Life blood, p.15
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       Life Blood, p.15
 

           Thomas Hoover
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  Chapter Fifteen

  For once in my life, I took my time getting off an airplane. But theinstant I felt that first burst of humid tropical air against my face,like a gush from a sauna, I found myself wondering what Sarah had feltthe moment her feet first touched the ground of Guatemala. In fact, I'ddecided to try to think like her, to better understand why she mightwant to come back. Truthfully I didn't have a clue.

  But first things first. Not knowing whether I was being stalked byRamos or his proxies, I decided the idea was to see and not beseen--which actually was easier than I'd expected, at least during theinitial pell-mell stages. Turned out the self-centeredness of Homosapiens blossoms under those circumstances. Ignore thy neighbor, goesthe credo. I just buried myself in the crush.

  When I got to "Inmigracion," I labored through the "formalities" (asall countries love to call the suspicious looks you get from theirairport bureaucrats) along with all the other gringo passengers on AAFlight 377, paranoid I might be arrested on the spot for some spuriousreason. The purpose of my visit, I declared, was tourism. Just a nod atmy passport and a stamp, which looked exactly like the one in Sarah's.I stared at it and felt a renewed sense of purpose. In fact, the photoin my passport looked more than a little like her. Maybe, I thought,I'm getting carried away with the identity issue, but there it was.

  As I emerged through the wide glass doors of the arrival area, whichfronted out onto the steps leading down to the parking lots and thehumidity, I spotted a black Land Rover with tinted windows right infront. Uh-oh. That was, Steve once told me, a vehicle much favored bythe notorious Guatemalan G-2 military secret police, who had retiredthe cup for murderous human-rights abuses over the past two decades.

  Then two middle-aged men with Latin mustaches and nondescript brownshirts began getting out through the door on the far side. They nextwalked around to the terminal side of the car and glanced up the stepsin my direction, as though looking for somebody. It was a quick survey,after which they turned back and nodded to the vehicle before it spedaway.

  What's that about? Am I imagining things already?

  By the time I reached the bottom of the steps, I was being besieged byclamoring cabbies, so it was difficult to keep an eye on the two men,who were now walking off to the side of the main commotion, toward ashady grove of palms at the end of the arrival drive, lightingcigarettes.

  Get out of here. Whether you're fantasizing or not, the thing to do isgrab an unsuspecting cab and get going.

  I strolled toward the other end of the long row of concrete steps tillI reached an area where cabs were parked, more drivers lurking in wait.They all looked the same way most cabbies in Third World lands look:shabby clothes, with beat-up cars, an expression in their eyessomewhere between aggression and desperation.

  Just pick one whose car looks like it might actually make it todowntown.

  I spotted a dark blue Chevy that seemed clean and well maintained, itsdriver young and full of male hormones as he beckoned me to hisvehicle, all the while undressing me with his eyes. Yep, he wasdefinitely my guy.

  I ambled by his car, acting as though I was ignoring the innuendos ofhis pitch. Then I bolted for the back door, opened it myself since hewas too startled to help, threw in my carry-ons, piled in behind them,and yelled, "Let's go. Rapido."

  As we sped away, I realized his greatest surprise was that I hadn'traised the subject of price. At that point, it was the last thing on mymind. I looked back to see the two guys from the black Land Rover,together with two others, heading for a car that had been double-parkedright in front.

  Had I been right after all?

  We made a high-speed turn onto the highway, and I immediately orderedthe driver to take a service road that led off toward a cluster of gasstations and parking lots with falling-down barbed-wire fences. Ifigured I had about half a minute of lead time, whatever was going on.

  We dodged massive potholes and the loose gravel flew, but then wereached a ramshackle gas station and I ordered him to pull in. Then Iwatched the line of traffic speeding by on the main highway for severalminutes. Nobody pulled off. Good.

  My driver finally got around to asking where I wanted to go, and ascalmly as I could, I told him.

  "The Palacio Nacional."

  "_Si_."

  With that he gunned his engine and spun out. Jesus!

  "_Mas despacio, por favor_."

  "Okay," he said, showing off his English as he donned his sunglasses."I go more slow. No problem."

  The initial destination was part of my new plan, hatched while I was onthe plane. When I was reading my guidebook and filling out my entrycard I'd had a bright idea. I knew exactly how I wanted to begin.

