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The Darién Gap

 

For those who have read my books, you’ll know that I spent twenty-two years working in Colombia and Central America as a Kidnap Resolution Specialist. Simply put, I rescued kidnap victims, and most of my books are based on my experiences working in that extremely dangerous environment. In 1991 I was sent to Panama on a very unusual mission, unlike anything I had done before. I used that job as an excerpt in my novel, The Caldera Abduction.

I hope you enjoy The Darién Gap

In June of 1991, I received a call and was told to meet Mike Ramp at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. I was living in Texas on my ranch at the time, raising cattle, breeding and training cutting horses, but still taking on an occasional job for the Certified Imbecilic Assholes at Langley because, quite frankly, ranching is an up and down business, and I’d seen a lot more down than up the last few years. The jobs I did for Mike paid exceptionally well and were tax-free, so I availed myself several times a year to find and recover a kidnap victim or victims in Colombia, my old stomping ground.

The training I had received as a kidnap resolution specialist back in the ’70s was unlike any training the military or intelligence agencies gave to their people, in part because I was allowed free rein to do anything necessary to safely recover the people I was sent after. I operated without any ROE, the rules of engagement that hamstrung the military and law enforcement and restricted their ability to obtain actionable intelligence for their missions.

The other aspect of my unique training was that I operated alone, without a team or backup. It was the way I was trained. The cadre of instructors our private military unit hired was the best in the world. Retired SAS operators with whole world experience, munitions experts from Northern Ireland, life-long military soldiers from South Africa, ex-Green Berets with multiple tours in Viet Nam, and my closest friends, who adopted me as their younger brother, four current Mossad operators on loan to our unit. Our objectives coincided, and we often worked with the Israelis to stifle Palestinian terrorists in South America. These men taught me skills that I continue to use today, to operate in hostile environments alone and to be entirely ruthless when dealing with criminals, terrorists, and kidnappers.

Although not all of the victims I recovered were whole, some, unfortunately, had body parts removed by their captors to prove they were still alive; I was successful one hundred percent of the time in bringing them out alive. No one else in this high-risk business I was in could come close to that record. Unlike myself and the company I had been trained by and worked with for many years, the other hostage retrieval outfits tried to negotiate with the kidnappers, who in Colombia were usually part of, or somehow connected with FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the People’s Army.

What set me apart was that I didn’t negotiate or even attempt to negotiate with these home-grown terrorists. I searched the kidnappers out, tracking them with intelligence gathered from the people who had given the victims up to FARC, and there always were people who, for a few bucks, would give out a time or place where people could be found.

Maids and gardeners would give up their wealthy employers and even open the gates of their homes for a wad of cash. Corrupt police officers would act as spotters for the FARC rebels when they set out to grab unprotected tourists, and a hotel concierge would make a call and take money under the table for a room key so foreign guests could be snatched from their beds. There was no end to ways unaware people could be abducted, but there was always someone who gave them up. And that was where I started.

Once I discovered the deception—the instigator who profited from the information, I would initiate a pain party, and that would put me on the path to the kidnap victims. Of course, the maid, the gardener, police officer, concierge, or whoever it was that gave up the person or persons to the abductors paid with their lives—painfully. And when I tracked down the kidnappers, they too, every last one of them, paid the reaper as well. I never left one of them alive to play their dangerous game again.

I had been trained to use every small arm available in the world. I was very good with all of them because, in my business, I might have to pick up my enemies’ weapon and use it, but my specialty was edged weapons because I preferred to do my business silently. If you blow open the door where hostages are being held and initiate a firefight with the kidnappers, the people you came to rescue are likely to die. It looks good in a movie or tv show, but in reality, it doesn’t work so well. Never let them know you’re there was what my Israeli instructors taught me, and I learned it well.

In my training, I was taught to operate in many different environments. It began with six months in the Panamanian jungle, where I would return every couple of years for a refresher, then moved into urban settings like Bogota, Colombia, Mexico City, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and several incursions into Havana, Cuba. I was also highly trained to operate in any maritime setting, so I was quite comfortable taking on jobs in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Although most of our contracts were authorized by the U.S. State Department, we also worked for other countries’ diplomatic offices because everyone and anyone were getting snatched down there. So, when I was told to meet Mike in Miami, I figured it was the normal run-of-the-mill kidnap recovery, but it turned out to be far more. In fact, it became one of the most dangerous missions I would ever take on and one I have a lasting memory of to this day.

I flew into Miami the day before my scheduled meet with Mike on a private charter plane. The old days of being able to carry my weapons on a commercial aircraft were long gone. The Certified Imbecilic Assholes always furnished me with travel docs and would put my kit into diplomatic pouches to get it into whatever foreign country I was entering. Leaving the states was easier than traveling domestically. I was intimately familiar with Miami, having kept a condo and my 44’ Striker aluminum sport fisherman in Ft. Lauderdale for many years, and always enjoyed coming back to the area for the Caribbean-influenced food and strong coffee. I took a room at a small hotel at Royal Palm Avenue and West 37th Street, where I’d stayed many times before, and that put me an easy ten-minute cab ride over to the Fontainebleau.

I went downtown to Little Havana and ate a nice meal of ropa vieja to commemorate my return to South Florida and was up early the next morning to meet Mike. Mike had been working for several years for the Panama-based private military company before I came onboard. His past stints had been two tours as a Green Beret in Viet Nam, with incursions into Laos and Cambodia, then taken into the Military Intelligence Corp until he left the service to join up with our private military group. He was a great asset and stayed with the group until it was disbanded when the old patriarch Lucius McGee passed away. He was immediately grabbed up by the Certified Imbecilic Assholes at Langley and put in charge of an off-the-books black ops program—the same one I worked in now. Though my main work for them had continued to be hostage retrieval, I also did a few jobs dismantling communist insurgents in Central America, as well as a few incursions into Cuba. Let’s just say they kept me as busy as I wanted to be.

I found Mike right where I expected him out on the pool deck overlooking the ocean. I didn’t ask, but he was probably interviewing for the next Mrs. Ramp since he was presently between marriages. Mike loved to be married, but his wives never realized until it was too late that his mistress was his work, which always came before his marriage. I slid into the chair across from him, waved at a waitress, and pointed at Mike’s coffee cup, which got a nod and the one finger in the air signal, meaning she’d have it to me in a minute. “Good to see you, Steve,” Mike opened with, “Are you ready to sell that ranch in Texas and start making some steady money? I’ve got some trouble brewing over in Bosnia I could use your help on, buddy.”

“That’s a little far out of my AO, Mike. It gets pretty damn cold over there, and I’m sure I’d have trouble getting a meal of arroz con pollo there, either. Besides, things are still plenty unstable down in Colombia, so I’m sure there’ll be plenty for me to do without crossing the Atlantic.”

“You’re not wrong about that, but Colombia isn’t the only place things are unstable. This job is going to take you back into the jungle, Panama, to be exact.”

“No, shit. I thought we were in the midst of a pull-out in Panama. What, did some oil executive get snatched down there?” I asked.

“We are in the midst of a pull-out; in fact, they can’t ship stuff out of the zone fast enough, so they’re loading it on barges and dumping it at sea. The treaty President Carter signed was one-sided, and the U.S. military can’t step outside the Canal Zone even to take a piss. That’s why I need you to go in—you’re deniable. But it’s not some oil executive that got snatched. I wish it were.

“Our old friends at the State Department are shitting themselves right now because one of our top nuclear scientists has gone missing in the Darién Gap. And we think there’s a high likelihood he’s been snatched by FARC.”

“What the fuck was he doing down there?” I asked incredulously.

“Good question, but here’s what we know. The guy is a real brain about some things, just not smart at picking vacation spots. His name is Fredrick Frances Dowd—61 years old and the chief of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, and a Senior Fellow of the Atomic Energy Commission. This bonehead is in charge of developing next-generation nuclear offensive weapons programs, and his brother is Professor Marshall Dowd, the Senior Professor of Botany at the University of Florida and an expert in rare orchids. You start to see where this is going, Stiletto?”

“I think I am, but go on,” I said as the cute waitress, and possible future Mrs. Ramp number three or four—I couldn’t keep track, set my coffee down.

“Well, it seems these brothers are very close,” he said as he handed me copies of passport photos of the two men, “and they take a vacation every year together somewhere in the world to look for rare orchids. And this year, they chose Panama. They thought if they didn’t go there now, with all the changes to the country going on, that they might not have the chance again.”

“But why the Darién Gap? That’s pretty wild country up there. We patrolled a very small part of it during training, and it’s crazy wild.”

“You’re right, and it’s even more so now since FARC crossed the Colombian border and set up training camps north of it. Panama won’t let Colombian troops across the border, so FARC has taken control of that area. We understand they have routed a few villages and turned the occupants into their slaves. They can do what they want, and the Panamanians won’t stop them.”

“How did these two guys find their way into that triple canopy mess?”

“They thought they were safe. The brothers hired a guide, and he hired a couple of Polish merc’s for protection, and then they went in. They were supposed to be out of the bush two weeks ago but were a no-show. That’s about the time the DEA flying drug interdiction aircraft along the border began picking up chatter that FARC was trying to make contact with foreign embassies, specifically the Russians and Chinese.”

“Oh shit. That’s not a good sign.”

“That’s when the boys at State went to the President’s advisors and told him they needed him to authorize a Seal team to go in and get Dowd out. But the President, so concerned about his predecessor’s treaty, put his foot down. No American military is allowed to set foot outside the Canal Zone, on the threat of court-martial or worse. So, they came to see me, knowing we still ran you and your reputation in the intelligence community.”

“Do you have any idea where they are? That’s a big piece of property.”

“A very rough idea, but first of all, no one cares about the professor. You don’t have to bring him out. Now don’t say anything yet, because I know how you are, but this is not the norm. This is a national security concern. If either the Russkies or Chinks get this guy, it could set our offensive weapons programs back decades. The primary is Fredrick Frances Dowd—and if you find him and can’t get him out, kill him.”

