Lethal Expedition (Short Story) (2 page)

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
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It began to seem like she was detached from her body, feeling nothing, watching her progress from without. She thought more often of dying and found, as she had in other places, that it remained only a word. She assumed it would be so right up to the last breath and
heartbeat. At least that was how it appeared when she helped recover bodies of very strong cavers and climbers. To a person they had died open-eyed and astonished.

***

She kept moving, but more and more slowly; there would come a time, she knew, when her mind could no longer compel her body and she would sit down and not get up again. According to the route map, she was close to the surface, but she might be closer to the end of her strength. Still standing, she felt her eyes close, felt sleep’s lulling pull, and almost lay down. Then she heard her soldier father’s voice:

Die before you quit
.

She stood up straight and said, “I am not going to die here.” It made her feel better to tell the cave that. So she shouted, and the cave answered in rolling volleys of echoes:


Die here … die here … die here
.”

Day Six: Monday

2

Hector Villanueva was rarely happy these days, given the escalating assaults on his person and prosperity. Just now, though, he was enjoying himself, and clearly his guest was, as well. They were at Oro Nuevo, one of Villanueva’s remote Mexican hideaways. A Bell JetRanger helicopter had plucked the guest from remote Oaxacan mountains and flown him two hours to this little Xanadu in the jungle. Peacocks strolled golf-green lawns, and dog-sized lizards called tegus glittered like chunks of gold in sun-washed ponds. Beautiful women strolled, sipping drinks, languid and graceful as browsing deer and naked as Eve in the Garden.

Villanueva was a Mexican of Mayan descent, short and fat, with skin the color of muddy water and a pencil mustache over pendulous lips. He led the Salvados drug cartel in Mexico, controlling all cocaine and methamphetamine trade north of Acapulco, commerce worth billions. His was also the most vicious cartel. Just last week, as his guest knew, masked Salvados had deposited a secretary of national security—minus his hands and feet but still alive, more or less—on the steps of Mexico’s Supreme Court building.

He and his visitor reclined on green lounges beside a swimming pool the size of four tennis courts. Most other pools the guest had seen were painted a cool, soothing blue. This one was dark red, and its water looked like blood.

The guest raised his glass of golden tequila. “We are forever in your debt.”

“I will consider the debt paid in full when you put my gift to good use, Dr. Ely.”

“It’ll be done. We work together for a common goal,” Kurt Ely said.

“The elimination of that infernal whore.” Villanueva spat.

“Exactly.”

“When interests join, God smiles. Like the junction of roads. A thing of great power.”

Villanueva puffed his Havana oscuro, looked reflective, shook his head. “Your President Laning’s reward. Very stupid. Ten million dollars made me a lot of new enemies overnight. Some are dead already, but many more are lining up.”

***

The mention of death made Ely uncomfortable. Three months earlier, he had nearly gotten chopped up here himself. Looking for aquifer evidence, he had stumbled onto one of Villanueva’s secret cocaine factories. Only his passport kept the
cocaínas
from feeding him, alive, to their watchdogs as they did his three porters. Americans, they had learned, could be worth decent money, so they smacked his head with a rifle butt and delivered him to Villanueva.

He awoke naked and lashed, spread-eagled, to a massive butcher block made from thick pine timbers and tree-trunk legs. He was in a big, dim, building filled with crates and sacks. It reeked like a slaughterhouse and was as hot as a sauna, though none of the four men surrounding him was sweating. Three he recognized as captors. The fourth was a short, fat man with skin the color of mud and grotesque lips. He was wearing a long, black rubber apron and black rubber gloves. Beside him, on another table, Ely saw tools: ax, hatchet, hacksaw, clawhammer, pliers, propane blowtorch, and an orange Stihl chain saw.

“Habla usted español?”
the aproned man asked.

“Solamente poquito.”

“A little, eh? We do English. I examined your documents. Your name means nothing. And you are not DEA or CIA. Why were you sneaking around my facility?”

“I wasn’t. I’m a scientist doing fieldwork. Please! It’s true.” Ely was about to cry and lose control of his bladder; it was a toss-up which would occur first.

The small man picked up a red-handled hatchet and approached. Ely saw that its head was caked with dried blood and tissue. “What kind of scientist are you?”

“Hydrogeologist. I look for water.” Ely’s chin was trembling. His head rang from the blow with the rifle, and his muscles were screaming from being stretched tightly on the tabletop.

“Do you know who
I
am?” The man waved his hatchet like a conductor’s baton, the blade an inch from Ely’s eyes.

“No.”

“I am Hector Villanueva.”

“Oh
God
.” Despite himself, Ely said this out loud.

“So you
do
know who I am?”

“I know who Hector Villanueva is.”

“And how would you know that?”

“It’s on TV and in the newspapers all the time. Because of that reward President Laning offered. They call you the Mexican al-Harani.”

Villanueva hissed like a snake. He muttered something obscene in Spanish, then the word “Laning.” The guards laughed.

“I think you are good for nothing except my technique.” He set the hatchet’s blade lightly on Ely’s wrist, where it felt like a sliver of ice. Villanueva sighed. “My only regret is that I will not be killing that filthy whore Laning instead. How I wish it were so.”

Ely was seconds from being dismembered alive. The most ancient instinct made flashing connections, whipped through a desperate calculus.

“Wait!” he cried. “I may be able to help you with that.”

