The Third Good Thing
The long ride to Santiago started out very upbeat. Despite the fact that Dana had torn up a new pair of skis, the ones he got as replacements had thrilled him beyond his ability to stop talking about them. We were all upbeat about the day, but as darkness descended on the roads the weariness of an active day in the cold descended on us, and it wasn’t long before we were sleeping.
I woke up briefly when Lucero stopped for gas in Los Andes and fell asleep again as soon as we were on our way, and slept until we slowed on the outskirts of Santiago where the streetlights and sounds of traffic brought us all into consciousness. We soon stopped at Xscape, and I had to remember why.
It was Dana’s skis, of course, and people seemed to be waiting for us when we approached, more like anticipating us. Oscar and Matias came outside as soon as we approached the door, welcoming us like we were some royals or something. When we were inside, Dana held out his rental skis and said, “I caught a rock. If it can’t be fixed …”
Matias looked at the damaged ski and said, “It’s nothing, just a scratch. Don’t worry about it. You’ll need a replacement pair, yes?”
Dana nodded and asked, “Do you have Atomic Super G’s?”
Matias held his hand up and gestured randomly, “Roberto? Can you come over here for a moment?” He smiled at Dana and said, “I hope you don’t mind if we get a few photos of you in our shop.” He pointed to a wall with a dozen photos on it and said, “We would love to feature you in our gallery of young champions.”
Dana seemed pleased, and Roberto hurried over. “Sorry boss. I was in the middle of a good sale.”
Matias shrugged, “Dana needs new skis. He will tell you what he wants and you can fix him up.”
Roberto nodded and gestured for Dana to follow him. A guy with a professional-looking camera came out of nowhere and started taking pictures. The photographer didn’t quit, and the flashes from his strobe got old in a minute. Then I snickered and elbowed Tom, “Dana’s first paparazzo.”
Tom grinned and said, “We should do that the rest of the trip. We can get pictures of him skiing!” Tom’s look turned evil, “Hell, we can get him eating breakfast, hanging around in his underwear, looking confused the way he does sometimes.”
I looked at Tom and threatened, “Don’t you dare.”
“It’s horrible, Tom. Nobody can doubt that Dana will be a name in the skiing world. He’ll have enough people pawing him, taking pictures, asking for autographs, wanting to know his personal business. He’ll need a home more than most people do, a place where he’s just Dana and skiing is the work he does. That home will go straight to hell if you start selling pictures of him in the bathroom to People Magazine or whatever.”
Tom looked down in apology and mumbled, “Bad idea.”
I put my hand on Tom’s shoulder and said, “On the other hand, if he starts to get snippy it might be a good idea to have a little catalog of pictures available to … I don’t know, just to have.”
Tom eyed me, “You mean for blackmail?”
I said, “Get serious. Dana’s my brother, and I’d like a photographic history of our times together, embarrassing moments and all.”
Tom asked again, “You mean for blackmail?”
“I didn’t say that! Get it out of your head. What would I blackmail Dana for? Money? I don’t think so. I have a jillion pictures of me growing up and Dana has none, or just school ones. Now he’s sixteen and we can give him a lot of pictures to remember his life right now, but don’t talk about selling them.”
Tom sounded remorseful when he said, “I didn’t mean it that way. Well … I guess I did. Don’t worry about me. I kinda think Dana’s my brother too, in my own weird, twisted way.”
“I think we’re like brothers, you and me. Not when you’re eating raw onions, but most of the time. If Dana is your brother, it makes him mine, too.”
I smiled, “More full-time than me because he doesn’t like raw onion?”
Tommy snickered and said, “Yeah, there’s that. Sometimes I just have to leave.”
I looked around and Tom and I were standing alone. We were still in the store with customers milling around looking at things, salespeople helping some of them, but Hector, Lucero and Daniel had gone somewhere else without us.
I started to wander around the store myself, and Tom came with me. We were both skiers and this was a high-end ski shop. Much was the same as any American shop would have, but there were a few local quirks. I had noticed some people wearing odd caps on the mountain, and there was a rack of them at the end of an aisle. The sign read ‘Native Ski Hats’ and they were curious looking things. They were made of heavy, rough-woven wool and looked a little like old pilot helmets except they had tassels that hung down over your sideburns. I picked one up, and it was heavy, probably a pound of wool. I said, “This ought to keep your head warm,” as I pulled it on.
I looked at Tom and asked, “How does it look?”
Tom stood back with his hand on his chin and said, “How do I describe this? Um, it looks like you were flying over a manure plantation, managed to fall straight out of your plane and land head first in radioactive horsie crap, and it made your antennas melt.”
I heard him, but the hat covered my ears, so I pulled it out on the right side and asked, “Huh?”
Tommy just laughed, and I said, “Try one on. I wanna see!”
Tom did, and pulled it way down on his head while we both laughed. I finally managed, “I want one!” as I pulled mine off my head. Tommy looked and really burst out laughing.
He pointed at me, lost in mirth, and finally managed, “Static …” and lost it again.
I reached up to feel my hair and came in contact with it long before I should have. There had to be a mirror somewhere, but Tom had his phone out and took my picture, and I broke down laughing when he turned it to me. My head looked like it had exploded. I don’t think there were any two hairs pointed in the exact same direction, but every hair on my head appeared to be looking desperately for a new residence.
When I got over laughing I said, “Tommy, follow me around and take lots of pictures. I’m going shopping.”
For the next several minutes I wandered through the store looking at clothes. I tried a jacket on, held a sweater up, inspected poles and boots, took critical looks at new skis, and all the while Tom was in hysterics. He had to sit once, his head hidden in a rack of parkas while he laughed it out.
I pretended not to notice, and when he emerged I said, “Make sure to save these pictures tonight. I want to use them for show and tell when school starts.”
Right then I heard Hector call, “Paul? Where are you?”
We were in the ski stacks, so I held my hand up and yelled, “Over here in the skis, Hec.”
He came around the corner and stopped in his tracks when he saw me. He hurried over and spun me around with his hands. “What happened? Did you get a shock somewhere?”
Before I could say anything Tommy emerged from the parkas and smiled meekly. Hector’s eyes went wide and he asked, “What’s that on your head?”
Tom took a picture of Hector before he said, “It’s a hat,” and snatched the one from my hand.
He started to pull it onto Hector’s head while Hector said, “Don’t …” but it was too late. The deed was done, and when Tom pulled off his own hat to take a bow I choked laughing. Tom’s head looked just like mine, only his hair is red and ten times more noticeable.
I pulled my phone out and got a picture before Tom knew I was doing it, and it came out pretty well. I knew when Tom was taking pictures; I’d asked him to do it, but the look on Tom’s face in my picture went right with the straight out hair. The light made him look very white-skinned. He looked like he was in the process of stepping into an electrified puddle.
I decided right there that I’d buy those hats for everyone as souvenirs from Chile. They’d be practical souvenirs: examples of a native culture and craft, nice head warmers, and you could use them to straighten your hair really damn fast.
When Hector pulled the hat off his head, Tom and I were both ready with our cameras. Even Hector’s close-cut hair stood out like a swami’s nail blanket, and it was comical. I showed him the picture I took, and Tom got a shot of me showing Hector what his head looked like. I thought Hector might demand that Tommy erase the thing, but he laughed with glee, “Wait till my mother sees this!”
I asked, “What happened to Lucero and Daniel?”
Hector said, “Oh jeez. They’re waiting for us in the back. I apologize, amigo. I thought you were right behind us and made some calls before I saw that you weren’t there.” He grinned, “I think that these late nights and days trying to keep up with you on the mountains have put me in the mindset that you’re just there automatically. I must have substituted Lucero’s boy for you for a few minutes.”
I shrugged, “Where are they? Is Dana with them?”
Hector grinned, “Dana is in ski boy heaven. He’s talking with the racing specialist, Roberto, learning about specialized and custom racing skis. Until he gets hungry, we don’t exist.”
I laughed, “That won’t be long.” I held my wool hat out and asked, “Should I buy these here?”
Hector said, “If you like them. Why not ask Lucero, or wait to ask Ovidio at dinner?”
I knew someone was missing and asked, “Where is Ovidio?”