I was stunned! I had never been sent on a mission like this before. Not only was it the nastiest piece of turf I could imagine, but I’d never been told not to save everyone I went after. “Christ on a crutch, Mike. You don’t need me; why don’t you just lob some artillery in there and kill them all. I can’t believe the President won’t let a team or a company of Rangers go get this guy.”

“He won’t budge. He’s catching backlash for not finishing things in Iraq when he had the chance. He doesn’t want to stir up anything else right now. Essentially, he’s out of gas. His presidency is over. The word is that even if he runs for reelection, his chances are dim. He supposedly told his chief of staff he thought a rescue attempt into Panama would turn into another failure like Carter’s Iraq hostage rescue, except for being closer to home. Just go get this guy. This is not a suicide mission. If it’s impossible to bring him out, bury him. Just don’t let FARC hand him over to the commies. That’s the main thing.”

“How do I get in?” I asked, wishing right now I hadn’t answered my phone in Texas a couple of days ago.

“Use your Canadian passport. The Panamanians are watching Americans coming in-country, but canucks can travel anywhere. We’ll send your kit in diplomatic pouches, and you can pick it up in Panama City. You’ll need to hire a private charter to get you into Yaviza. That may be a problem because we’re told not many will fly into that hellhole. I don’t need to tell you to go in hot. That place is more like the old west than the old west ever was. From there, you may need to hire a boat to get you over the Atrato Swamp. You’ll have to figure it out. All we know is there aren’t any good people there. Illegal loggers, drug runners, thieves, and murderers on the run from other countries. A real nice group of folks that will kill you for a bright copper penny. There are also several indigenous Indian tribes that are pissed about the loggers raping their land, the Cuna and Embera-Wounaan, and they kill white men on sight. This is the place that stupid fucking scientist and his professor brother decided to vacation. Makes you question academics.”

“It sure as shit does. All for a fucking flower.”

“Here are your travel docs,” he said, handing me a sealed plastic pouch, “You still staying at the same place?

“Yes. They look out for me. I keep a storage room for my extra kit, and they always have a suite for me. Just a little payback for bringing their daughter home safe and sound, I guess.”

“Well, they should. That was above and beyond you saving the girl. But it’s nice anyway. Dan will come by at 4:00 p.m. to get you. He’ll bring the dip pouches too.”

“Okay, I’ll let you know when I get them out. Depending on where I find them, I may have to take them across the border.”

“I told you, Stiletto—we don’t care about them, only the scientist. Don’t get this job confused with a normal recovery. And the Colombians may not like you involving them. So if you head that way, be aware.”

“I hear you. Just be ready to take him, or them off my hands when I get out of the bush.”

“We’ll be waiting to hear from you. Just do your thing, old buddy.”

I left Mike and walked out in front of the hotel and caught a cab. I had him drop me a couple of blocks from my hotel at a Cuban bakery I knew. They made the best Cuban sandwich in the world with fresh hot bread. I ate one there and took another to eat later, then I walked to my room and started sorting my kit.

Panamá

Down the hall from my suite was a locked storage closet. I was the only one that had a key. It was one of the perks of staying at this old hotel. The family that owned it was from Medellin, Colombia, and had moved here back in the ’80s but left their teenage daughter behind to finish school with her two cousins. A group of opportunistic kidnappers grabbed the three girls walking home from school one day and took them to Bogotá, intending to put them to work as prostitutes.

I had just finished a job in Bogotá recovering a Frenchman and his wife, and when I dropped them off at the consulate, a guy I knew from Medellin had been waiting for me and told me he had seen this girl at a bar and recognized her. He told me the girl’s parents could never afford to pay a ransom, but they would be very grateful if I could get the girl away and put her on a plane to Miami.

I was due to fly out in a few hours, so I agreed to help if he would go along and point her out to me. Long story short, I found her and her two cousins, all junkies now thanks to the bar owner, and got them out. My friend took the cousins home to Medellin, and I took the girl to Miami that night on my flight. The bar owner—I killed along with two guys with guns that tried to stop me. The girl I handed over to her parents in Miami, who got her cleaned up at a drug rehab hostel. Ever since I’ve always had a place to stay in town, and this storage room for my extra kit, so it worked out okay for all parties.

I opened the door and hauled a few bags down to my room. I would travel light, but I had specific gear that I needed for work in the jungle. First and most important was my rucksack which could easily carry sixty pounds if I needed to, but I’d be taking much less than that, and most of the weight would be in ammo and water. Next in importance was my hammock. I’d been issued both the Bergen rucksack and jungle hammock two decades ago during my first training in Panama, and I still used them. I’d never found better. The hammock was a key piece of kit because you couldn’t sit on the ground in the bush, or you’d be eaten alive. It had a built-in rain cover and mozzie net, which kept me reasonably dry, which is the best you can ask for in the triple canopy, and also helped keep the clouds of ferocious little biting bugs off.

I packed five bottles of 100% DEET that was so powerful it melted any plastic it came in contact with but was only a slight deterrent to the thousands of different biting and stinging insects. My hand-assembled first aid kit was made more for trauma care like GSWs, knife cuts, and punctures than for minor scrapes and cuts, along with two compact tourniquets that always went with me. For food, all I would carry were individually wrapped high protein energy bars — the nutty, honey-sweet kind. I wouldn’t be cooking on this jaunt, nor making tea or coffee. Instead, I would carry a bag of freshly roasted coffee beans and would chew a few beans for a quick boost.

One extra set of camo shirt and trousers and two extra pairs of socks went in the bag, but no knickers. In the soaking wet environment of the jungle, they only served to chafe your tender parts and keep you damp. Neither was a good thing. Another essential item was a hundred-foot roll of parachute cord. Invaluable for strapping, binding, tying, or suspending and easy to carry because it weighed nothing and could be stored anywhere.

Possibly the most important item that I carried strapped to my web gear was my parang machete. Gifted to me so many years ago by one of my instructors who had brought it back from Malaysia, it was honed razor sharp and never left my body once I stepped into the bush. It complemented my weapons but mainly served to clear thick brush and thorny vines. It was an invaluable tool.

The weapons I would carry were selected for close-contact fighting. In the thick jungle, it was rare to be able to see over a hundred yards, so if I did encounter contact, it would be up close and personal. Just what I’d been trained to do. My rifle was a specially modified 5.56 caliber Colt M4 model 723 with a 10.5-inch barrel. I used it with open sights because optics in the jungle are slower at acquiring a target. I’d carry eight-thirty round mags for it. While I normally disliked weapon slings in the jungle, I had a single-point compression sling designed for the M4 that would allow me to carry it behind me, so my hands could be filled with my persuader, a 12-gauge Winchester model 21 with cut-down, double side-by-side 12 inch barrels. It had the buttstock cut down to a pistol grip with a brass ring at the end that I looped a piece of paracord through for a simple sling. Up close, using 00 buck ammo, it would take down a door, and at twelve feet, it had a twenty-one-foot spread.

Holstered on my right side was a pistol that had taken the place of my Colt 1911 a couple of years before. Manufactured in West Germany, the Sig Sauer P226 in 9mm was an outstanding and dependable weapon, and I’d had J.P. Sauer & Sohn custom build me six 20-round mags to replace the standard-issue 10-round magazine. With a threaded barrel, I could suppress the weapon, not just for sound suppression but for increased flash suppression — a must for fighting at night or in dark buildings.

Under my left arm in a shoulder holster would be a High Standard HDM/S .22 LR with an integrally suppressed barrel made by Electric Bell Laboratories. It had the special feature of a locking rear slide, stopping the action from working, that made it virtually silent for single-round shots, but even with the slide unlocked, the ported barrel and sub-sonic ammo could not be heard firing from twelve feet away. It was as quiet as they come.

Along with my normal complement of blades, a Gerber Mark I strapped to my left forearm, and my old skinning knife on my right calf, I’d be packing two Claymore anti-personal mines. If I needed to mow down a large contingent of FARC fighters, the seven hundred ball-bearings blasting outwards from each mine would certainly do the trick. Lastly, my thirty-year-old Suunto compass would always be hanging around my neck. All my kit and weapons were loaded into two duffle bags that would go into two diplomatic pouches for the flight into Panama City.

Dan Wilford, Mike’s driver who had fought alongside him in Nam, showed up promptly at 4:00 p.m. I was packed, dressed, and ready for him. He came in and tossed the two dip pouches on the bed. “Load them up, Steve, I’ll put them on the plane, and you can retrieve them at the airport. Our guy there is Bennie Tapper, a big chunky guy who’ll be wearing a Panama hat and the loudest Hawaiian shirt imaginable while smoking a fat Cuban cigar. You won’t be able to miss him.”

“Talk about flying under the radar, Dan. Sounds like this guy likes to stand out?” I commented.

“He’s been working in Central America so long, I’m sure everyone knows he works for the agency, but he does get good intel for us, and that’s all that matters. Just don’t let him conn you into buying him a drink. He’ll stick you with a huge bar tab if you do. I made that mistake once myself.”

“Will he know of a pilot that can get me over to Yaviza?” I asked.

“Most likely. He knows every shady character in Panama. If he doesn’t know someone personally, he’ll know where you might go to find someone. Most likely, the dingiest bar in town.”

“Okay, no sweat. I’ll find someone.”

Dan handed me another thick envelope. “Here’s twenty grand to help you get any ride you need. You might need a charter out-of-country too if you find the two numbnuts.”

“That’s more than enough,” I told him. “If that won’t work, I’ll just flash my great smile.”

Dan laughed, “You must not know your great smile is scary, Stiletto. You’re intimidating even when you’re smiling.”

We loaded up the gear, and Dan drove me to the airport and checked the pouches on the Copa Airlines flight to Panama City. He wished me well as I boarded the flight, which was crowded with sweaty passengers. It was a short flight with just enough time for a cup of coffee before setting down in one of the most humid places on earth.

I cleared Customs and Immigration easily as a Canadian citizen and entered the arrival terminal to find it packed with more sweaty people hauling bags made from platted palm fronds and carrying baskets of chickens and some even towing goats on leashes while smoking the vilest cigarettes on the planet. Central America is an interesting place to visit, and I had to chuckle at the menagerie some of these people were taking home. It had been several years since I’d been here, and I had to admit I’d missed it a little.

