“Maybe we should have waited for help,” Jimmy yelled over the sound of the old Camaro’s engine and the apparent lack of a good muffler.
“We’re doing the right thing, Jimbo,” I yelled back. We had been in the car for about an hour or so, both in the back seat. The roads were getting to look, and feel, less traveled.
We both unwrapped our cell phones, installed their batteries and checked them out. Thankfully, they both came on and seemed to work fine. We put each other’s phone numbers into our directories and I called Amanda to give her the numbers. There was no change in plans.
Eventually we came upon a checkpoint, which I guessed was the Venezuelan border. Our driver and guide was a heavy-set, jolly Colombian whose dark features seemed counter to his personality. Perhaps that’s why he wore a bright yellow and red Hawaiian shirt.
A few hundred yards from the border, Pedro stopped and turned to us. “Pesos?”
I pulled out my wad and opened it up to him. He looked through it and pulled out two 10,000-peso bills, then turned back to drive. I put the money away and nervously waited as we approached the checkpoint.
Pedro’s window was down. “Ola! Miguel! Cómo está tu familia?”
Miguel’s greenish gray uniform made him look more military than police. He had a big smile as he handed Pedro a newspaper folded in half. “Que son una maravilla, y usted?”
“Bueno!” Pedro put the newspaper on his lap, did something to it, folded it back up and handed it back to Miguel. This all happened in about 15 seconds.
“Disfrutar de su visita! Enjoy your visit!” He waved to us in the back seat and lifted the gate. Pedro drove on through and we slowly left the crossing behind us.
I sighed with relief and relaxed. I tried to remember the address we were heading to. “Intercontinental Motel de La Concepcion, three Calle Mendoza,” I said aloud.
“Si, La Concepcion,” Pedro repeated.
The road wasn’t paved on the Venezuelan side of the border and it was lined with boulders and large puddles on either side. Pedro stayed in the center when he didn’t have anyone coming the other direction, and we felt pretty safe, despite the higher speed.
We entered a larger town, at least by comparison to the villages we had been passing through in the countryside. “La Concepcion?” I asked.
It was about the size of Colorado Springs, but several decades in the past. Even Tijuana was more modern, it seemed to me. But, we were on a paved road again, and it was relatively pothole-free. Motor scooters passed in both directions and some of them had 2 or 3 passengers holding on for dear life. There was a center line, but it seemed more of a suggestion than a requirement to follow.
We turned on a side street, turned again, then pulled up into a motel’s parking lot. I noticed then the yellow-aged sign that said “Intercontinental Motel.”
Jimmy and I got out and I motioned with both palms down to stay here. The parking lot had 3 cars, older model Dodges and a Chevy, and all were dilapidated. The motel was painted mauve and white and had 3 stories. All the rooms had outside doors and windows facing the lot.
“112,” Jimmy said and we both spotted the room in front of us. It was on the first floor in the middle of the building.
We both walked over and I knocked.
“Que?” was the answer from inside the room.
I tried not to have too loud of a voice, but did lift it somewhat. “It’s Ruger and Stewart from America. They sent us to help you.”
There was a moment of silence, but then we could hear the door being unlocked from the inside. It creaked open slowly and stopped part way, and we slid in the narrow opening.
“Are you Enrique?” I asked. The room was dark but we could see that Chavez was a very heavy set man, reeking of cigar smoke. I guessed he was 6’2”, 350 pounds. Most of the weight was around his middle, and I realized now why he needed help.
“Si … yes. We want to defect. Are you going to help us?”
“Si. Little Ricky … come out here.”
A young boy of about 10 or 12 came out of the bathroom, dressed in dusty long pants and blue and white striped tee. My immediate thought was that Ricky was going to make this job much more difficult. At least he had tennis shoes on. “Little Ricky?”
“I’m Big Ricky, my nephew here is Little Ricky, you see?”
“I’m not sure we should …”
The squeal of wheels in the parking lot interrupted our conversation and I looked out the window through the opening in the curtains in time to see our ride peel off. Another car left in the same direction and it looked like Pedro had a tail.
“Great …” I said. “Thirty miles from Maracaibo and we lose our ride.”
“We have to leave now,” Jimmy said. “If they know we’re here, they’ll have us surrounded in a couple of minutes.”
“Do you have any guns?” I asked Chavez.
“Yes, these two …” He handed them to me. One was an older Beretta and I didn’t recognize the other. Then he handed me a couple of extra clips and a box of ammo. “You’ll need these.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” I gave the non-branded pistol to Jimmy. “Can you figure this one out?”
“Yeah, I think I’ve used one similar to this …” He flipped his little finger and caught the clip as it popped out. He popped it back in, cocked the barrel and flipped the safety on and off. “Yeah, I got it.”
