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Authors: Andrew Kaplan

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“I have seen eyes like yours before, Señor Mack. Yours are green and those of the jaguar are black, but you have the eyes of a jaguar. I have seen them over the sights of my rifle. They are the eyes of a hunter, señor.” The priest paused. “I think perhaps we shall meet again.”

“Who knows?” Caine said, warmly returning the priest's
abrazo
. “So long, Padre.”


Vaya con Dios
.” Go with God, the priest replied and looked away.

Caine spent the next few hours dealing with local authorities, who sent him from one fly-specked and sweltering office to another. The offices were crowded with
campesinos
, timidly waiting their turn with the quiet, stolid patience of animals. The sullen heat and bureaucratic confusion gave him the feeling that he was in the outer offices of hell, unable to find anyone who knew what was going on. Finally a small, short-tempered army officer stamped and counter-signed his letter of authorization from the minister, approving his visit to the Mendoza Institute. Caine searched the docks until he found a Chama Indian with a
lancha
, a large dugout canoe powered by an outboard engine, who agreed to take him to the institute.

It was late afternoon by the time they headed up the Yarinacocha. The lake was placid, its deep-green surface reflecting the intricate herringbone pattern of clouds, the shores shrouded with foliage. The bright scarlet of a macaw flashed among the palms and a small band of howler monkeys shrieked at them from the refuge of a
kapok
tree. Caine smeared on more insect repellent as the
borrachudo
began to attack in droves. His guide, Pepé, a short, stubby man wearing only the sacklike brown
cushma
of the Chamas, smiled at his discomfort and offered him a coca leaf to chew. Caine shook his head and Pepé shrugged. The insects didn't seem to bother him at all.

A sun ray of pure white light streamed from a cloud edge to the sparkling surface of the lake and for a moment the Yarinacocha achieved an almost artificial prettiness, like one of those three-dimensional electric beer signs that brighten dark bars with the illusion of a mountain stream. The sound of a diesel engine drew Caine's attention and he saw the small Peruvian Army boat, with an old .30 caliber machine gun mounted on the bow, approach the
lancha
. The gunboat drew alongside and Caine boarded and showed the officer his authorization. The officer offered Caine a gourd of
masato
, a strong Indian liquor, and they toasted Ministro Ribiero and the President of the United States. Caine gave the officer a pack of cigarettes and the officer warned him about a nest of
caimán
alligators on the western bank of the lake. They parted with an
abrazo
and as Pepé pulled away, Caine pulled out the Winchester and sat under the thatched sunshade of the
lancha
, the rifle across his knees, scanning the surface for
caimáns
.

It was nearing dusk as they approached the western bank of the lake, the surface a flat yellow reflection of the sky. Suddenly Pepé was swinging the
lancha
around and pointing at the bank. Caine eased into a crouch, reminding himself to squeeze slowly and steadily in the uncertain light, only the nostrils of the
caimán
protruding above the surface.


Espera
,” wait, Pepé said, moving the boat closer in a wide arc, but Caine had the alligator's head in his sights. The crack of the rifle echoed across the water and for a second, he thought he had missed, the
caimán
floating motionless as a log. Then the water seemed to explode with wild thrashing, the powerful tail slapping the water as if the animal were trying to beat it to death. The water near the bank turned a frothy pink, and Pepé was pointing at the thrashing animal in excitement. Then Caine realized that he was pointing at the snouts of other
caimáns
, moving silently toward the wounded alligator, the water commotion calling them like a dinner bell. He had to be quick, he realized, and put another shot into the alligator's arched back. It took two more shots before the
caimán
lay still. Pepé tied the animal to the boat with a liana line and it took the both of them to drag the six-foot beast to shore. As they dragged it up on the mud, the tail began to thrash again and Caine dropped the rope and, aiming carefully, placed another shot between the dead, bleeding eyes.