I started looking around for Bennie Tapper, and he wasn’t hard to find, as Dan had described him to a T. Although chunky wasn’t the word I would have used for a guy 6’6” and 5’ wide. More like the size of a Volkswagen Bug. He was engulfed in a cloud of Cuban smoke when I walked up to him that I had to wave away to breathe. “I see you got my bags; let’s get out of here so I can unpack them.”

“So you’re the guy Stiletto I’ve heard so much about from Mike. Why don’t we go get something cold to drink and get to know each other? I’m a little thirsty from standing around.” Fat boy said, eagerly eyeing a busy bar across the concourse.

“Bennie, why don’t we get out of here so I can sort my shit you’re carrying? Then later, we’ll work on your thirst. Where is your car?”

“Okay, I know plenty of places we can get a quick drink, you carry those heavy bags, buddy, and I’ll lead the way.”

Bennie took the lead, but I had to walk off to the side of him so that I could see what was in front. He was broad as a house, and I figured he must drive a big car, so I was surprised when he pointed at a little Brazilian Ford Maverick that listed to one side. It had long since given up its suspension on the driver’s side. Bennie got behind the wheel while I piled into the back and started pulling my kit out of the dip pouches and strapping on my weapons. “Where can I find a pilot to take me down to Yaviza, Bennie?”

“I know a couple of guys that will fly over there. Not many will go into that shithole. I can’t believe you’re going in there alone. I’ve been there once and barely made it out alive. It took every cent I had on me to bribe my way onto a plane.”

“Just find me a pilot with a decent plane. I’ll deal with Yaviza when I get there.”

“There’s a little watering hole not far from here where these guys hang out. We’ll go over there and see if we can find them,” he said, starting the little engine. It turned out the car belched smoke nearly as much as Bennie puffing on his fat stogey. On the ride over, Bennie rambled on about the changes the country was going through with America giving up the canal zone. He said with the military leaving; the Colombian drug dealers were pouring in and throwing money around, trying to get a foothold into the country. He guessed that they would own the government before all was said and done. Looking back on it, he wasn’t wrong.

Panama Jungle

Everything in Panama is green. If you don’t cut your grass in a month, it’s five feet tall. Vegetation grows up to the sides of the road and invades any space it can find. The road we drove down was a mud pit, with buildings competing with greenery for every bit of space. I could see a few cars that had been abandoned off the sides of the road for a few days, and they were almost completely covered in new green growth. Such is the rainforest. It takes back its own quickly.

Bennie pulled up to a cantina that had needed a good coat of paint twenty years ago and was still waiting on it. But the looks of the place didn’t impinge on the establishment’s ability to draw a crowd, as the parking lot was brimming with ratty trucks and cars, of which Bennie’s Maverick fitted in well. “Open the trunk, Bennie. I don’t want to leave my gear here in sight of anyone walking by. Do your doors even lock?” I asked.

“No, the doors don’t lock, but I don’t have anything worth stealing anyway. The trunk will be secure.”

I put my rucksack and M4 in the back, but I carried my persuader and had my other weapons on me. I wasn’t alone, as nearly every other patron of the gin joint was openly carrying weapons too. Welcome to Central America.

I followed Bennie into the crowded saloon, and he beelined it straight up to the bar. He signaled for two cervesa’s, and when they showed up, he pointed his thumb at me and said, “He’s buying.”

I pushed my beer over to him as he proceeded to empty the first one down his pie hole in about three gulps. He took a breath and pointed across the room. “There’s one of the guys there — the bearded guy in the Levi jacket. His name is Race Hackett. He’ll want to know who told you about him. Just point at me; he’ll know you’re a solid guy.”

I looked the guy over for a minute as he talked to two other men of questionable character, then I walked across the room toward him. I could feel the eyes in the room shift in my direction. A stranger, a big guy, weaponed up, had to draw some attention. As I came up to his table, he took a look at me and pushed back his chair, “Hey, if you’re coming for Pasha’s money, I don’t have it yet. I told him to give me a week.”

I didn’t say anything, just looked down at him, then said, “How much do you owe Pasha?”

That set him back a second, then he reacted, “Well if you’re not from Pasha, who the fuck are you?”

“I’m the guy that may be able to help you get Pasha off your back. I need a ride down to Yaviza in the morning. That fat fuck over there guzzling beer,” I said, pointing at Bennie, “told me you could fly me in there.”

He craned his head to look at the bar, then back at me, “You look like a world of trouble, pal. You aren’t going to get me killed, are you?”

“How much do you owe Pasha?” I asked again.

“I owe him a grand. Not that much. I can get it to him.”

“Yea, you look like you’re rolling in it,” I said. “Never mind, I’ll find somebody else,” as I turned away.

“Hey, wait, mister, don’t go. I can fly you to Yaviza. I’ve got nothing on the calendar for tomorrow, anyway.”

I’d taken several steps back towards the bar, but I stopped and turned around. “How much?” I asked.

“How about eight hundred U.S., and you pay for fuel and oil.”

“Fuel and oil?” I questioned.

“Yea, I fly an old Cessna 195 built in 1954, and the bitch drinks oil. She’ll suck down five gallons there and back.”

“Tell you what; I’ll give you a grand to pay Pasha and another three hundred for fuel and oil. For the one-way ride. If you come back and get me when I tell you to, I’ll give you another grand, and don’t misunderstand me; this is not negotiable.”

He didn’t have to think a second before responding, “You got it, mister, I’ll get you there safe and sound.”

“Very good; where do I meet you in the morning?”

“Bennie knows. I’ll be ready to go at 7:00 a.m. Do you think I could get a little upfront, say, to pay for fuel?”

Shifting the Winchester 12 gauge to my left hand, I dug into my pocket, pulled out a roll and peeled off, then threw down four Benjamin’s, which drew every eye in the house. “You be sober and ready to fly at seven, or I’ll find you and cut your balls off. Do you believe me?”

I thought his eyes would roll back in his head, and his two buddies pushed away, trying to distance themselves from him. “I’ll be ready, mister. Don’t you worry? Uh, what do I call you?”

“Stiletto. And you might ponder a minute on why I’m called that.”

“Yes, sir, Stiletto. I’ll be ready at seven.”

I walked back to the bar while scanning the room. This was not a good place to flash money, and I figured I’d have to deal with it when we left. Bennie was sucking down his fifth or sixth cerveza. “Let’s get out of here before I have to dance with some of his patrons,’ I said, looking at the barkeep, “How much?” I asked him.

“Thirty,” he replied.

I threw down forty and grabbed Bennie by the arm, “NOW.” I said emphatically.

I hustled thirsty boy out the door, but I heard their bootsteps a few yards behind. As soon as we were through the front door, I gave Bennie a shove and told him. “Get the car running; I’ll be along in a minute.”

Four of them came out the door at the same time. I let the persuader hang on its sling and drew the High Power. They were already pulling knives before the door slammed shut, but I was faster at putting silent .22 rounds into their kneecaps than they were at getting to me. They all went down screaming while I hoofed it to Bennie’s wreck. “Find me a hotel near the airport that doesn’t have too many bedbugs. You need to have me on Hackett’s plane at or before 7 a.m. Is that going to be a problem?”

“No. I’ll get you there. I don’t live far from here myself. Anyone ever tell you-you’re not a lot of fun to be around?”

“Really? Sorry you feel that way. Now shut the fuck up and find me a place to bed down. Just be glad I’m not taking your fat ass into the bush with me. You’d find out real quick just how much fun I am.”

That shut Bennie up quickly. He dropped me at a small moteles down the avenida from the airport, promising to pick me up at 6:30 promptly the next morning. I had the feeling he just wanted to be done with me, which was alright. I already knew I didn’t play well with others. If all went well, he’d only need to help get me out of the country in a few days, but I should have known Mr. Murphy wasn’t going to let an opportunity pass to fuck with me.

Into the Bush

 

 

  I checked into the habitación de motel and left my kit in the room while I went next door to a café and ate a big meal of arroz con camarones y coco and carimañolas. I took a second order of the hot corn pastries with me to break my fast in the morning. I’d be eating protein bars for the next few days, so a good hot meal went down quite nicely.

Big boy Bennie was waiting for me when I came out the next morning, and though he appeared a bit grumpy, probably not used to being up and active this early, I figured, he scooted right on down to the end of the airport that had all the private planes parked up and tied down. There were fifty or sixty light single and dual-engine aircraft on the tarmac, and I could easily tell the ones that would be owned by businessmen, which were in pristine condition, as opposed to the broke-ass charter planes that most likely hauled more drugs than passengers. He stopped in front of a high-wing plane that I’d never flown in before but that I’d seen sitting on runways all over South and Central America. The Cessna 195 was constructed of shiny aluminum, and the only paint this one had ever worn was the painted-on N-numbers, which had now faded almost into obscurity. For a small plane, it had a wide fuselage under the cantilevered wing to accommodate the huge radial engine in the nose. Other than a few oil streaks coming out of the engine cowling, the old bird looked in pretty good shape.

Race Hackett was doing a pre-flight walk around as I exited Bennie’s broke down Maverick. I hauled out my rucksack and M4 and told him, “Stay close to your phone for the next few days. I expect I’ll need your help getting these two idiots out of the country if I can find them. I doubt they’ll still have their passports and entry docs on them if they’ve been snatched by FARC. If you don’t hear from me in a week, I won’t be coming back, and you can go back to your normal routine, but until then, you stay handy, comprende?”

“I will, Stiletto. I check my answering machine several times a day. I’ll be ready if you get them out, don’t worry.”

“I always worry, Bennie. That’s why I’m still standing upright after so many years. You should hear from me, one way or the other in a few days.”

I joined Race at the plane as he was finishing straining off the wing tanks and checking for water in the fuel. I was glad to see him doing that since the low-quality fuel usually came with a good mix of residual water. Many a plane had ceased to stay aloft and crashed into the triple canopy jungle when they stopped drinking fuel. I didn’t want to enter the bush in that fashion, if at all possible.

“You can store your gear in the cabin and take the right seat, Stiletto,” Race told me, “I’ll be done here in just a moment or two, and we can get in the air.”