  Heading into town, the time now the middle of the afternoon, I leanedback in the seat and tried to absorb the view, to get a feeling forwhere I was. We first traveled through the suburban fringes, theheavily guarded luxurious mansions of the landholding and militaryelite, the one percent of Guatemala who own ninety-nine percent of thecountry. Iron fences and wide expanses of lawn, protected by Uzi-totingsecurity, guarded whimsical architectural conceits topped by silversatellite dishes. A twenty-foot wall shielded their delicate eyes fromthe city's largest shanty-town, makeshift hovels of bamboo and rustedtin, with no signs of water or drains or toilets. Guatemala City: asSteve had put it once, a million doomed citizens, the rich and thepoor, trapped together side by side in the most "modern" capital inCentral America.

  Why on earth had Sarah decided to come here? Even if she did travelwith the mesmerizing Alex Goddard it was hard to imagine a place lessspiritual. Couldn't she feel that this was all wrong? One of us had tobe missing something major.

  Fifteen minutes later I was passing through the fetid atmosphere ofdowntown, which seemed to be another world, Guatemala City's twin soul.It was an urban hodgepodge of Burger King, McDonald's, discountelectronics emporia, an eye-numbing profusion of plastic signs, filthyparking lots, rattletrap buses and taxis, stalled traffic. Exhaustfumes thickened the air, and everywhere you looked teenage "guards" inuniforms loitered in front of stores and banks with sawed-off shotguns,boys so green and scared-looking you'd think twice about letting one ofthem park your car. But there they were, weapons at the ready,nervously monitoring passersby. Who were they defending all the wealthfrom? The ragged street children, with swollen bellies and skindisease, vending single cigarettes from open packs? Or the hordes ofwidows and orphans, beneficiaries of the Army's Mayan "pacification"program, who now begged for centavos or plaintively hawked half-rottenfruit from the safety of the shadows?

  My bright-idea destination was a government office in the PalacioNacional, right in the center of town, where I hoped I could findSarah's old landing card, the record of when tourists arrived anddeparted. When I'd filled mine out on the plane, I'd realized you weresupposed to put down where you'd be staying in Guatemala. I figured thebest way to locate her this time was to find out where she went lasttime. . . .

  As my cab pulled up in front, a black Land Rover was parked in a"Prohibido Estacionarse" zone by the front steps. To my eyes it lookedlike the same one I'd seen at the airport. Shit.

  But nobody was around, so I decided maybe I was just being paranoidagain.

  The Palacio turned out to be a mixture of Moorish and faux Greekarchitecture, with a facade of light green imitation stone that gaveoff the impression of a large, rococo wedding cake. I took a long look,paid off the driver--who had turned out to be very nice--and headed in.It was, after all, a public building, open to tourist gringos.

  Nobody in the lobby appeared to take any particular notice of me, soafter going through their very serious security, uniforms and gunseverywhere, I checked the directory.

  It turned out the president, cabinet ministers, and high militaryofficers all kept offices there, but it didn't take long to find thebureau I was looking for. Going down the marble-floored hallway on thethird floor, I passed by the Sala de Recepcion, a vast wood-paneledroom of enormous chandeliers, stained-glass windows, and a mas
sive coatof arms. Quite a place, but not my destination. At the far end of thehallway, I found the door I wanted, went in, and tried out the Spanishquestion I'd been practicing in the cab. Not necessary: English workedfine.

  "_Senora_, the records for that time were only kept on paper," a Ladinowoman declared shrugging, her nails colored a brash mauve, her hair aburst of red, "but you are welcome to look." She'd been on the phone,chatting in rapid-fire Spanish, but she quickly hung up and got out herglasses.

  "Thanks."

  The welcome mat was obviously a little thin. The woman was trying to befriendly, but very quickly her nervousness began to come through."We're always glad to accommodate Americans searching for friends orrelatives," she went on, attempting a smile. "Some of your Americanpress has been printing distortions, that the Guatemalan Army conspiredwith the CIA to cover up murders. It's a total lie."

  Right. Maybe you ought to see some of the photos Steve has of the"Army-pacified" Maya villages up in the mountains.

  The search took an hour and a half of leafing through dusty boxes,which chafed my hands raw, but then . . . voila.

  There it was. The crucial piece of information Lou had missed. Ahastily scribbled-in landing card for an American, with the name SarahCrenshaw. I stared at it a moment, feeling a glow of success. Was it anomen?

  It was definitely her. She'd even dotted an "i" with a smiley face, oneof her personal trademarks.

  Then I looked down the form. What I wanted was the address she'd putdown as a destination in Guatemala.

  The answer: "Ninos del Mundo, Peten Department."

  My hopes sank. Great. That was like saying your address

  is Children of the World, lost somewhere in the state of Montana.