They made camp near the bank, Pepé assuring him that it was impossible to attempt a jungle trail at night. Soon they had a fire going, a pot of
farinha
bubbling on the fire, and thick steaks cut from the
caimán's
tail broiling with a soft sizzling sound. While Pepé busied himself skinning the
caimán
and hacking off fillets of meat, Caine walked into the jungle to relieve himself. He waited till Pepé turned away, so he wouldn't see Caine carrying the suitcase with the survival kit. He moved cautiously up the trail, finding his way by the pallid beam of a flashlight and cutting blaze marks on the trees so that he could find the location again.

He stopped at a tall stand of
cedro
trees, the center tree dead, its core hollowed and eaten away by a swarming colony of termites. He anointed the termites with his urine, the frightened insects milling blindly in the sudden wash of water. Then he wedged the suitcase into the hollowed-out trunk and covered it with handfuls of dead leaves and damp earth. He carefully marked the tree with three parallel blazes and inspected the trunk with his flashlight, making sure that no traces of the suitcase could be seen. With any luck it would never be used. He hadn't needed the warnings of the priest That week of survival training in Panama had convinced him that he had a better chance of surviving Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded than in tackling the jungle on his own.

He walked back to the camp, guided by the flickering light of the campfire. Pepé was crouched over the fire, stirring the thick, soapy
farinha
with a twig. There was something very ancient in the way he tended the fire, like a Stone Age man, more animal than human. He looked up at Caine and smiled, gesturing at the charred alligator meat. If he had noticed the missing suitcase, he gave no sign of. it. Caine squatted near the fire, not because it was cold—far from it, the darkness bringing little relief from the relentless heat—but because the smoke seemed to keep the insects away. The
caimán
steak was surprisingly good. It tasted a little like rubbery chicken. But Caine could only stomach a few mouthfuls of the thick, bland
farinha
paste. Undaunted, Pepé shoveled the stuff in at an amazing rate.

Caine lit a cigarette and exhaled slowly. The dense canopy of branches above the camp shielded them from the black sky, sprinkled with stars. He got up and walked down to the lake, its flat surface sparkling with starlight. The darkness vibrated with the whisper of black wings and a primordial ripple of fear shivered down his spine. The vampire bats were coming out to hunt. One way or another it would all be over tomorrow, he thought. He wondered if he would ever see the stars again.

On an impulse he squatted down and cupped the water in his hand to drink. A single star glittered from the center of his palm, like a diamond, and he drank it. The lake water tasted like rain. Near the bank a snow-white heron awkwardly poked at the mud, digging for insects. Then it flapped its great wings and swooped over the lake, the reflection of its white body bright as the moon on the still water. The silence was broken only by the faint splash of an electric eel as it momentarily rippled the surface.

As he walked back to the campfire, the darkness began to come alive with jungle sounds. A spiderweb tickled his face and he brushed it away. From the branches above came the shrill cry of a toucan, as though it were sounding an alarm. The lakeshore echoed with the hum of cicadas and the restless croaking of frogs. Pepé had stretched a hammock for Caine between two palms and curled himself like a great monkey on a bed of reeds. A mosquito sang in Caine's ear and he slapped at it with a perfunctory gesture. He rummaged in his backpack for the mosquito net and draped it over his head. The white netting gave him the appearance of a ghost in the flickering firelight. He settled himself precariously on the hammock, which swayed gently, as he eased the Bauer from the small of his back.

The morning was already hot and humid, the sun sparkling on the lake, as they broke camp and headed up the trail. Caine carried a backpack and the Winchester in his hands. Pepé had tied Caine's two suitcases together with liana rope and carried them, like a bulky pack, on his back. The little Indian seemed bent double under the load, but it was all Caine could do to keep up with him. As he hiked, his eyes searched the trail looking for landmarks. But there was no horizon to guide him, only the jungle that crowded around them like a massive green wall. It took them three hours of hard march to reach the institute. By the time they arrived, Caine's khaki shirt and slacks were black with sweat.