I opened the cabin door, and the stairs folded out, allowing me easy access into the spacious cabin. There were two rows of seats, the front row had two individual seats, and the second row was a bench seat that could easily accommodate three more passengers. Behind the seats was a large cargo area, made possible by the wide fuselage where passenger’s baggage could be stored. I belted in my gear on one of the seats so it wouldn’t slide around and then went forward and got settled into the right-hand seat. The unusually roomy cockpit made getting in and out of the flight deck easy. I usually had to bend my large frame into positions it wasn’t built for to get seated in a light plane, but this one was plenty roomy.

Race shut the cabin door, took the left seat, and quickly set the throttle and pushed the starter. The big engine snorted and puffed a second, then roared to life. He called the tower and got immediate clearance for takeoff. “The heavy traffic out of this airport doesn’t start for a couple of hours,” Race told me, “so getting an early start saves sitting and sweating on the runway waiting for the big heavies to get off the ground.”

Pushing the throttle to maximum fuel flow, he released the brakes, and with a shudder, the little plane took off down the runway. In less than fifteen hundred feet, he pulled back on the yoke, and the bird leaped into the sky. It didn’t take long to reach a cruising altitude of 10,000 feet, at which point Race pulled back the throttle to cruising speed. “How long a flight is it to Yaviza?” I asked.

“Oh, depending on how many rain squalls we have to dodge around, about ninety minutes or so.”

“This bird has a lot of juice. How long have you owned her?”

“Yes, she does. She was one of the last of this model built back in 1954 with the 300 horsepower Jacobs R-755-A2 engine. She’ll cruise easily at around 148 knots, depending on the headwinds. The only thing about this old girl is they never figured out how to stop this big radial engine from guzzling oil. She gulps down oil at the rate of four quarts an hour. I’ll have to top off the oil tank before I can fly back to Panama City. Other than that, she’s very reliable. I picked her up from a guy in Guatemala City that used to fly for United Fruit Company. I brought her down here seven years ago and have been trying to make a living. It’s getting harder to get legitimate charters. The drug dealers are taking over the country, and they don’t want tourists around. That and the rebels in Colombia have drifted north over the border and have shot down a couple of planes. They supposedly thought they were DEA electronic surveillance aircraft tracking them. One was a good friend of mine. Do you mind if I ask what you’re doing in Yaviza? I did two tours in Viet Nam, and you remind me of the MACV-SOG guys I used to ferry around. No bullshit kind of guys, if you know what I mean?”

“I don’t mind you asking. I’ve been sent to find a couple of scientists that went looking for rare orchids. They disappeared two weeks ago. They may have been taken hostage for ransom by the FARC rebels.”

“You’re going into that jungle alone? I wouldn’t go in there with a company of infantry, let alone by myself.”

“This is what I do; it’s no big deal. Going in by myself means I only have to worry about one person, me. It’s simpler that way.”

“Well, I don’t know if it will help, but I’ve heard that a contingent of FARC 57 has taken over the village of El Real de Santa María. It’s about fifteen miles south of Yaviza, right on the Chucunaque River. The land between Yaviza and El Real is a horrible river swamp that the illegal loggers are trying to take over from the native Indian tribe, the Cuna’s. It’s no-man’s land. People go in and don’t come out. Maybe that’s what happened to your scientists?”

“That does help,” I told Race. “You don’t know anyone in Yaviza that might be willing to take me down the river, do you?”

“I don’t, but I do know someone that might be able to point you in the right direction. His name is Father Albert Swenson. He’s been working on trying to convert the sinners in Yaviza for about five years. He’s not doing so well since there are probably more sinners now than when he started, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He does know everyone in the area, so maybe he can help you.”

“Great, Race. How would I go about locating him?”

“It shouldn’t be hard. His church is just down the road from the airport. Not a quarter-mile. You can’t miss it. It’s the only building with a cross nailed to it. I don’t guess I need to tell you, but you being a stranger and all in Yaviza, there are lots of men and women that would kill you without asking questions for that rifle you’re carrying. It’s a crazy place where people don’t value life. Other than Father Albert, there’s not a good person in that town.”

“Thanks, I appreciate the warning. I’ll keep my eyes open. Now, are you interested in coming back to get me in a few days?”

“Sure—when do you want me?”

“Is there any kind of communication out of Yaviza?” I asked.

“There are no phones, but a few have ham radios that can contact Panama City. That’s how they order supplies and stuff. Father Albert is a ham radio nut. A lot of people use him to send messages.”

“Okay, let’s try this since I have no idea when I’ll get out of the jungle. You come back in four days. I’ll pay you in advance for the flight. If I’m not there, go back to Panama City and wait to get a message from your Father Albert. Will that work for you?”

“Hell yea. What time do you want me over here in four days?”

“Why don’t you make it late afternoon. That’ll give me most of the day if I need it, and you’ll still have time to get back to Panama City before its dark.”

“That’ll work just fine. That’s Yaviza up ahead. That little bare spot in the middle of the green blanket.”

Other than a few little patches that looked like the illegal hardwood loggers had gotten to, Yaviza stood out in the world of lush rainforest. Although it was the end of the road for the Pan-American Highway coming from the north, from 10,000 feet up, there was no sign of the road. It was completely hidden by the jungle.

I quit talking to Race and let him get set up to land, and in a few short minutes, he was coming in low over the green landscape for a landing on the short runway. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but the runway was just a stretch of dirt scratched out of the bush. He lined up to miss a set of deep ruts that ran nearly the length of the strip. Applying his brakes, he swung around to park next to the only other plane on the side of the runway, an old Convair 440 with no markings other than its tail number. “That’s a big plane for landing on this short strip,” I said. “I’ll bet he needs every foot of runway to get off.”

“Yes. Its owned by a Chinese group that brings people in a couple of times a month. They have a compound out in the jungle between here and El Real de Santa María. I’ve seen them in here a few times, but no one knows anything about them. Probably some religious cult or something.” Race commented as he shut down the engine. “Would you mind standing by while I add oil to this old girl? I’ve been robbed twice here while trying to service her.”

“No problem, and here’s the money I owe you, plus another grand for the flight in four days,” I said, handing him a roll of Benjamins.

“Geez, thanks, Stiletto. I sure appreciate the business.”

“Just make sure you take care of Pasha. I need you in one piece to get me back to the city.”

I grabbed my gear and went out of the cabin door. Once I was on the ground, I quickly checked all my weapons for readiness. Slinging the M4 over my back, I let the persuader hang by its sling in front. Race came out carrying four quarts of motor oil and opened the engine cowling to service the big engine. He’d no sooner got started when two guys with old rusty revolvers shoved in their pants rode up on an old beat-up Honda motorcycle. The driver pushed down the kick-stand, and they both slid off the bike and walked towards me. The passenger, a scrawny guy with tattoos down both arms, gestured towards Race’s plane, “Are you with that pilot?” he asked in broken English.

“Yes, I am. What can I do for you?” I inquired while watching their hands and eyes closely. Those two indicators will always tell you what a person is about to do before they do it.

“You tell him he owes us a landing fee. One hundred dollars, right now, or he can’t leave,” the punk said.

“That’s a pretty high landing fee, in my opinion. I’m sure he’s not going to pay it, so you might get back on that old scooter and go find somebody else to hassle.”

The driver took a step toward me and shouted, “He will pay one hundred dollars right now, or we’ll take it from him!”

They must have read too many western novels because they both tried a typical fast draw on me, but I’d already seen their hands tensing, and before either had pulled a gun, my persuader was blasting both barrels. The full load 00-buck lifted them off their feet, both of them dead before they hit the ground.

Race came running up; an empty oil can in one hand and a greasy rag in the other. “What the hell?” He said.

“Those aren’t by chance the guys that robbed you here before, are they?” I asked.

He walked over and looked at what remained of their ugly mugs and replied, “You know, I think they are the ones that hit me up twice.”

Reloaded the shotgun, I walked over to him, “Well, they won’t be robbing you again. If you finished adding oil, why don’t you take off? I’ll wait until you’re in the air.”

“Great, thanks so much, Stiletto. I owe you. Just go down that road, and you’ll find Father Albert’s church. It shouldn’t take you long to get there.”

“Oh, it’ll take me less time than that. I’ve just acquired a motorcycle for transportation. These guys don’t need it anymore.”

Race Hackett was still laughing as he taxied out and ran up the engine for takeoff. I watched until he was in the air, then I mounted the old bike and kick-started it. Welcome to the Darién Gap.

Tropical rainforest

Chucunaque River

 

 

 The humidity was stifling already, so I knew it wouldn’t be long before the sky erupted into a drenching equatorial shower. It’s part of the normal day in these parts. You quickly learn to live with being wet and sticky; it’s all part of life in the jungle.

I rode slowly down the dirt track that was passing itself off as the Pan-American Highway but calling it anything more than a muddy trail was being generous. There weren’t many vehicles, mostly beat-up old trucks missing paint and parts, but I guess they were better than a mule. Everyone I passed stopped whatever useless task they were performing to look me over. No one seemed to care that I was riding one of their locals’ motorbikes, they were all eyes on me and the pack and weapons I was carrying. People with nothing see someone with a little something and think they’re well off. I’m not a real friendly guy anyway, so I gave back their stares with a stoney look of my own just to keep them from getting ideas. These were end-of-the-road people, with nothing—and nothing to lose, barely scratching out a living, the dregs of society that no one would miss if they fell down dead today. I didn’t want any of them to think I was easy prey.

I found what was passing for a house of worship just like Race had told me, as it had a big rough, unpainted cross nailed up to the front of the building. Wood was cheap here, coming right out of the jungle, and was the only building material, except for the steel corrugated roof panels. Very little was painted, probably because nothing dried out enough for the paint to stick, so it gave everything a very rustic look. It wasn’t pretty.

Turning off the key, I put the kickstand down and walked up, and pounded my fist on the door. Several people had followed me down the street to see where I was going and started to form a crowd as I waited at the church entrance. Men, women, and children were all dressed the same in beat-up wide straw hats, loose ratty cotton shirts and pants, and either sandals made from woven palm fronds or rubber boots. Everyone, even some of the kids, wore or carried a machete, and almost everyone, including the older kids, had a rusty revolver stuffed into their britches. This wasn’t the welcome wagon bunch. I kept the persuader pointed in their general direction, but seeing as I was the main attraction in town, the crowd was growing quickly.

