The road from downtown Quito out and around to Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest peak, takes about an hour and a half to negotiate.
Actually, there are several dirt roads that branch off when one begins to near the national park, but they all lead to the same base camp of the nearly twenty thousand foot high volcano.
Ben had been assured that the last eruption of the monster had occurred somewhere back in the eighteen hundreds.
The Besta Bongo van took the weather-beaten roads badly, jostling the four of them together. They’d been hastily assembled and flown in for the mission. Ben checked out his companions.
All there were too young, too white and too big for the job, but team leadership of Agency missions did not extend to the selection of personnel.
That happened only in movies, like the appearance of scantily clad beautiful women. Ben had known it was going to be a rough ride just by looking at their vehicle.
The Besta had large wheels on the front and dual smaller ones on the rear. The geometry was bad for any driving not performed on smooth tarmac. Besta also translated, appropriately, to the English word for ‘beast.’
The diesel clattered away. The van had to be a diesel. Cotopaxi was so high that most gasoline car motors would not run up to the last rest station located before a technical climb was required to get to the peak. The little turbo diesel would sound like it was popping corn near their goal but would get them there, or so everyone said.
Their driver and guide was named Jelisco. Jelisco wasn’t pronounced with the silent ‘j,’ like most Spanish words. Jelisco was supposed to be spelled with an ‘x’ which meant it stood for ‘sandy place.’ People knew that so made it sound like an ‘x.’
The driver droned on and on about his name, where he lived and where they were going, all of which bored Ben to death, but there was to be no nodding off on the trip up. They were headed for a meeting with followers of the FARC rebel group. The group had Bolivian origins but overran all over the countryside parts of Ecuador.
Ben knew that the bands were composed of amateurs. Farmers and junk peddlers. Which made them very dangerous. Except for lacking the best equipment, armed amateurs were among the most dangerous opponents Ben faced. Mentally ill opponents were worse, but in the business he was in, the difference was a tough determination to make.
Ben moved up next to the driver while the other men remained in back. Huey, Luey and Duey sat sprawling across the two bench seats behind him. He could hear them chatter but not make out what they were talking about. From their expressions, when he bothered to glance back, he assumed the discussion had something to do with his geriatric age. Fifty was over the hill for field operations. Sixty, unheard of. Yet here he was.
None of them could be over twenty-five, Ben reflected, but then their work was of a more actively violent nature. Somebody back at Agency headquarters in Langley had once asked him if he really hurt people while involved in field operations. Ben had told him no, that he had people who did that sort of thing. Such men rode with him toward Cotopaxi in the rear of the van.
The Besta stopped and idled when they reached a fork in the road. A triple-tined fork. The driver asked which road they should follow, giving the merits of each, ad nauseum. Since it didn’t matter, Ben pointed at the tire tracks to their right. Jelisco jammed the transmission into first gear, without seemingly using the clutch, which made Ben flinch with discomfort.
He shook it off. The van belonged to the driver. The vehicle, as long as it got them back and forth, didn’t matter.
The road swung around a shallow crater, which appeared to stretch all the way to the base of the conical peak in the distance. Spirit Lake, run dry during the last eruption, was nearly the same as the Spirit Lake, which had been located below Mount St. Helens before that blow-up, Jelisco stated. Ben doubted that the name was accurate, being they were in Ecuador, but he let it go, as with the rest of the verbose man’s dialogue.
The lake disappeared as they entered one of the high dry forests of Ecuador.
Kapok trees became dense, their purple blossoms giving away the spring season. Thorns dotted the trunks up and down, except for the older trees which shed them completely.
Ben had been told that the thorns were to keep animals from going after the moisture trapped inside the younger trunks. The thorns were not necessary when the trees were older and their bark much harder.
Two bands of small children appeared ahead of them, one band on each side of the narrow tracks the van was negotiating. As they approached closer Ben saw a string or rope extended out from each band. It curved down across their path.
“These child banditos, “ Jelixico said, with undisguised contempt, “shall I drive through their stupid string?”
“No,” Ben replied, “Stop right here.”
Ben climbed out the door to confront an approaching child. All of them he could see appeared to range in ages from about ten down to five or six. All were thin, serious faced and wearing “T” shirts and torn off trousers. None of them wore shoes.
A small boy walked up and extended his right hand, palm up.
“Ten dollar to pass checkpoint,” the boy said, unequivocally. His hand was steady, as was his gaze. Ben could not remember back to when he had seen larger or sadder eyes regarding him with such patience . The boy’s “T” shirt had the word Zorro written across it in red lettering.