“He’s probably at our hotel now. When we went skiing he came to Santiago to make reports to the company here and to the United States.” Hector fixed a stare on me and said, “I hope you appreciate how hard he has worked the last several days to keep you out of trouble. He’s really tireless, and very resourceful. He put a couple of researchers together with an enforcer, and they undid Detective Silva in just two days.” He snorted, “Let the local cops try that, huh?”
I think I was wide-eyed. “Wow! Yeah. I was surprised when Lucero showed up and told me, but I had no idea …”
Hector said, “Ovidio, young as he is, is a real pro.”
I thought about that for a moment, and about all the other people from the security company who were looking after us, or had at one time or another. I had to ask Hector, “You’re all pros, aren’t you?”
Hector said, “We’re supposed to be. I failed you that night, though, in that little restaurant’s bathroom. Do you know why?”
I didn’t have to think long. I smiled at Hector, “That first day in Florida …”
He grinned, “Right. I promised not to interfere in your personal life, and …”
I laughed, “Not to follow me into the bathroom! I remember that.”
Hector said, “I didn’t follow you in, but I followed you to the door. The fat guy going in looked like anyone else, and I didn’t think anything until you yelled.”
I looked at Hector and asked, “You’re not worried about something, are you? You saved me from Freddie the creep, and that’s what counts. Even Detective Silva said you earned your pay.”
Hector gave me a sad stare and I said, “Don’t worry. Dad already knows.”
Those words brought Hector’s smile back and it worked well with his naily-looking hair.
I’d forgotten about our hair, and we’d already turned the corner to the back of the store where Lucero and Daniel seemed to be joking. That stopped when they noticed us. Lucero stared and Daniel stood up and pointed, laughing. “What happened? Are there aliens in the front?”
Tom handed him a hat and said, “Try this on.”
I could see that Daniel sensed something was up when we took our phones out, even though I tried to be casual about it. He pulled the hat down on his head and looked around for a mirror, but Tom and I already had a few shots, and when he pulled the hat off he was the funniest yet. He had the sides of his head cut really short so all his hair was on top, and it was standing up as straight as a field of sunflowers.
Tom and I chortled while we took pictures, and Daniel stood there looking confused. He seemed to have that expression in common with Dana.
Tom cued up a picture and showed it first to Lucero, who started laughing silently, and then to Daniel. He seemed mortified and moaned, “Oh, no. I look like a broom. Can you please not show that to anyone?”
I asked Lucero if the ski shop was a good place to buy the hats.
“Hand me the one you have,” and I did. He looked it over and examined the tag. He shrugged, “These are authentic, and made of llama wool by protected indigenous people. This is a very high price. You can find these in the markets for about a third of this and perhaps less. If you just want one it’s probably not worth the bother.”
I asked, “Are there better souvenirs of Chile?”
“There are different crafts if you like the primitive arts like these hats. I know there are pottery shops, metal workers, and carvers of both wood and stone. These things are not my specialty, but if you want to spend some time at the craft market my wife has a friend who deals in this kind of art. I’m sure she could be coaxed into showing you around there. It isn’t far from your hotel, and I believe they’re open into the evening even at this time of year.”
I saw Dana coming and said quickly to Lucero, “I’d like that if it’s no trouble.”
Lucero said, “I’ll ask,” as I turned to greet a smiling Dana.
“What happened to your head?” were the first words out of his mouth.
I just gestured to the rest of us and Dana mumbled, “What the ... what happened?” Then he saw Hector and cried, “Jesus! You too?”
I took the hat from Lucero and snuck up on Dana while he gawked at Hector, and pulled it down by the tassels. Dana spun around to me with a shocked expression, and Tommy had his phone out in a flash. He said, “Hey, Dana,” and Dana turned around again, feeling the sides of his head. Tom got a picture there and grinned, “It’s a hat, Dana – a Chilean ski helmet. It’s nice and warm, huh?”
Dana pulled the hat off and I thought I’d bust a gut. I’ve seen Dana with wet hair, with his hair mussy from sleeping, matted from exertion, windblown, just about every state hair could be in, and it always fell back in place with little fuss on Dana’s part. It probably would this time too, but for the moment, from behind, it looked like his head had been replaced with a perfectly round, fuzzy beach ball and I laughed as I got a few pictures of it. Lucero, who was behind me, laughed out loud for the first time on this trip, and Roberto, the ski salesman, went tripping out of the room trying to keep his laughter silent.
Dana was a good sport. When he saw the pictures of himself he laughed as hard as the rest of us, and we were all pretty red in the face once we wired down. Lucero finally said, “If you want to eat tonight, we should probably go soon.”
Dana said to nobody in particular, “Wasn’t that good steakhouse around here?”
Tom said, “Oh yeah. That was good.”
Lucero looked at me and I said, “Fine by me.”
Lucero said, “I’ll call Ovidio. He can get there quickly by cab.” He looked at Dana, “Do you have your skis?”
Dana shook his head and looked back toward the shop and said, “Any minute, I think. They’re brand new, so they had to put bindings on them.”
Hector said, “I’ll go and ask. Sit tight.”
When he stood, the technician came in with the skis. He was smiling until he saw our hair. He stopped dead in his tracks, looked wildly around, and called out, “Roberto?”
Roberto hurried in and spoke to the guy in Spanish, his voice low enough that I couldn’t really hear him. I didn’t want to hear him anyhow, but Roberto turned to Dana and said, “Sebby would like you to put your ski boots back on so he can test the release settings.” He held out Dana’s gear bag, and we were out of there after a few more minutes.
We ate in the Uruguayan steak house again, and the highlight of the meal was Dana’s ‘cowboy steak’. That was a two pound rib steak on the bone with the fattiest parts cut off, and Dana almost finished it.
Ovidio had taken a room for Lucero and Daniel to share. It was in the same hall as we were staying, but not adjacent. I think everyone was as tired as me, and we didn’t labor over our goodbyes. I just pulled my clothes off and went to bed. I could shower in the morning; everything could wait.
It could wait if my phone wasn’t blinking. I thought about ignoring it but it had to be something, so I listened. I had three messages. The first was a Detective Arrisola from the police department asking that I call him to arrange a time we could meet and I could make a statement, and the second call was from Arrisola again saying he had learned that I was out of town, and would I please call him when I got back.
The third was a voice I never thought I’d hear again. “You never told me if you like having your picture taken, young friend. Even if you don’t, I know I would like it. I think it would be lovely to have pictures of you on your knees with …”
I slammed the phone down and ran through Tom and Dana’s rooms to Hector’s and banged on his door. When he opened it I fell right into him, sensing Tom and Dana right behind me. I’d never been so shaken or scared in my life; it was worse than when Dad was kidnaped.
Hector pulled me into the room and sat me on the side of his bed while he knelt before me. His voice was shaky, “What is it, Paul? What happened?”
I managed to gulp out, “Ramirez.” I started crying and croaked, “He called.”
Hector asked, “Just now?” and said to Tom and Dana, “Get Ovidio right now. Tell him to bring Lucero.”
They left in a hurry and Hector tried to calm me down. “Take it easy, amigo. What did he say?”
I shook my head, “I didn’t listen to it all. It was a message. I don’t know when it came; I didn’t listen.”
Jesus, I was shaking and couldn’t stop crying. I was scared beyond belief, and felt sickened over my own fear. I held onto Hector for dear life, and it was just moments when everyone came rushing into the room.
Hector barked out some orders, telling Ovidio to listen to the entire message on my phone and to note when it came in, and Lucero to guard the hall while he figured out what to do. Tom, Dana and Daniel sat on the bed with me while Hector got up and closed the drapes.
I latched onto Tom and cried, gasping and trying to stop. He patted my back while rubbing a shoulder with his other hand. Daniel asked, “What is it? My father told me what happened last week. Is it that man?”
Dana said quietly, in the voice of a boy who’d had more than one encounter with the police, “It’s him.”
Hector said, “Stay here. Don’t answer the phone unless it’s your cell. I’ll be right back.”
He went into Dana’s room and the lights went out immediately. A moment later Tom’s room went dark, and we were alone on Hector’s bed. I had stopped crying without thinking about it, and wiped my eyes on my sleeve. I mumbled, “I’m sorry. I’m a mess right now.”