I heard boots shuffling across a planked floor, and as the door swung open wide, the doorway filled with a short, heavy-set guy with a long scraggly beard. I glanced his way, not taking my eyes off my crowd of admirers, and asked, “Are you, Father Albert?”

A hole appeared amid the bush on his face, and he replied, “Why yes, my son. I am Father Albert. Have you come to confess your sins?”

“Not likely. I’ve got a lot of sinning still to do. You’ll just have to wait on that. Race Hackett flew me in here and told me you might be able to point me to a boatman that could take me down the river.”

“Well, I might could do that, if’n you don’t fear for your life, cuzz they’re a treacherous bunch, the boatmen and loggers be. Why don’t you come inside? It’s getting ready to rain any minute, and you can tell me more about your quest.”

I backed through the doorway, not taking my eyes off the unruly crowd, and swung the door shut. Turning, I glanced over the room, which had a few bare wood benches facing a simple pulpit in the front. Several small crosses and a few abstract paintings that may have had religious connotations were the only things decorating the walls. Behind the pulpit was another room where I assumed the priest probably cooked and slept since I could smell a mixture of rancid food and unwashed clothing staining the air. One smoky kerosene lamp provided the only light since there were no windows to break up the walls or provide any natural light.

“So, my son, tell me why you want to go out on that dangerous river. Are you just another adventurer looking to cross the Darién Gap? I’ve met several that have tried, but in five years, only a few have completed the journey. Some smart ones turn back, but most of the others just disappear into the swampy wasteland.”

“No, I’m hoping I won’t have to cross the Gap. I’m looking for two scientists that have gone missing while looking for rare flowers. I suspect they may have been taken hostage, or worse. I understand some FARC rebels have moved north, and I’m thinking that finding them might be a good place to start.”

“My goodness,” Father Albert exclaimed while laughing, “I’d rather reach into Hell itself and pluck out the Devil’s gold tooth than go looking for those heathen rebels. But that might not be the worst that could happen to those men. If the Cuna’s found them, they’d kill and roast them like hogs, and the loggers are worse. They are known for using men in place of women to satisfy their beastly desires, after which they tie them to logs and drift them downstream over the waterfalls, just for fun. There is no law out here in the jungle, and Satan has had his way with these abhorrent people for a long time. You look like a tough guy, but take my advice; whatever they’re paying you to find these men, it’s not enough. Just go home. There has to be easier money to be made.”

“It’s not about the money; it’s what I do—I find people. Now, can you point me to a boatman that will carry me downriver?”

“Yes, I can. But I can’t vouch for his honesty or character; you’ll just have to take your chances. His name is Tram Bouchier, and he’s a thief and a liar, and God won’t be inviting him into the kingdom of the heavens. He’s Satan’s child, but he’s the best boatman on the river.”

“How do I find him?” I asked.

“Why that will be easy. You take this road out of town, past the airport you came into, and the road ends right at the Chucunaque River. Tram Bouchier lives in a houseboat painted green and blue. He’s got a German wife that is bigger than me,” he said, patting his substantial girth, “Old Tram has a purple birthmark on the left side of his face and only half a nose. The other half was bitten off in a fight years ago. He’s not very tall, but he makes up for it in strength. He’s solid as a mahogany stump.”

“Thanks for the help, Father Albert. I wonder if you’d mind if I gave you a little donation for your ministry or whatever?”

“Well, bless you, my son. Any little help would be greatly appreciated,” he replied warmly.

I pulled out some bills and gave him three hundred, which caused his eyes to grow as big as saucers. “Don’t you dare flash that money in front of that crowd out there! They would tear both of us limb from limb if they knew you were carrying that. I haven’t had this much money at one time since I got here five years ago. It will go a long way. Thank you so much. You know, I never did get your name, son.”

“I’m called Stiletto, Father Albert.”

“Well,” he said, “I hope the angel Gabriel is by your side when you enter the jungle, Stiletto. And not just for the bad men you might meet. I never mentioned the many venomous snakes, man-eating crocs, and hungry cats that will cross your path. The Darién Gap was Gods testing ground before he created Hell. He decided it was so bad; he made Hell a lot nicer place. But you’ll find that out soon enough. God be with you, son.”

I left him there and went outside to a smaller crowd. Apparently, the thrill had worn off, but there were still a few onlookers hanging around. Surprisingly, the bike was still there, so I started it and spun around, heading back the way I came. When I passed the airport, there was a group of men gathered around the two dead punks that had tried to rip Race off for a landing fee. I slowed down as I went by, figuring they were loading up the bodies, but all they were doing was stripping them of their boots and clothing. I just shook my head and drove on. The muddy, rutted path didn’t improve any, as it looked like few trucks ever came this way, and the jungle was doing its best to reclaim the track. About two miles past the airport, I began to see the river through the trees, though it didn’t look much like a river at first.

It more closely resembled the bayous of Louisiana or Mississippi. Marshy, swampy inlets with islands in the middle of large bodies of water. From where I was at, there was no clear channel that I could tell, which was most likely why an experienced boatman was a good idea for traveling the area. I came around a turn and saw several houseboats tied up to the bank and a couple of trucks parked along the shore. Though Father Albert had told me the road ended at the river, it seemed to go on a ways following the river into the bush.

I spotted the houseboat as described, painted an unappealing mixture of blues and greens like someone had used a bunch of partial cans of paint to cover up the wood. Effective, I guess, but visually distasteful. The houseboat was just a square frame structure built on a barge-like hull with lots of roof overhang. Clotheslines were stretched fore and aft, drying an assortment of stained and worn clothes. Parking the bike, I heard the woman long before I got up to the side of the boat. Screaming or swearing in a Germanic tongue, she was giving someone the what for, and I had a good guess who it was. Just as I reached the gangplank that connected the boat to the shore, a short guy ran out of the boat’s doorway, followed by a heavy cooking pot. He was halfway across the gangway before he spotted me onshore. Stopping in his tracks, he looked past me to the old Honda and asked. “Whater yur doun riding my boys’ motorbike? “

At about five-foot shit inches tall, he resembled a toadstool. His cotton shirt hung off of him like a sack, and he wore rubber hip waders strapped to a wide leather belt from which hung a long-bladed knife in a crocodile hide scabbard. “I flew into the airport and was able to rent it from two nice lads.” Although he resembled the man Father Albert had described, with a purple birthmark the size of a dinner plate on his face and a nose that looked like a dog chewed it off, I decided to ask anyway, “Are you Tram Bouchier?”

“Yur bet I am, why yew asking?”

“I need a boat ride down the river to El Real de Santa María. I was told you might provide that service, and I’d like to leave today,” I said, thinking I better get him on the river before he found out I’d aced his thieving sons.

“I em a boatman. How much money do you have on yew?” He slurred.

“Why don’t you tell me how much you’ll charge, and if it isn’t more than I can spend, we’ll have a deal.”

He stood on that gangplank looking me over as his wife continued to scream guttural profanities inside. Finally, he took a step towards me and said, “If’in yew want to leave right now, it’ll cost yew five hundred. Av yew got American dollars?”

“I do. Five hundred U.S. I can do. Where is your boat?”

“Yew got it, then give it to me,” he demanded.

“Tell you what, I’ll give you two hundred right now and the other three hundred when we get there.” I had separated some money from my roll so I didn’t have to show a wad, and I slipped two bills out and held them up. It was clear from looking into his eyes that he hadn’t seen any U.S. greenbacks in a long time. He stepped forward and greedily held out his hand, into which I placed the money.

“If’in yew don’t have the other three hundred, I’ll feed yew to the crocs.”

“I’ve got it—let’s go,” I said.

He took one glance backward just as another round of glottal profanities burst forth from the boat, and then he brushed past me, heading down the shoreline. I followed him to a twenty-foot flat-bottomed skiff with two rough board thwarts amidships. Laying along the side of the hull was a sculling oar and a long pole for pushing through the shallows. He stepped aboard and picked up the pole, then pointed at the forward seat and said, “Sit yerself there. Don’t move unless I tell yer to.”

Slipping off the rucksack I took up the M4 and charged a round into the chamber, then press checked to verify. He clearly noted my actions while tossing off the line to shore and pushing the boat out into open water. If we encountered any contact from the shoreline, I wanted to be able to swiftly respond with the most firepower I had available. He had pushed us about three hundred meters offshore to where I could begin to see the main body of the Chucunaque River when an old flatbed truck pulled up to shore, and four men piled out. They began to yell and wave their hands our way, and even though it was too far to hear what they were saying, it was enough for Tram to turn his head and look towards the shore. “I need to go back. That’s me bruther. He needs me, I think.”

“Well, I guess I can find another boatman if you won’t take me. Give me back the two hundred I advanced you,” I said.

He looked at me long and hard, then started pushing again, out into the river current. “Not many would take yew, yuh know. The river is in flood stage and very dangerous right now.” Tram said.

I had to admit it did look high. Islands of vegetation broke up the expanse, but all along the shoreline, I could see what looked like logs poking out of the water, except logs didn’t possess two eyes. There were hundreds of crocs in sight at any one time — instant death for anyone falling into the river.

“Why der yer want to go to El Real de Santa María? There is nothing there except trouble.”

“I don’t want to go into the town. I want to get close to it,” I said.

“Yer know the rebels hold that place?”

I just nodded my head. I didn’t want to give him too much information. I didn’t trust him one bit; in fact, I sensed he was setting me up to rob me. His sons had learned their wicked ways from someone, and I suspected it might be him. He didn’t say much more, but I saw him looking at me, sizing me up. I was pretty sure he was going to try something before we got close to the town.

About two miles downriver from his houseboat, I saw a huge compound built back from the riverbank. Made of cut logs, it resembled a fort. “What is that place? I asked, surprised to see such a structure out in the bush.