“So, you would be Zorro?” Ben asked, reaching into his pocket. He heard the sliding door of the Besta opening, and the rest of the team exiting the van behind him.
“Si,” the boy answered. “I take for the poor.”
“Well, that’s not exactly it, but what the hell, close enough.” Ben searched for a ten-dollar bill in his wallet. American money had been adopted by Ecuador as its currency ten years before. The canvas pack inside the van was loaded with Agency money, but there would be nothing in it as small as a ten.
“Where’d you learn English?” he asked Zorro, conversationally.
“American School in Quito. Mother sick. No work. No school,” the kid replied, not a hint of emotion in his voice.
“Sorry about your Mom being sick, and I hope this helps,” Ben said, about to take two fives from his wallet.
“You want me to handle these assholes, sir?” a voice whispered behind him.
Ben flipped his head around. The team arrayed behind him, looked like the A-Team from old television, although none of their exotic weaponry was in evidence.
“No, I think I can handle this one,” Ben whispered back, rolling his eyes involuntarily as he turned. He then gently placed the two fives in the boy’s hand. The money was gone before he saw the kid’s hand close.
“Thank you, sir,” the boy stated, formally.
“That’s okay, ten bucks isn’t that much,” Ben responded.
“No, I meant for my Mom,” Zorro said back, then ran to join his friends by the side of the road. The back of his shirt was stenciled with two large letters, obviously put on by hand. The letters were an E and a P, almost run together in black ink.
They got back inside, the string was lowered, and all the children waved enthusiastically. Jelisco ground the van ahead in first gear.
Ben broke the silence when they were again moving smoothly through the trees.
“You’re here to do what you’re told,” Ben said, his body twisted around to view the men in the back, “and I won’t put up with suggestions from any of you.
We don’t do children, which you’re not far from being yourselves, and we certainly don’t mess with locals over ten dollars. You know why you’re here. Just do your job.” The men remained impassive, looking back at Ben, but not responding in any obvious way to what he said. Jelisco raised his eyebrows, glanced over quickly, but then returned his attention to driving.
The van dropped down gear by gear, the road steep but the lack of air pressure was the real problem. The turbo screamed but could only do its job of ramming in more air if it was rotating at its highest rate.
By the time they reached the fence down from the base camp the diesel was knocking about two or three times a second. A man could walk faster than they moved, but at eighteen thousand feet above sea level the effort would hardly be worth it.
The van gasped to a halt, the engine dying without being shut off. The gate to the fence was closed. Several climbers and hikers milled about, but no one attempted to get through. A poorly painted sign hung from the metal gate. It said “Cerrado FARC.”
Closed by the Revolutionary Army of Colombia was not a notice to be taken lightly.
FARC had operated in Ecuador for years, generally in silence, but every once and awhile blood flowed in small rivers. The four letters were commonly seen about the countryside, but actual confrontation with FARC members was an uncommon but terrorizing experience.
Ben told Jelisco to remain where he was until they returned. The driver, for once, was without words, his widened eyes going from the sign, and then back and forth to the three men getting into their kits outside the open door of the vehicle.
“I’m going right in,” Ben said to the men, “Johnson, you’re in charge. What do you do if you hear nothing at all from me and the fail safe device does not go to alarm?”
“We do nothing for an hour, and then we make our way up to the building to see what we can find there. If we find nothing we leave. If we find bodies, we photograph and then leave.” The man read his instructions from the morning’s five paragraph combat order perfectly, from memory. Ben was impressed.
“Your mission?” Ben inquired, feeling better about the three wet workers who’d been assigned.
“To provide security and cover for the team, and the victim, until we’re all safely extracted from the country,” Johnson intoned, again perfectly.
“Good, no heroics. No assaults. You have the Naval Commo?”
Johnson produced a small handheld radio that looked like it should be in some science fiction movie rather than a tool of the present. Somewhere way above their heads, beyond eyesight and hearing, two F-18’s orbited above the maximum altitude of Ecuadorian fighters. Each was armed with two Maverick smart bombs capable of delivering three hundred pounds of high explosive using pinpoint electro-optical accuracy.
Johnson controlled the radio in case the F-18’s needed to be used to assist in their retreat, flight or escape, once the kidnapped American was exchanged. However, in the event that Ben and the American were killed, no combat action was to be taken. Ben hadn’t been happy about that part of the mission plan, but he understood its wisdom.
If both of them were dead then trying to blow up scattering rebels in the forest would probably be counterproductive. FARC did not know that they had captured a CIA agent held for ransom. They thought they had an oil executive, because that’s what the idiot had been passing himself off in the bars of Quito, attempting to get laid.
