Early January 1979, Panama City
We’d pulled off the highway at the first sign we saw that said Telephono. Juan got out and went to make a call. A few moments later, he walked back to the Chevy from the tiendita, cursing under his breath about never having enough change in the right currency. It was hot in Panama City. I thought, if it’s this hot in January, July must be Hell. With any luck, we’d be dead by then.
This part of the city looked like a lot of southern U.S. towns. It looked a lot like Tijuana with narrow streets. The one we parked on was old and paved in broken cobblestone. Each house on the street shared a wall with its neighbors. Every building was painted different and in bright colors. In front of almost every house were small trees growing from what looked like half-barrels filled with dirt. It looked as if someone was planting a small forest on the broken concrete and cobblestone, trying to hide the city.
It was good to see the colors. The past few days in the car, especially since leaving those bodies back in Costa Rica, had been dismal. A deep blue sky reflected from the sea underlaid the thin cirrus clouds. Looking to the left and south, I watched the sky deepened into purple and black. Closer to us, massive, cotton-white thunderheads rose with a vengeance out of the sea. We were going to drive straight into that purple-blackness and into the storm.
Hands in the pockets of his shorts, looking down at the dust on his shoes, Juan spoke. “My cousin said we are not going to Medellín. We are supposed to meet a woman in Yaziva. She will give us the details from there.”
“Yaziva is still in Panama!” I said, sighing in exhaustion. “I have no problem with being in Panama, but that wasn’t the plan! Do they know we need to find this fucking prince? The prince is in Columbia!”
Juan sat down in the car. He’d grabbed a few loose bottles of beer from the store. “Just drive. We will figure this out when we meet this girl, Nicola.”
As we drove, Juan cracked a beer and handed it to me. There was no more conversation. Each mile south, Juan fell deeper into himself. I wasn’t sure why.
We rode on in complete silence for the next five hours. Finally, I saw a sign that read “Yaziva 10 kilometers.” Juan appeared to squat down further in his seat, almost hiding. Even the radio was silent. Only the constant muffled drone of the big-block 409 Chevy engine sounded in our ears.
Then a sign: “Bienvenido A la Comunidad De Yaziva.”
We stopped at the Chucunaque River.
We sat there and looked at a footbridge into the jungle. I’d wondered what it would be like. The reddish-brown dirt and black pavement ended at the river's edge. Across the river and to the right and left of the bridge, I could see a couple of houses and two rundown shacks. They looked about ready to collapse into the riverbank. It was raining hard.
Juan got out of the Chevy and slammed the door. He walked back to the back of the car and yelled for me to open the trunk. I got out and threw the keys back to Juan. I was pissed. I had a bad feeling. I couldn’t place it. I stumbled some after sitting behind the wheel for six hours.
“Would you mind telling me what, exactly, has crawled up your ass since we left Panama City?” I asked.
“I’ve got to cross the bridge and meet some people,” he said in a low tone, “I will bring them back here. Wait with the car.”
Juan took off on foot. I watched him walk away. I went back to the front seat and got my gun from under the seat. Going back to the trunk, I dug through the bag for my .38 shells. The cylinder was missing two. I filled it and clapped everything back in place. Digging deeper in the bag, I pulled out a switchblade. I stuffed that deep in my pocket. The mood cast over this site was dark as the clouds I’d observed back in Panama City. We’d arrived at the storm.
Complicated evil lived here. For the first time in many years, I was terrified. It wasn’t so much a fear of getting killed. My mind had decided years ago that I was not deserving of anything good that would come my way. Goodness had escaped me like it was riding on a wild horse.
What I feared was an encounter with evil, darkness, a depravity so vile, it would make my own pale by comparison.
Back in Tijuana, Jenna compared Juan and me to serial killers. She asked what the difference was. I tried to explain, to defend my position, but realized it was pointless and stopped. The end result showed no difference. People died for no reason other than my own evil.
Those realizations swirled in my head as I questioned my relationship with Juan. My best friend, my brother, had changed as we drove closer to his homeland. Standing here, literally at the end of the road, I felt the weight of the past few months, the past years. The blackness that had tried to devour my soul, that I’d managed to contain until this moment, was set free. As the first raindrops of the storm began to beat against the windshield of the car, I felt it. Evil washed over me like this torrential, hot, tropical rain. This was another step down into that black hole. Any chances of climbing out of had disappeared.
I leaned against the hood of the Chevy. The heat rising from the engine made it feel even hotter. The river looks like a boiling Hell. Sweat and sticky, hot raindrops ran down into my eyes, burning my vision. My shirt stuck to my chest, and I could feel my stench.
I felt abandoned. I’d known Juan since we were boys. We’d been through the mill together. We’d been through it all together. The good, the funny, the bad, and the things that we would never speak of – our unspeakable acts. Where was he?