“It’s a bunch of Chinks,” Tram replied. “They fly people in here, then fly them out again in a few weeks. I haul supplies for them. The road goes over to that place, but no further. I’ve never been let inside of those walls. A strange bunch, they are.”

We had traveled several miles downriver, and the sun was setting low. I knew we weren’t going to cover the seventeen miles or so before it got dark. I watched the boatman continue to scan the shoreline as if looking for something; then, I began to hear raucous laughter downriver. At the same time, Tram’s features lightened, and he told me, “We need to put to shore for the night. It’s not safe on this river after dark. There are friends of mine over there where we can put in.”

He started sculling towards shore as I asked him, “What do your friends do on the river?”

“They be loggers, my friends. They’ll surely feed us too.”

As we got close to shore, the light of a large bonfire began to reflect across the water. It sounded like his friends were having quite a party. Tram switched from the oar to his long pole as we moved into the shallows, and shortly I felt the bottom of the boat scrape onto the shoreline. Tram stepped over the gunnel and pushed the boat up while I shouldered my ruck and slid the M4 behind me. My right hand was on the persuader as I stepped ashore.

Cloud forest near Boquete, Panama

I no sooner was off the boat when I heard a distinctive crack, followed up shortly by another. Each time I heard the crack, the sound of men’s voices cheering split the air. I looked at Tram and asked him, “What are your friends celebrating? Sounds like they’re having some fun.”

“Oh, they’re hav’in fun, let’s go join them.”

He took off up a trail towards the light of the fire with me following, and soon we stepped into a clearing. The huge fire lit up the area brightly, allowing me to see what the festivities were about. Three big white men were standing in front of four Indians that were tied by their feet and hands to a big sturdy wooden rack. They wore nothing but a small animal skin breechcloth. One of the men had a big bullwhip, and as we entered the clearing, he pulled back and launched the whip, striking one of the Indians so hard the whip popped. His arm swung back for the next stroke just as I leveled the 12 gauge and pulled the trigger, firing both barrels. At roughly ten feet, the 00-buck spread out, taking all three men off their feet.

Tram swung around and had already drawn his long blade as he charged me. I reached over my shoulder and pulled the machete, and as he closed the distance, I carried the stroke downward and sliced off his right hand at the wrist!

His hand, with the knife in it, hit the ground, and he slowed to a stop, in shock, just looking at the bleeding stump. He stopped just long enough for my next swing to slice through his thick neck. His short, stout body remained standing as his head hit the ground behind him. It took just seconds, but seemed like an eternity, for his body to fold up and hit the ground. The three loggers were on the ground screaming, the force of the 12-gauge blast had mowed them down, but they were still alive. I quickly reloaded, but when I walked up to their thrashing bodies, I pulled the Sig 226 and placed two rounds into each of their skulls.

After holstering the pistol, I picked up my machete and approached the four bound natives. Only one of them had received the lashes so far, and he was hurting badly, cut from the steel tips of the whip. His head hung to his chest, unconscious and bleeding heavily from his wounds. I looked at the other three, who were watching my every move closely. Their faces were blank slates, showing no emotion, as I approached the wounded man and, with two quick slices of the razor-sharp machete, cut him down.

I lifted him into my arms and carried him over by the fire. Then I returned to the rack and cut the other men loose. They stood there a moment looking at me, rubbing the raw skin on their wrists where they had been tightly bound, then I nodded in the direction of their wounded friend, and they quickly hurried to him. One man with what looked like the scars left by Jaguars’ claws across his chest came back, but I felt no aggression emanating from him. He lifted his right hand and touched my forehead lightly with his fingertips, and looked into my eyes. He remained that way for a few seconds, then he turned swiftly and returned to the others, and they gathered the wounded man up and disappeared silently into the dark jungle as if they’d never been there.

FARC 57

 

 

 The loggers had a small tapir roasting on a spit beside the roaring fire, which I tore into as soon as I had dragged all the bodies to the river and pushed them into the current. I did retrieve my two hundred from Tram before I floated him onto his last river journey. I had killed and eaten tapirs when I trained in the jungle years ago and found them delicious due in part to their diet of ripe fruit, which makes their meat delightfully sweet. After foraging, I hung my hammock as close to the fire as I could get it, hoping the smell of blood on the ground from the men I’d killed wouldn’t attract leopards or jaguars into the camp during the night. It’s always been difficult for me to sleep in the jungle. There’s just too much going on at night in the triple canopy, and I’m a light sleeper anyway. Monkeys constantly howl, a vocal telegraph of sorts from one group to the other as they announce the movement of hunting cats and snakes. That stirs up the birds, which are never silent day or night, and then add to that the scream of the silent stalkers, the top of the food chain, as they call their young to them to feast on a fresh kill. More than the crocs, I always worried about the cats.

The first streams of early morning lights to penetrate the thick foliage had me up and packing my hammock, which is always the first item out of my rucksack and the last to be stowed, right on top of my other kit. I broke my overnight fast with more of the roast tapir, then wrapped up the rest in banana leaves and stowed it away for another meal or two. Though I had brought plenty of energy bars, fresh meat, and the fruit I picked as I moved through the jungle was much more satisfying to the palate.

Though I could only guess at the miles traveled the day before downriver, I estimated we’d gotten at least halfway to my objective. I’d already decided the night before to abandon Tram’s boat, as the waterway was too confusing to navigate on my own. I didn’t want to get lost down some channel and waste valuable time trying to find the main river again. I knew the general direction of the small town of El Real de Santa María, so although the travel was much slower through the dense growth, I figured I’d make up for it by not getting lost in the confusing river system.

And travel was infuriatingly slow, though I tried to move along existing animal trails, the only paths, if you could call them that in the bush, they never run continuously in the direction I was heading, so that meant cutting my way through until I came to another trail going basically on the right heading. I constantly checked my compass since there wasn’t anything visible, like a mountain top I could use as a bearing point. Adding to that was the need to stop at least every hour to pluck off the leeches and reapply DEET, which helped slow down the biting insects, but did little for repelling the black bloodsuckers. If you remove them early, you bleed less, but you’ll always seep a little blood, which seems to attract even more. It’s a constant battle.

At the end of the day, as darkness settled into the bush, I was sure I hadn’t traveled more than four miles, and I was plumb tuckered out. I made a wet camp without fire and just strung up my hammock and ate several bananas, and finished off the roast meat. No moonlight penetrated the dense landscape, so darkness was like having a bag over your head, with one exception. Sometimes a bird, maybe a parrot, macaw, or nighthawk, I couldn’t tell, would fly, leaving a trail of phosphorescence in its wake. It was almost like watching a shooting star, except it was just a few feet up in the canopy. About midway through the night, I heard a cat make a kill so close I could hear its heavy breathing and the sound of it ripping meat and hide from the bones. From that point on, I was awake, treated to the sound of a feasting feline of large proportions until just before daylight. There was some comfort since it wasn’t me that was the main entrée, but I was certainly glad when I could view the jungle floor and get moving.

About midday, I hacked my way onto a trail and came to a full stop. Fresh boot tracks were visible in the mud, and upon closer inspection, I determined there were at least eight different soles, which told me it was a squad of soldiers patrolling. I had to be close to a camp, and the only military units around here were the paramilitary FARC 57. Moving very cautiously, I followed the trail, which was heading in the general direction I’d been moving all day. An hour later, I smelled wood smoke and soon began to hear the sounds of an encampment. I exited the trail at this point, as there was too much chance of bumping into someone, and went to hands and knees, and soon belly crawled up to within an arm’s length of a clearing.

It wasn’t a large camp, maybe a hundred meters long and half of that wide. My first objective was to determine the force size, which I roughly put at fifty men and women. Yes, women are recruited by FARC and make up a large contingent of the fighting force. Having dealt with FARC on many occasions recovering kidnap victims in neighboring Colombia, I can tell you the women fighters are formidable adversaries.

Next, I needed to know whether the men I was looking for were being held here or if I needed to move on and find another camp of which I was sure there would be many in this area north of the border where neither Colombian nor Panamanian forces controlled.

There was a loose assemblage of sentries, two I could see on the opposite side and probably two more on my side; though I couldn’t see them, I could hear one a few meters to my right as well as an occasional whiff of the reefer he or she was puffing away on. An occupational hazard for any military commander in the bush is keeping your troops straight. FARC was a major drug mover in these parts, so the troops had access to as much as they could smoke or snort.

The camp was laid out with cooking fires and an eating area in the center. Trees on both ends were full of hammocks, and a latrine area was on my right at the very end, downwind of the camp. I could see soldiers moving back and forth from it, taking care of their bodily functions. What I found encouraging was a tent, not of army issue, but with the familiar North Face logo printed on it, just to my left of the main cooking area. That was something I wouldn’t expect to find in a FARC camp. They were very sensitive to aerial recon flights and aerial attacks by Colombian military forces, so I would expect them to stay completely camouflaged.

I had laid there completely hidden for over two hours when I heard loud voices, and every rebel in the camp started looking more industrious as five men came trudging out of the jungle on the other side of the camp from me. Three were in the standard army camo all the other rebels wore, but another was a tall Caucasian guy in blue jeans and a leather coat, and the fifth guy was a short fat man of Asian descent in a business suit, carrying a leather briefcase. The soldier leading the bunch, a heavy-set rebel who could be the commander of this bunch, looked back and said something gesturing with his hand, then led the two civilians towards the tent. The other two soldiers that had been with them came running up with an assortment of camp stools and started setting them up outside the tent.

I couldn’t hear from where I was, but the commander barked something at the tent, and moments later, two men came crawling out and stood up to face the three new arrivals. There were no handshakes involved, but they just all took seats and held what appeared to be a civilized discussion. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I could tell that the two guys from the tent matched the photos Mike had shown me in Miami. And I was pretty sure they had just been introduced to a Russian and Chinese diplomatic officer. FARC was getting ready to auction off the two brothers, or at least one of them. The Florida State professor probably held little value except to his sibling. He was most likely dead meat once a deal had been made.