They knew that they didn’t have much, however, as they had been reduced to fifty-five thousand in cash during earlier negotiations with State.
Wilbur Morrison was the man’s name, which, as far as Ben was concerned, was a completely appropriate moniker for idiot.
The mission was easy. Simply exchange the cash for the man, walk back down the hill from the rest camp, get in the van with the agent, drive back to Quito, put the man, and themselves, on a C130, and get the hell out of Dodge.
Ben was nearly ready. He carried no weaponry, just the canvas bag filled with bundled hundreds, an Iridium 9555 satellite phone, and personal identification with wallet and passport. The Knuckledraggers carried heavier stuff they’d had delivered by diplomatic pouch to the US Embassy Quito. Ben punched an auto dial button on the 9555. Johnson answered without their being a ring. The phones were set to vibrate only.
“Com check,” Johnson said, before Ben could say a word.
“Five by five,” Ben answered, before hanging up and sticking the slim phone into his right hip pocket. None of the team was wearing paramilitary gear. Although it was more functional, it was too aggressive looking and too revealing to anyone who might see them along the way.
Ben pushed open the unlocked gate, jostled the FARC warning aside and began his ascent up toward the rest station. The five hundred meters should have been as challenging as a quick stroll in cool windy mountain air, but it was nothing of the sort at eighteen thousand feet. By the time he reached the stairs up into the low log building he was taking half steps and gasping for air after each one. He stopped to rest before ascending to the wide long porch.
The door opened and an AK-47 pointed thought the open space. The barrel of the weapon motioned impatiently. Ben breathed in deeply, and then staggered through the opening. Two unarmed boys quickly felt over his entire body, including running their hands through his hair and checking the soles of his boots. The search was nearly professional. They returned his satellite phone without even opening it, however.
The inside of the building was in good shape. No mess anywhere that Ben could see. An array of angry looking Ecuadorians stood against the walls, each with some kind of assault weapon.
Only two men were seated, one of whom Ben instantly identified as Agent Wilbur Morrison. The other man was much older, at least Ben’s age, or even older. Ben was relieved to see that. The chances for violence would be less with a weathered veteran at the controls. Wilbur would not look at Ben, instead staring down at his own hands. That was not a good sign.
“The name’s Ben Strasser, late of the U.S. Who might you be?” Ben held out his right hand.
“Juan,” the man said, adding the honorific of senor a few seconds later. But he stood and extended his hand. They shook with the table between them. The man’s grip was perfectly firm, his hand dry but tough and calloused. It was a good start, and they were speaking in English. Ben spoke Spanish, but not well. English would lessen the likelihood of misunderstandings.
Both men sat. Juan eased a cigarette out of its pack. He then took almost a full minute to light and inhale deeply from it. Ben waited until their eyes met again.
“The money’s in a sack, down the mountain, as you requested. How about I go back down the hill, get the money, take Wilbur here and get out of your hair,” Ben said, hoping to conclude the deal without any further negotiation. Quick exchanges led to the most successful and by far the safest exchanges.
“The man’s one of your agents. He says you come all the way from what is called Operations in your Central Intelligence. He says you are a dangerous man. Are you a dangerous man?” Juan blew smoke, but not toward Ben.
Ben stared, keeping his face impassive. Wilbur had spilled his guts, probably out of boredom or for some small reward, like a padded cot.
“Not here. Not now. Not today,” he replied, having no choice but to follow the FARC commander’s lead.
“Fifty-five thousand is not enough for such a find. We want five hundred thousand for our cause.”
Ben sat and thought. He had no authorization to meet any further demands, other than that he had brought a full hundred thousand in case of incidental problems. It was all in the bag. Even if he had to reveal the extra money, its presence would only act to lessen any probability of violence taking place.
He was not tied to it. As was being proven, a hundred grand was a cheap price to extricate the agent and get him out of the country, and hopefully, out of the Agency as well.
“There’s a hundred thousand down there,” Ben said, hooking one thumb back over his shoulder, toward the direction he’d come up from.
Juan smiled a smile that showed a full set of very white teeth. It was a striking smile against the backdrop of his weather-beaten brown skin.
“I like people who think ahead,” he said, “but the information we have from your friend here is far too valuable to keep quiet about for anything less than four hundred thousand, so let us stop here. No more of this play. Go and get three hundred more from one of your banks. Return tomorrow.
“You seem like a reasonable man,” Ben began, but was immediately interrupted.
“I have seen the Godfather movie. Don’t take me for a fool,” Juan’s smile changed to a deep frown as he spoke.
“The sea is large and your boat is small,” Ben replied, his face remaining impassive. “Have you also read Hemingway?”