Tom started to say something and Hector yelled, “Get on the floor! Right now – dive!”
We dropped to the floor in a heap about a second before a bullet smashed through the window, followed by a volley of them. It didn’t sound like a machine gun, but like more than one gun firing rapidly. Hector yelled, “Two of you, crawl on your bellies to the doorway between Tom and Dana’s rooms. Go now, and stay there!”
Tom said, “Dana and Daniel go! We’ll be okay here.” They didn’t move and Tom said, “Go now, not tomorrow! Go!”
They took of crawling and I looked at Tom. “I don’t get it.”
Tom said, “Hector’s smart. Wait till he tells us to move and I’ll …”
Hector said in a quieter voice, “Paul and Tom, get in the doorway to Dana’s room the same way. Keep your heads down when you get there. Go!”
We went, and when we stopped I could see just enough to know why we were in that position. Our torsos and heads were at the far end of Dana’s king-size bed, and our legs were protected by the desk in Hector’s room, and the dresser beside it. Hector was doing what he was paid for, and protecting us the best he could at the moment.
There were sirens outside now, lots of them, but we stayed put until even they went silent, but red and blue flashes were all over the room. Hector finally said, “They’re gone. Come on over to Paul’s room.”
The only light in the room came from a little lamp on the desk and the curtains were drawn tight. Hector said, “Sit anywhere.” Tom and Dana sat on the bed while Daniel took the desk chair. I sat on the floor. Hector held up a sheet of paper that read, I have to lie here, so complain where you will.
He said, “Your ski vacation is over,” and I began to complain while Tom and Dana groaned. Hector said, “I’m sorry. This Ramirez is too smart and dangerous, so we have to leave. If you want, we can go to Australia or New Zealand to get in a few more days skiing, but we can’t stay here. Understood?”
Hector appeared to be looking for an argument, so Tom gave him one. “Why can’t you just put a hit on Ramirez?”
Hector grinned and said, “Oh, that’s done, trust me. Paul’s father has resources on every continent, in every country. Ramirez is already dead no matter where he tries to hide, but unfortunately not soon enough to allow you to finish your vacation. Just get used to it and decide what four more days are worth.”
Tom asked, “Can’t we just go to Argentina? That’s a lot closer than Australia. A lot closer.”
Hector gave Tom a thumb up and said sadly, “Unfortunately Argentina is a lot closer to Senor Ramirez, so I have to say no.”
I said, “Come on, Hector. At least think about it. You said my father has a long reach, but how much reach can that fat pedo have?”
Hector said, “I don’t know, but those who deal in child pornography usually have a wide network of their own. Get dressed and we’ll drive out to the safe house and arrange for a plane. Bring a change of clothes but leave the rest of your things here. Let me think for a moment.”
He used that moment to write, Pack everything and bring it with you.
“I guess that’s it for now. Don’t forget your toiletries. I’ll be in my own room.”
I asked, “What if someone comes?”
Hector said, “Don’t let anyone in and don’t stand in front of your door. Don’t answer your phones, either. Now get busy.”
I had the most to do because I was wearing just underwear and socks. I got dressed quickly, wondering what in the Hell we were doing. It was clear that Hector thought there might be some kind of listening device in the room and thought it best to play dumb about it. That also explained the bogus instructions he gave us, because if there was a device and someone was using it they’d have a logical place at the airport to try and get at us. But, if there was a safe house awaiting us it wasn’t anything I knew about
I took a laundry bag and stuffed my dirty clothes in it, and put the clean things into my suitcase first. I took a good look around and went into the bathroom to get everything from there, and I washed my face and brushed my teeth before I went back in the room. My gear bag was still in the car so I looked around one last time and walked through Tom’s room. He’d already left and was in Dana’s room with Daniel and Dana. I asked, “Are we waiting for something?”
Tom said, “Yeah. Hector told us to sit tight.”
I nodded and decided to stand tight, thinking a whole lot of sitting would take place in my immediate future. We waited a while, too. It was fifteen or twenty minutes before Hector opened the door to his room and joined us. He said, almost in a whisper, “Take your bags to Paul’s room.” He already had his in hand, and put it beside mine when we got there. He said, “Leave your bags here. We’ll send a courier to pick them up. We’re going to have to leave in the vehicle we came in because there was nothing else available on so little notice, but we will have an armed escort.”
Hector took a breath, “Let me tell you this. The safe house is little known in the company, and our driver will only have an address and instructions on how to enter the grounds. After he leaves us he’ll go home and will return our rental equipment in the morning. I will warn you now that the so-called safe house is little more than a bunker stocked with food and water, a dormitory and toilet facilities. It is in the direction of the airport, so when we have a plane we can be there in no time. Is everyone ready?” Hector paused while we all nodded and then continued, “We are all checked out of the hotel, and I have everyone’s documents.”
We all mumbled our assent and Hector said, “Let’s go, then,” and picked up his bag, indicating that we should follow his lead.
I said, “I still have my room key.”
“Leave it here. Let’s go.”
I asked, “Don’t we have to talk to the police or something?”
Hector shook his head and said, “No. What could you tell them that they can’t figure out? Let’s move it.”
Lucero was in the hall and he gave Daniel a comforting smile and a nod. He followed us to the elevators, which all had the ‘out of service’ indicators lit. Suddenly the one on the left opened and the arrow above it pointed up. We got in there and Hector pushed the button for the fourteenth floor. I was beyond confusion by then, and didn’t question him. We all followed him out and down the hall a few doors where Ovidio watched us approach, and opened the door to a guest room.
I was stunned when we walked in, because four oddly-dressed beautiful women were in there with Marco. I say they were oddly dressed because from the waist up they seemed to be wearing evening gowns, yet below their waists they wore jeans and sneakers. Hector said, “Quickly now, give these ladies your parkas and pull on a pair of overalls that are on the sofa. Hurry.”
I pulled my parka off and handed it to the nearest lady, then turned to the sofa and picked up overalls, the full-body ones, with a single zipper to close up the whole thing. They weren’t new, and mine wasn’t even very clean. It smelled of oil or something, but it fit pretty well. There were hats there, too … ugly caps with little brims that matched the overalls. When I saw Dana in his, I realized we were being made to look like a maintenance crew or something. I smiled, wondering how far this would go. The women had left with a smiling Marco.
I asked Hector, “Who were those ladies?”
Hector snapped, “Later, okay?” He looked around and saw that we were all ready and said, “Listen carefully. Two doors down on the right there is a maintenance room. One of you has the key on a belt loop. Dana, it’s on you.” Hector went to Dana and stretched the key out. “It’s on a lanyard. When you go to use it in the lock have the flat side on the bottom and insert it. Give it a half turn to the left and push the door open. To the left, got that?”
Dana nodded and Hector went on. “Inside you’ll see a giant laundry basket. It will be folded, so just look for an aluminum frame with a lot of tan-colored canvas and four wheels. Pull it into the hall and open it up. There is a release on one side of the legs, a red bar that will be pointed up. You’ll see how it’s latched on. Squeeze the legs together and pull that lever to the horizontal and you’ll be able to open the basket to its full potential. Take it to the end of the hall where there is a laundry room. You’ll find our luggage there. Put it in the basket and throw as many towels as you can over it. Is everyone following me?”
I said, “Dana opens the door, we pull the basket out, we open the basket, we go to the laundry room, put our bags in the basket and cover them with towels.”
“Very good.” Hector looked at Daniel and said, “Don’t yell or anything, but pretend you’re their leader and complain in Spanish that they could be working a little harder. Can you do that?”
Hector managed to put a smile on one face; I think the idea of being in charge appealed to Daniel. Hector kept talking. “When you have the basket loaded, right across the hall from the laundry room there’s a service elevator. Dana, the same key that opens the maintenance room will allow you to call the elevator. The key slot is on the control panel where the call buttons are. Put the key in the same way, but turn it a half-turn to the right and leave it there while you summon the elevator. Do that by pressing the B2 button. It’s the second from the bottom. Leave the key in until the elevator arrives. All of you, when the elevator stops at the bottom there are doors at the front and rear, and none of them will open until you choose frente for front or trasera for rear. The back door opens onto the loading dock, so press tasera and roll that basket right into the truck that will be waiting. One of you pull the door on the truck down and the rear compartment will illuminate. There are two jump seats on each side, and please buckle in. If we have any chasers it might be a hairy ride.”