I checked the angle of the sun, getting low now in the west. I figured it was unlikely, even if the bidding was completed this evening, that the hostages would be moved until morning. So, I had to get them out tonight or ambush them moving through the jungle tomorrow. But brother number two, Professor Marshall Dowd, might be dead or left behind if they moved Fredrick Frances, so tonight was going to be my only chance to get them both out alive and together. And that was what I wanted because I’d never left a hostage behind, and I wasn’t about to change that now.

Panama Jungle7

A Jaguars Claw

 

 

 The meeting with the hostages continued for over an hour until finally, the commander stood up, and everyone followed. Hands were shaken, and the commander and two attachés walked off, heading for the center of the camp. The two brothers ducked quickly back into the tent while activity picked up near the cooking fires. As shadows began to grow longer, the troops started lining up for chow; just like in any military force since the beginning of time. You had to fill the bellies of your fighters, or they wouldn’t be effective or happy.

I chewed slowly on energy bars and sipped water, trying to get a feel for where everyone would end up once it was dark and trying not to scratch at the bugs that were feasting on me. Though there wasn’t a sentry or guard posted right at the brother’s tent, I seriously doubted that there wouldn’t be one or more assigned there at night. Soon two soldiers carried plates down to the tent and handed them inside. In less than ten minutes, the brothers emerged and handed off the empty plates to one soldier, then followed the other as she led them to the latrine. They finished quickly and were led back to the tent. The woman took up the guard post I’d assumed would be present through the night.

As the night drew close, I slowly backed into the jungle behind me and prepared for the night’s action. Every weapon was inspected, and all my mags were checked for readiness. Lastly, I tightened all my webbing, and the rucksack straps were secured, so nothing moved or rattled. I would be moving swiftly and silently, and I didn’t need any piece of kit giving away my position.

I moved back to my previous position so I could watch over the encampment as darkness took over the light. Now would be the hardest time for me. I was ready to move, but to move too soon could be disastrous. I needed to wait until everyone either fell into a deep slumber or relaxed their guard. To keep alert, I chewed coffee beans, which would stimulate me and keep me vigilant.

The hours crept slowly, and at 4:30 a.m., the time most people are sleeping the deepest, I started to move. Out of the bush, I pushed myself, inches at a time, until I was free of any foliage; then, on hands and knees, I moved to my right. The sentry closest to me was smoking again, lucky me, because not only did it preoccupy him, but the glow of the cigarette destroyed his night vision. When I was three feet away, I slowly stood up behind him with my old skinning knife in my right hand. Moving quickly, I wrapped my left hand over his mouth as my right hand drove the blade through his neck muscles. His immediate response was to move away from the pain, which pushed the blade forward, severing his windpipe and carotid in one swift slice. The only sound was the stream of blood spraying the ground in front of him. I quickly dragged his lifeless body into the bush.

With only the dim light from the cooking fires keeping the darkness at bay in the camp, it took me all of fifteen long minutes to dispatch the other three sentries; then, I moved up to the guard standing in front of the brother’s tent. I could tell she was tired, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She was fighting to stay awake. As I eased up behind her, she either heard something or sensed me because she started to move away. I grabbed her mouth so she couldn’t scream and drove my knife between her sixth and seventh vertebrae, then twisted the blade. She was immediately paralyzed, unable to move or scream, not dead yet—but close.

Just as I laid her down, I noticed a form silhouetted in the campfire’s glow moving in my direction. Sheathing my blade, I drew the .22 suppressed High Power and locked the slide. As the person moved closer, I bent down and moved to the side out of his direct line of sight. He walked past me, and I rose up and placed the barrel against the back of his head, and pulled the trigger. Without a sound, he was dead before he hit the ground. I bent down and was surprised to see the Chinese attaché, still dressed in his business suit and still carrying the leather briefcase. I left him, but I took his briefcase and moved to the tent.

Tent zippers can be noisy, so I slowly and carefully moved it open. Both brothers were asleep with their heads on my end of the tent. I could barely tell them apart in the faint light. Placing my hand over Marshall’s mouth, he started awake, but my mouth was at his ear before he could move away from me, “Don’t move, Marshall, I’m here to rescue you—stay still.”

He relaxed a little while I continued. “I need you to sit up while I wake Frederick, then I’m going to get you both out of here to safety. Nod if you understand.”

His chin moved up and down under my hand; then, as he slowly sat up, I released my hand from his mouth. Once he was sitting up, I had room to move into the tent and grab Fredericks’s mouth and get close to his ear, “Don’t move, Frederick, I’m here to save you—nod if you understand.”

I could see his eyes open wide, but he nodded and slightly relaxed. Then I whispered to them both, “I want you both to carefully move outside and wait for me. Just get out of the tent, don’t move away. I have to put someone inside the tent. Then we’ll get out of here.”

I backed out of the tent, and they both crawled out, carrying their boots. I whispered to them, “Put on your boots and tie them well. Do it quickly—then I’ll tell you the next step.”

While they slipped into their boots, I dragged the guard and attaché into the tent and zipped it closed. Then I moved back to them. “I need you to stand up and get behind me, we are going to form a train, and I’m the engine. One of you place your hands on my rucksack, and the other place both your hands on your brother’s shoulders. I’m going to slowly lead you across this open area and onto a jungle trail. I will move slowly—just don’t let go, either one of you.”

I stood up, holding the M4 in my right hand and the briefcase in the left, and felt hands grab the straps on my ruck. Then I began to move forward slowly, so they could get used to walking this way. It probably took five minutes to cross the open area, but we came right up to the trail I had followed to the camp. I entered the jungle slowly, and for the next ten minutes, we moved like a snail; while the whole time, I expected the camp to erupt behind us, but it slept on undisturbed. Finally, I stopped and turned around. “You both did well. If you’re up to it, we’ll move a little faster. Try not to trip and fall. I want to get as far from these rebels as we can before daylight because once they know you’re gone, they’ll come after us. Are you ready?”

Neither of them said a word; they just nodded their heads. I quickly slipped off the rucksack and, with a short length of paracord, secured the briefcase to it. I wasn’t sure why I’d brought it, except it seemed important to the attaché, but I needed my hands free in case of contact. I slipped into the rucks webbing and turned around, and as soon as I felt Frederick’s hands on my pack, I started moving. I had no choice but to stay on the trail, though at times it veered away from my preferred compass heading; it stayed in the general direction. We’d been moving swiftly for over an hour, and the jungle lightened slightly as morning took hold, but a layer of ground fog rose up to the canopy, making it hard to see. Then I heard shouting behind us. The camp had discovered they were gone and wasted no time trying to track us. I stopped and told them, “We are now going to run for your lives. Stay with me, or I’ll lose you. We have to move quickly because they are already on our trial. Let’s get going.”

I took off, moving as fast as I thought they could move without exhausting them too quickly, but in fifteen minutes, I could hear them breathing heavily, and they started falling behind. The rebels were very close now, and I could almost make out what they were saying. In five minutes, they would be on us, so I began to figure out how I was going to fight them. Then in front of me, out of the fog, a figure took shape. For a second, I thought we’d been flanked by the rebels, but as my rifle came up to fire, the figure held his hand up, the same hand he had placed on my forehead. I dropped my rifle barrel as he came forward. He looked past me at the two men, totally knackered and ready to drop, as the sound of the rebel’s voices got louder behind us.

Jaguar Claw said something in his tongue, and behind him, four others materialized out of the bush. They moved past me, and each took an arm of the brothers, practically holding them up. Then my Indian friend waved with his hand for me to follow, and we left the trail and melted into the jungle.

Blood Money

 

 

 

The sound of the rebel’s voices that had been trailing us faded as the Indian led us deeper into his forest. Marshall and Frederick being almost totally worn out were supported by the natives beside them. Neither had spoken two words the whole time until we finally stopped for a short rest. Then Frederick started tearing his boots and socks off, “I’m being eaten alive by these leeches—I can’t stand it anymore.”

I, too, needed some relief as well and took my boots off and started removing the black bloodsuckers. Two of the Indians went off into the bush, and when I started to put my socks back on, Jaguar Claw put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me. The two Indians came back with handfuls of some broadleaf plant and knelt and started rubbing it on our legs, feet, and between our toes. I could feel a slight tingling burn, but it wasn’t unpleasant, and I noticed the bites from the leeches immediately stopped bleeding. Marshall was totally in awe, “My God, what is that plant? I’ve never seen it before.” After a few minutes of rubbing, the Indians stood up and motioned for us to replace our socks and boots. Marshall quickly grabbed a few of the leaves and stuck them into his pocket. The Indians giggled, finding great amusement in our predicament. I noted that none of them had any leeches attached to their bodies, which were naked except for the animal skin loincloths.

I dug out some energy bars from my pack and handed them around. Frederick and Marshall tore off the wrappers and chowed down, but I had to show the Indian how to remove the covering. They tentatively took small bites of the bars and chewed slowly. Then their eyes lit up, and they took bigger bites, consuming them completely. They were really enjoying the nutty, honey-sweet bars. Laughing and talking to each other, I handed out more, which they ate quickly, smiling and licking their fingers like a kid with candy. I had to laugh at their unabashed enjoyment.

While they were chowing down, I talked with the brothers, “I’m hoping the Indians will lead us to, or at least close to, Yaviza. I have a plane that will be flying in late this afternoon. If we miss him, I can call him back tomorrow on a ham radio. But I’d sure like to get out of this jungle today. How long were you held captive by the rebels?”

“Almost two weeks,” Frederick replied. “I made the foolish mistake of telling the commander I worked for the U.S. Government, thinking they would return us safely. Instead, they interrogated us for several days, then tried to sell us, or me at least to the Chinese and Russians. They brought two men yesterday that wanted to buy me from the rebels. That was one of them you pushed into the tent this morning. He wanted me badly, I’m afraid, though I was worried Marshall wasn’t much interest to them.”

“Who sent you, and how did you find us?” Marshall asked.

“The State Department sent me to get you, but I got incredibly lucky. The FARC must have many camps inside the Darién Gap. I only stumbled upon that camp because I crossed a trail they’d patrolled down. Otherwise, I might have missed you.”

Jaguar Claw came up and touched my arm. He and his men were spouting grins and speaking their language, which I couldn’t make out a word of, so I tried all I knew, “Tenenemos que ir a Yaviza, por favor,” telling him we needed to go to Yaviza.

