Life blood, p.21
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       Life Blood, p.21

          
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  Chapter Twenty-one

  "Cut the crap." I pulled away, still in shock from seeing Sarah soaddled. I wanted more than anything else in the world just to slug him."Why did you bring her here? Think about your answer. Kidnapping is aserious crime in the States."

  "I've been very concerned about her." He looked up at the groves ofCebia trees around the square, a quiet glance, as though to inhale themisty morning air. My legal threat had gone right past him--probablybecause here he was the only law. "But now she's receiving thetreatment she needs. I expect she'll be fine before long."

  "Treatment?" I was caught off guard. Okay, let's start getting thingsstraight. "When she was here before, somebody tried to beat her todeath. How--?"

  "What happened then was beyond my control." He motioned me to join himas he settled onto the first step of the pyramid sadness in his eyes.We were alone in the square now, and I felt like I'd become hispersonal prisoner, trapped. "Sarah was . . . is very dear to me. I carefor her deeply."

  "You cared so much for her she ended up in a coma, over on the Mexicanborder." I didn't sit. Instead I just bored in, hoping to stare himdown, but his eyes had grown distant, that little trick he had ofalternating between intimacy and remoteness. Again it reminded me ofthat first morning we'd met, looking out over the bluffs of the Hudson.

  "If you'll let me, I'd like to try and tell you something of thecircumstances surrounding that tragedy." He was gazing off in thedirection the women had gone. "You see, when Sarah first appeared atQuetzal Manor in New York, she was a very troubled young woman. Shedeclared she was a person of pure spirit and she wanted to have a babywithout so much as touching a man, some procedure that would produce adivine child created of cosmic energy."

  Cosmic energy. I had a flashback, hearing the words, to the time whenshe'd just turned six and we'd been sent by my mother to the hayloft totrack down nests secreted there by rogue chicken hens. When we cameacross a cache of eggs, she asked if baby chicks came out of them. Iassured her they did, and then she asked if human babies came from eggstoo. My biology was pretty thin, but I told her I supposed they did,sort of, but then the eggs were probably hatched, or something, beforebabies were born. She thought about that a moment, scrunching up herface, then declared "No!" and bitterly began smashing the eggs. Babiesand all living things came from another world, she declared, a specialplace we could not see. They came directly from God. . . .

  That was why she would seek out someone like Alex Goddard. For her, hemust have seemed a messenger of the Unseen. Who better to create achild for her? The ironic part was, I'd found him for almost the samereason, seeking a miracle when all else had failed. Were Sarah and Ieven more alike than I'd realized?

  "So I began trying to work with her." He was turning back to me. "Butthen I discovered she'd been born with an abnormality of the uterus. Ithas a medical name, but suffice to say it's very rare, and afflictsonly about one woman in twenty thousand. Even after my diagnosis,though, she refused to give up. She was a person of enormous tenacity."

  God, I thought. Why didn't she come home to us, to Lou

  and me? We loved her. I felt my guilt go out to her all over again.

  "She next declared she wanted to come here to _Baalum_, to the place ofmiracles. I told her that, yes, miracles can sometimes transpire here,but only at a great price. We would need to have an agreement and shewould have to keep it no matter what."

  "What do you mean, an agree--?"

  "Truthfully, though," he went on, ignoring me, "I immediately regrettedthe offer, since I realized she was far too unstable for this . . .environment. Finally I forbade her to come, but just before my nextscheduled trip she found out and booked herself on the same flight.There was literally nothing I could do to stop her."

  "She put Ninos del Mundo on her landing card." I was growing sick to mystomach at the rehearsed way he was recounting her story. "That's thisplace, right? _Baalum_."

  "My clinic here is known by that name. The village itself is calledBaalum." He was easily meeting my eye, holding his own in our battle ofwills. "Sarah was, I have to say, a very impressionable young person.Once here, she forgot all about her purpose for coming. She should havestayed up the hill there"--he was pointing off to the south--"where Icould care for her, but instead she moved down here, into thecompounds. Then she discovered a hallucinogenic substance they havehere, began using it heavily, and I think it tipped her into a form ofdementia."

  So, she was doing drugs, something I'd always secretly feared. Well,maybe she was still having flashbacks of some kind; maybe thatexplained why she was off in another world when she came out of hercoma.