I smiled as sweetly as I could and said, “Too much information. When do we do this?”
Hector looked at Ovidio and Lucero. If he got a signal I didn’t see it, but he said, “When your cell phone rings. It should be less than ten minutes.”
Lucero gave Daniel a quick hug. The rest of us were left wanting, and my phone rang before the door had clicked shut. I looked and saw it was Lisa. I said, “Lisa, I’m in a heap of shit right now. I’ll call you when I can, okay?”
I said, “Stay by the phone, Tom’s dialing you now,” and hung up.
By then, Tom actually was calling her, and when she answered he gave her a very short version of what was happening and why I needed to have control of my phone right then, so of course it rang.
“Dad, I’ll call you back. I’m in a bad position right now and need the phone to get out of it.” I hung up on him and just in time. When the phone rang again it was Hector, who said, “Go now!”
I said, “time to go,” and shoved the phone in my pocket. I looked for understanding in everyone’s eyes, and said, “Let’s do it to it.”
Everything went perfectly. It couldn’t have been three minutes before we were waiting for the service elevator. We piled in with our laundry cart when it came, and the ride down seemed interminable. The elevator was huge, the inside all done up in shiny industrial metal, and it was painfully slow. When we finally reached the bottom Daniel opened the correct doors, the truck was there, and we quickly pushed our basket into it. Tom closed the back door causing lights to come on, albeit dimly, and we buckled in.
Lucero asked, “Ready?”
We acknowledged that we were, and when Lucero pulled out, the cart slammed into the back door. Lucero hit the brakes and it raced forward, hitting the barrier between the cab and the box. Several towels were deposited on Ovidio’s head. The cart rolled back slowly and Hector asked, “Did I forget to tell you about the brakes?”
Ovidio tossed some towels back and said, “I believe you did forget.”
Hector said, “Paul, there are two foot pedals, one on each end of the cart. Step on each of them until they lock down and get back in your seat. Let Lucero know when you’re ready.”
I pulled the cart a little bit forward and stepped on that brake, and had to reach awkwardly with my foot for the other one so I wouldn’t have to squeeze around the cart. When I was back buckled in my seat I said, “Hector, I hope the hell you’re blushing right now.”
Lucero and Ovidio wheezed out little laughs, and Hector said, “I am, amigo. I must look like a giant taillight in the front seat.”
I asked, “Where are we going?”
Hector said, “Skiing, of course.”
I know my jaw dropped, and the thud was too loud for just me. “Skiing where?”
“La Parva, and you’ll be just a few minutes from the other places you went to.”
I asked suspiciously, “Do you mean this was all a hoax? Are we going back to the hotel?”
Ovidio said, “Someone in that hotel is connected with Ramirez, and you won’t be safe there. We have located a very private place right on the slopes. We won’t be bothered there.”
Dana asked, “Are we going to rent even more skis?”
Hector said, “Our equipment will be there by morning if it doesn’t beat us there. If anyone followed Marco, he saw four teenage boys get in the car, dressed in your ski clothes. If things went as they should have, he saw four disappointed prostitutes dropped off at a cab stand, and watched Marco drive alone to a nice suburban house.”
My mouth was still open. “How did you think of all this in that time?”
Lucero said cheerily, “I can’t wait to hear that myself.”
Hector said, “It was collective thinking, but mostly Ovidio. He has watched a lot of American television.”
I shook my head and asked, “Are we on the way to La Parva?”
Lucero said, “No, I’m driving around Santiago trying to shake a tail. I don’t want him to know that I’m aware of him, so I just drive like I know where I’m going.”
That startled me. “You don’t?”
“Don’t worry; I know exactly where I am. I’m just waiting for my interference. Ah, there he is now! Hold on … hold on … Yes! Here we go now.”
Lucero veered sharply to the right and down what felt like a steep hill, took a sharp right at the bottom, another after a minute, and finally a left where he slowed down. I heard Ovidio and Hector both chuckle, and wished I’d seen what was going on. I felt a little nauseous from just feeling it, like being in an inside kid’s game room on a rolling sea.
The nausea went away soon enough, and I decided the oily smell of the overalls wasn’t helping. I shrugged out of the top part and undid my seatbelt long enough to get out of it altogether and tossed it into the laundry basket where it belonged. The hat followed when I realized it was still on my head.
I’d been tired and in bed when I listened to the message from Ramirez, and enough adrenaline had shot through me since then that I was really exhausted. The little seat in the back of a laundry truck wasn’t inductive to sleep at all, but I did fall asleep: a deep and dreamless sleep.
+ + + + + + + +
I woke up face down on a bed. My clothes were on and there was a blanket over me, but I never made it between the covers. I didn’t remember anything after removing the smelly coveralls, so I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t really care because I wanted to go back to sleep, but I needed the bathroom in the worst way. When I sat up I could see that I wasn’t in a hotel, nor was I in an average house. Tom was sleeping in another bed across the room from me, but he had gotten in properly, leaving his clothes in a little heap on the floor. I stood up kind of shakily and looked for a bathroom door, but there was only one door that looked like it led anywhere other than a closet. I went through it and I was in a short hallway with large windows on one side and a door at the other end, but there was another door on the right that led me into an elegant bathroom. It was mostly tiled in shades of deep blue and the cabinetry was painted white.
I’d look closer later, but I was in the bathroom for a purpose and it took me quite a while to serve that purpose. I was surprised that I didn’t wet the bed. My phone said it was seven:ten. I felt really cruddy and wanted a shower, but not before my things showed up. Then I wondered what the hell I was thinking. Our bags were in that laundry basket, and if I was there, wherever I was, then my clothes should be too. I opened the door at the end of the hall to find my bag standing neatly beside Tom’s.
I rolled mine down to the room and went back for Tommy’s. I dug out my shaving kit and some clean underwear and went back to the bathroom. This time I had time to look around. I had to anyhow, to find soap and a towel. The room was really nice, with gorgeous woodwork, fancy lighting, a twin sink vanity and a glassed-in shower stall that was larger than average. There were two windows in the shower. They were crinkled glass, so for light only. There were also built-in dispensers for soap, shampoo and conditioner, but I opened my last bar of Irish Spring when I sniffed what came from the dispenser. It was clearly something for the lady of the house.
I hung a towel in a ring outside the shower, emptied my pockets onto the vanity and chucked my dirty clothes onto the floor.
The shower was bliss, and I felt that it must be like having gills and being able to breathe while deep in a pool. Everything except the door and the windows was tiled in that blue, and the blues were a combination of the shades you’d see in a fancy swimming pool. I stayed under the water long after I was clean, but finally gave it up.
When I was done and looking presentable in my clean undies, I picked up my clothes and went back in the room. Tom was still zonked on the bed, so I quietly pulled some clean clothes from my bag and got dressed.
Tom hadn’t budged and I went to explore this place we were in. When I was in the hall just outside the bedroom I could see outside, and in the near distance there was a chair lift that appeared to end right in my field of view. I didn’t know where I was so I couldn’t even guess where that lift would take us, but there was a lot of snow. I went out in the main hall and there was a door identical to ours right across the hall. That hallway was all glass on both sides, and I looked out the side I was on to learn that our room was second from the top out of four identical units stacked on each other, and the view from the middle was looking right at a mountain. There was another stack of rooms on the other end, and when I crossed the hallway to look out there were two more identical wings. Out that side there was a roof below us and what was probably a pretty grand courtyard all buried under snow.
I thought about it, and if each wing had four bedroom suites like ours this would be a sixteen bedroom house, so I immediately decided it was a small hotel. I didn’t see a laundry van anywhere, but our vehicle was parked outside among several others. In the middle of the hall there was a stairway that led diagonally up to the next floor, and another that took the opposite diagonal downward.
It didn’t take much for me to figure that my best odds of finding a coffee, maybe some food, and most importantly an explanation would be much better below, so I headed down the crazy stairs. They zigged and zagged just like the mountain roads we’d spent so much time on, but they were kind of fun as stairs go.
