Life blood, p.17
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       Life Blood, p.17

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  Chapter Seventeen

  Alan Dupre didn't ring till almost ten-thirty the next morning, and Ihad the feeling even that was a stretch. He then offered to meet us inthe Parque Concordia, right downtown. As I watched him ambling towardour bench, my first impression was: Why'd we bother?

  The man appeared to be in his early forties, puffy-eyed andpink-cheeked with discount aviator shades, looking like a glad-handingtourist just down to Central America for a weekend of unchaperonedbacchanals. The flowered sport shirt, worn outside the belt, gave himthe aura of a tout insufficiently attired without a can of Coors inhand.

  How can this be progress? I'm down here hoping to find Sarah, and I endup in a trash-filled park meeting some expat operator.

  Steve had explained that the main benefit of Alan Dupre's CIA gig wasthat he did learn how to fly a helicopter. With that skill he'd endedup starting a tourist agency in Guatemala City using an old Bell heleased: "Mayan Pyramids from the Air." Mainly, though, he was aself-styled bon vivant who knew people.

  "Steve the brave." On came Dupre's mirthless smile as he approached ajaunty spring entering his step.

  "Alan, any friend of yours has got to be brave." Steve just stared athim.

  Dupre had the kind of empty grin that looked like it'd been rehearsedin his high school bathroom mirror. It was thin, kind of forked anddangerous, and this morning its plaster quality undermined any attemptsat honesty. Maybe dealing with complaining tourists every day of yourlife did that to you.

  "You called, I came." He was now shifting from foot to foot. "Guess itfinally had to happen. What's the phrase? You can run but you can'thide? Surprise us both and pretend you're happy to see me."

  Steve looked like he was not entirely prepared for this moment. He usedthe awkward pause that followed to introduce me. Dupre shook hands likehe was fearful of germs, then turned back.

  "Jesus, man, I'm still working on the money, honest to God. But do Iget a last cigarette before the firing squad?"

  "Hey, Alan, ease up." Steve was deadpan. "Good to see you again. I meanit. Love that Waikiki shirt, by the way. Never knew you had suchprogressive taste."

  "This is actually my incognito attire. For secret missions. It's myobjective today to look like some cruise-ship jerk." He glanced aroundnervously. "So how'm I doing?"

  "I'd say your years of training in undercover work have paid off."

  I listened, remembering Steve had explained that Alan Dupre's career asa CIA information-gatherer was hampered by his propensity to drink toomuch tequila and then brag about his occupation, hoping to impresswhatever woman he had in his sights at the moment.

  "So bring me up to date." Steve was trying to hide his total contempt."Why'd you get out of the spook business? Langley couldn't find a 'newmission' for you after the Evil Empire dissolved?"

  Dupre's face turned pensive. "Man, you don't get it, do you? Langley'sstill got plenty on its mind. Nothing has changed. Most people don'trealize the U.S. isn't run by the folks they vote for. There's apermanent government that doesn't appear on Larry King, and I was partof it. The Central Intelligence Agency of the U.S. of A. will go ondoing exactly what it's always done, guiding events in Third Worldtoilets like this through whatever means are necessary to protectAmerica's strategic concerns. Keeping the world safe for Microsoft andRonald McDonald." He paused and glanced at me, as though slightlyembarrassed. Then he continued. "What I'm saying is, all those Beltwayturkeys with the briar pipes and gigabyte computers, sitting aroundwringing their hands, worried the Company needs a new mission, neverreally grasped its old mission."

  "You're right," Steve said going along with the shtick, the applauselines Dupre had doubtless used in a thousand bars. "I'm getting slow.What Langley needs nowadays is a new cover story."

  "Couldn't have phrased it better." Dupre smiled again too easily."They're--"

  "Actually," Steve said cutting him off impatiently, all the whilegazing up at the gathering dark clouds as though they were a hoveringadversary, "the truth of the matter is, we called you to discuss afavor. A small helping hand." He seemed to be searching for a salespoint. "For old times' sake."