I did the same with the Beretta and we were satisfied for the moment. “Let’s move out behind the building and head towards town.”
“Big Ricky’s not going to blend in much.”
“If we wait here, it won’t be good. Maybe the boy will help.”
Jimmy seemed exasperated. “How did they know we were here?”
“I’m sure our friendly border crossing officer was playing both sides. He probably made a call as soon as we were through.”
We checked the parking lot and it seemed clear, so we hurried out and around to the back of the motel. There was a side street nearby and we headed for it. Just before reaching the gravel street, we heard two gunshots and we scampered into the back yard of one of the homes closest to us. We didn’t wait to see if we were the targets of the gunfire.
I knew that Maracaibo was southeast of us and that we were currently heading west. Jimmy pointed to a church down the alleyway and I nodded. Keeping together, we strolled to the large adobe building, whose sign was faded but read “Iglesia de San José,” and found our way in. The stained glass windows were impressive, each showing a saint or the Virgin Mary, and about 8 feet tall.
“The Saint Jose Church is nicer than it looked from the outside,” Jimmy remarked.
“Saint Joseph’s Church,” Enrique corrected. “’San Jose’ is ‘Saint Joseph’ in Spanish.”
“I wonder where the priest is …” I pondered out loud.
“He’s probably in the rectory, in the back,” Enrique answered. “Through there …” he pointed to a large wooden door next to the altar.
We walked down the center aisle past a couple of dozen rows of pews, turned right in front of the altar and Jimmy carefully opened the door. He stuck his head out, looked both ways and turned back to nod to us. We exited the church and found a small courtyard, scantily but nicely landscaped, with small trees and shrubs lining the walls and grass growing between bricks on the ground. Across the courtyard was a much smaller adobe building with a sign over its door, “Rectoría.”
“This must be the place …” I knocked on the door and waited, then knocked again.
“Father Julio!” Enrique called out. “Father, let us in!”
The door opened and a short, slight man in the expected black attire and white collar motioned for us to enter. “Por favor, come in, mi children,” he said in a thick Colombian accent.
“Father, we need your help,” I said.
“Usted … you are the Yankees the government is looking for?”
“Yes, Father. Mister Chavez has asked to defect and your government doesn’t want him to.”
“And the boy?”
“My nephew,” Enrique answered. “He lost his papa a few weeks ago in a train wreck and doesn’t have anyone. He’s been staying with me.”
“So, what ees your plan? Maracaibo?”
“Exactly.” I was impressed with his assessment. “Any ideas on how we could get there?”
He thought for a minute and sat down on an old sofa covered loosely with a green sheet. “I have a car. You take it.”
“I’m not sure …”
“But,” he interrupted. “Not ze boy. He stays with me until I can take him to the Consulate.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Jimmy commented. “It’s going to be a dangerous run to the Embassy — much safer for him here.”
“I think I agree,” I said. “But, they’ll be waiting for us between here and there.”
Father Julio opened a drawer next to the sofa and pulled out an antique-looking map. He stood up and unfolded it, walking over to a dinette table on the other side of the room. Jimmy and I followed. He laid it flat and pointed to a road labeled, “Avenida Maracaibo.”
“This is where they will be waiting.” He pointed to a parallel road named, “Avanida 17.” “This one is better.” He put down the map and turned back to Enrique. “You know it?”
“Si, Father,” came the reply.
The short man, who wasn’t much taller than Little Rickie, stretched to reach a key hook, but managed to retrieve it. “Hurry, you have no time to waste.”
“Gracias, Father. How can we repay you?”
“Get my friend to America safely. Now, go.” He ushered us out a back door and through a gate where a rusted Chevelle, circa 1967, was parked. After Enrique gave Little Rickie a bear hug, the three of us got in, with Jimmy in the driver’s seat and Chavez in the back. I rode shotgun.
The Chevy started right up and it purred. “Nice,” he said, and he put into reverse. We saw no one around as we backed out onto a side street and slowly left the neighborhood.
Enrique pointed to the right and Jimmy followed the suggestion. Then the big man pulled out a cigar from somewhere and proceeded to light it up with a specialty lighter he apparently had in one of his pockets.
I turned to face the back seat. “Whoa! What are you doing?”
“I get headaches from cigar smoke. You mind putting it out?”
“I can roll down the window …” and he proceeded to do so and he puffed away.
I turned back to face front and said to Jimmy, “I’m too old for this.”
Enrique pointed to the left. “There! There’s our street!”
