to discuss your insubordination later. What have you accomplished so far?”
“Well, let’s see. I’ve had lunch, and a bath, and picked up some guide maps. I was hoping to get dinner and a night’s sleep so I could do something meaningful tomorrow, but apparently, you have other plans.”
“We are here to support you, Miss O’Reilly. The power of the client is not inconsiderable, and it waits at your beck and call. For example.”
He laid a tube on the desk and unrolled it to reveal a floor plan of a large building with several levels and many rooms.
“This is the villa of Lorenzo Rodriguez. It lies in the hills northwest of the city. He has turned it into a fortified palace with everything he needs for his comfort, his security, and the processing capacity to run his business.”
“Where did you get this?” she asked, deliberately acting uninterested in his prize.
“Our agents don’t usually ask about things they don’t need to know.”
“I know, I know. This was pulled directly from the builder’s records. No one even knows we have it.”
“Builder’s records, eh?” she asked, still not looking at it.
“So, then, it won’t show any modifications he may have made, nor any details about his security arrangements, where the boy might be held, nor anything of any real value, will it?”
“It shows the layout of the building,” Four Twenty Seven said, irritation rising. “Is that something you can use, or do you find it more productive to enter a site blind?”
“Well,” she said, standing up and looking at it now, “I suppose it may be handy to know where the bathrooms are.”
“I’m beginning to think we may have made a mistake in hiring this woman,” Four Twenty Seven said to his colleague.
“My feelings on that subject are on record, sir.” Two Eighty Three replied. “Still, she has an excellent track record.”
“Yes. Well, Miss O’Reilly, would you care to see the photograph, or would that be too bothersome as well?”
“As long as I’m out here, I may as well have a look.”
With a disapproving throat noise, Four Twenty Seven laid out another tube and unrolled an aerial photograph of a compound that followed the general lines of the floor plan, and could only be the villa.
“This is a Keyhole satellite photograph of Rodriguez’s villa compound. You understand, Miss O’Reilly, that very few civilians are ever allowed to see one of these photos, and the fact that we’re showing one to a wanted felon should be an indication of the high regard in which we hold you.”
“It is,” she said, impressed for the first time as she leaned over the shiny photograph, taking in the wealth of details it showed. “This looks like it was taken from less than a thousand feet.”
“We would have liked that, but that would have tipped off the subject to our interest. Anyway, Keyhole gives plenty of resolution for our purposes. You will observe, for example, this combination of shadows inside the south wall. That is a guard with a dog.”
“A German Shepherd, actually. We can also see a Doberman Pinscher to the west.”
“This is amazing.”
“Not really. Keyhole can photograph the brand name on a golf ball, but this view shows us plenty, for instance, motion sensors in the trees, and the fact that there are no heavy weapons emplaced around the compound.”
“What are the chances of me keeping this?”
“Absolutely none, I’m afraid. We have, however, prepared a schematic showing all the salient features. Should you or it be captured, we can easily deny any involvement in its preparation.” He placed a sealed can of Colombian coffee, the sort often purchased by tourists, on the desk. “Both that schematic and the floor plan are concealed in an outer sleeve in this can. Twist off the top and lift out the bean container, and there they are. What do you plan to do tomorrow?”
“I’m undecided so far. Probably gather intelligence.”
“Miss O’Reilly, I hate to belabor a point, but time is of the essence here, and we have already gathered the intelligence for you.”
“I hardly call one aerial photograph and a floor plan from the nineteen-thirties assault-grade intelligence, then.”
“We don’t know the status of the boy,” Two Eighty Three said. “It is imperative that you make your move.”
“I’m the one going in there, and I’ll follow my own procedures. Do you have anything else for me?”
“Just this. Rodriguez’s followers call him Lobo Gris, the Gray Wolf, and they fear him like death itself. You may take that as the cautionary warning it was meant to be.”
“Cheery. I’ll just be on my way, then. Thanks for the coffee. Home, Three, and don’t spare the horses.”
Without waiting for a response, she picked up the can and walked out toward the main deck.
* * *
Four Twenty Seven reclined on the settee built into the wall of his cabin, sipping a sherry and enjoying the view of Barranquilla. For all of its industrial character, the lights of its modern buildings made quite a satisfactory display.
Four Twenty Seven’s given name was Nathanial Douglas, and he was a career field officer with the American Central Intelligence Agency. He had acquired a reputation as a troubleshooter. If other agents had tried and failed, or if the job was simply too impossible to attempt in the first place, Douglas had a knack for getting it done; just don’t look too closely at his methods. When the abduction of Amitabha Takeri landed on the Agency’s plate, Douglas was the only name considered to handle it.
He watched now through the smoked glass window as Two Eighty Three piloted the motor launch back from the marina, heard the dull clanks as he ascended the accommodation ladder, and moved to his desk to await the three soft knocks that would indicate his assistant’s return.
Two Eighty Three’s parents had named him Martin Bradford, and he was slightly more than half of Douglas’s age. He had used his yes-man’s charm to attach himself to Douglas’s legend in the hope of replacing him upon his retirement; he had a lot to learn in the few years remaining.
“Enter,” Douglas replied to the three knocks, and Bradford walked in and poured himself a drink from the bar, a mid-grade California port.
“That was quick,” Douglas said. “Did you see her safely back to her hotel?”
“I put her safely into a cab,” Bradford replied, settling onto the settee. “That was all she’d stand for. She’s a very headstrong woman.”
“That much was obvious from her background. What’s your assessment of her?”
Bradford took a sip of the wine, held his breath for a moment, then blew it out in a thoughtful sigh.
“It’s quite difficult to say. We’ve seen her twice, well, I’ve seen her three times, and she’s a different person each time. And yet, each guise seems completely natural and genuine. It’s almost impossible to chip off the paint and find out who’s really in there.”
“Perhaps that’s why she’s rated as highly as she is.”
“Yes. You know, though, if the boys in the ivory tower find out you’ve offered one of the world’s most wanted terrorists two million dollars to do this job, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Nonsense. I learned early that if you give them results, you can gloss over the details. But one thing bothers me. Does she seem reluctant to move to you?”
“She seems careful, sir. Remember, for the last several years, she’s been dodging the legal authorities on three continents, as well as her old mates from the Army, and doing these little jobs into the bargain. She’s found a method that works, and you yourself said, sir, you can’t argue with success.”
“Perhaps you’re right. She makes me nervous, though. She doesn’t seem to attach the proper importance to this case.”
“For two million dollars, I’ll wager she does. If she’s taking an extra day, there’s bound to be a reason for it. No detail is too small to be noticed. Look at the way we had to contact her, by an old-fashioned telegram. No post office box, no phone, no e-mail. All of those things leave a trail. A telegram goes to an office, and there the trail ends. She can come in at her leisure, or, hell, she can even set up a password system where she calls, and they read them to her.”
“Yes, Martin, you’re right. I must be getting old. All that caution and attention to detail will probably make her very difficult to take down.”
“Certainly, she’ll be a handful, sir, but our ace in the hole is that she thinks her enemy is Rodriguez.”
“Yes. Well, see that she keeps thinking that way. Now that we’re this close, we don’t want any slip-ups.”