Curse of Cortes'

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Chapter 35: Cozumel Cenote

Caverns of Cortes’, Isla Barbareta

June 20th 3:27 pm | 15 hours to Mayan chaa

Touched deeply by the modest memorial of flowers and candles outside the home of the murdered community leader, Lucia absorbs the testimony of love this man created in life, making her own journey feel empty and vain. If she died today, how few would even miss her presence, much less mourn the loss. Has she made the right choices in life? She and Xavier can’t even spend holidays together without hiding. Is the pursuit of truth or justice worth the sacrifice of love, family, or peace? Is it already too late or can her fate change?

Laying flowers among the others, she hopes it will win over a sympathetic local willing to talk. Her ploy works. A petite elderly woman with high cheekbones approaches, her wrinkled lips painted red and her grey hair still wavy and thick. She wears an elegant black lace dress undoubtedly reflecting the woman’s former beauty and style. It doesn’t take long to learn that Eugena had lived next door to Senor Santos her entire life. Excited about a recent discovery on his property, he wouldn’t discuss it until he called an expert. A few days later, he disappeared. Soon afterward, a sequence of helicopters buzzed low over Eugena’s house heading into the jungle. The police dismissed the disappearance as senility, and ignored her report of air traffic.

Lucia shows Eugena her press credentials, and asks permission to check out the Santos property. With Eugena’s blessing, and the loan of a machete to protect against hanging snakes, she takes off toward the thick wall of green to find a narrow path.

A longer hike than expected, she grows annoyed at the constant buzz of mosquitoes, and the fear of squirming branches. At last, the path opens into a clearing where a small backhoe sits next to a fresh pile of dirt and debris. A section of the clearing shows the telltale signs of helicopter wash in the low vegetation. Pulling out her phone to take pictures, she uses a map application to pinpoint her precise GPS coordinates. Her instincts tell her that someone murdered Santos over this pile of dirt, but she’s at a loss to explain why.

Hot, thirsty, and puzzled by the new mystery, she heads back through the jungle path. After thanking Eugena, she takes a taxi back to her cabana to find an angry Mexican Army guard waiting outside her door. Her pulse races as she approaches attempting to act casual.

“Senor Sanchez, you’re not allowed to roam the island without an escort,” he barks.

Lucia remembers to use the lower register of her voice. “My mistake, I thought an escort was needed only within summit grounds,” she lies. “I went to pay my respects at a local memorial.”

“Media must stay in their rooms unless attending a secured event,” the guard informs her as if she should have known.

“My apologies,” she offers, bowing her head. “It won’t happen again.”

Worried the guard may have ransacked her room, she breathes a sigh of relief to find it untouched. Closing and chain locking the door, she dashes to the bed to pull out her computer to find it safe. Through a crack in the open window, she listens to the guard talk on a radio.

“Anton Sanchez has returned to his cabana,” he reports. “Si, I’ll wait.”

While her guard waits for his ride, she boots her laptop to check email and finish her story, although her little adventure did not provide any useful information. Opening email, she finds the official LASSG interview schedule tool has declined all of her requests with the same language. ‘Media schedule has been cancelled by interview candidate.’

With no interviews, she has no reason to be on the island, which may explain her new guard. Logging into the summit website she learns that none of her interview choices even registered for their rooms, including Juan Perez de Menendez. Very strange, key event planners and sponsors are not even on the damn island, last minute no shows. Even more important, with de Menendez her theory of an arms deal crumbles into sand. If not an arms deal, that leaves one terrifying alternative, the one Xavier warned her to avoid. War. The Pakistani nuke isn’t for sale, it’s a game changer, and she suddenly knows why a man died to cover up a jungle sinkhole.

A text message pings from Delores. Another delayed send, time-stamped at 7:45 am. He must be offshore or remote.

‘Phoenix – Extreme caution. War=Cozumel. GFP = mole. Where RU? Will come soon. SIT. Love, Delores’

GFP means General Francisco Panera, the man Xavier used to work for at Mexican Intelligence. Out of curiosity, a quick search of the Panama Papers finds General Panera’s name only once, on the board of the same company which lost a shipping container offshore Panama. Panera betrayed Mexico. What would Juan Perez have to gain from war?

