TO: KING COLE/CIA HQ
FR: AGENT ANACONDA
LOC: CUIDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO
RE: OCHO SMUGGLING RING
DRUG LORD CARLOS OCHO HAS DISPATCHED TOP ASSASSINS TO U.S.
RE: RETALIATION AGAINST AGENTS FAGIN AND DODGER FOR DESTROYING OCHO/PHARAOH DRUG SMUGGLING RING; DETAILS OF OP UNKNOWN.
IMMEDIATE ACTION REQ’D TO ENSURE THEIR SAFETY.
Pablo sat us down on a log in the middle of camp. He jabbed a finger at us.
“No more trouble, or I shoot you both,” he warned. A henchman held an uzi machine gun to our backs.
Pablo reached into his satchel and pulled out a walkie-talkie. He held it to his lips and spoke, turning from us as he did. He announced in Spanish, “Conquistador, this is Fisherman. We have Agent Fagin and his boy. Proceed inbound for extraction. These GPS coordinates.”
Luis barked to the others, “You two, come up the hill with me. We must clear a landing site.” Everyone left but Pablo and the guard at our back.
I looked questioningly at Bob. With his eyes he motioned to his lap, directing my attention to his bound hands. One covered the other so that only I could see his fingers. Slowly, silently, he “spoke” in deaf sign language, forming letters with his fingers. I had learned some basic sign during CIA communications training, so I easily read his message: “Pharaoh’s Mexican contacts,” he spelled.
I tensed at the mention of Pharaoh. “Smugglers?” I asked with my hands. He nodded.
“What do they want?” I signed back.
“Revenge.” A chill zapped down my spine.
Pablo turned and faced us.
“We have plane coming.” I raised my brows. I knew he meant “helicopter,” but I didn’t bother correcting him. He who holds the gun is always right.
Playing with his huge knife, Pablo slowly circled us. Each time he went behind, it was all I could do to keep breathing. At any moment, I expected the blade to be thrust through my back.
Finally, Pablo crouched down before Bob. Slowly, menacingly, he played the buck knife across Bob’s cheeks, as if giving him a shave.
“So tell me, Agent Fagin,” he began, using Bob’s top secret CIA code name. “Who is this great Agent Dodger?”
I bit my tongue, trying my best not to react. Bob stiffened, and tightened his lips.
“Tell me now, and we save much time. You die fast, no pain. I might even let de little boy go free. Minus a finger for a souvenir, hehehe.” He slid the knife up and down Bob’s throat. Bob flinched as the knife bit into his skin, drawing a trickle of blood. “I know he must be biiig boss man to bring down the great spy Pharaoh. So big, there is no CIA record. He not even exist. So I know. He big, big boss man. So I ask: who is the great Artful Dodger? And what does he know about the Ocho organization, hmm?” Bob stared straight ahead in defiance.
I wondered what Pablo would do if Bob told him the truth, that “the great Artful Dodger” was sitting right next to him. A scrawny little orphan kid with hardly two cents to his name. Probably laugh his head off, then slit our throats.
“Nothing to say?” Pablo asked. “Gato got your tongue?” He scooted over to squat before me. “Maybe I give de little boy a deep shave and we find out muuuch quicker, hmm?”
“Pablo!” Luis shouted.
Letting out an annoyed sigh, Pablo closed his eyes. “Qué?” he answered without turning.
“Papa will take care of the interrogation,” Luis demanded in a sharp, angry voice.
“You’re the boss,” Pablo said, motioning for Bob and me to stand. We obediently followed him up the hill. The guard remained at our backs, machine gun ready.
The other guards scattered about, frantically tossing debris from a clearing between the tall pines. Luis directed the work at the makeshift landing pad. As we passed by, Luis took over for the guard. He shoved me forward. I stumbled, but recovered.
“Halt,” he commanded.
We stopped. And waited. The workers finished their chore, and all was silent except for the rustle of pine and the crow of black ravens. After a few minutes, a new sound floated in on the breeze. I looked west through the pine tops and down the canyon, and could just make out a speck in the sky. The whop-whop grew louder and echoed through the canyon. Sunlight flashed off the rotors as the speck formed into the shape of a helicopter. I wished for a U.S. Forest Service chopper or, better yet, a CIA bird. But that was hopeless. Nobody but these guys knew our whereabouts. And how they found us, I hadn’t a clue.
Pablo yelled instructions into his radio as the bird approached. I shut my eyes against the blast of dust as the chopper circled overhead, sizing up the landing area. He finally decided to come up the river and through a cut in the trees next to camp. The craft settled onto the bed of soft earth, green ferns and dry pine needles in front of us. Luis shoved me again, and the force knocked me to the ground. I glared back at him.