It was getting dark. Adjusting to the unnerving, 12 hours of daylight, no matter what the season, was difficult for me. It served as a stronger reminder that I was a stranger in a strange land.
I returned to the Chevy and backed it under a massive tree near one of the houses. I decided I’d wait a few hours and get some rest. If Juan didn’t reappear by the time I was ready to move, I’d turn this car north and say goodbye to my friend.
I felt Juan Carlos had turned on me without any explanation. Maybe that fucker just wanted me to help him drive the nine thousand miles from home to this dead-end, fly-infested river. Maybe he was home with his people now. If he didn’t show, I’d dump his crap along the road and Vámonos.
The low branches of the tree provided some shelter from the rain. The rain seemed to wash the colors out of the world leaving everything looking gray and wet. The ground melted into mud, and steam rose from the river. The rain made a sound almost like the locusts I’d hear back in New York State at the end of the summer.
My thoughts turned toward home and my stomach twisted into knots. I drank a bitter hot beer from the car, trying to drown out the memories, but it didn’t help. Thinking of home, and holding Unk’s .38 in my hand, I wondered if one day the madness, the noise, and now what appeared to be abandonment by the one person I trusted, would make me take one out of the chamber again. Would I spin that bitch and know full well there’s no way I’d hear the click again? No one runs with that kind of luck.
Thinking back to my mom's big date at her house, and the fact that bastard left her to live with her misery, made me question my own luck. Was it luck that spared me that night, or was it a curse?
Whatever Juan refused to tell me couldn’t be good. I waited, ready for whatever was coming my way, even if it meant finding that fucking prince alone.
Hours passed, and the lines around the house, the tree, and the Chevy blurred into darkness. I startled awake to voices nearby. The rain had stopped.
Four figures approached the car. Juan’s dark eyes found mine.
“Come with us.”
That was it. That was the conversation. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen. I didn’t protest. I climbed out of the car and joined them in the mud and the heat. Part of me was prepared for whatever was coming. I felt I’d reached an impasse, and I didn’t care much one way or the other what happened.
Juan led us across the bridge; I couldn’t make out the faces of his companions in the dark, so I hurried up to walk next to my friend. I felt cold, but I was sweating. Dim light appeared from one of the beaten down, old houses on the other side of the river. I kept trying to catch Juan’s eye, but he kept his gaze ahead. His silence was pissing me off.
We reached the shack and went inside. Judging from the furnishings, I’d guess this was something of a bar at one time or a club, but now it was just a run down and dirty place to meet. Four more men sat on chairs near the wall. They were drinking, smoking, and talking fast and loud. They turned and looked as we walked in.
I heard the word “American,” “CIA,” “rat,” and “narcos.”
A young woman pushed passed me and walked over with Juan to a small, dirty refrigerator. I assumed this was Nicola, the contact we were supposed to meet. The two other men who walked with us outside weren’t men at all but boys maybe fifteen or so. One of them was shirtless, his chest stained with mud. The other wore a crisp, white t-shirt. They leaned against the wall and watched Juan and Nicola with dark eyes.
I felt alone in the crowded room. The tension and confusion in that tight space were measurable; it added weight to the air. I walked to a corner opposite everyone else, closest to the two boys, hoping to fade into the darkness.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of white, a t-shirt, and an arm. I felt cold across my gut, then a stinging, sharp pain. Another jab took my breath away, and I smelled my blood. My hand jerked inside the pocket of my pants and grabbed the switchblade. I jammed two fingers of my left hand up the boy’s nose as I smashed his head into the wall. I felt the knife a fourth time, it cut low on my stomach. I drove my knife blade deep into his neck, once, twice, a third time. I pulled my fingers from his nose. As he dropped to his knees on the floor, I lifted my foot to his face and kicked him over.
My back pressed against the wall. I’d swapped the blade into my left hand, and Unk’s .38 was in my right, pulled from the back of my pants. I had a dead bead on Juan’s forehead.
“I’ll kill you motherfucker! Then the rest of these assholes!” My finger was on the trigger. Juan took a step toward me. “Don’t test me, motherfucker!”
He continued to advance on me, his arms extended, his open palms facing me. He stepped over the dead kid's body.
“It had to go down this way, Richie,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He looked down at my gut. My shirt was soaked in my blood and the blood of the dead kid. “Nicola, ven aquí ahora.”
My legs began to give way. Nicola and Juan grabbed me by my arms. The men in the room were making way for us. Juan and Nicola took me to a back room. It was lit by one bare bulb. Its light was glaring, stark, and too bright. It made my eyes water and squint. I was feeling my consciousness fading. I looked down and saw my shirt wet with blood. I was about to die.
