5:48 pm . . .
Cutting our own swath through the rocks and tall grass, we’re making our surreptitious path towards the second hidden forest. We’ve been discussing how to engage whoever we find, if we find anyone at all.
“Wound them? Kill them?” Mr. Green queries. “Just let us know the rules of engagement.”
It’s not their fault, I say.
They all look at me like I just smoked a crack rock and got caught trying to pawn the television. And I can’t explain what I mean. How I’m pretty much responsible for all of this. It’s better for everyone if we’re hunting for something as grounded and believable as a giant vampire bat or chupacabras.
Mr. Green nods, “Hombros y rodillas solamente, amigos.”
Shoulders and knees only, friends.
Juan and Mr. Blue nod. I wonder if this is just another job for Mr. Green and the rest of them. Are guys like them immune to emotion? When was the last time they cared who they were fighting for or against? Or is it that they just suppress it better, make it as quiet and hushed as their silenced machine guns?
The sun is obscured by thick, cottony grey clouds. It’s been raining on and off for the last few hours, and the higher we climb the worse it will become.
Mr. Blue, driving, he looks over at Mr. Green, in the passenger seat, and they slow the Hummer to a stop as they discuss something on a map. Mr. Green’s using a GPS to pinpoint our best approach. Satellites can give our exact location, but Billtruck and Hal will be blind unless we give them feeds off of our thermal-night goggles. That, or always calling them.
What’s the problem? I say, leaning forward.
“We’re trying to find the most impossible approach, and take that one,” Mr. Green explains. “We have to take a path they probably won’t be defending against.”
That’s 110% Todd Steele, and I like it.
“Problem is,” Mr. Green continues, lowering his voice, “ . . . it’s a rough hike into the bush from the awkward side of the Cabeza de Inca.” And he motions his eyes back to Ms. Josephine.
I give it a moment, glancing at the map. “Alright,” I say, “drop Juan and I off, and then you guys circle back around and we’ll clear the area . . . give you guys the nod.”
Mr. Green grinds his teeth back and forth as the muscles in his jaw tense and release. “Fair enough,” he says, nodding. “But I go with you two. Mr. Blue can bring Ricky and Ms. Josephine in when the area is clear.
I turn back to Ms. Josephine and Ricky, “You guys catch all that?”
“Just save da babies, Jack,” she said softly. “Save da babies.”
And then she handed these handmade necklaces forward for Mr. Green, Juan, and Mr. Blue. They didn’t question her, they just put them around their necks, hiding them under their combat vests.
Cabeza de Inca.
8:23 pm . . .
Just after sunset, the sky growing eerily murky like a boiling cauldron, we were dropped-off on the side of the mountain that was considered the most impassable by all maps, testimonials, and common sense. And so far, that has been the underestimate of the century.
Mr. Green and Juan haven’t said a word since we got out of the Hummer and watched it disappear into the darkness.
They do all of their communicating with a variety of hand signals and simple sign language. Since I learned sign language when I was living at the hospital I’m following their signals fairly easily. We’re spread about five meters apart, me bringing up the rear.
These guys are moving past large rocks, sheets of ice and snow, and slick patches as if they were just walking down the street.
I’m sucking for air like I’ve barely escaped drowning. My balance isn’t good enough for this kind of maneuvering. I’m like one of those animals they put on roller skates just for a laugh.
Suddenly I see Juan’s closed fist shoot up as he freezes. I freeze, looking around the mixture of black lava rock, small shrubs, and sugar-white chunks of snow and ice. I’ve been instructed to stay out of the snow as much as possible. Mr. Green said, “ . . . it’s slick as bat shit, and it silhouettes you against the background, and the moisture will get into your boots and quickly sap all your body heat.”
People die up in the mountains all the time just because they got a little wet, they told me. But I told them that I was already dead, so I should be fine. They thought it was some heroic bravado and gave me a good slap on the shoulder. Them and me, we’re warriors. That’s a good one.