  "What . . . kind of 'hallucinogenic substance'?"

  He sighed then shrugged and answered. "Here in the rain forest there'san ugly three-pound toad the _Bufo marinus_--you'll see them around,near sunset--that has glands down its back that excrete a milky whitepoison."

  I knew about them. They were migrating north now, even into Florida.They were huge and looked like Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars. I hatetoads of all varieties, but the thought of those monsters made meshudder.

  "My God, isn't their toxin lethal?" Was Sarah trying to destroyherself? Was that why her mind was so blitzed? "I've heard--"

  "Yes, it can kill you, but it can also--if processed correctly, withfermented honey--give you truly supernatural visions. The classicalMaya used it for ceremonial purposes. I'd managed to reconstruct howthey prepared it, and--something I now deeply regret--I showed theshamans here how to replicate the procedure. At the time it was just aminor part of my research into traditional pharmacology, but she heardabout it and persuaded them to give her a vial. Then more and more."

  That did sound like Sarah. Always out on the edge, testing newrealities. But then I thought a moment about what he'd actually said.Some of the people here in his "place of miracles" were doing heavydrugs, and she'd got caught up in it.

  "But why didn't you stop her?" You unfeeling bastard.

  "I tried, believe me. But I'm afraid she was far past listening to me.By then she was learning the Kekchi Maya dialect, becoming totallyimmersed in their world. She began having episodes of completenon-rationality, and then one day she told the women in her compoundshe was going over to Palenque, the Maya ruins in Mexico. It's wherethe classical Maya held their last kingship ceremony. Before anyonerealized she was serious, she stole one of their _cayucos_, theirmahogany dugout canoes, and headed down the Rio Tigre." His eyes hadturned completely dark, the way he used to blank them out. "She justwent missing. Everyone here was devastated. We all loved her."

  I stood there weighing his story. It didn't ring true. I supposed shewas capable of something that crazy, but would she have actually doneit? I didn't think so.

  Then I remembered something else he'd said.

  "You said you proposed an 'agreement.' What was that about?"

  He stared at me. "It's nothing that need concern us. Suffice to say Ikept my part. Anyway, it's over and past now."

  Why wouldn't he tell me? Did she make some bargain with the Devil?

  "But regarding Sarah," he went on, "I only just learned she'd beenfound and brought to New York in a coma. Wanting to do what I could, Iimmediately called the hospital and, out of professional courtesy, theytold me she'd shown early stages of coming out of it, but she appearedto be hallucinating. It was exactly what I'd feared. . . ." His voicetrailed off. "I hope I did the right thing, but when I learned she'dbeen released, I arranged for her to be brought back here, whereperhaps I can do something for her."

  "What?"

  "In rare cases, the hallucinogen she took permanently alters criticalsynapses in the brain. I'm fearful she may have abused it to the extentsomething like that could have occurred. No one in the U.S. would havethe slightest idea what to do, but I think I may know of an herbalantidote they turned to in ancient times that can repair at least partof the damage. I also knew that getting her back here through normalchannels would be impossible."

  "So you had Colonel Ramos and a bunch of his Guatemalan thugs justbreak in and take her?" I didn't know which part of the storyhorrified, and angered, me the most.

  "I have the misfortune to know him reasonably well, and

  I explained it was very important to me, and he agreed to assist. Ihonestly didn't know where else to turn. I understand there may havebeen some violence, for which I apologize, but these people have theirown way of doing things." He rose and came over and put his hand on myshoulder. "I hope you'll understand."

  The son of a bitch was coming on oily and contrite, when he'd justsubcontracted an outright kidnapping. I wanted to kill him.

  Finally I walked away, trying to get a grip on my anger.

  "You know, that bastard also broke into my apartment and stole a reelof a picture I'm shooting." I turned back. "I've also got a strongfeeling he's the one who just threatened one of the women I filmed."