Another review stumbles on a few payments she did not expect, three wire transfers of $50,000 each to a plastic surgeon in Singapore under a Felipe account. Why would a drug lord want plastic surgery? Instincts flare.

Searching online photos of Juan Perez spanning the last three years, including recent shots taken at Los Pinos, she finds only minor differences in his appearance. In fact, he looks a little bit older and stockier. Then she notes a difference in the ears, not something plastic surgery can change. His eyes are also set farther apart, another limitation of cosmetic surgery.

Covering her mouth from the epiphany, she bursts into astonished laughter at the sheer audacity. Juan Perez and Hun Came may have colluded to launder money at one time, but now they are merging. Rather, Felipe appears to have hijacked the identity of Juan Perez. Why would a wealthy drug lord with a successful secret identity want to take over the public identity of a corrupted media mogul? What happened to the real Juan Perez? Why set a bomb under Cozumel, continental extortion? Her new revelation explodes with a thousand new questions she has no time to answer.

Anxiously pacing her small room, she walks through the revised scenario forming in her mind. Hun Came spends billions developing a mole network across the continent. Then Hun Came buys a nuke from a corrupted Pakistani General Hayat with the help of a corrupt Mexican traitor, General Panera. Cartel assassin Vacub Came stages the murder of the Pakistani general to look like a suicide. They transport the warhead on a Malaysian freighter, and then steal the container before Panama inspections. A helicopter puts the warhead within reach of the Caribbean, which explains the recent Mexican and U.S. Navy sonar sweeps, a diversion for a nuke already smuggled into a cenote. Xavier nailed the right answer, war. She opens a new encrypted text.

‘Delores: UR right. Cozumel=Ground zero. K2=HC=JPdM. Island locked down. Will try to raise alarm. No matter what happens, I love you. SIT. Phoenix’ - SEND.

Now she needs to rewrite and send her second story segment as soon as possible. Without wasting time, she sits with a jittery knee, and nervously stabs at the keyboard with her mind racing faster than she can type sensing every second fall away.

‘Insane Nacon Leader Declares Nuclear War’. A dozen new revelations press on her mind as the sound of a heavy diesel truck approaches to pick up the guard. When the engine turns off, the hairs on the back of her neck rise up as she leaps from her seat.

Estupida,” she curses herself, folding her laptop into a shoulder case, then darting to the bathroom window, and roughly shoving out the screen.

The guard wasn’t waiting for a ride he was waiting for backup. Her door pounds twice with a loud demand to open. Climbing out of the window, she falls to the ground over a bush, ripping her shirt as the door continues to pound. A giant banyan tree sits behind the cabana leading to a garden that opens to a park. Kicking off her leather sole men’s shoes, she tosses them as far as she can throw, and then scrambles into the tree. With a loud crack of wood splintering soldiers burst into her room. Easing herself down off a long tree limb, she lies flat on the cabana style roof hidden by a Spanish tile facade. Her heart pounds loudly in her ear while a wave of nausea sweeps over her.

“He left by window,” a voice shouts. Seconds later, the sound of men rounding the building call out. “He ran to the park.”

They must have seen her shoes. Daring a quick peek, she sees the soldiers fan out, searching in every direction. Lying back on the roof, she tries to slow her rapid breathing. If she stays on the roof, they’ll find her. Staring up into the thick, long, and tangled limbs of the banyan tree, she gets an absurd idea. Risking another glance, she confirms there are dozens of banyans in a natural interconnecting grove lining the park. The long, thick branches touch or intertwine with each other for at least a hundred meters behind the older duplexes, apartments, and shops lining the road.

A few minutes later, she scurries to hide behind a wide trunk. Soldiers have returned from the park without success. One smart muchacho has climbed the banyan behind her cabana to check the same roof she vacated only moments ago. Motionless behind the thick trunk, she waits until someone calls the men to hurry, and the rumble of diesel fades toward the summit.

She dares a glance between two trunks. Clear. Even with the truck gone, a guard likely waits in her cabana. Forced to abandon her new wardrobe, she continues to climb through the camouflage of the banyan canopy until she reaches the back of a local bodega. Careful to check for the army, she clambers down to enter barefoot. Buying some flip-flops, she calls a taxi, and then tries to reach Xavier by phone. No answer and no message service, so she texts him again.