Nicola moved some dirty laundry off a cot: underwear, shirts, and jeans. I assumed this was her house and her room. Juan held me up my by the armpits, trying to keep me on my feet. I looked into the eyes of my friend. I was thinking about that night at the farm, how I held him up as I was sure he was bleeding to death. I saw a tear in the corner of his eye.
I knew that whatever this game was about, my friend was still there. He was with me. Juan Carlos was not about to let me die.
I felt Nicola cut my shirt off and throw it on the floor. I felt her fingers inside my body, probing in the cuts. She grabbed a washcloth and started washing the cuts. Something was on the cloth; it smelled like alcohol, and it stung.
“The cuts aren’t deep,” said Nicola. “He will live if we can stop the bleeding.” Juan nodded and grabbed a bottle with clear liquid in it. He tipped the bottle into my mouth and vodka burned down my throat.
“Get good and drunk, my friend,” he said. “Get drunk and pass out. Tomorrow we will talk about this night.” He poured the rest of the bottle on my stomach. I screamed, and the light went out.
I woke up to sunlight filtering through a dirty window and strange, loud birds screaming at the morning. The room was dark but clean, except for the girl's dirty laundry on the floor and my bloody shirt. The floor was made of wide planks of unfinished wood, stained dark and worn from years of traffic. Against a wall was a bookcase full of old, hardcover books. On the top sat a small, portable TV. A rabbit-ear antenna poked out from the top
I looked around and realized I was severely hung over. I looked to my left; Nicola had fallen asleep next to me on the cot. I went to get up, and my gut hurt like hell. The cuts itched and burned. I looked down, admiring her work and the clean bandages. I heard a noise from the next room; it was Juan.
He walked in the room with two beers. He handed me one and turned on the TV. Standing in front of it, he watched and listened to a newscast from somewhere to the north. He laughed and said, “Enjoy this civilization, my friend. In a month, Yaziva will seem like the big city.”
He extended his hand and helped me up. We walked out onto the front porch of the small hut. The posts and railings had been made out of thick branches cut from local trees. The roof was thatched grass. It was Central American rustic.
We sat on old, Adirondack chairs and laughed. The Adirondacks, New York seemed a million miles and a lifetime away from here.
It hurt to sit in the chair. The beer helped a little. It was a quiet and warm morning. The rain had left, a breeze blew over us, and the sky was a deep blue. The storm had passed.
Juan broke the silence. “Richie, that’s how it goes down here. There is a price of admission into this game. No one was going to welcome you or trust you on my word. That kid you killed? He was a pain in the ass, a soldier, collateral damage. Don’t give him another thought. If you didn’t kill him, someone else would have.” He took a sip of his beer. “Your biggest threat might be Nicola now. She was fucking that kid. That’s all it was: somebody to fuck.” He turned to face me in his chair.
“They are pissed off at the Americans, down here. Big time,” Juan said. “The CIA has been down here stirring everything up. The cartel – they have no allegiance. They were working with and selling to the Americans, the CIA, and then something went bad. Some crazy bastard went rogue. He caused a lot of damage. The Americans are out for now, and we are selling a lot of coke to the Russians. It will change. This is a game where loyalty goes to whoever has sucked my dick last.
“I’m going to go with these guys into the jungle today. You need to stay here with Nicola. She’s a distant cousin. She likes you now. You’ve proven yourself.” He rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I’m sorry it had to go down that way. I knew you’d handle the kid. I heard their questions about you when I called from the road yesterday. These guys don’t trust. I knew it was going to be ugly. That’s why I was such a prick. I needed you pissed and paranoid going in. This is the real deal down here, Richie. These guys make Vinny and those guys look like Boy Scouts.”
I thought about Vinny. He seemed so far away too. It felt like a different life. I sipped my beer, ignoring the pains in my stomach.
“Watch out for my cousin,” said Juan. “She can and will fuck you up. Get healed, rest. I’ll be back in a week or so to get you. Then be ready to go to war. Russians or Americans, we don’t give a fuck. You are cartel now; we are cartel now. That is where our allegiance begins and ends.”
I finished my breakfast beer. “What about the prince?”
“He’s running things down here,” said Juan. “So we need to work our way to him. Be a good soldier, and we will get to the prince. Since the Americans are out and the Russians are in, the plan has changed. We need to be good soldiers, Richie. If we do our jobs, we will get to the prince.”
Four men approached the hut, heavily armed, and carrying machetes. Juan got up. I did too, trying to mask the pain in my stomach. I couldn’t look weak here. Juan turned to me, gave me a light hug, and said, “Hermano.” I stood with my hand on the railing and watched Juan and the other four guys disappear into the thick, wet jungle.
Nicola joined me on the porch.
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