I knew – I could sense it – that we were being watched, from the moment we arrived, to the day we hired the guides and started the expedition into the jungle. I had no doubt that a high-altitude drone had been tracking all our movements. Fowler and I agreed not to carry cell phones, GPS, a laptop, or anything that made it easy to track us. We were doing this old-school, with pencil and paper and a tape recorder. The only modern technology we had was our clothing; the only convenience, my digital camera.
We agreed on where to pitch our hammocks with some tarp and mosquito nets. The sun had minutes to live and we had to set up our racks. The incandescent bulb flashlight came out. The important thing was to stay off the ground, away from the leaf-cutter ants, spiders and snakes. We managed to evade leeches; still, I asked Fowler to check my face after contact with the creeper vine.
“Your face is fine,” he told me. He included a light slap after his assessment.
“I just want to be sure,” I said, rubbing the side of my face. “Last thing I want is a bot fly eating me.”
We tied off the hammocks, did our checks before we climbed in. A different kind of being watched swept in after sunset and the nocturnal music began. We heard the frog that sounded like a bird. The brief swell of chattering that followed the frog I recognized as a colony of bats that had just left its roost. The orchestra of sounds is the bestiary come alive in the jungle. It is when the jungle grows silent that you know something is wrong; very wrong, and that was what happened next. We had our flashlights off.
We waited. We heard nothing. Silence. Absolute silence. No crickets, no frogs, and no grass swaying or branches breaking. Then I heard it.
I heard whistling. I recognized the tune. Otis Redding.
The whistling stopped. I didn’t dare move, for to reach for the machete under my leg would have made the hammock creak. Then I heard the voice: “I know the two of you are out there. Shine a light, boys.” The voice was steady, casual and informal; the accent, American. “C’mon, boys. I haven’t got all night.”
Fowler broke the silence. “Are you armed?”
“What do you think?” was the answer, followed by a brief laugh and, “Who goes into the jungle unarmed? All you need to know is that I’m not carrying a machete. How about that light?”
Fowler honored the request and shone his flashlight. The rifle that came into sight I knew as the weapon of choice for paramilitary ‘advisors,’ but the man’s appearance shocked me. Middle-aged, indigenous, down to his hair, five o’clock shadow, and height: he’d pass for a local.
“How about number-two light?”
I aimed my light at his feet. He turned on a square light source that he had draped over his shoulder.
“Evening, gentlemen,” he said.
“Let me guess: Soldier of Fortune subscriber? Nah. More like a School of the Americas instructor,” I said.
“Very funny. Do I look CIA to you? I’ll let you know that I was born not far from here.”
“Same here, and I see how that turned out for you.”
“Watch it,” he said. He lowered the barrel level to my chest. “Remember, I’m the one with the weapon.”
“How could we forget,” Fowler said.
The man held out his hand. “The camera,” he said to me. “I want the camera. Hand it over. Now.”
He still had the rifle aimed at me. I sulked like the kid asked to do his chores. I picked the camera up by its strap. For a split second, I thought about smashing him in the side of his face with it, but he’d kill us both. Slowly. He raised his rifle for the transaction.
“You can keep the hardware. All I want is the memory card,” he said, as he unhinged the side and took out the flash card. He handed me the camera. “Thanks.” I had just witnessed the fastest, most nonviolent confiscation of personal property, hundreds of photographs. He stepped back and snapped his fingers at Fowler. “Your notes.”
“Are you sure about that? My handwriting is terrible.”
“The two of you are regular comedians.”
“The heat gets to you.”
Fowler’s answer got him the muzzle of the rifle under his chin. “It’ll be hard for you to do any of your poor penmanship, Professor, if I put your brains into the trees behind you.” Fowler showed the palms of his hands. “It’s in my shirt pocket.”
The man reached over and unbuttoned the square and reached in just like a teen went in for a feel on a date. He pulled it out. “Thanks. It’s not personal, gentlemen.”
“No, just political,” I said.
“Got yourself a sense of humor there.”
“Generalísimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”
The man’s eyebrows peaked. He smiled a vicious little grin and said, “Wise ass,” and swung the stock end of the rifle around as fast as boxer with a right hook. He hit my jaw first. I hit the ground next. The world turned sideways.
He pocketed Fowler’s journal and backpedaled his way into the jungle, rifle pointed at us. One final look, another smile, then the light was out and he was gone. We would’ve been defeated beyond redemption had he known about the tape recorder. Fowler helped me up.
“Son of a bitch knew that I was a professor,” Fowler said.
“What can I tell you? They do their research.”
“What was that crack about Franco?”
“Old joke on Saturday Night Live. Saw it on reruns. Chevy Chase. That guy, however, must’ve seen it live from the look on his face.”
The crickets throbbed and the treetops breathed. A monkey screeched.
“Hear that?” Fowler asked. I listened. A breeze whispered through the canopy overhead. We heard a hoarse cough and some grunts. “Jaguar,” he said.
“Let’s get some sleep.”