  "For old times' sake?" Dupre appeared to be having trouble with theconcept.

  "Yeah. All we want is to hear a little talk of the town." He gazed outover the square, Uzi-toting police still strolling by. "You know, localinformation of the kind that doesn't make the papers."

  "Right," I said. "For starters, how could a gringa sort of melt intothe Peten rain forest, disappear for months and months, and then end upin a coma?" I'd decided to feel him out before going for the biggerquestions.

  "People disappear down here all the time, and nobody in their rightmind goes around inquiring why." Dupre seemed genuinely astonished thatanyone would find such a thing unusual. He also was fingering acigarette pack in his breast pocket, clearly nervous about the quickturn our conversation had taken. "Whatever's your problem in Guatemala,just forget about it. Drink some _cerveza_, take a few snapshots of thepicturesque natives, and then move on to a civilized place. This is aland of mystery, lady, and the people who matter like it that way.There are those here who take their privacy very seriously."

  Just like Alex Goddard's Children of Light, I thought. Or Ninos delMundo, or whatever it's called. It was chilling to hear Alan Duprebacking away so quickly from my question. The guy seemed truly scaredunder all the bluster. I also observed that his eyes were curiouslysmall, out of proportion to his face. I hadn't noticed it at first.

  "Well," I went on, determined to push him, "an old landing card for theperson I'm looking for said her destination was a place called Ninosdel Mundo, up in the Peten. I assume that's somewhere in the northernrain forest, right? So I guess what I want to know is, does that namestir up any connections?"

  He looked around, then extracted a Gauloise from a blue pack and lit itwith a wooden match, flicking the tip with his fingernail. He inhaled,taking his time. "Well, maybe I've heard a little something about aplace some people call by that name." He drew again on the cigarette."And the story might include a female American _tourista_ or two--aboutone a year, actually--who've sort of melted into the forest never to beseen more. I'm not exactly sure where it is, though. Or even if whatyou hear is true. But who cares? Come on, guys, this is Guatemala, forchrissake. Shit happens. Get a life."

  "The embassy, or the CIA, or anybody ever carry out an inquiry?" I feltmy energy rising. "A woman every year or so? I went by Reforma Avenueyesterday and nobody there seems to have ever heard of any of this."

  "No kidding." He snorted. "Whatever happened that place, our caringembassy, ain't gonna do zip--don't faint at the news--and there's noway the Company's going to pull their old-time Yankee number, roll inwith the beige sunglasses, and yell, 'Okay, you peons, we're here totake names and kick butt. What happened to our national?' They'verecently acquired a habit of taking local situations at face value.Makes for a lot better tables at the tony supper clubs in town."

  This guy liked to talk, I realized but he had no interest in goingbeyond glib one-liners. I glanced at Steve, and I could tell he washaving the same thoughts.

  "Tell you what," Steve said finally, "how about this? Tell us whateveryou know about how to find this place, and maybe we can adjust theterms on the money you screwed me out of. I might settle for somethingless on the dollar and let bygones be bygones."

  "Hey, man, you'll get your money. I'm good for it." Dupre sighed anddrew on his Gauloise. "It's just that things are a little tight rightnow, you know." He paused. "Matter of fact, I was hoping you might beable to spare a couple of bills for a week or so. But I guess . . ."His voice trailed off.

  Alan Dupre knew something I needed to know, or might know it. Steve haddefinitely found the right guy in that regard. But he clearly wascautious to the point of paralysis as he kept furtively glancingaround. What was he so fearful of, and what could I do to convince himto help me?

  I stood gazing at the dark sky for a long moment, and

  then I had an
off-the-wall idea, a long shot, the all-or-nothing takeyou go for when the sun is dying and the unions are looking at overtime.