  "Well, if that happened, then let me say welcome to the paranoidharassment of the Guatemalan high command." He sighed against themorning sound of birds chirping all around us. "Unfortunately, I gatherthey've assumed you're documenting the operations of Children of Lightin some way, doing a movie." His eyes drifted off into space, as thoughseeking a refuge. "You see, my project up here in the Peten is to carryout pharmaceutical research with as few distractions as possible. Butin Guatemala City, I have what is, in effect, a hospice for girls introuble--which is also called Niiios del Mundo, by the way--that'sconnected with my U.S. adoption service, Children of Light. However,any time Niiios del Mundo takes in an orphaned or abandoned infant andtries to provide it with a loving home through adoption in the States,the government here always threatens to hold up the paperwork if Idon't give a bribe, what they call an 'expediting fee.' So if you wereto probe too deeply . . . Let me just say it's not something they'dcare to see lead off 60 Minutes."

  It sounded like more BS, but I couldn't prove that. Yet.

  "Well, why don't you just clear that up, and then I'll take Sarah and--"

  "But I've only now initiated her treatment. Surely you want to give ita chance."

  I looked out at the rain forest. This was the place she'd come to once,and--though I'd never admit it to Alex Goddard--it was the place she'dannounced she wanted to return to. But something devastating hadhappened to her mind here. What should I do?

  The fact was, I didn't trust Alex Goddard any farther than I couldthrow him. I had to get Sarah and get us both out of here as soon aspossible, though that meant I'd have to neutralize him and the Army,and then use my limited American dollars to try to buy our way back toGuatemala City.

  "But come." He turned his gaze toward the south. "Let me show you thething I'm proudest of here. It's just up there." He was pointing towarda dense section of the rain forest, in the opposite direction from theriver and up a steep incline.

  I couldn't see anything but trees, but then I still had the feeling I'dstepped through the looking glass and found Sarah trapped there. Thenext thing I knew, we were on an uphill forest trail, headed due south.

  "I think it's time you told me what's going on back there in thevillage," I said. What was it about this place that had seized such aclaim on Sarah's mind?

  "_Baalum_ is difficult to explain to someone encountering it for thefirst time." He paused. "Much of it is so--"

  "I think I can handle it."

  "You have every right to know, but I don't really know where to start."

  "How about the beginning?" Why was he being so ambiguous?

  "Very well." He was taking out a pair of gray sunglasses,

  as though to gain time. "It actually goes back about ten years ago,when I was prospecting for rainforest plants up here in the Peten andaccidentally stumbled across this isolated village, which clearly hadbeen here since classical times. I immediately noticed a huge mound ofdirt everybody said was haunted by 'the Old Ones,' and I knew rightaway it had to be a buried pyramid. They're more common down here thanyou'd think. So I struck a bargain with the village elders and acquiredthe site. But after I unearthed it and began the restoration, I becameinspired with a vision. One day I found myself offering to restoreanything else they could find--which eventually included, by the way, amagnificent old steam bath--in exchange for which they would help me byundertaking a grand experiment, a return to their traditional way oflife."

  "So you deliberately closed them off to the modern world?" It told meAlex Goddard could control a Mayan village just as he controlledeverything else he touched. It also confirmed he had a weakness for thegrandiose gesture. Would a time come when I could exploit that?

  "I told them that together we would try to recreate the time of theirglory, and perhaps in so doing we could also rediscover its long-lostspirit, and wisdom. On the practical side, they would help me bybringing me the rare plants I needed to try and rediscover the lostNative American pharmacologies, and in return I would build them aclinic where families can come for modern pediatric and public-healthservices. So _Baalum _became a project we share together. I call it amiracle."

  That still didn't begin to explain why it felt so eerie. Something elsewas going on just under the surface. What was he really doing here?

  Then the path uphill abruptly opened onto a clearing in which sat alarge two-story building, its color a dazzling white, most likelyplaster over cinder block, with a thatch roof and a wide, ornatemahogany door at the front. The building was nestled in a grove oftrees whose vines and tendrils had embraced it so thoroughly, there wasno telling how far it extended back into the forest. There also was aparking lot, paved and fed by a well-maintained gravel road leadingsouth.

  Seeing it, I felt an immediate wave of relief. Even better, the lotitself contained half-a-dozen well-worn pickup trucks, while sunburnedMaya men were lounging in the shade of a nearby tree and smokingcigarettes. They were not from Baalum. They wore machine-made clothesand they were speaking Spanish, unlike the men in loincloths down inthe village.

  Yes! That's how I can get us out of here. A few dollars . . .

  Parked there also was a tan Humvee, the ultimate all-road vehicle,which I assumed belonged to Alex Goddard. Maybe I should just try tosteal it.