“Three hundred thousand more,” Juan stated, grinding his cigarette out, then tapping the half-empty cigarette pack to pull out another.
“I don’t have that authority,” Ben replied. “I’ll have to call in from down by the fence. I’m sure you saw the other men with me. They have the satellite phone,” he lied, “But one last word here, por favor.” He looked Juan straight in the eyes, and then waited for permission.
Juan nodded, igniting the tip of another unfiltered Camel.
“I don’t care about the money. It’s not my money. I don’t care about Wilbur here. He’s a piss poor example of an agent. But I’ve done this before. And I kind of like your style. Take the hundred and go fight for your cause. You were doing fine at what you were doing here, but this stuff changes the game. The new players you will meet are not going to be anything you’re ready for. One pro to another.”
Juan considered him over the cigarette, not bothering to remove it from his mouth as the ash grew longer and longer. One of the young armed men behind Juan stepped forward to whisper in his ear. Juan shook his head ever so slightly.
“Thanks for the advice, but come back with three hundred. Go get permission then return with the hundred now, for security. We will share some bread and wine before you leave for the rest of the money. The agent is worth only a hundred but what he has told us is worth much more. I will share that information with you over wine. You will understand my position then.”
There was nothing more to be said. Ben got up, shook Juan’s hand again and promised to be back in a few minutes. Once back down the mountain and through the gate he walked to the far side of the van. Jelisco was sleeping in the drivers seat, his upper body draped over the wheel. Ben was impressed.
The driver had seen the FARC sign and watched the team’s preparations. He was either a tough man or a fearful one. Men slept before combat if they were frightened or hardened, sleep being an elixir for future action.
Johnson appeared as if by magic from the brush.
“What’s the situation?” he asked.
“Our man spilled his guts. They want another three hundred thou. I need to call it in and then go back up there and take what we got.” Ben talked while he was extricating his satellite phone, pausing for a second to pull the canvas sack with the banded twenties in it from the van.
“Why go back?” Johnson asked. “Why don’t we just leave and come back with the additional money?”
“Morrison blabbed something that grabbed these guy’s attention. Juan up there is going to talk to me about it over wine. I don’t know what our man was involved with or what he’s told these clowns but it would be helpful to have it for our report.”
“I guess that’s why you’re leadin’ this show,” Johnson replied. Ben was beginning to like the way the man thought.
Ben distanced himself form the van by walking over to the brush where Johnson had come out. He hit the auto dialer for his control at Langley. It took only minutes to lay out the entire situation to the man.
“Your team will remain where it is, a quarter mile distant from the target, until you receive further orders. We’ll call you back in less than fifteen minutes. This operation has to move to a higher authority.”
Their instructions were clear. He relayed them to Johnson, and then crouched in the bushes to be close to the other members of the team. He couldn’t see them but he knew that they were nearby. Something bothered him right at the edge of his mind. He replayed his discussion with Langley from memory. The word ‘target,’ his control had used was out of place.
Ben peered thought the brush to study the log building. He’d just decided that he’d proceed back up at a much slower pace than he’d covered the ground the first time when he saw the missile. It came in extremely fast, almost as fast as a bullet, but it was so large it was visible for a mere instant. There was no time to duck. The flash was tremendous. The sound felt more than heard.
Ben was thrown backward into the base of a tree. Johnson was beside him. Both men pressed their hands against the sides of their heads. The compression wave had been unbelievably painful.
Ben stood up after a few moments, finally able to drop his hands from the sides of his head. He stared at the curl of smoke coming from the ruins of the building. There weren’t really any ruins, he realized. There was just a hole with smoke coming up out of it and debris strewn almost all the way down to the fence.
The van lay on its side, a splintered log sticking out of its side. It was a surreal scene. Ben snapped out of shock, and then knelt to help Johnson to his feet. The other two men came through what was left of the battered brush.
“What the hell?” Johnson said.
Ben only vaguely heard him, his ears ringing and still in pain.
“A bomb?” one of the men asked.
“End of mission,” Ben said, “let’s see if we can salvage the vehicle.” He knew what had happened. Whatever information Wilbur had blabbed was no longer available for negotiation. The Agency did not kill its own, at least not openly. Which meant that Johnson was going to become a ‘person of interest’ when they reached the embassy, and likely be taken into custody.
He possessed the fail-safe pickle device. It would be determined that the switch was thrown and button pushed. Johnson didn’t have a clue.
“Gimme the pickle device,” Ben commanded Johnson. The man looked at him with a great question mark on his forehead but handed over the device. Selecting a place at the base of the largest tree near the fallen fence, Ben piled brush over it.
