I climbed the stairs once again to DEA Central. “A repository for information about the illicit drug trade in South America. A central hub sustaining without bias the international community of anti-narcotic enforcement agencies, worldwide. Featuring open access to experts in the field of narco terrorism, drug agriculture, manufacture and transport. Bilingual education and training provided at no cost to military and police agencies...” Those strategically placed “articles” were true enough but failed to note that the entire operation consisted of three junior DEA agents. Or that we came courtesy the American taxpayer, “trickle-down” economics and an actor-turned-politician now in his second term as president.
I turned the corner onto the third floor landing and immediately locked eyes with Bob Keizer, standing with hands in pockets and his shoulder to the wall at our office door. He grinned at me.
“Look who’s back.”
Brian Ness was kneeling before the door peering at its lock. His glasses were on his forehead. He looked up, adjusted the lenses and grinned also.
I skipped up the last couple of steps and they greeted me with back slaps and handshakes.
Agent Keizer was a gregarious, bearded man who was always laughing. He was an incessant practical-joker not above slipping a whoopee cushion under one’s chair at an inopportune moment. Agent Ness (we sometimes called him “Eliot,” referencing the famous Untouchable he claimed as a distant relative) was tall, curly-haired and always in love with some girl or another. The three of us had gotten very close working together in Colombia.
“What’s with the door?”
“The lock’s been jimmied,” Brian said kneeling. “Take a look.”
I did. Sure enough someone had taken a screwdriver to it.
“I came in last night to look around. The door worked then.” I peered in the crack between the door and the jam. “The deadbolt isn’t set. Let’s force it.”
We put our shoulders to it and after a couple of tries the door sprung open. We tumbled inside. I turned on the lights.
Colonel Raiz was there, out of uniform, turning slowly. It took me a moment to comprehend that he wasn’t standing. He wasn’t sitting either. He was hanging. A cord double-wrapped around his neck was stretched to an exposed beam in the rafters. His toes were no more than an inch or two above the tile.
The three of us studied him silently.
After a moment Bob Keizer turned to me. “Friend of yours?”
I shrugged. “Not exactly. You know him, Bob. That’s Colonel Raiz.”
Bob stepped in closer and eyeballed him. The Colonel’s eyes bulged and his tongue protruded from his mouth. “It sure is.”
“What’s he doing hanging around here?” Brian asked.
I related to them what Carlota had told me about Colonel Raiz’s visit to our office the day before and what happened subsequently to her.
“She must’ve been scared silly,” Brian said.
We eyed the dead man a long moment in silence.
“What did he want to talk to you about?”
“How the hell should I know?”
Carlota’s chair was overturned near the body. Brian picked it up and stood it back on its casters. “Why would he commit suicide here?”
I walked around him. His hands hung awkwardly, frozen behind. I looked at them. “He didn’t commit suicide.”
I pointed to the Colonel’s wrists. They weren’t tied but were raw and red from having been bound. On the floor below him were thin strands of rope material.
“Someone’s cut the cord away. This is a message for us.”
Brian clucked his tongue. “Fax me a memo, people.”
“From who? The Colombian army?”
I shrugged. “Could be one of the cartels.”
“Or maybe the FARC.”
I thought a moment. “He said he wanted to talk to me and only me. And that the Judicial Police were after him.”
We glanced at each other nervously and repeated in unison:
“The Judicial Police!”
Bob bit his lower lip.
“If the boys in jackboots did this they’ll be back to ‘discover’ him hanging here. They’ll turn this place upside down. They’ll ask us questions about how he got here.”
“Questions we can’t answer,” Brian added.
“There’ll be no end to it,” I said.
“They’ll prove this wasn’t a suicide and…”
We eyeballed one another. It was as if we’d each read the same crystal ball. None of us liked the future it foretold.