  As we passed through the door and into the vestibule of the building, Iglimpsed a cluster of Maya women and children crowded into abrilliantly lit reception area. Goddard smiled and waved at them, andseveral nodded back, timorously and with enormous reverence. They werebeing attended by a dark-eyed, attractive Maya woman in a blueuniform--the name lettered on her blouse was Marcelina--who was holdinga tray of vials and hypodermic needles. She was pure _indigena_, all offive feet tall, with broad cheekbones and deep-set penetrating eyes.Unlike the other women in the room, however, there was no air ofresignation about her. She was full of authority, a palpable inner fire.

  "One of my most successful programs here"--he nodded a greeting toher--"is to provide free vaccinations and general health resources forthe villages in this part of the Peten Department."

  "I thought USAID already had public-health projects in Guatemala." Thesight deeply depressed me. They all looked so poignant, the women withtheir shabby _huipils_ and lined faces, the children even moredisheartening, sad waifs with runny noses and watery eyes.

  Which confirmed again that they'd come in the pickups parked outside,driven here by the men.

  I had six hundred cash in dollars. I could just buy one of thoseworn-out junkers for that.

  Alex Goddard glanced around, as though reluctant to respond in thepresence of all the Maya.

  "You saw those 'security guards' down there just now. They're nothingbut boys with guns, 'recruits' kidnapped by the government on marketday and pressed into the Army. They're all around here. The powers thatbe in Guatemala City are very threatened by what I'm achieving, sothey've got these Army kids hanging around, keeping an eye on me. Theyalso hate the fact I can provide health services better than they can.But to answer your question, most of the AID money gets soaked up bythe bureaucracy in Guatemala City, so the people up here have learnedto rely on me. The Army, however, despises me and everything I'm doing."

  What a load of BS. You just admitted you had an inside track withColonel Alvino Ramos. Anybody can see Children of Light or Ninos delMundo, or whatever the hell other aliases you use, is thick as thieveswith the Guatemalan Armed Forces. Don't insult my intelligence. It justmakes me furious.

  I turned to Marcelina. She'd begun passing out hard-sugar candies tothe mesmerized children, showing them how to remove the cellophanebefore putting them into their mouths. Though she was pure Maya, shelooked educated. I instinctively liked her. Maybe she could tell mewhat was really going on here.

  "Do you speak English?"

  "Yes." She was gazing at me with a blend of curiosity and concern."If--"

  "I've got a procedure scheduled shortly," Goddard interjected, urgingme on down the tiled hallway. "But I need to take a moment andrecharge. Come with me and we can talk some more."

  Near the end of the hall, we entered a spacious, country-style kitchen.He walked over and opened the refrigerator.

  "Care for a little something to eat?" He looked back, speckled whitehair swinging across his shoulders as his ponytail came loose. "I hadMarcelina whip up some gazpacho last night and I see there's some left.It's my own secret recipe, special herbs from around here. It's goodand good for you."

  "I'm not hungry." It wasn't true. I was growing ravenous. But I wasrepressing the feeling because of everything else that was going on.His "village" was holding back its secrets, and now his clinic of"miracles" also felt suspiciously wrong. I'd seen plenty of ruralpublic-health operations in developing countries, and this setup wasfar too big and fancy. The whole thing didn't begin to compute.

  "As you like." He gave an absent shrug.

  I looked around and noticed that just off the kitchen was anotherspace, which was, I realized, his private dining room. There was arustic table in the center that looked like it had been carved from thetrunk of a large Cebia tree. I walked in, and moments later he followedcarrying a tray with two calabash bowls of gazpacho and some crustybread.

  "In case you change your mind and decide to join me." He placed a bowlopposite where he was planning to sit. "Like I said, there're unusualherbs around here with flavors you've never dreamed of."

  He began eating, while behind him I glimpsed Marcelina moving down thehall, carrying more trays of vaccine and headed out toward thevestibule again. I had to find a way to talk to her.

  As I settled into the rickety chair that faced my plate, I glanced downand saw a red lumpy mixture with a spray of indefinable green specksacross the top like a scattering of jungle stars. No way.

  When I looked up again, he was swabbing his lips with a white napkin,his penetrating eyes boring in.

  "Now," he said, "it's time we started concentrating on you. Got yougoing with your program."

 
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