Finally in dry clothes, we sat in the crowded galley of the fishing vessel at the picnic-style dinner table, and the captain joined us.
“Americans?” he asked.
“Yes, we’re Americans. I’m Pat Ruger,” I said, patting my chest,“ and this is Jimmy Stewart. I patted Jimmy’s arm. “Do you speak English?”
“No, no hablar Ingles, arrepentido.” He patted his own chest. “Capitan Garcia … Colombian.”
Jimmy shook his head. “Nothing’s easy, is it?”
I held out my hand and punched imaginary buttons on it like a cell phone, then held my hand to my ear with a questioning look.
Garcia shook his head, pulling his tiny cell phone from his pants pocket. Still shaking his head, he pointed the phone to the sky. “No señal cellular … ” When I didn’t quite understand, he pointed up with his index finger on his other hand and swirled it upward in a circle. “No señal …”
“Oh!” Jimmy seemed to understand. “No cell signal here!”
“Oh … right.” I nodded and he dropped his phone back down.
The captain stood up and again held up his index finger. “Bogota … uno … days.” He, then pointed to the old, rusted refrigerator.
I nodded once again and said “Gracias.” He left the galley.
“Bogata. I’m told Colombia has changed,” Jimmy said. “They don’t hate Americans anymore. In fact, there’s a pretty large American ex-pat community there.”
“I hope you’re right. The ‘policia’ are still corrupt, so we’ll have to be careful.”
The food wasn’t bad, and we were very hungry, so it didn’t matter. I never thought I’d ever enjoy a cold fish sandwich, but I did. Jimmy had two. We washed them down with some warm Colombian beer. They seemed to have plenty, with extra cases stored under the fridge in an open cabinet with part of its door broken off.
We slept well that afternoon and straight through the night in a couple of crew bunks. The mattresses might not have been thick, but it was padding and I was grateful. Jimmy got up first and said he’ll meet me in the kitchen. I fell back to sleep but woke up again and didn’t stay in bed much longer.
I staggered into the galley and a couple of crewmen were sitting with Jimmy. One had a cell phone and was talking on it. “Can I use that?” I asked, pointing to the phone.
“Si, gracias,” the crewman said into the flip phone and closed it. He handed it over with a smile and I smiled back.
I immediately dialed Amanda. “Hey, babe,” I said nonchalantly.
“Pat? Is that you? Where are you?”
“On a fishing boat heading for Columbia … Where in Columbia I couldn’t tell you. No one speaks English on this tub.”
“Let me check your cell coordinates …” I heard some keyboard clicks. “Let’s see, looks like you are … outside of Riohacha, a port city on the northeast coast … Are you guys okay?”
“Yeah, touch and go for a while, but we’re both good. How do we get home from here?”
“Get to the American Embassy in Maracaibo. That’s about a 130 miles from you.”
“Isn’t that in Venezuela?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I’d rather not go to Venezuela, all things considered.”
“I understand, but the only other options are to go to Bogota, which is about 600 miles away, or wait for us in Riohacha. The problem with that is that it could be a while before we could get there.”
“Sounds like Maracaibo is the best bet … damn.”
“I’ll send a helicopter for you. Be careful … I’ve been so worried.”
“Me, too, believe me. I can’t wait to be home. I need to let Jimmy call Erin.”
“Okay, Patty. She’s waiting for you guys in New Orleans, but I don’t think she has a phone yet. I’ll call the cruise line and give her the number you’re using. She can call you from the office.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll call back when we dock and decide what to do.”
“Okay, talk to you soon, then.”
I hung up and handed the phone to Jimmy. “Erin’s in New Orleans … She’s going to be calling you in a few minutes. Amanda thinks we should go to Maracaibo.”
“I thought that’s what I heard you say.”
“What do you think? Six hundred miles and stay in Colombia or 130 miles and head into Venezuela? Or should we just sit tight somewhere and wait for help?”
“The faster the better, as far as I’m concerned.”
“That would mean crossing the border into a fascist country … without passports … and avoiding the cartel that’s probably looking for us.”
“Well, they’re probably looking for us in Colombia, too. A lot can happen in 600 miles.”
“True. I guess the last place I wanted to go was the country of the ship we just jumped from. It makes the most sense, though.”
We both stopped talking and considered our options. A few minutes later, the phone rang and Jimmy answered it. I went out on deck and watched while we moved into a slip in the marina. After several minutes Jimmy came out and handed me back the phone.
“So, it’s Maracaibo, then?” I asked.
“Okay, I’ll let Amanda know.” I dialed her back up. “Hey, babe, I guess we’re going to Maracaibo …”
“There’s been a development. Can you do us a favor?”
“What kind of favor?”