Bob quickly pulled me to my feet. His gaze caught mine. “Ato de,” he said, speaking Japanese so only I could understand: “Later.”
“Silencio!” Luis shouted above the din of churning rotor blades. “No talking. Get in.” Luis prodded us onto the six seat chopper, boarding behind us. I sat in the far corner from the door, facing rearward, with Bob next to me. Pablo took an empty seat opposite us. Luis slammed the door shut and threw himself in the seat opposite me. Enraged, his eyes burned into mine. I lowered my head, and sobered up to the desperate situation Bob and I were in.
Revenge, I thought to myself. They—he—wants revenge.
A guard squeezed in and sat by the door, next to Bob. By the guy’s wide eyes and tense muscles, I could tell he’d never been in a helicopter before. Neither had I, but I’d flown a lot. The guard leveled a shaky pistol at us and clutched the arm rest with his other hand.
The whine of the turbine engines increased and the rotor blades began to whirl at blinding speed. My guts sank as the helicopter lifted.
The guard stiffened and whimpered, clutching tighter at the arm rest. He stared longingly out the window in the door. I traded glances with Bob; he’d noticed the guard’s distraction too.
If there was just some way to break free, and hide from the goons on the ground . . . .
Any escape had to come now. Right now.
The pilot gingerly floated the craft between the trees and out over the rushing river. We inched along downstream toward the pool next to camp. Only ten feet above the water, I figured. If we could just jump out and hide somewhere. I had an idea.
I coughed loudly to get Bob’s attention, then nodded to my lap. My hands were still bound at the wrists, so I covered one hand with the other and slowly signed the word, “R-I-V-E-R.” I ended by pointing a thumb out the window. Instantly my adopted father/CIA trainer caught my meaning. He signaled back a countdown by slowly retracting each finger on one hand: 5-4-3-2-1.
Bob exploded into action. He elbowed the guard in the chin then launched his entire body at Luis and Pablo. I lunged for the door and popped it open. The guard screamed and recoiled from the door, powerless to stop me in his panic. I fell halfway out, but someone caught my legs. I twisted around to see Luis snarling back, his hands an iron grip on my legs.
I hung out of the chopper at the knees, my back to the earth like an astronaut in a space capsule. I writhed at Luis’ hold, but couldn’t break free.
“Help me Georgio!” Luis shouted to the terrified guard. The man hesitated, then aimed an unsteady pistol at me. Luis turned back and yelled, “Reed, get in here or Georgio shoots you.”
The helicopter lurched as Bob knocked Pablo into the pilot. Georgio dropped his gun and , screaming, grabbed for the arm rest. The pistol clattered out of the cabin. I grabbed wildly for it but missed. The weapon sailed out and splashed into the waters far below.
The pilot fought to regain control as the two foes battled in his cockpit. The chopper rocked and spun over the water, hovering dangerously close to the trees. The pilot edged the ship toward an opening to lift out of the foliage. The chance to escape was quickly fading.
We cleared the trees and the pilot gunned the throttle. We shot skyward. The g-force snapped me down against the hull, and the back of my head bashed the landing skid. For a dazed moment I stared, upside down, at the river dropping away. I blinked and shook off the vertigo, then turned back to Luis. He struggled to pull me in, but the extra weight of the g-force was too much for him.
He shouted, “Georgio, you estupido, snap out of it and help me or I’ll shoot you myself! Grab his other leg,” he commanded. The guard reluctantly knelt on the floor and grabbed my ankle. The two dragged me in.
The helicopter rocked suddenly as Bob and Pablo fell struggling into the cockpit. The ship dropped, and for a moment I felt weightless. I used the motion to reach up and grab Georgio’s collar.
The pilot recovered and gunned it again, and earth dropped away.
“Adios, Georgio!” I yelled, then yanked hard at his collar. I kicked up into his stomach and flipped him over my head and out of the chopper.
“Ahh!” he screamed as he dropped away. That left one leg free.
“Sayonara, estupido!” I shouted at Luis. Then stomped on his hawk nose with my heel.
“Aghh!” he cried, falling back into the cabin and letting go of my leg. I realized, too late, that I was still more out of the helicopter than in.
I fell. And fell.
I don’t think I ever want to try skydiving.
Without a parachute, that is.
It seemed like I plummeted forever, like in a dream. Adrenaline rushed through me like the river rapids. Time slowed, as it had the moment I took aim with my pistol at the Pharaoh. The chopper’s rotor blades seemed to turn in slow motion. I flapped my arms like the blades, trying desperately to spin around and at least hit whatever was below feet first. One, two, three, four . . . twelve rotations of the rotor blades.