  "You do tourist flights, right?" I started, still working on the idea."So how about pretending I'm an eco nut? A lover of the rain forest.You can tell whoever you're so afraid of that you're taking me up intothe wilds to show me jaguars or something. A regular tour. Justcruising around, taking in the sights. Totally innocent. And then if weaccidentally scouted a little, maybe we could find the place."

  "Jesus, you're serious about this, aren't you?" Dupre nervously crushedout his cigarette, staring at me glassy-eyed.

  "Never been more."

  He extracted another Gauloise.

  "Okay, a counteroffer, Miss . . ."

  "James. Morgan James."

  "Right, Miss James. I'm beginning to think you've got no realisticsense of proportion about this part of the world. You--"

  "Fools rush in, right?"

  "My point precisely. But if Steve here means what he says, well, maybethere's a little room to negotiate. Maybe I could take you on a quicksightseeing trip. And just for laughs I could kind of inadvertentlystray over the area I think you might find productive. Assuming we canlocate it. But here're my terms. I do it and Steverino and me aresquare. Consider it a twenty-thousand-dollar cruise."

  "Fine with me." Steve didn't even blink, and I loved him all overagain, right on the spot. Though the truth was, I knew he'd neverplanned on seeing a penny of the money again anyway.

  "And you think this place is Ninos del Mundo?" I was trying not to getmy hopes up too much, but still . . .

  Dupre lit his new cigarette. "You didn't hear this from me, okay? Youheard it from the embassy or some other damned place. But that's onename for it. Another is 'Jungle Disneyland.' Actually, I think thelocal name is _Baalum_, the old Maya word for jaguar. But everybodyacts like it's a state secret, so all you get are rumors."

  "Well, assuming we find it, then how could I get in? I mean actuallyin." I was squinting at him, feeling my body tense. What was it Lou hadsaid about a word he'd heard when they were taking Sarah? It soundedlike "Babylon"? I also thought that was what she'd whispered to me.Could it be the word was actually Baalum? The gloomy morning skiesabruptly flooded with the brilliant white light of hope. I glanced backat Steve, and our eyes locked for a long moment.

  "Morgy, for chrissake, what are you saying?" Steve took my hand. "Don'tyou realize this is Guatemala? Don't even think about it."

  "We're just talking now, okay?" I squeezed his hand then looked back atDupre. "I was just wondering. Once we've found it, could I get a sneaklook-see? Assuming I wanted to?"

  "Well, I'll tell you one thing, Miss Morgan James." Dupre was fingeringhis new cigarette, oblivious to my reaction. "Give no serious thoughtto just driving up. The Army'd be all over your butt in the time ittakes to cock an AK-47." He glanced up at the sky again, though now adense bank of dark clouds had swallowed what remained of the sun. Apre-rain gloom was enveloping the park, which was starting to emptyout, the hawkers and loiterers headed home to wait out the weather."But if we do find it, then as long as we're there, I might be able todrop you off for a quick glance somehow, say, if we did it aroundtwilight time . . . that is, if that's what you want. But it's tenminutes tops, and that's my final offer. Frankly, I think you'd beill-advised in the extreme to do it, but . . . in any case, it's got tobe a low-profile enterprise all the way. We screw this up and we couldeasily swell the ranks of the 'disappeared.' "

  "But you think you could actually locate it?"

  "What I hear, the place is on a tributary of the Usumacinta River, alatrine they call the Rio Tigre. Way up in the northwest. Low-levelArmy types, you meet them in bars from time to time, like to BS aboutit. I've got a rough idea where it might be, though you don't knowwhether to believe a bunch of kid recruits after half-a-dozen beers."

  Then my mind clicked. The Rio Tigre? Didn't that have something to dowith where Lou said Sarah was found? That was definitely where I wantedto go.

  "Morgy, have you lost your senses?" Steve had placed his hand on myshoulder. "If the Army's involved in something down here, you don'twant to know about it. Don't lose sight of the fact those goons knockedoff two hundred thousand villagers since the freedom-loving days of theGipper, for fear they might be Commies, with the CIA practically flyingin the ammo. This whole damned country's just one big mass grave. Yetanother unclaimed corpse or two won't make a hell of a lot ofdifference."