When there were no more stairs I found myself in a huge entryway. The front was curved stone that went up about three feet, and tall windows framed in beautiful wood rose to the ceiling. I looked to the sides and there were wide hallways to the right and left. I had to turn the other way, behind the stairs and opposite the entrance, to decide where the action was. That portal was wide and led into a darkened area, but as I came closer I could hear a radio or television coming from somewhere in that direction. I approached carefully because it was dark, but lights came up to show me the way. The first room was clearly the saloon because the only furniture was sofas, chairs, coffee tables, and end tables. It looked like there were windows, but heavy drapes covered them.
I followed the sound to my left and soon caught the scent of coffee. I hurried past everything, and ended up in a pretty little room, whatever Chileans called a breakfast nook probably. There was a man at a table facing outside, so away from me. I tapped on the wall and said, “Excuse me.”
He turned, looked me up and down, and glared. “Who are you? What are you doing in this house?”
I took a half-step backwards and said, “I was brought here last night … by …”
“Who brought you here? What do you mean by that? You either came with someone or you broke in by yourself.”
I said, “Please, I don’t even know where I am. I fell asleep in a truck and I woke up in a bed here.”
He stared at me and said, “I think you’re on drugs. There’s only one cure for that, you know.”
I just gaped.
He said in a harsh voice. “Only one cure,” and he smiled. “Get yourself some coffee. It’s right over there.” He pointed to the right and there was a fancy machine similar to my mother’s beside a tray of espresso cups.
I looked back at the guy warily and asked, “What are you gonna do?”
He stood and he was a tall man. “Christ Almighty, what are they teaching you rich kids these days. Never mind, I need a refill. Sit down and I’ll bring one to you.”
I moved toward the table in total confusion, and stopped before I got there. “Who are you?”
He said, “Eduardo Velarde is the name. If I decide to like you I’ll let you call me Eddie. Until then you should address me as Señor Velarde. Got that, Paul?”
I was starting to catch on, and Señor Velarde had held the upper hand long enough. I said, “Please address me as Mr. Dunn until you decide to like me.”
He snorted, “Now I forgot which cup I drank out of. I’ll make more.”
I said, “Just give it to me,” sounding desperate even to my own ears.
He walked over with the two cups and put one down opposite from where he’d been sitting. I sat and took a sip. It was awful, but not too hot, so I just drank the cup down. I asked, “Is there any more, Señor Velarde?”
He shook his head, “You’ll have to make some. If you want American coffee that machine will boil water in a hurry, and there’s a jar of Nescafe in the cabinet above.” He smiled, “Call me Eddie. I like that better.”
I went over to the coffee machine and found the right button to press for hot water. When it started filling I asked over my shoulder, “Does that mean you like me now?”
I found the Nescafe and some regular mugs. Eddie said, “Lucero told me I probably would. I just like to be sure.”
The indicator said the water was hot and I asked, “Where does this water come from?”
“Most likely from the Mapocho River.”
I looked skyward and sighed, “I mean how does it get to this machine?”
“I don’t know. It must come out of a pipe.”
I gave up and fixed a coffee, and found milk in the refrigerator. I put my usual drop in, and added a second one.
I sat back down and enjoyed it. Say what you will about instant coffee, but it’s what you get outside of the US when you say you want American coffee, and Nescafe’s South and Central American Nescafe Clasico rivals a lot of the brewed types we get in the US. Then again, I’m not a coffee snob. I just use it for a morning rush, and one was coming on.
I looked at Eddie and asked, “Do you know when I got here last night? Did anyone tell you about car and van chases through Santiago?”
He shook his head. “I came here at about three AM and you were already in bed. All of you were, so you can tell me more than I can tell you. There was a car chase?”
I nodded. “I was in the back of a laundry truck, and I couldn’t see anything. Lucero said something about an interferer. After that we got tossed around in the back. I fell asleep when it ended and woke up in a bed here.”
Eddie grinned, “Ah, so you were on drugs?”
I said, “Forget the drugs, okay? I know some pot heads, but none of us need anything to have a good time. I’m sorry I can’t tell you about the car chase, but I was totally exhausted. I had to be to fall asleep in that stupid little seat in the truck.”
Eddie just looked at me, and I finally asked, “Will you please tell me where I am?”
He nodded, “Hector wanted to tell all of you together. This rather spectacular house belongs to a very important businessman from Santiago. It should be obvious that he is also a very wealthy man. He has a special allegiance to our company, and when my boss contacted him last night to ask if we could borrow one of his places to protect some American boys, he agreed right away.”
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Yes, just like that. I can’t really say anything else.”
I said, “Well, thanks for the coffee. Is there a breakfast place near here?”
He raised his eyebrows, “Better yet, the cook is here. She’s baking bread right now, but will start breakfast when most are here. She will leave your lunch here, and will be back for the evening meal.”
“Wow! I’ll go see if anyone else is up. Um … where’s the kitchen?”
Eddie pointed to a door and said, “Through there, but the dining room is on the other side of this circle. When you come back down the stairs, go left and follow your noses.”
I said, “Thanks. I’ll be back for breakfast.”
I took off back upstairs, and noticed Dana’s bag outside the door directly below ours. There was a bag beside it that I figured must belong to Daniel so I walked down and tried the door, worried that if it didn’t open I probably wouldn’t be able to get back in my own room.
It did open, though, and someone was in the bathroom. I walked back to the bedroom and found Dana. He was dressed and just pulling his shoes on. He looked up when he noticed me and grinned. “You’re up! Do you feel okay?”
I said, “I’m fine, how about you?”
Dana said, “I’m not the one who had to be carried in and propped up against the wall till we found out where we could stay.”
I groaned, “Tell me that didn’t happen.”
Dana said, “I can tell you that, but Tom’s video will make me a liar.”
“Oh, no. What’d I do to deserve this?”
“Ovidio thought maybe your seatbelt cut off your air supply for too long.”
I closed my eyes and started laughing silently. There was finally some humor in this mess, and leave it to Dana to bring it out in his innocent recollection. I was lost in close-mouthed hilarity when I heard Daniel ask Dana, “What’s wrong. Is he okay?”
Dana said, “He’s laughing. Put some pants on so he doesn’t start crying when he can see again.”
Daniel laughed, “You are a pig.”
Dana said, “Maybe I am. At least I’m not a rhinoceros.”
Daniel giggled, “I think you’re just jealous. There. Is this better?”
“Anything is better. Get dressed. When Paul comes out of it, he’ll have a reason for being here. He won’t get it out if you keep him laughing.”
I heard Daniel opening a drawer and then a closet, and came out of my little bout of hysteria.
The first thing I asked was, “Your bags are out in the hall. Whose clothes are those?”
Dana looked at me seriously for a moment, and suddenly relaxed. “Oh yeah, you weren’t awake for that. Put your clean clothes away in the room and put your dirty stuff back in the suitcase and leave it in the hall. Somebody’s coming to take clothes to the laundry.”
“Oh. Well, where are Hector and those guys?”
Dana said, “Lucero’s across the hall from here. Hector’s across from you. Ovidio has the owner’s suite. I’m not sure which one it is.” He looked at me and said, “This is some kind of house. Did you look around yet?”
“Just to find coffee. It’s friggin huge!”
“Lucero said there are sixteen bedrooms like this one, and four more in the owner’s suite. Something like twenty-three bathrooms, three kitchens and I forgot what else.”
I could only shake my head. “Holy cow. And the guy lets us use it just because he likes us?”
“Hector has something to tell us about that. Don’t ask in front of anyone.”
“Okay. I have to check on Tommy and put my laundry out. Do you know where the dining room is?”
+ + + + + + + +
When we were having coffee after breakfast Hector said, “Be sure to pay attention when we leave here. You can ski back almost to the front door but choose a landmark. We have to ski down to the lift, and that means you have to turn off the trail before you go that far. I have lift tickets and your parkas are with your skis. I’ll show you where when you’re ready.”
We agreed that we were ready, and Hector led us to a room in a hall off the main entrance. Our skis were there with our boot bags, and our parkas were hanging from pegs. We got ready, and Hector kept giving us instructions on our way to the lift. We walked to the end of the road the house was on and there was a trail heading down, right beside the lift going up. We pulled our skis on, zipped our jackets, checked our goggles and headed right down. I did make note of the building on the downhill side that was the closest to the trail, but it looked like a lot of others. The base of the lift was right there, so as long as we skied the right trail down it wouldn’t matter a lot if we missed the turn or not.