Juan’s hand flattens and his fingers curl towards the ground as he signals me over. He kneels down, waiting for me to crawl to his position. Everything is cold. My fingers, my toes, my nose. We’re wearing black wool stocking caps to cover our heads, keep us warm-er.
I make my way to Juan and catch my breath. We’ve been going for just over an hour on our little hike, but it feels like we’ve been marching for a week straight. This soldier stuff is really much more difficult than it looks on television. Rambo really is a badass.
Juan makes two little legs with his fingers and does the ‘walking’ motion—somebody on foot. He holds up the same two fingers that were legs a second ago—Two people. He then cups his hand, palm down, and I think he’s saying that we’re going to follow. Then he points past a black wall in the surreal darkness.
Now, bear in mind that I haven’t seen anything, yet. I’m just taking his fingers for it. I’m doing my best to simply stay upright.
We put on our thermal-night goggles and everything becomes nice and bright. We’re less than a football field away from the impossible forest. We’d have walked right past it if we didn’t have the satellite pictures to guide us in. I can understand people never finding this place.
Without a sound we make our slow crawl to Mr. Green. Once there, he and Juan trade at least a paragraph full of signs, and then Mr. Green whispers to me, “A man and a woman entered the forest wall about thirty-seconds ago. They’ll be easy to follow on thermal, but we have to split up. You and Juan will circle right and I’ll flank left in case it’s a ‘come-on.’
“A come-on. A trick. A trap.”
I get it.
“Anyway, we’ll make our way in silently. Once we converge on the couple and locate all of the children, then we’ll go in and take them down. Bad guys first, then kids.”
I give him a thumbs-up.
“I’ll radio Mr. Blue and the others once we’ve secured the area.”
He nods, gives a few more signals to Juan, and then he just disappears into the darkness. He’s so good, I can’t even see him on night vision. His red thermal image scurries off to the left to pursue the two red shapes that are negotiating the dark forest.
8:58 pm . . .
We’ve been following from about 50 meters to their right, stopping whenever they stop. Moving when they move. There are definitely two of them. Juan flows through the forest as smooth and silent as if he were a mist. And me, I’m just trying not to fall or kick over anything loud.
I haven’t heard any birds or other animals since we entered the treeline. Not a single frog or cricket or coyote . . . nothing. Just the wind gusting through, shoving leaves and branches here and there. There are these surreal bright spots in the sky from where the fire in the volcano’s crater is reflecting its melting light.
As we creep I look around for a small dot beyond the two red splotches. Mr. Green should be slithering around out there in the distance, but I can’t find him.
We stop behind a thick mat of waist-high shrubs and sticker bushes. Juan points ahead and to our left about a 100 or so meters and I see them. Dim yellowish dots. Small, barely registrable heat signatures in the blackness. I look at Juan and he nods.
And they must have something left in them, I just hope it’s life we’ll find. He signals that we’re going to take the long path around the right side to take the vampire sons-of-bitches by surprise.
I feel for my pistol. It’s where it should be. I check for my knife, the cold rubber-coated handle is within easy reach. I’m wondering if I’ll get to use these tools.
He gives me a shoulder squeeze and we continue on, keeping the two large red spots to our left flank.
It won’t be long now.
9:47 pm . . .
I can distinctly count 14 children as I look through my thermal-imaging goggles. We’ve crept so close that I might be able to throw a small rock and get the attention of one of them. But I don’t dare. Right now we’re waiting to make sure we know what we’re dealing with.
It looks like two adult bloodsuckers are in charge of this whole grotesque affair.
There’s a small clearing in the center of the trees, similar to how the dead pool was located. On the larger trees that encircle the clearing there are children tied with their legs and arms spread wide. There’s a small fire in the center of the clearing that is little more than ashes and some tiny embers. This is their death HQ.
This doesn’t look like an ambush.