  "Steve, I'll bet you anything that's where she is." Saying it, I had avision of all the things that had happened to me, and to Sarah, becauseof Alex Goddard. I couldn't wait to confront the bastard. "He's broughther back."

  Steve just glared at me for a long moment, despairing.

  "Christ, you make me nuts. Okay, look, how about this? At least let mecome with you. That way we'll face the unknown together."

  Though I had a lump-in-the-throat moment, I didn't say anything, juststood there glorying in the feeling of being together. It was sowonderful to have him with me and so difficult to think about pressingon without him.

  There was a long, awkward pause, and then he glanced at his watch."Blast, I've got to hit the road if I'm going to get back in time toset up for tonight's shoot. I just pray I can beat the rain." Then hepulled me around and circled me fully in his arms. "Please,Morgy, I really don't like the sound of this. I'll move heaven andearth to get back here by Friday night, and if you still want to checkout this '_Baalum' _place, then we'll figure out a way to do ittogether."

  "Just you stay safe." I hugged him back. "Nothing I do is going to meanmuch if I don't have you. Don't worry. I'll be okay."

  Alan Dupre had abruptly taken an even deeper interest in the darkeningsky. I got the feeling he was uncomfortable being around two peoplecapable of caring.

  "It's only for a couple of days," Steve went on. "We'll both be okay ifwe just stick together."

  "Right," I said, and kissed him harder than I ever had.

  Five minutes later, my heart and my head still at war with each other,I was alone in the virtually empty park with my brand-new best friend.Watching Steve's Jeep blend into the smoggy haze of the avenue made mefeel like half of me had just disappeared into another dimension.

  "So that's that," I declared finally, turning back and taking a deepbreath. I had to find Sarah before something else truly horriblehappened to her. And the one thing I was determined to do was keepSteve as safely distant from my search as I could, even though it meantI was going to be terribly lonely for the next few days. "When can weleave?"

  "Hey, get real." Dupre choked, whirling around. "We can't go today.Case you hadn't noticed, there's a storm coming. If you really want togo . . . and I mean really want to, then maybe in a day or so.Preferably when Steve--"

  "I don't want to drag him into this," I said evenly. Truthfully, I wassounding braver than I felt. But then I remembered once going down intothe four-hundred-year-old subterranean harem quarters of the Red Fortin Agra, seemingly miles underground and pitch black, with nothing buta flashlight, surrounded by screaming bats and knee-deep in guano, forno better reason than I was determined to see how the women there oncelived. So how much scarier could this be?

  "Well, I say no way," Dupre told me. "Not today. Correction, make thatno fucking way." He had removed his aviator shades and was cleaningthem with a dirty hanky. "Besides, I don't think you have any businessgoing up there in the first place. If you're not scared shitless, youought to be."

  "Alan, I think you 're the one who's afraid to go."

  He almost reached for another cigarette, but then stopped himself. "Iwill definitely plead guilty to a deep-seated disquiet about the peoplewho rule this placid paradise. But if it'll square things with Steve,then I'll take you up to have a quick look, for my sins. But it's gotto be after the weather clears."

  I finally realized he was already thinking about his next loan. Steve,beware.

  "Tomorrow then?" I wasn't going to blink, because the Peten w
as whereSarah had ended up the first time and I was sure that was where Ramoshad taken her now. _Baalum_.

  Dupre stared at the sky a moment longer, then caved. "Maybe we canshoot for tomorrow late. If I can convince myself this storm has doneits worst." He looked back at me. "But I gotta tell you one thing, Ms.Morgan James. We blunder in up there and end up getting ourselves'disappeared,' we won't even get our pictures in the papers. You'dbetter tell your immediate loved ones where you're going, and itwouldn't be the worst time in the world to think about making a will."

  The way he said it, I was sure for once he meant every word.

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