I noticed a street sign that indeed said, “Avenido 17,” and felt somewhat relieved, especially when we didn’t see anyone looking for us, at least as far as we could tell. The road was a mixture of gravel and pavement, on again and off again, but there was a long straightaway in front of us.
I decided it would be prudent to let the Embassy know we were coming and dialed Amanda on my cell. “Hey, babe.”
“Hi, Patty. How are you guys doing?”
“So far, so good, but the government is trying to keep Mr. Chavez from reaching the Embassy. We’re on the road right now.”
“Anything I can do?”
“Well, you might let the Consulate know we’re coming, and to keep the gate open in case we’re in a hurry.”
“That’s probably wise. I’ll have the M.S.G. ready, too. You’d have to make it to the grounds before they could help.”
“Marine Security Guard. They provide security and protection at Embassies.”
“Ah. So, they’re armed?”
“Definitely. Call me when you are there safely.”
“Okay, I’ve got to go, talk to you soon.”
I let Jimmy and Enrique know what was going on and we continued on our way without much conversation.
“Maybe I should retire,” Jimmy said, out of the blue. “Got any openings in your agency?”
“You bet! In a heartbeat! Why now?”
“Just thinking of Erin, I guess, and why you retired. Like you said, you sort of owed it to Ellie. I owe it to Erin, too. Look what we’ve been through on ‘vacation.’” He made an air quote with his right hand. “This isn’t even as dangerous as my everyday job …”
“I would love you to join us. It might be a bit boring for you …”
“Boring sounds pretty good about now.”
“I know what you mean.”
Again we had silence for a while, but soon Jimmy had to slow down, then stop. I looked up and saw why — a washed out road and a detour.
“What do we do?” asked Enrique. He was finally finished with his cigar but still smelled lousy.
“Take the detour,” Jimmy answered. “What choice do we have?”
“I don’t want to stay here,” I said. I turned to Enrique. “Is there another way to Maracaibo?”
“No, Señor. No other way.”
“Well, then we’ll take our chances,” Jimmy said.
He turned left as the signs directed, drove about two miles north, then obeyed the detour arrows and turned right onto Avenida Maracaibo — just the street we wanted to avoid.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this …” Jimmy definitely sounded nervous.
The way was clear for the mile or so we could see ahead. I decided on a distraction.
“So, Enrique, how did you end up a nuclear physicist here in Venezuela?”
“Growing up, I was a whiz at math. I don’t know why, but I just was. I went to an advanced school sponsored by the government and by the time I was fourteen, I was more advanced than the school could teach me.”
“Wow, what did you do?”
“My handlers — they have handlers for gifted students here — my handlers decided I should go to college in America. I attended Stanford from the time I was sixteen until I was twenty, then went into physics and atomic energy.”
“Impressive,” Jimmy cut in. “You didn’t want to stay in the U.S.?”
“I did, but the Venezuelan science committee convinced me that my country needed me here. I was flattered they thought that much of me, and I didn’t know what they wanted me to do.”
“What’s going on?” Jimmy said, pointing ahead. He had stopped behind a long line of cars being inspected at a road block. It was slow going, but it was obvious that it was the police and other military personnel manning the blockade.
“I don’t know if we want to try going through,” I said. “What else can we do?”
“I’m not sure, but we’ll surely attract attention if we break out of line and head west.”
“We’ll attract more attention when we arrive at the inspection point.”
“Should I run it?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. I looked around us. There were only store fronts on the left, side-by-side, with no driveways along the stretch. On the right was a cleared field closest to the road and a corn field about a half mile behind it. Closer to the road block were a more shops lining the street. They picked a good location for the stop. “We could wait until we get up there and then go through …”
“Who’s that? The man over there, standing on his car?”
Jimmy was right. We were now close enough to see a man on the other side of the road block with his car door open and he was standing on the step, waving like crazy with both hands. It was a blue car, and it struck me who it was.
“That’s Pedro!” I opened the door and stood tall to see him better. I waved back and Pedro pointed with both arms to our right. He waved again and repeated the motion to the right. “He wants us to go through the corn field …”
“Maybe he can keep the cops busy …” Enrique said. “Go slow, maybe they won’t notice us.”
“I’ll try ...” Jimmy moved to the right past the unofficial right lane of traffic and over the dilapidated curb. We slowly entered the field and headed for the corn field.
“I don’t think they’re following. Let’s get through this field.”
We entered the field and began mowing down corn at about 30 miles an hour. Jimmy went about a quarter mile into the crop and made a slight left turn. “Hopefully, there’s a road this way.”
Several yards later, the corn cleared away and there was a deep ditch immediately in front of us, too wide for us to cross. Jimmy slammed on the brakes and we slid forward, right down the bank and into the mud.