‘Delores – U OK? Cover blown. Need to escape. Urgent.–Phoenix’- SEND

Xavier has always been there to take care of his little sister, to prepare her for the dangerous path she stubbornly chose for herself. To have him fall silent in her true hour of need is unnerving. When the taxi arrives, she gives him the only safe address she knows. Knocking on Eugena’s door a few minutes later, she holds out a small bag of groceries, and a bottle of tequila. The old woman’s surprise evaporates into suspicion.

“I know who murdered Senor Santos,” explains Lucia. “Now I believe the entire island may be in danger. I need your help.”

Eugena stares in surprised suspicion, trying to digest her words.

“Would you let me explain over dinner?” Lucia offers. “I’m starved.”

Eugena doesn’t respond or smile, but cautiously opens her door enough to let Lucia inside. Looking toward the street, she closes and bolts the door. The walls of her small adobe home feature a portrait of Jesus, the Virgin with Child, a third of Pope Francis, and a fourth of President Lanza. A side table features her late husband and grandchildren. Lucia notes Eugena’s priorities.

After a quick meal, and a few shots of tequila, Eugena is ready to listen. Lucia confesses her identity, explaining the murder of her parents and her history of tracking the cartel, leading to her discoveries of the past week. Starting with the massacre of a family, the mole at Los Pinos, and plots against her El Presidente she discusses the insane cartel leader who calls himself a pagan god. With her phone, she shows Eugena the jungle sinkhole, and explains the significance of a murdered Pakistani general and stolen warhead. Lucia needs to raise an alarm to evacuate, but she needs Eugena’s help.

Lucia waits to see if Eugena will demand she leave, call the police or agree. She takes a huge risk in revealing so much, but she’s running out of time. Even in her own ear, the story sounds absurd so she understands when Eugena gets up in silence to clean her kitchen, using the normal activity to process the devastating news. After several awkward, silent minutes, the old woman wipes her hands dry, and sits down again with a weary plop looking older than she did only moments earlier.

“I remember Cozumel before anyone knew of drugs or cartels,” she reminisces. “My granddaughter still lives here, and wants to start a family.”

Lucia resists the urge to push. Taking a long moment of prayer, the old woman sighs deeply, “What can I do?”

“Thank you,” exhales Lucia. “Do you have an internet connection?”

“No,” Eugena shakes her head sadly, “only at the café.”

Disappointed, Lucia hates the risk of going out in public, but she has no choice.

“Good enough,” she accepts. “Before we go, I need a few minutes to finish my story, and a change of clothes.”

Booting up her computer, she hurries to finish the last story segment while Eugena looks for clothes and shoes that once belonged to her deceased-husband. It takes another forty minutes to complete a reasonable unedited draft, and embed the file into an email to Marco, including access information to her online research storage, phone photos, and GPS. Giving research to another journalist is not normal, but she trusts Marco, and it will be her only way to reach back from the grave.

In clean 70s style clothes and shoes, Lucia dons a fedora in hopes the new disguise will keep her invisible, convincing Eugena to take the back alleys. While Eugena places a café order, Lucia logs onto the wireless network and sends her email. Waiting for the file to complete, she tries again to reach Xavier. Her inability to contact him surges her sense of panic. It’s not like Xavier to go silent this long.

‘Delores, where are you? Must evacuate. Need help. Please confirm UR ok. SIT Love Phoenix’–SEND

The café connection runs slow, grinding tediously to send the file as the sound of a heavy diesel rumbles in her direction. Her pulse quickens as she silently urges the file to move faster. Seconds later, an army truck parks in front of the café blocking any retreat as soldiers leap out with guns raised.

Lucia spins around to see a soldier glaring at her from behind the barista, his weapon aimed. They were expecting her. With a quick glance down she notes the file upload reach ninety percent as armed men storm the door, and immediately place her in hand cuffs.

“Lucia Vasquez,” they bark. “You’re under arrest.”

They know her real name, not good news. With a quick peek, the file finishes sending at one-hundred percent a second before a different soldier closes the lid, taking her PC and cell phone. In closing the lid, he engaged the encryption software.

Eugena looks stunned, torn between betrayal and helplessness. Pushed out the door, and shoved between guards, Lucia can only pray that the poor sweet woman doesn’t suffer for the secrets that she now knows. Then she prays Xavier doesn’t come looking for her. It will be a trap.

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