I think we were all tired, because we all skied a little less energetically than we had been. We skied a lot of the same trails, but nobody really challenged them. By our third run Dana was teaching us some style points. That sounds boring but it was actually a lot of fun. We learned his little tail-wiggle and how to look good going off jumps. I showed what I’d learned about wedeln, and that was really fun in the steeps. We skied back to the house for lunch, and the only confusion was about which lift to follow down. It didn’t matter because they all ended up at the bottom, but Hector wanted to avoid the lodges, especially the base lodge. We found the right trail anyhow, and I saw the house we were staying in before I saw the one I’d noted close to the lift.
We had a nice lunch of roasted chicken thighs and breasts, a tossed salad, good bread, and of course mayonnaise. A young houseboy showed us where the food and beverages were and disappeared, saying he would be back to clean up after we left.
After lunch, we found our way back to the valley we’d ended the day on the last time we were there. Daniel said the chairlift was new that year, as was the wide trail around the bowl. We methodically skied every trail, went off-piste where it looked reasonable to, and had a ball. Taking it easy like that, not one of us had fallen all day, not even once.
Back at the house, we put our things away and went to our own rooms to clean up. Our luggage was still outside the room. I peeked in my bag and could tell before looking that the clothes had been washed. They had that smell of freshly cleaned laundry instead of the musk of dirty things. We carried our bags in and Tom tossed his on the bed while I just set mine down. I heard him unzip his suitcase, and a moment later he laughed, “Will you look at this?”
I looked, and I laughed too. The clothes were not only clean; everything had been ironed, too. The button-up shirts, the tee shirts, the undershirts, even the underpants, and they weren’t just washed and pressed, they were folded in bundles and held together with paper bands. When Tom took the top things off we could see that his pants, even his jeans, were pressed to a sharp crease, and his fucking socks had been ironed! I laughed so suddenly that I choked on it and kept choking.
Tom asked, “Are you okay?”
I couldn’t get the breath to answer him, and he started patting my back harder and harder until I inhaled. When I had my breath I took Tommy’s shoulders in my hand and leaned into his chest still laughing. “Oh my God, somebody ironed your socks. I don’t believe it. That is so funny!”
Tom was laughing too, but not lost in the same hysteria as me. He finally said, “I think somebody needs a nap, and that somebody is you. Let me put my stuff away and I’ll take care of yours. Your bed’s right over there.”
Tom was right, of course. He usually is. I walked over to my bed, tried to toe my shoes off, but I’d just put them on downstairs and they wouldn’t budge, so I plopped down on top of the bed facing the wall away from the light.
As soon as I closed my eyes Tom shook my shoulder. “It’s almost time for dinner.”
“Go home! I just shut my eyes.”
Tom said patiently, “Paul, I read ‘War and Peace’ after you shut your eyes. It’s almost seven, so do what you do to wake up. Hector wants to tell us something after we eat.”
I groaned, “What’s that ‘War and Peace’ about? Is that what Hec wants to talk about?”
Tom sighed, “Two questions, two answers. One, the title should be self explanatory. Two, I don’t know; only that it’s something about why we’re in this house.”
I rolled onto my back and attempted to open my eyes. “It’s not self-explanatory, Tom. Not till I know how peace is spelled. Is it ‘War and Peace’, like peace on Earth, or is it ‘War and Piece’, like piece of ass?”
“Paul, just shut up and get up, will you?”
I heard Tom mumbling swear words, but my eyes wouldn’t open and I just wanted to sleep.
Tom finally yelled, “That’s it! I’m going to find Hector. He’ll wake you up!”
Now that woke me up. I said, “I’m up. See? My eyes are almost open.”
I could hear him tapping a number into his iPhone and asked, “Who are you calling?”
He said, “Hector, of course.”
I turned around and put my feet on the floor and grumped, “I’m up, okay? Where’s the bathroom?”
Tom glared at me, and I said, “Never mind. I’ll find it myself.”
I got to my feet surprised to find my shoes already on, and stumbled past Tom to the hall and into the bathroom. My right foot had that tingly feeling, and it kept me off balance all the way there. When I was finished, my hair was semi-okay so I headed downstairs.
Tom came chasing after me. I was surprised because I didn’t think he’d wait for me. We went down to the dining room together, and everyone except Lucero, Daniel, and Eddie were there already. As soon as we sat down I realized that all the places were taken, and asked, “Did Lucero go somewhere with Daniel? Where’s Eddie?”
Ovidio spoke up and said, “They decided to eat in town so Eddie and Lucero could catch up. They have worked together on many assignments, and Daniel wanted to hear their stories.”
That seemed reasonable and I asked, “What’s to eat?”
Hector smiled, “Whatever you want amigo, as long as it’s beef stew. It will be right out.”
It was. The houseboy brought out two baskets of hot rolls along with dishes of butter. He was back in a minute with two carafes of red wine, one for each end of the table, and came back to fill our water glasses.
We passed the bread to one another, then the butter dish, and finally the wine. Before I tasted the wine I broke a hunk of bread off. It was still steaming inside and when I buttered it, the butter melted right in. Ally makes similar bread, which she calls peasant bread, and the people up Gloucester way call it fisherman’s bread. It’s my favorite, and this was as good as Ally’s. I took a sip of wine and got going on another piece of bread. It had already cooled off to the point that the butter didn’t melt down into it, but that didn’t matter.
The houseboy came back in to remove the flowers from the center of the table, replacing them with a raised trivet. The next time he came in he was carrying a huge stoneware crock, which he placed on the trivet. When he removed the lid a yummy aroma came from the crock. There was a big ladle laying there and Hector asked, “Who wants to start?”
I said, “Why don’t you? Then we can go around the table to your right.”
With no more words, Hector stood, picked up the wide bowl sitting on his dinner, plate and got a ladle and a half of stew into it. When he sat, Ovidio leaned in, and we all filled our bowls. It’s a good thing the bowls were shallow and wide. Even after waiting for the rest of us to serve ourselves, Hector’s first bite burnt his tongue. Knowing I had to wait, I dipped a piece of bread in the gravy and let it cool, and when I bit into it the flavor really burst into my mouth. It was wonderful, and I immediately got a hunk of beef on my fork and held it to the air for a minute before nibbling at it. Oh, was it good!
I’ve always loved a good stew, and this stuff was wonderful. I poked around in the bowl to see what was in there. It was mostly the usual: potatoes, carrots, other root vegetables. This one used the little onions that you usually see served as creamed onions, and there was something orange that wasn’t carrot. I thought it was sweet potato at first, but it tasted like pumpkin when I took a bite.
We all had second bowls, and everyone except Ovidio had at least a little more. The crock was left with just gravy and little bits of things. The houseboy seemed pleased when he cleared the table. He returned with coffee and filled our cups without asking, and was back immediately with what looked like a giant cake.
I actually groaned and Ovidio chuckled, “Don’t worry. That is a meringue and it’s all fluff, not filling at all.”
The houseboy seemed experienced with meringues. He cut that thing into five very equal looking pieces and gave one to each of us. When I tried a spoonful, what I thought was frosting on the top was just meringue applied some fancy way, and this had a nice peach flavor. When I got to the bottom there was a layer of peach slices. It was light like Ovidio said, mostly egg whites and sugar whipped up high. A spoonful didn’t appreciably increase the weight of the spoon, but it was rich just the same. Only Dana finished his serving.
When that was cleared, we were served more of the same wine, and the houseboy left the coffee pot with us. He closed the door when he went back into the kitchen.
I put a little more wine in my glass, and Hector filled his coffee cup.
Ovidio leaned forward and said, “I want to tell you about this house. It’s not that I think you need to know, but the owner wants you to know. The why of it is important to him. Lucero may be telling Daniel the same thing as I speak, but he wished Daniel to hear it from him. I think it would be good of you all to listen to this and then forget it. Okay?”
We mumbled our assent while I wondered about the need for this drama, but kept my mouth shut.
Ovidio started, “The man who owns this place is one of Chile’s most successful businessmen. He has started many enterprises and made them successful through his own drive and wit, and I’ll give you one example.