His eyes perked up like maybe he understood a little Spanish. “Yaviza, Yaviza, por favor,” I repeated.

His head went to shaking, and he pointed into the jungle and said something, then pointed again. Then he waved at me and took off. The other four took up their positions alongside Frederick and Marshall, and I threw on the rucksack and took off after my guide.

We walked for several hours in bush. I would have fought my way through, but amazingly, the paths they took us on were easy to maneuver. They just naturally flowed through the jungle instead of fighting their way as I did. As they moved, they would occasionally reach up and grab some ripe fruit that was low hanging, and they sucked the succulent sweet meat and spat out the seeds and skin. They were so at one with their environment; it was a wonder to watch them. Something else I noticed was that I hadn’t felt the bite of another leech since they had rubbed the leafy plant on my legs and feet.

Right around mid-day, I began to hear the river, and within minutes we walked out onto a clearing where four long mahogany canoes were beached. The five Indians quickly pushed two of them off the bank and waved at us, pointing at the boats. They helped Marshall and Frederick into one, with two of them taking up paddles, while I was led over to the other craft and joined by Jaguar Claw and the last two men. They began talking and laughing as they paddled out and headed upstream, staying right along the edge of the current. They were stroking easily and making better time going upstream; than we had made going with the current on Tram’s boat the other day. They took no special notice of all the crocs that we brushed past but seemed greatly amused when I leaned away when one would roll alongside us.

Panama Jungle8

I didn’t recognize any of the shoreline we passed until I saw the compound that was downriver from Tram’s boathouse. Then I knew that whether Jaguar Claw had understood me or not, he knew where we needed to go. Just before we got to the houseboats, they turned into shore and beached the canoes, and the natives lightly jumped out and assisted us onto the river bank. My newfound friend with the claw scar on his chest approached me and once again placed his fingers on my forehead. When he took his hand away, I put my fingers on his forehead, and his face broke into a broad smile.

I slipped out of my ruck, pulling out the hammock, then reached in and took out all the rest of my energy bars, maybe twenty or so, and gave them to the Indians. You’d have thought they were gold bars. I had considered giving them money, of which I had a lot remaining, but decided it probably didn’t have any value for them, as they had everything they needed in the jungle already.

They quickly gathered the bars up like Christmas presents and jumped back into the canoes, and pushed off from shore. They were still talking and laughing as they disappeared down the river. I looked at the sun, setting lower in the sky, and told the brothers, “If you want to get out of here today, you’re going to have to hoof it. That plane won’t stay on the ground very long, and it’s two miles away.”

“I’d sprout wings myself if it would help,” Marshall said, “I’ve got two miles left in these legs—let’s go.”

The two brothers did pretty well, and though they were huffing and sucking wind when we got close to the runway, I could see Race with his head in the engine cowling, adding oil. I was glad I’d told him to come late in the day. We’d needed every precious minute.

As we approached the old Cessna, Race looked up and waved. I had the thought that it was funny that there weren’t any hustlers trying to conn a landing fee from him. He closed up the engine and came our way, wiping his hands on an oily rag, “You just made it, Stiletto. I’ve been here two hours and figured you weren’t going to make it. Are these the two lost flower pickers?”

“Yes, but I’d guess that next year they might want to explore some other jungle rather than the Darién Gap.” Race thought that was hilarious, but the two brothers were too exhausted to do more than shake their heads.

I showed the Dowd brothers into the plane and got them seated. Then I stowed the rucksack and M4 behind the rear bench, but before I took a seat, I asked them a question that had been plaguing me. “What happened to your guide and the two men he hired for protection?”

“They were working for the rebels,” Frederick told me. “They handed us over to that bunch and got two kilos of cocaine in return. I should have known better than to hire a guide at a bar.”

“Where did you meet him?” I asked.

“At a place near the airport in Panama City called Panama Lounge. It wasn’t a dive, just a nice place for a drink, so we figured it was legitimate. Never again, that’s for sure.”

“What was the guy’s name, do you remember?”

“I’ll never forget it,” Marshall said, “His name was Lynn Rosen. He said he’d made twenty-some trips into the Gap.”

I was belted in when Race slid into his seat. He fired up the old girl and took off for the short flight into Panama City. I didn’t talk much on the flight; I was just too tired for conversation. I looked behind me, and both brothers were fast asleep, heads back and snoring. I’m not sure whether it had struck home just how lucky they were, but I was just glad that I had once again brought everyone out alive.

Race put down in Panama City, and I flagged down a cab to get us to the motel I’d stayed at a few days ago. Before I left Race, I handed him ten grand, “I know I paid you in advance, but here’s a tip for you. I appreciate your being there on time today and waiting for me.”

“Well, thanks for the business, Stiletto. If you’re ever in Panama again and need a ride, look me up.”

I got the brothers a room and gave them some cash in case they wanted to get a bite to eat next door; then, I called Bennie from my room. “Bennie, I got the brothers out. Now I need to get them out of Panama.”

“Good job, Stiletto—let me make a call. I think they have a special ride waiting for them. I’ll call you right back.”

Five minutes later, he was back on the line, “The State Department is sending a plane down in the morning. They will have papers to get your boys out of the country. I’ll pick you up at nine o’clock in the morning. You probably need a good night’s sleep.”

I did. I was as tired as I’d been in a long time, with hardly any sleep in the last four days, but I had one thing left to do.

I took a shower and changed into the cleanest clothes I had; then, I called a cab to take me to the Panama Lounge. I took a seat at the bar and ordered coffee. When the bartender brought it, I told him, “I’m looking for a reliable guide to take me across the Darién Gap. Do you know anyone that can help me?”

He nodded his head almost too readily. “I do, Señor. He will be here a little later. I’ll send him over as soon as he comes in.”

I didn’t have to wait very long. I figured the bartender probably called him as soon as he left me. I was watching the door when three guys came through it, two big strapping blonde guys who could have been brothers and a dark-bearded guy in front that came straight for the bar. “Are you looking for a jungle guide to take you across the Darién Gap? My name is Lynn Rosen, and I have more experience than anyone crossing the Gap. These two are my security guards. The Indians in the jungle are very dangerous. I never travel there without protection.”

“I sure am,” I told him excitedly, “I’ve only got a few weeks off work, and I’d like to get started right away. I can’t believe I found someone so quickly. How much do you charge?” I asked.

“I get ten thousand for the crossing. Five thousand up front, and the other five when we go into the jungle. I’ll provide all the food, and I’ve got a great boatman that will get us across the river. Everything is taken care of.”

I gave it a few seconds, just so I wouldn’t seem too eager, then I said, “That’ll work—it’s a little more than I had planned, but I can cover that.”

“Very good, I’ll need five thousand tonight, and we can get started tomorrow. Is that a problem?”

“No, not at all,” I said, looking around the room, “I just don’t feel comfortable flashing that much cash in this crowded bar. Can I meet you out back, and I’ll give it to you there?”

“Hey man, that’s not a problem. I understand. Go on out back, and I’ll meet you there in a minute.”

I was waiting behind the door and placed two .22 rounds in each of the blonde guy’s heads as soon as they came through the back door. They collapsed on the ground in a heap, and Lynn Rosen tripped over them as he followed them through the doorway. I stood over him, aiming the High-Power right between his lying eyes. “I want you to know I rescued the Dowd brothers and brought them back to the city today,” I told him. “They told me you sold them out for a couple of keys of blow. Tell me, who is the great boatman you use to cross the river?”

I guess he thought he’d bargain for his life when he told me, “His name is Tram Bouchier. He’s the one who sets this all up with the rebels. He and his two raggedy-ass boys hired me to bring them rich clients. You need to take this up with them,” he pleaded.

“No need to,” I said, “I killed his boys and cut off Tram’s head four days ago. Now you pay the reaper.”

The surprise on his face was worth the price of admission, as I put two silent rounds into his right eye. I found the main fuse panel for the bar on the back of the building and threw the main switch. It didn’t take a minute for the bartender to come racing out the door, tripping over his partner’s bodies. I killed him without a word and walked away. It was easy to catch a cab back to my room, where I slept deeply until the morning light.

While waiting for Bennie the next morning, I finally picked the locks and opened the briefcase the Chinese attaché had been so afraid to let go of around the rebels, and I found out why. The Chinese were willing to pay ten million dollars for Fredrick Frances Dowd, chief of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. The briefcase held fifty-$200,000 Bearer Bonds payable in cash at the Cayman Island Trust Bank Ltd. I was laughing when I relocked the case and gathered my gear to go.

Bennie dropped us at the terminal, where we were met by the Panamanian Ambassador, who personally escorted us to the Air Force Gulfstream that would return us to Miami. We didn’t clear Customs and Immigration on either end of the flight.

At Miami International, I shook hands with the brothers and accepted their thanks; then, I took a cab to the small hotel at Royal Palm Avenue and West 37th Street, where I cleaned up my gear and weapons and stored them in the storage room down the hall along with the briefcase.

The next morning, I flew out on a private charter and returned to my ranch and horses in Texas. As we lifted off the runway, I swore to myself that I’d never go back into the Darién Gap, ever again.

The End

Look for this story and others in Behind the Mask- An Anthology of Short Stories, available here

One reader writes:

From A. Tremellwyn, in New York, she writes, “Wow, impressive! You have a very readable, flowing kind of prose. I could not put the story down at all until I was at the end — and, that is a compliment. Vivid, but simple, language and a storyline that just grabs you by the “little grey cells” and does not let go. So, I am at the end and it is three minutes shy of 4 am and I don’t really care that I pissed away an hour and a half of sleep. Thanks for the story. You’ll never find me down in the jungle there, I can tell you. First of all, humidity and I do not get along. Secondly, I am every bug’s and leech’s favorite meal on two legs. Not enough insect repellant in the world to keep me from being eaten alive. Thirdly, I have no intention of being a walking armory, as you were — though I can understand why you were. Bless you, for the people you have rescued. I am certain there are any number of people who are profoundly grateful.”

This excerpt is taken from ‘The Caldera Abduction’ available in Kindle and paperback here.

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