***

Now here he was, sharing a drink and trying not to stare at the “beauties,” as Villanueva called the naked women he used like peacocks and tegus to decorate his estate.

“To make things worse, ten million is an insult,” Villanueva said.

“Indeed.”

“For Sayeedur al-Harani, they offered
fifty
million.” Villanueva was referring to a notorious Islamic terrorist whose life a drone-launched Hellfire missile had recently extinguished.

“He did kill many Americans,” Ely pointed out. “And threatened a smallpox attack.”

“Truly. But that will seem like—what do you say?—
little potatoes
compared to our action.” Villanueva puffed on his black cigar, scowled. “No woman should be a president.”

“I could not agree with you more. And with al-Harani gone, you were the perfect straw man.”

Villanueva’s eyes became slits. “Straw man?” Before Ely could answer, Villanueva said, “Don’t move.”

Something quivered deep in Ely’s gut.

The Mexican reached into his pocket and drew out a derringer pistol, silver with pearl grips and two stacked barrels. He aimed the gun at Ely’s face.

“Do not move,” Villanueva said again. He leaned closer, and to Ely the bores looked big enough to climb into. Villanueva cocked the gun. Ely closed his eyes. Villanueva pulled the trigger. Ely heard the metallic snap of a firing pin falling on an empty chamber and gasped. He opened his eyes. Villanueva was grinning. From the derringer’s muzzle issued a small, steady flame.

“Your cigar went out. Allow me to provide a light.”

Ely put his cigar tip just above the flame. His hand was shaking so much that Villanueva had to keep moving the lighter.

Villanueva sat back, laughing hard, his belly shaking. “
Heee
. It works every time.”

The color was just coming back into Ely’s face. “That is very realistic,” he said. “I’ve never seen one like it.”

“No? I have them made special. For those who depart alive. Here. A memento of your visit.” He tossed the derringer-lighter to Ely.

They puffed in silence for a while. A heavy cigarette smoker, Ely had never tasted a genuine long-leaf, hand-rolled Havana. It was like drinking thick hot chocolate after a lifetime of weak tea.

“You were saying about a straw man,” Villanueva said.

“Nothing bad, señor. It means only that she lied about you.”

“Big mistake. Al-Harani was old, infirm, far away. Powerless. Me, I am young, healthy, close, and
very
powerful.”

Speaking of his power pleased Villanueva. He took a long, loving pull and sighed out a blue cloud. At length, he spoke again.

“Let us share a toast.” Villanueva snapped his fingers, and a beauty approached. She removed the top from a brass urn on the table between them, put a tablespoon of cocaine on a mirror, and cut six perfect lines. The woman started to leave, but Villanueva said, “Wait. Come here.”

The woman was tall, with chocolate skin and shining black hair. She stood by Villanueva’s lounge. He grasped one of her breasts and squeezed until she gasped. He pinched her nipple between his thumbnail and forefinger until blood seeped out. The woman stood, trembling, silent. Villanueva let go of her breast, waved her away, and looked at his guest.

“You are wondering, Why did he do that?”

Fearing the result of any response, Ely only shrugged.

Villanueva smiled, turned toward the lines. “My finest brown. Ninety percent pure,” he said. “Any stronger would ruin our noses.” He leaned over, snorted two lines, offered a clean glass straw. The guest indulged. The cocaine hit before he settled back into his chair. He went completely away for an instant, then came back to something in his brain like an orgasm without end. His skull felt like a stretching balloon. When he laughed, it was hard to stop.

“Very, very fine,” Ely said, afraid he was floating off the lounge.

“Before you go, I have something to show you. Come along.”

Flanked by bodyguards, they followed a curving forest path to a white cottage with green shutters and a veranda laced with purple vines. Inside, a guard opened the door to the back room. The guest followed Villanueva in, then gasped and jumped back.

A naked man lay on a brass bed, his wrists and ankles lashed to its frame. He had black eyes with no sanity left in them and not an inch of skin on his body. His mouth was open and chest heaving, but only animal moans came out.

“I could hear the screams from my house,” Villanueva said irritably. “So we had to remove his tongue. His name is Poblado. A banker who stole from me.” He flicked ash from his cigar. “The stench is offensive, no? Señor Poblado will die soon, thankfully.”

“The gift did this?” Ely had heard its potential described. Hearing it and seeing it were different things.

“The Russians at Biopreparat did good work. The Pakistanis paid some of their former scientists handsomely for the gift, and I paid better to obtain it from them. They had videos, of course, but who can trust Pakistanis? So I try it on Señor Poblado here.” He snickered. “It works.”

“How long did it take?”

“Twenty-four hours,
más o menos
.”

“Very impressive.” In the hot, small room, the smell was unspeakable; Ely was trying hard not to vomit. “What is it?”

“I will try to say it right.
Streptoleprae pyogene
. A leprosy and streptococcus hybrid. Leprosy loves to eat skin and flesh, but slowly. Streptococcus is less voracious but much faster. But who can remember such a name? We call it El Desollador.”

“I’m sorry. What does that mean?”

“The Skinner.”

“I’m assuming it’s not aerosol-transmissible.”

“By contact only. A beautiful thing. I told you I could obtain this. You see that I am a man of my word.”

“I never doubted.”

“Now you must prove to be a man of your word.”

“You will not be disappointed.”

“Reassure me.”

“The woman in the cave will bring your gift back to Washington, where I will deliver it to my friend.”

“And that person can use this to kill Laning?”

“Oh yes.”

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
7.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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