The institute was set in a large clearing, bisected by a small, clear stream. It was quite a settlement, with about twenty whitewashed bungalows and huts laid out in neat, rectangular order. The dirt paths were lined with stones and someone had planted a colorful flower garden near the largest bungalow, which he assumed was the infirmary. An Yagua woman in one of the huts was making a clay pot by the oldest method known to man: rolling worms of clay between her palms and layering them, one on top of the other. A wizened Shipibo, naked except for a palm skirt, was slowly sweeping the porch of the large bungalow with a palm frond broom. Caine could hear the high-pitched shouts of Indian children playing on the banks of the stream, where a number of Indian women were doing their washing. As Caine approached the main bungalow, a spider monkey ran up the porch and climbed a trellis, twined with flowers, turning to screech at him from the top. Caine put down his pack and gun and stepped up on the porch.

He wasn't prepared for his first sight of Inger. She stepped out to greet him, her sleek blond hair cut short and close to her head, gleaming like a golden helmet in the sun. She was thin and wore a white shirt and blue jeans. Her eyes were almost violet and fierce as a bird's and they made him feel as if he ought to apologize for something, but for what he couldn't say. She was very beautiful and she looked as if she would be more at home on the cover of
Vogue
than in this bizarre setting. Her intense gaze examined him with a kind of clinical curiosity, as though she were a man looking over the girls at a singles bar.


Buenos días, señorita. Yo soy
James McClure,
de la compañia
Petrotex. I'm looking for Dr. Mendoza.”

“We've been expecting you, Señor McClure. The colonel radioed us from Pucallpa that you were coming,” she said, her English faintly flavored with a Spanish accent. She extended her hand and shook his smartly. “My name is Inger. I'm Dr. Mendoza's daughter. If you'll follow me …”

He followed her hard little behind, clearly outlined by the tight jeans, toward the main bungalow. His groin began to tingle as he imagined how she'd be with her rump stuck out and open to him. Christ, what a time to think about sex, he told himself. She opened a screen door and they entered a large ward-like room, filled with hospital beds and the faintly acrid smell of disinfectant. About a half dozen of the beds were filled with wheezing Indians, their faces tattooed black and red. Their eyes regarded him with a silent curiosity, as they made their way down the aisle.

“These are mostly tuberculosis cases,” she remarked matter-of-factly as they approached an old man wearing a lightweight white shirt and slacks, seated on the edge of a bed and carefully peering into a young Indian boy's throat with a pocket flashlight.

The old man patted the boy on the head and stood up to face Caine. The doctor was of medium height and his body was still trim and tan. He appeared to be in his mid-sixties and his hair was white and neatly cut to a medium length. He wore a trim white mustache and his eyes were black, like lumps of coal set in his face. His expression was friendly and if there was any resemblance to the photographs of Mengele, Caine couldn't see it. The old man smiled and nodded his head in a kind of formal European bow.

“I am Dr. Felix Mendoza,” he said.

CHAPTER 12

If they were selling the milk of human kindness by the quart, Dr. Mendoza could have opened a dairy, Caine decided irritably. It was annoying, because Mendoza didn't fit his expectations. Certainly no one who observed him working on the little Chama boy would have ever mistaken him for the infamous Mengele. The boy, his skin flushed and sweating, was about six years old. He had been carried into the examining room by the anxious father, a short, squat Indian, his face tattooed with red and black stripes, who still carried a blowgun. The Indian stood silently next to Caine, mechanically chewing a chaw of coca leaves as he watched the doctor prod the child. The heat was intense in spite of the electric fan that rotated its face back and forth across the room, like a robot programmed to answer “no.”

Inger removed the thermometer from the boy's rectum and examined it critically. Mendoza poked the boy under the left rib cage and the boy squirmed like a wounded animal and began to cry.

“Thirty-nine point five Celsius,” Inger said, her violet eyes burning with something that could have been anger, or hatred.

“It's going to be close,” Mendoza muttered irritably. “This fool has almost left it too late”—gesturing at the father. The Indian blinked stupidly, his blank eyes bulging out of his head, like frog's eyes, and began to tremble. The white god was angry.

“The Chamas believe that disease comes from invisible poison darts directed at the victim by some enemy. So he probably took the boy to a
brujo
, a witch doctor, to exorcise the bad magic. By the time this fool brought him
to
us, it was touch and go,” Mendoza remarked to Caine, a faint trace of German evident in his English.

BOOK: Hour of the Assassins
10.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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