“That’s how they knew we were a quarter mile from the target. Got to be a GPS transponder in that thing,” he said, by way of explanation, a plan beginning to form in his mind.
Jelisco was standing next to his van when they approached. Ben was relieved to see the man uninjured.
‘My truck is destroyed,” he said, his tone one of agony.
“Don’t think so,” Johnson replied. The three Knuckledragger’s got on one side of the vehicle and then slowly lifted the top up to shoulder level. It was an amazing feat of raw strength. From there the van bounced onto its wheels, and then sat rocking for a few seconds. “Give a try,” Johnson said, wiping his hands on his pants.
Jelisco climbed in. The van started. The two other men worked on trying to pry the thick spear of wood from its side.
“Leave it,” Ben told them. “We’ll get in using the front door.”
Jelisco did not shut up about the damage to the van until Ben pulled two stacks of twenties from his sack and handed them over.
“Buy another god damned van, but shut up about it,” he said brusquely to the shocked driver.
They took a different dirt road than the one they’d taken up, but it didn’t seem to matter. The kids were there in the open waiting for them, just like before. The same rope was strung across their path.
“Blow past them,” Johnson instructed the driver, “things have changed.”
“Stop. Now,” commanded Ben. The driver braked before the string, as before.
Ben stared at Johnson until the man looked away. He climbed out of the passenger door to confront Zorro.
“The EP on the back of your shirt, what does it mean?’ he asked, as the boy walked over.
“Ejercito del Pueblo,” the boy replied. “Army of the People,” he translated, turning to show the lettering. Other boys began to come forth from the edge of the trees.
All carried AK-47’s almost as big as they were.
“Been a little tough to run through that string,” Ben murmured, glancing back at Johnson, who looked away.
“There was an explosion,” Zorro began, but Ben cut him off.
“Yeah, there was. It was a mess up there. Some of your brothers got killed.
I’m sorry. Got a proposition for you.”
The boy stared up at the plume of smoke, which was visible all the way down where they were. He looked back into Ben’s eyes, but said nothing.
“Back up there,” Ben pointed up toward Cotopaxi Peak, “There’s a big tree just to the right of the beaten down fence near the rest stop, or what was the rest stop. Under the brush is a thing that looks sort of like this,” he pulled the satellite phone from his pocket, “ but a little better.
I want you to find it, run it ten miles, or so, down the mountain through the forest along the backside, away from Cotopaxi, and then I want you to destroy it. Shoot it and dump the remains in a river.” Ben stopped to observe the boy.
“Why?” Zorro asked, after a moment.
Ben moved to the van, reached in, and then guardedly pulled three packs of twenties from the sack.
“Here’s thirty thousand U.S. dollars. For your Mom. For your education.” Ben put the money on the ground between them, so the other more distant children couldn’t see it.
The boy looked at the stacks of money near his feet, and then turned his face up to Ben.
“Why?’ he asked again.
Ben massaged his forehead with one hand, before coming to a decision.
“For him,” Ben pointed at Johnson, sitting in the back seat of the van.
“The mission went bad. Some of your people died. He’ll be blamed. It wasn’t his fault. That device by the tree would cause him to be sent to prison, at the very least.
He’s a good man. A warrior like you. With a good heart, like you. Take the money for your Mom. You can always fight for the cause later, when you’re bigger, when your Mom is healthy and you’ve got an education.”
Zorro leaned down and scooped up the small thick bundles. He shoved them into the waistband of his pants, letting the “T” shirt hang over them.
“How to thank you,” the small boy began.
“By remembering,” Ben said. “Remember that most warriors are like us. Like you. Most people in the world are like us. Like you. Do what you can to help. You’re Mom will tell you.”
Ben got in the van. Jelisco drove jerkily over the rope and headed the vehicle toward Quito.
“I heard that,” Johnson said from the back seat. “All of it. I didn’t think about what might happen. What about the fifty thousand that’s left?”
“There’s no money left. It all blew up with the basecamp. Not our fault. Fifty thousand may be the retainer you need to have a life. Let’s go see how it plays out.”
They rode the rest of the way in silence, only the clattering of the diesel engine and the whirring caused by wind over the tree stump sticking out from the side of the van making any noise. Ben thought about what it was like to be a team leader for the Agency. About what a giant lie his report would have to be. About what the other two Knuckledraggers might say when questioned.
About whether Jelisco could keep his mouth shut even to the tune of a twenty thousand dollar bonus. The only thing that finally brought a smile to his face was thinking about Zorro, and what he might grow up to be because of it all.