“He is the son of a fisherman and was being raised to be a fisherman, which is viewed as a profession in Chile, not a trade. He started fishing with his father when he was eight years old and school was out of session. One of the fish that often turned up in their net was called the Patagonian toothfish. Ever hear of that?”
We all shrugged and shook our heads.
“His father couldn’t sell them for lack of a market, and threw most back. He would bring one home from time to time, and it was the boy’s favorite to eat. When he was fourteen he had learned enough about commerce to wonder why the world didn’t love this fish, so he brought them home more often and would ask his friends to dinner when they had it. Nobody wanted to eat a toothfish no matter how much he promised they would like it, so he started calling the fish sea bass, as if it was his new favorite. Then his friends loved it, and rightfully so. He convinced his father to keep all that he caught, and he developed a market for his sea bass in no time. By the time he was sixteen they were fishing exclusively for toothfish, and he made a deal with a processing company that dealt with exporters. They filleted and flash-froze the fish for transport to nearby countries like Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and others. By age eighteen he had the money to fly two US importers here to sample his trademarked Chilean Sea Bass. Well, I suppose you know the rest of that story, but that was only his first fortune.”
I said, “He sounds like my father.”
Hector agreed, “That’s the first thing I thought.”
Ovidio continued, “He ventured into many other businesses, not all in Chile. He invested heavily in the ethanol fuel business in Brazil, where all cars assembled there now use that fuel. He has many more ventures now, and the most exciting to him is protecting pristine oceanfront property in all of South America. He doesn’t buy the property itself, but rather the development rights, which gives him almost governmental control over development. If a developer wants to move into a pristine native village, he is allowed to provide services like electricity and water, but can build nothing that changes the nature of the place. If that means grass huts along the beach, a developer can build all the modern, air-conditioned homes he contracts for, but none can be larger than the average grass hut. He only sells leases, too, so it’s continual income and it’s brilliant. A few developers took a chance, and found they could sell the leases to everything they built. The foreigners leasing property love it because they’ll never be surrounded by giant hotels and gated communities.”
I laughed, “Wait till I tell Ally.” When everyone looked confused, I mumbled, “Never mind.”
Ovidio poured a little wine in his glass and took a sip. “That’s the background. I think I need the bathroom before I go on.”
We all did, and it was ten minutes later when we settled in again.
Ovidio said, “This man has two sons and a daughter. The oldest boy is sixteen now, so your age. This happened three years ago. The boy was driven to his school in the morning, and was picked up in the same vehicle when school let out. Students said that when he opened the back door he appeared to be pulled in, but the door closed and the vehicle drove away in a normal manner.
“It never brought him home, though, and his real driver and bodyguard were found dead in a swamp weeks later. He’d been kidnaped, and that is not a common crime in Chile. There was a ransom demand that was absurd, and threats not to call the police and all that. Instead of the police the man called the President, who promised to bring the full force of the PICH down on the criminals.”
Dana asked, “What’s PICH?”
Ovidio said, “It stands for Policia Investigaciones de Chile. It’s like the FBI. Understand?”
Dana nodded and Ovidio went on.
“After days of the PICH making no progress, the man wavered about making the ransom payment, and contacted our company to make the transaction if it became urgent, and when he learned we have our own investigative resources he hired us to do an independent investigation. Our boss assigned two investigators and two enforcers. The enforcers were Lucero and Eduardo.”
I drew in a breath hearing that, and Ovidio said, “Yes.”
He continued, “I’m sure the PICH have their contacts on the street, but our men are from the streets, with many friends and contacts. They got some hints and followed up on them, learning as they went. When the father called desperately to say just pay the ransom, they knew where to go, and arrived at a garage with the ransom money in hand. They encountered two men, who turned out to be professional kidnapers from Mexico, and they had the boy partway into the trunk of a car, bound and blindfolded. One man had his back to them, and the other was trying to manhandle the boy into the car’s trunk.
“Eddie put his gun to the head of the man with his back turned and said they had the ransom money. The guy panicked and yelled to the other to shoot the kid. Lucero warned him off, but he pointed a handgun at the boy and Lucero shot him. His shot took the guy’s hand off, gun and all.”
Dana and I both gasped at the image, while Tom’s look of concern deepened.
“Eddie shot the other guy through the backs of both knees. They grabbed the boy and got out of there, all within seconds. They took the kid to a safe place, took a picture of him all bound up for evidence. They unraveled him, saving everything in an evidence bag. They called and asked the PICH to clean up after them and called the home to tell the parents the boy was safe and they had him. They didn’t take him right home, but stayed where they were. You see, the boy had messed himself and wet himself, and they didn’t want him to suffer even more humiliation at home. Lucero bathed him while Eddie went to a store for some clothes. He picked up some fruit and soup, and they brought the boy home only after he was clean, clothed and fed.”
Tom said, “Jesus! How’s the kid now?”
Ovidio shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. I’m sure he got the best counseling money can buy. Lucero or Eddie may have heard something, but I wasn’t involved at the time.”
I said, “That’s an amazing story, but how does it explain why we’re here?”
Ovidio picked up his coffee cup and brought it to his mouth. Instead of drinking he made a face and put the cup back down, reaching for his wine glass instead. He took a sip and said, “The man was overwhelmed with gratitude at having his son back at home, basically unharmed. Of course, the police and PICH had questions for the boy as well as for Lucero and Eddie. Lucero and Eddie, as well as the investigators they worked with, were called in the next morning and spent many hours detailing the investigation and all their activity up to and just after the rescue. There was a call-back a few days later to firm up some details.
“The boy was questioned at home about the kidnaping itself, his treatment at the hands of the kidnapers, and his version of the events that took place the night of his rescue. I understand that he was clear on the kidnaping, and fuzzy about his treatment, which suggests he was sedated. He was gagged and blindfolded, and could only honestly relate his fear at the time of the rescue, the voices of the kidnapers, then Eddie, followed by a shot and a scream. Then he was being rushed away in someone’s arms and was told that they worked for his father and he was safe.”
Ovidio smiled, “What he was clearest about was the nice men who rescued him, how gentle they were, and that they took the time to buy him clothes, let him wash up and then eat something before they brought him home. His father was there listening to this, of course, and the next morning he called our boss offering a large amount of money to the men who saved his son.
“The boss wouldn’t hear of it, stating that there was a contract and he only had to pay what he’d agreed to once the bill was together. That must have stunned the big guy, because he called the boss a few days later saying he wanted to help any time a child was in trouble, promising to make any of his resources available to our company. He faxed a sheet over that would let us contact him at any time, no matter where in the world he was.”
He put a little more wine in his glass and took a sip. “We don’t often get involved with youngsters other than routine security services, but yesterday we called him for the first time. My boss got hold of him, and patched me in. We weren’t looking for lodging, but for an in with the PICH. We want a PICH agent there when you meet Sgt. Arrisola. We’ve checked him out and he seems to be a good and decent cop, but that’s exactly what we heard about Silva. We don’t want to underestimate Ramirez a second time.”
Ovidio seemed to be waiting for a response from me, so I said, “I understand.”
“When the boss explained the situation we were in last night, the man immediately offered the use of this house. They were planning to come up Friday but will happily put it off a day if it helps a youngster in trouble.”
I felt tears coming on suddenly, and picked up my napkin to wipe them. I said hoarsely, “I think he’s a lot like my father.”
Dana and Tom both spoke their agreement at the same time, and I had to wipe my eyes again. I wondered if Ovidio’s boss had happened to mention who my father was to our benefactor, but I decided I’d rather not know. Instead I asked, “When do I meet Sgt Arrisola?”
Ovidio said, “Tomorrow, after skiing. You’ll meet at the first restaurant on the road into Santiago. The PICH agent will pick Arrisola up at his station, ask him to power-off his cell phone, and drive him to the meeting. I know it sounds like a lot of hooey, but I spoke with the Sergeant today and he understands our concerns. He sounded sincere when he said he just wants a reason to round up Ramirez once and for all.”
I asked, “Are we all going?”