  The home address was equally vague. Just "New York." So much for thehigh level of curiosity at "Inmigracion."

  However, the carbon copy of the landing card, which you're supposed tosurrender when you leave, was not stapled to it, the way it was on allthe others in the box. Naturally, since she'd left in a medevac plane,half dead.

  "What does this mean?" I got up and walked over to the woman's desk,carrying the card. Mainly I just wanted to get a rise out of her. "Thecarbon copy is missing. Does that mean she could still be here?"

  Red alert. She glanced at the arrival date a moment and her eyes froze.Then, doubtless with visions of another CIA scandal looming in herconsciousness, she brusquely announced that the office was gettingready to close for the day.

  "You'll have to pursue any further inquiries through the Americanembassy, Mrs. James, which handles all matters concerning U.S.nationals."

  "Well, thanks for all your help." I was finally getting thepolice-state runaround I'd expected all along. I guess I needed her tocare, and it was obvious she didn't.

  Okay . . . I'd planned to go to the embassy anyway. Maybe they couldtell me about this place she'd put on her landing card. Could it be thelocal name for Alex Goddard's clinic?

  As I picked up my things, I thought again about the prospect of showingmy face on the streets of Guatemala City. Would there be more loiteringmen in grungy brown shirts waiting to watch my every move? More blackLand Rovers? As I marched back out through the ornate lobby, I decidednot to let my imagination get too active. It was now late afternoon,but I was making progress. I also was thinking about Steve, wonderingif he'd gotten into town yet. Probably not for another couple of hours,but just thinking about seeing him again, and having him for support,was boosting my energy.

  A short cab ride later I arrived at the embassy of the all-powerfulUnited States of America, a two-block-long concrete fortress on ReformaAvenue guarded by Yank Marines with heavy automatic weapons. When Iexplained myself to the PR people manning the reception desk, includingmy brush with Guatemalan bureaucracy, they told me to check with theInternal Security section.

  "In fact, if you're looking for an American national, this is where youshould have come in the first place," said a very efficient-appearingyoung woman, with a business suit and dark, close-cropped hair. "Aphone call from here works wonders at the Palacio Nacional."

  I had no proof Sarah was in Guatemala yet, and if she was, it woulddoubtless be under a different name. What's more, telling them mysuspicion that she'd been kidnapped by a high official and brought herewould definitely brand me as a conspiracy theorist. So for now, all Icould really hope to get from them was an address for Alex Goddard'sclinic, someplace to start. Where and what was "Ninos del Mundo"?Apparently the woman hadn't fully understood that.

  Moments later a thirtyish male attache showed up, looking very harried.He also could have been president of the local Young Republicans, witha cute haircut and preppie tie, knotted perfectly.

  "Hi, I'm Mel Olberg. How can I . . .?"

  I told him I wanted to see someone who was responsible for the recordsof missing American tourists. I also sensed he was edgy and trying toget it over with fast; all the while he kept checking his watch, onlyhalf listening.

  "Gee, I really wish you'd come earlier," he said. "Monday

  afternoons are a little nuts around here, weekly reports due and all,and it's getting late." When he glanced at his watch again, making sureI noticed, I found myself wanting to yell at the guy. "I mean it's beentwo years since this woman you're looking for filled out a landingcard. We might have something in the files, but. . . would it bepossible for you to come back tomorrow?"

  "No, it will not be possible," I lied. "I've got a plane back to NewYork tomorrow." I felt my frustration rising. I wanted to just grab himand shake him.

  My first thought was to tell him I make documentary films and maybehe'd like to end up in one about how my country's Guatemala Cityembassy didn't care about its citizens. But then I decided to go in adifferent, probably more productive, direction.

  "Just for five minutes," I declared, reaching for feigned helplessness.

  "Well, let me call upstairs," he muttered, realizing, I suppose, thatthe best way to get rid of me was to kick me up the chain of command,"and see if Mr. Morton can take a moment to meet with you."

  It worked. The next thing I knew, I was in the office of a good-lookingdiplomat named Barry Morton--gray temples, tailored suit, rugged faceof a sixty-year-old soap-opera heartthrob who plays tennis and keeps amistress. Chief Information Officer.

  "Actually, I do remember her, vaguely," Morton declared, flashing mehis professional smile. "The Crenshaw girl was an unfortunate case. Tobegin with, anybody who overstays their visa that long gets us in a lotof hot water with the locals. They always tend to blame us, Ms. . . ."

  "James. My name's Morgan James."

