THINGS DONE: BAIT AND SWITCH
“I don’t think I can take 5 days of this,” Mel moans to me. Despite large doses of Dramamine, she’s been terribly sick. I know that even a car trip of over 30 minutes is sufficient to induce motion sickness in her.
“I wish I had some Transderm Scop for you, darlin’,” AD tells her, “but it’s easier to get cannabis than those puppies. You’re welcome to some, if you like.”
“I might. I’m getting desperate.”
Jam pats her shoulder. “Well, honey, the good news is, we’ve had a little change of plans. We should be in port in Belize City in about six hours.”
Mel looks as if manna from heaven has just poured down on her. “Thank you.”
“We’re more at risk the longer we’re out here. Jam’s got people in Belize City,” AD assures her. “I’m as uncomfortable as you are, although not exactly in the same fashion.”
“You’re ugly enough,” I assure him. “And you’d be even uglier hanging over the side of the boat and feeding the fish.”
“This is what I’ll miss about you, Frohike. Your ability to raise my spirits and my self-esteem in your inestimable way,” AD shoots back, getting a hearty laugh from Jam and a thin one from Mel.
“The only spirits you raise are in a glass,” I snarl back at him. “Speaking of which, I could use another beer.”
“Quit acting like a guest. You know where they are.”
I grab one from the cooler and offer one each to Jam and AD. The day is glorious--comfortable temperature, a light breeze, and the sea is an incomparable shade of turquoise. I might even have enjoyed the trip under other circumstances, but I think once we’re on dry land, I’ll swear off boats. Mel doesn’t appear to enjoy the sport, to put it mildly.
“How long are we in Belize for?” I ask AD.
“Probably 2 nights, 3 at the outside. We’ve got accommodations for you at Pedro’s Pensione.”
“Why am I guessing it’s not a 4-star hotel?”
“Luxury hotels are obvious targets. Terrorists don’t bomb Pedro’s. They sleep there.”
“And this is supposed to make me feel better because?” Mel, already green about the gills, looks even more ill as this news is passed along.
Jamilla laughs. “Relax. My second cousin is the owner.”
I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse.
Jam must see my expression. She chuckles. “There’s hot water every afternoon from 2 to 4.”
“And how many people are we competing with for the shower?” I inquire, trying to be polite.
“Oh, it’s small, only sleeps ten people. And most of them don’t shower every day.”
Great. I wonder how many bedrooms. I don’t ask. I really don’t want any more information at this point.
“Don’t worry, old man,” AD chuckles at me. “Snoring is permitted and practiced openly.”
It’s a good thing he’s my friend, or I’d kill him.
We reach landfall by early evening. Belize City is a place of terrible poverty, and Pedro’s Pensione doesn’t look the least bit out of place. We’re greeted warmly by Pedro. I almost wish he was less friendly--he’s obviously one that thinks showers should be an occasional thing.
“I saved you the best room!” Pedro announces, and I notice he’s missing a few teeth. I’m not about to ask how he lost them. I’m certainly not going to ask what he did earlier in his life, but I’m fairly certain he was not running an inn.
Mel and I are taken to a room about the size of the walk-in closet Byers had fashioned for himself at the old HQ. It features one set of bunk beds. The sheets look as if they’ve been washed less frequently than the proprietor. I guess considering what has been described as his clientele, cleanliness is not high on the list of priorities.
“The honeymoon suite,” I whisper to Mel.
“I’m on dry land. Right now, that’s my main concern.”
I chuckle to myself, thinking what Byers’ reaction would have been to this room. I think he’d have gotten new sheets and scrubbed the metal bed before he ever touched it. I’m guessing that the bedrooms at Palacio de Muladharma are a significant improvement over this. I’ll be immensely relieved to be there.
In the meantime, we have a long journey still, and while clean linen would be nice, the real issue is to get there--alive and in one piece.
Jam and AD spend the night--Pedro offers them his room. I’m grateful he didn’t offer it to us. I saw it.
What the place lacks in ambience and sanitation, it makes up for in its good-natured proprietor, who also happens to be a terrific cook. I made a point of not looking in the kitchen--the smell emanating from it during preparation was too delicious to be spoiled by what might be conditions that made the HQ, at least prior to regular female guests, look downright pristine. We eat well and lose badly at cards. I thought AD was crooked. He could take lessons from Pedro.
We didn’t talk much to the other guests, but from what Spanish I recall, I got the impression that most of them didn’t have day jobs in accounting firms. They were friendly to us. And they should have been--they killed us at poker, right along with Pedro.
Next stop is Caracas. We fly there. Mercifully, it’s a commercial jet. Only a 737, but it’s kinder to Mel than any of the puddle-jumpers would be. I worry about making the connections in South America, but as it turns out, nobody pays a great deal of attention to our fakes, and the biggest ordeal is making our way through the crowds and chaos that I think only a South American could understand. The Caracas airport looks as if it could use a facelift. I never smelled so much cigarette smoke in my life--made me want to buy a pack and start up again myself. On the other hand, Mel has a way of making herself clear on said subject. I’m not going to push the envelope farther than I already have--and in my opinion, any other human would have ditched me long ago. I’d have deserved it, too.
I almost wish we could have spent time in Buenos Aires. It looks lovely from the air. I thought about how nice a trip to Rio with Mel would be.
Someday. Assuming I ever want to travel again, which, after being crammed in with the rest of the cattle, is starting to look more doubtful. If I ever get on a plane again--and it’s unlikely to be by choice--I hope to have sufficient funds to fly first class.
Buenos Aires is a modern airport, but like Caracas, it’s crowded, smoky, and noisy. Sort of like Las Vegas on steroids. Bored looking guards stamp us through. Rapid fire Spanish flies all around us, mixed with a huge polyglot of other languages. It is, after all, an international destination.