“No. Lucero will bring you and Hector in a regular sedan. I think it would be good if you changed into street clothes after skiing, so Arrisola doesn’t guess where you’ve been. I have some advice. The PICH agent will be there to hear the questions you are asked. Let him respond first, because if Sgt. Arrisola asks anything at all that’s not involved with the night of your assault, the agent will tell him his question isn’t pertinent. The sole purpose of the interview is to give you an opportunity to repudiate what Silva submitted as your statement, and to get an honest one from you. You aren’t bound to tell the police anything else: not where you’re staying and doing, not when you’re leaving Chile, nothing like that.”
I asked, “So I should stick to the story from that night and say there was no gun?”
Hector grinned, “That would be good. You put it better the first time when you said all you saw was the guy’s knife.”
Ovidio clapped his hands and said, “My ass is getting sore. Have you guys found the pool yet?”
Tom was the loudest, “There’s a pool? A swimming pool?”
Ovidio smiled, “Yes, and a gym, a sauna. It’s all top-notch. Ask Paco to show you where things are.”
I looked at him, “Paco …”
“Paco, the houseboy.” He turned around and spoke loudly, “Paco!”
The kid who’d served us appeared in a flash. “Yes?”
Ovidio said, “Show these boys the spa, will you?” He pointed around us and said, “That’s Paul, Dana and Tommy. They arrived late last night and weren’t shown around.”
Paco looked worried, “Oh, I’m sorry sir. I only heard we had guests early this morning.”
Ovidio smiled, “Don’t worry. Please show them the interesting parts of this house.”
“Gladly, sir.” He looked at us and said, “Please follow me.”
I should note that Paco didn’t speak English, so I translated the best I could.
He led us out of the dining room and to the left, and down a longish corridor to the right. There was a door at the end that he held open, and said, “Por favor,” as he gestured for us to go in. I stopped dead in my tracks, absolutely astounded to find myself in Epcot at Disneyworld. This place was blue, lots of different blues, with illuminated stars overhead and on the upper parts of the walls. It was like inside-out reality. Where you would expect the darkest, deepest blues to be at the bottom and the lightest on top, this was the opposite, and gave the impression of looking through the day to a night sky above. The hall curved to the right, and there was a short set of stairs on the left, but we continued to the right.
Paco stepped forward and said, “This is the sauna. It’s off now but heats up really fast. If you want to use it tonight I can turn it on from here. I can at least show you how, and there is another control inside.”
I looked at Tom and Dana, who both shook their heads no. Paco said, “Let me show you just the same,” and when he opened the door there were a few steps up to what looked like the surface of the sun. We went from cool blue to fiery yellow, orange and red, once again with the deepest red on the ceiling. The sauna itself looked ready to hold about twelve people. Paco demonstrated the heating controls and those for the sound system. I was starting to think we got it all wrong in Vermont.
I was assured of that when we left the sauna and went up several steps to the pool area. It was a luminous green to the right, and there was a big, hotel-style hot tub there with a smaller one beside it. It faded to bright blue on the other side, with a pool that probably looked bigger than it really was. The wall beside it was slanted glass, and when Paco turned the outside lights on it amazed us again. This was the courtyard I saw from upstairs, and I could see then that there was another part of the pool out there, covered now, but in another season it would be an indoor-outdoor pool. The slanted glass wall let us see up the mountain till the light ran out. It was freaking gorgeous.
The last bit that Paco showed us was the exercise equipment beyond the far end of the pool. It was obviously the best machinery you could buy, but didn’t interest me. My father had the same things and they never made me want to use them.
On the way out, Paco realized he hadn’t shown us the locker rooms. There was a single door near where we’d entered. It led to an alcove with a room for the ladies to the right and the one for guys on the left. Right inside the door to the men’s side there was a shelf stacked high with towels and washcloths, but the room was pretty ordinary. It had a couple of urinals, a couple of toilet stalls, and two shower stalls. It was all gray tiles, mirrors and white fixtures with chrome plumbing. It was good to know where it was.
Dana asked, “Anybody want to swim?”
I was surprised to hear that from Dana and asked, “Do you?”
“I like pools at night. It makes me feel just right when I go to bed.”
I said, “Okay,” and Tom echoed me.
Paco left us saying he’d close up when we went, and we all thanked him. We didn’t have bathing suits or sandals, but it didn’t matter. We stripped off, wrapped up in towels, and headed for the pool. Just when we got there Paco showed up again and said, “I forgot to tell you. There is underwater music if you like. Do you want me to turn it on?”
I asked, “What kind of music?”
“What you like. Come over, I’ll show you how it works.”
I followed him to a panel in the wall. He pressed the ‘on’ button and things lit up. “Use this dial. You can get classical, flamenco, modern Spanish, Mexican, Tecano, Broadway … you can read the labels and see. I have to clean up the dining room.”
I smiled, “Thanks, man,” and read some more labels hoping to find Southern Rock, but Broadway was all they had for American music. I set it to Calypso, dropped my towel and took a running dive into the pool. Oh, that felt good, and I did a few side-to-side laps before I wondered why I didn’t hear music. I could have sworn I did at first, but it didn’t matter. Something was probably rewinding.
I saw Dana across the pool, floating on his back with his eyes closed, and he looked entirely too peaceful. I went underwater and suddenly the music was loud and clear. I stopped and put my head up and there was no music, and when I put my head back under I heard it again. I was probably more delighted than I should have been, but the concept of music you could only hear underwater really tickled me. I spotted where Dana was and went deep until I could see him above me. His hair had grown kind of long again, and as he moved his arms it pulled to his head and then dangled in the water. I waited right under him for a dangle, and I gave a few hairs a tiny tug with two fingers and swam away, almost drowning on Dana’s screech.
I was twenty feet away when I came up and I cried, “Are you okay? What happened?”
Dana was hanging onto the side of the pool looking pale. “I don’t know. Something bit my hair.”
Tommy was standing near Dana looking in the water. I asked, “Tom, do you see anything?”
Tom said, “I don’t, but I’ll give you ten-to-one that it was a hair-biting pool lizard.”
“A what?” Dana asked nervously.
Tom said smugly, “They are really creepy little things. The scientific name is Paulus Dunnia. In English they’re better known as your brother.”
When that sunk in, Dana looked at me with fire in his eyes and came after me yelling, “Aaaaaaaaayiii! You die tonight.”
I said, “Tom, swim under water. It’s calypso night!” and when Dana got close I dove right under him to a real catchy tune and tweaked a toe as I passed. He yelled again, but this time it was in frustration, so I came to the surface and hugged him from behind. “Is you mad at me?”
Dana laughed, “I’m not mad,” and when he turned around he said, “I just want to kill you!” and pushed me under by the shoulders, but he couldn’t hold me there. The rest of me floated back to the surface, and when my head came up I said, “Play nice.”
Dana let go and said, “You play nice! I’m beat. See you in the morning.” He pulled up onto the side of the pool and sat while he squeegeed his hair with his hands. When his hair was out of his eyes he got up and walked away.
I called, “Can you wiggle your butt without skis?”
I looked over at Tom and he shrugged, “I thought it was a good question. I’m beat too, though. Let’s go to bed.”
I knew I was more tired than I thought when I didn’t stop for my clothes and walked right past the door to the locker rooms. Tom grabbed me in time, and we stood under the shower just long enough to get the chlorine off. I only got minimally dressed, pulling on my underpants and jeans. I carried everything else since I’d just have to take it all off again upstairs.
When I was in bed, I wondered how it went with Lucero and Daniel. I don’t think my father would ever own a gun, though I knew he had one as a boy. It was a .22 rifle from Sears, a birthday present. His father had taught him how to shoot, but Dad didn’t even like the idea of it, and that rifle disappeared somewhere along the way.
I thought about Daniel, and put him in my place. If Dad had ever shot a person, I wouldn’t like it. Then again, Lucero shot a guy who was ready to murder a kid. I hoped Daniel saw it in that context. In the past few days I’d seen that he admired his father as much as I admired mine, but I had no idea what he knew about his father’s profession.
I wanted nothing more than to grow up to be like my father, and not so I could earn sacks of money. I disparaged him sometimes, but that’s every kid’s duty. I just hoped I could turn out to be the kind of decent guy he was, even if I ended up broke.
I emptied my head, rolled over onto my side, and fell asleep.