“The kind that only you can do …”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Okay, here’s the thing. I just got a call from the State Department. I’ve been keeping them informed of your goings on, since I might’ve needed their help.”
“As you know, Venezuela isn’t exactly friendly to the U.S.”
“Well, the government has been holding a physicist that wants to defect. He escaped and needs help getting to the Consulate …”
“And our mission, should we choose to accept it …”
“Funny. Yes, they are asking for your assistance. They’ll pay you, like the F.B.I. did before.”
“We’re consultants, not spies.”
“Yes, consultants with street smarts and a long history of helping your country. It turns out that Venezuela has been trying to develop a nuclear-material bomb, a dirty bomb, and they’ve stepped up their efforts since Russia stopped giving them aid and Cuba reopened ties with the U.S. They’re very unstable politically, and this is one of the scientists they need to finish the project.”
“We’re back to the Cold War? Why don’t you have the C.I.A. or someone do this?”
“We lost our C.I.A. contacts earlier this year when they were outted by Snowden. They had to leave the country in a hurry and there hasn’t been enough time to replace them in the field.”
“What do we have to do?”
“Meet up with the guy …” she paused, “um … it’s ... Chavez, Enrique Chavez. He’s holed up in a motel in La Concepcion, southwest of Maricaibo. Do you have something to write down an address?”
“Not really. I’ll remember, what is it?”
“It’s the Intercontinental Motel de La Concepcion, three Calle Mendoza. He’s in one twelve.”
“Enrique Chavez, the Intercontinental Motel de La Concepcion, 3 Calle Mendoza, 112. Got it.”
“We had him toss his cell phone so he couldn’t be tracked. He’ll be expecting someone, but he won’t know who.”
“Is he armed?”
“Yes, a couple of handguns he bought on the street.”
“At least there’s that.”
“I didn’t want you to do it, but there’s no one else.”
“How lucky for us … I hope this ends well, after all we’ve been through. Any way we can get some documents, visas or anything?”
“Sorry, there’s no time. State doesn’t have any resources in that part of Colombia.”
“Figures. I’ll fill Jimmy in and we’ll get a hold of you when we close in on Chavez.”
“Please be careful. I miss you.”
“You, too. Bye.” I hung up and Jimmy had a concerned look on his face. “Did you catch any of that?”
He looked down and shook his head. Then he looked up, smiled and said, “Why the hell not?”
I went below and gave the crewman back his phone. Once docked, we tried to keep a low profile and walked down a residential street. At the end of the block, there was a small store and I noticed some English signs on its windows, “Cigarettes,” Groceries,” and a couple of others mixed in with the Spanish decals. We went in.
“Excuse me,” I said to the woman behind the counter. She was tanned, older, I guessed about my age, but was thin, and she had some dark wrinkles under her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. “Do you speak English?”
“Si, yes, Señor? What do you need?”
“A cell phone, some water and some snacks. Also, some cash.”
A worried look came over her. “You rob me?”
“No! I’m sorry … I wasn’t thinking.” I reached in and pulled out a cubic from my pocket and placed it on the counter. “Now, this isn’t a real diamond, but it’s still worth something. What do you think?”
She picked it up and held it front of a small lamp on a desk nearby. Then she held it up in toward the ceiling lights. “It’s very good …” She placed it back on the counter. “I give you 500,000 pesos.”
“What’s that in dollars?” Jimmy asked.
She stepped back to her desk and punched in some numbers on an ancient adding machine, pulling the lever back several times. “About $300, give or take.”
“That seems fair.” I shot a questioning look to Jimmy, who nodded. “You have the cash?”
“Pesos, not dollars.”
“We’ll take it.”
Jimmy went to find some food and bottled water, and brought them back up to the counter. The woman grabbed a shrink-wrapped cell phone from under the counter, bagged the groceries and gave us a small stack of brown, blue and green bills. Jimmy separated the wad of cash into two piles and we each pocketed one stack.
“Make it two phones, por favor.”
She seemed irritated but reached back under for another phone.
“Gracias,” I said.
“De nada,” she replied. “Just one thing, seniors. Be careful with your money. It’s not safe here.”
I stopped short of the door and turned back to her. “Do you know anyone who can give us a ride to Maracaibo?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You got another one of those diamonds?”
“You’ll need it.” She pulled out a piece of paper and pencil and wrote something on it. She handed it to me. “Pedro is always waiting here.” She pointed to the address. “He’ll be in a blue car with a torn black top. Give him this and he’ll take you there. Give me the diamond.”
“Are you sure?” I reached in and pulled out another stone, leaving only one in my pocket.
“If he wants to come home, he will.” She smiled. “He’s mi hermano … my brother.”