I find myself utterly paranoid in the Buenos Aires airport. After the encounter with Runtz, I keep looking for what might be his lackeys everywhere. No one seems to have taken the least bit of interest in us, which provides a small measure of comfort, but not enough that I can relax. Not to mention that I haven’t recovered from the 3-day long hangover I acquired at Pedro’s. Funny, the accommodations didn’t look as bad when I was drunk. So I stayed that way.
I’m ready to be drunk again. Didn’t have time to drink in Caracas, but we have 12 hours till we leave for Brunei. I guess it’s not a popular resort destination. I don’t like being here in the airport, out in the open. I thought we were safe in a George Town restaurant for one evening. Whatever I did in a past life must have been very, very bad, because I’m really feeling like I’m paying for it these days.
Airline food isn’t my first choice in cuisine, and it’s a long wait. Mel and I find a restaurant. As is always the case with airport food, you get a lot less than what you pay for, especially here in the land of runaway inflation. I’m trying to enjoy my meal, but instead, I’m preoccupied with staring at everyone around me, trying to see if I recognize anyone from our previous flights. I haven’t thus far. That doesn’t mean they’re not there.
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” Mel says sleepily, still hung over from the drugs she takes to fly. It’s only Unisom but it clobbers her as if she were slammed over the head with a 2 x 4. I think this is a good time for her to pass on the booze. Much as I’d love some right now, I settle for something nonalcoholic. I think she’s trying to joke with me, but I know she’s unnerved as well. Not to mention that she hates flying even more than I do, and that’s saying a lot.
Gates aren’t posted for flights till at least two hours before takeoff—or so the airport claims. What I’ve seen of South American punctuality so far is not inspiring. 12 hours could very well stretch into 15—or worse. I’ve never crossed my fingers so hard for an on time arrival and departure as I am now.
We find two chairs together. They’re even less comfortable than what we’re accustomed to in domestic airports. Between these and the seats in coach, my back may never recover. Mel leans against my shoulder and falls asleep. I’d love to join her in her consumption of Unisom, but I don’t think that’s a good plan right now.
So I wait. Wide awake in South America. And not enjoying it in the least.
About an hour before we’re scheduled to take off, we finally get a gate assignment. Mel is marginally awake. I advise her that more Unisom should be in order soon.
“I wish I was flying home to my kids,” she says, yawning.
“With any luck, that’ll happen soon.”
All we have to do is survive two more flights and two foreign ports, not get caught carrying false documents, and not have anyone pick us out that we aren’t willing to keep company with. Very simple.
We’re in the back of the plane. I’ve studied all the faces in the waiting area. The flight is surprsingly full, but then again, when you only offer service twice a week, you take what’s there. I’m hideously tired. I dare not fall asleep. I’m not sure I could even if it were advisable.
The flight to Brunei is horrifically long. I fortify myself with lots of coffee—very good on these flights, by the way—which is doing nothing to lower my anxiety levels. I finally order a shot of Scotch to ease the tension eating away at my stomach. I’m not worried that it’ll knock me out. I think I’m long past that. Every now and then I get up and walk the aisles, partially to keep my feet from swelling hideously and partly to keep an eye out for suspicious characters. No one has seemed interested in us. That doesn’t mean we’re safe.
I’m incredibly angry. I have been the entire time. For once, I broke no laws, and yet this is the one time I’m having to act as a fugitive. It’s been very exhausting. AD may have adapted to the life. I never will. It’s one thing to invade computers that are just begging to be gotten into, and quite another to have death warrants on your head. The irony is that the death warrants are groundless. It’s pissing me off no end. Just as I’ve never completely stopped being pissed about ‘Nam, I think this one is going to stick with me for a long time.
Getting home, however, would make it less acute.
And we’re a long way from there.
I’m nearly mad when we reach the airport at Brunei. You’d think the richest nation on Earth could provide halfway decent air travel accommodations, but it’s more like a large tiki hut—and the chaos and confusion make the airports in South America appear tame. I’m utterly paranoid by now—everyone looks like the enemy. Mel is snappish, groggy and nearly in tears by the time we board the flight for Colombo, which was delayed three hours. I continue to consume coffee in prodigious quantities. Whatever remained of my stomach lining is now history. Acid and adrenaline are making an unpleasant mess of my guts. My disposition would be horrible without this effect; the enhancement is making misery look easy.
I’m never leaving home again, and goddammit, after all this, I’m getting home if it’s the last thing I do. I’m getting all of us home. Enough of this continental shit. I’ve had it…
By the time we’re off the plane in Colombo, our last nerves were worked to death long ago. There’s a guy approaching us. Fine, kill us. I don’t care anymore…
“Mr. Frohike? Ms. Scarlett?”
Holy crap. Muladharma. That cultured voice that sounds like it’s been comfortably ensconced on solid ground, complete with air conditioning. I’m so dazed I don’t even recognize him at first.
“This way.” He shuttles out quickly. Fortunately, our luggage is carry on only.
We’re led to a stretch Continental. I’m ready to drop. Mel is past that point. She’s tearing up. Probably for a million different reasons. I’m beyond emotion. All I want is to be off planes, not watching for anyone…
“Frohike?” A familiar voice breaks my unhappy trance.
“Byers?” Unless I’m having delusions, there’s a guy who looks an awful lot like Byers would look in casual clothes and sans beard.
One thing you need to understand. We. Don’t. Hug.
I just broke that rule now. I barely notice as the Continental pulls from the curb, as Byers, Sari, Mel and are all tangled in back. Someone’s sobbing.
Only later I notice it’s me.
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