  "Ms. James." Another of those smiles. "Frankly, I don't know what totell you, though." He shrugged, exuding helplessness. "It's hard tokeep track of every American tourist who comes and goes through thiscountry. Some of the hippie types end up in a mountain villagesomewhere, gone native. In this instance, as I recall, we got her outon a medevac."

  "Her landing card gave her destination as someplace called 'Ninos delMundo,' up to the Peten. That ring a bell? Any idea how I could findit?"

  "Niiios del Mundo?" He glanced up quickly. "That's a new one on me."He'd been fiddling with a stack of papers on his desk, giving me onlyhalf his attention, but he abruptly stopped. "You try the phone book?"

  "Like I said, it's in the Peten." I was getting the definite sense hewanted to get rid of me as soon as possible. The whole scene wasfeeling tense and off. "My understanding is that's mostly rain forest.Do they even have phones up there?"

  "Not many," he said, his tone starting to definitely acquire an "I havebetter things to do" edge.

  That was when he focused in on me, his look turning protective.

  "Let me speak candidly, Ms. James, strictly off the record. Down herepeople have been known to 'disappear' just for asking too manyquestions. Curiosity killed the cat, and all that. Between us, thisplace is still a police state in many regards. You want my advice, letsleeping dogs lie. Just forget about this Crenshaw girl. She's out of
the country now, so . . . Let me put it like this: People who go pokingaround here are just asking for trouble."

  I felt a ring of sincerity in his voice. Maybe a little too muchsincerity. Why was he so worried for me?

  "That may be true, but I'm still going to see what I can find out. Myheart is pure. Why should anybody care?"

  "Do what you think best," he said with a sigh, "but I've told youeverything we know. Which, I'm afraid, is actually very little."

  "By the way." Try one more thing on him, I thought, see what he'll say."Since you're so concerned about Sarah, you'll be relieved to knowshe's regained consciousness and started to talk." There seemed nopoint in telling him any more. The rest was all still speculation.

  That stopped him cold. "What . . . what has she said?" His eyesappeared startled in the glaring light of the office fluorescents. Atlong last I had his undivided attention.

  "You're busy." I smiled at him. "I don't want to bore you with details.But it's just going to be a matter of time before she remembers exactlywhat happened down here."

  "She hasn't talked about it yet?" He was fiddling with an ornate letteropener, an onyx jaguar head on the handle.

  "She's getting there." I stared back at him, trying to read his mood."We may soon find out who was behind whatever happened to her." Then Itried a long shot. "Maybe officialdom here had something to do with it."

  "Let me tell you something." He sighed again, seeming to regain hiscomposure. "The sovereign state of Guatemala definitely plays by itsown rules. Whenever foreigners down here meet with foul play,lower-level officials have developed a consensus over the years thatsometimes it's better not be too industrious. Nobody's ever sure ofwhat, or who, they might turn up."

  The meeting was definitely ending, and once again I had more questionsthan answers. Something about Barry Morton felt wrong, but I couldn'tquite get a grip on what it was. One thing I was certain of: He knewmore than he was telling me. Why was that?

  As I was exiting through his outer office, headed for the swarmingstreets below, I waved good-bye to his secretary, a stout, fiftyishLadino matron with defiantly black-dyed hair, a hard look mitigatedsomewhat by the Zircon trim on her thick glasses and a small silverpendant nestled on her ample, low-cut sweater. It was the pendant thatcaught my eye, being the silver face of a cat, most likely the localjaguar. Looked just like the ones I'd seen you-know-where. I wasstaring so hard I almost stumbled over a chair. Yes. It was definitelylike those I remembered from Kevin and Rachel.

  The only difference was, when she bent over to reach for her stapler,the medallion twisted around and the back, I could see, flashed blanksilver, no engraving of lines and dots.

  So where did she get it? I started to ask her, but decided I'd just getmore BS runaround. Then I had another thought: Maybe she handled a lotof things that never made it to Barry Morton's desk, the "don't wastethe boss's valuable time" kind of secretary. Maybe she s the one Ireally should have been talking to, the kind of woman who takes care ofeverything while the high-paid senior supervisor is at long lunches.

  She looked at me, and our eyes met and held for a second. Had she beenlistening in on my chat with Morton? Did she know something I ought toknow?

  By then, however, thoughts of Steve were weighing in. I hadn't seen himin three and a half months and I was realizing that was about my limit.I wanted to recapture the lost time. Our being together was going tomake everything turn out right.

  Clinging to that thought, I grabbed a cab and headed for my hotel and amuch-overdue hot bath.

 
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