Magically a knife materialized in Brian’s hand. It opened with a “click.” Bob whipped Carlota’s chair into place under the Colonel. Brian stood upon it, rising, unsteady, cursing when it rolled a bit on its casters. Bob stabilized it. I locked arms around the dead man’s chest like it was South Seas bounty. Then Brian reached to saw at the cord as near the rafter as he could and just above Colonel Raiz’s head. When it snapped I discovered that dead weight is called that for a reason. The Colonel was awkward and unwieldy. The three of us settled him, finally, into Carlota’s chair. Then we stood back and looked at him.
We thought a moment.
“Let’s carry him downstairs,” Brian said.
“And do what?” Bob asked. “Leave him in the lobby?”
“The Judicial Police are probably out there right now, on the street staking us out. They’d love to catch us trying to move this guy.”
“How about taking him to the roof?” Bob offered.
That made no sense.
We looked at the dead man. He was a problem.
“Wait a minute,” I said suddenly. “What day is it?”
“They pick up the garbage on Tuesdays. Don’t they?”
Brian nodded and checked his watch. “They come by pretty early.”
“What say we get him into a garbage can?”
They looked at me and shrugged. No one had a better idea.
I swung open the door but before we could roll the Colonel through it I heard footsteps in the stairwell.
“Hold it!” I hissed and waved off Bob and Brian. We froze to listen.
A familiar big voice boomed, “Our cabbies back home should be so helpful. That man was extremely polite. Did you tip him, my dear?”
“Of course I did, Dad.”
I could hardly believe my ears! Or my eyes. Sure enough the Reverend Bishop Ferdinand Vogt and his pixie-like daughter rounded the corner onto the third floor landing, huffing up the stairwell. I shoved the others back into the office, closed the door and threw my body against it.
I listened in disbelief.
“Here it is at last,” I heard Doris Vogt saying as she approached. “‘United States Drug Enforcement Administration.’” She was reading the brass nameplate on our door. “I’m sure Fritz is in.”
She rapped politely.
I scratched behind my neck. I could not for the life of me figure why Doris and her father were out there.
She rapped at the door a second time, more firmly.
I closed my eyes and drew a breath, then made a decision. I motioned to Bob and Brian to back away. Quickly we rolled Colonel Raiz through the curtain of strung beads and bamboo to Bob’s and Brian’s office. The chair’s casters squeaked as they turned under the weight. I put a finger to my lips and left my two fellow agents there in the dark.
Doris knocked a third time on the door and I called to her:
“There. You see, Dad?” Her voice was muffled. “He is in.”
I calmed myself, took a breath, and opened the door. Feigning surprise, I stepped back with a gasp.
“My goodness,” I said. “The God Squad!”
The Bishop bellowed at that and I ushered them chuckling into the reception room.
“What in heaven’s name brings you to DEA Central?”
“Well,” Doris said, “you know Dad is looking to establish an office in Bogotá.”
“He needs one to support his missionary efforts.”
“Pre-mission,” I corrected.
“Doris tells me there are vacant offices here in this fine old building.” The preacher stood erect, stretching to his full height in the center of the room—just where Colonel Raiz had dangled moments earlier. Threads from the cord that had strung him there, frayed by Brian’s quick work with a knife, brushed against the top of Ferdinand’s white pompadour. He batted at it blindly as though it were a fly.
I glanced at Doris.
“Who told you that?”
“You did. Don’t you remember? It’s true, isn’t it?”
I shrugged. “I think so. Yes. On the second floor there are vacant offices.”
“The second floor is better, Dad. Not so many stairs.”
He batted at the threads again. “I’m not so old as to be bothered by a few stairs, Daughter.”
“And so I said to Dad,” Doris continued, flashing her eyes at me, “‘Name a place safer in all of Bogotá than an office next to Fritz and the DEA.’”
She was quite proud of herself.
I laughed at that, though not too hearty a laugh.
“So would you mind, Fritz?”
“Showing us your office.”
My face fell.
“Certainly, young man!” Ferdinand boomed. He slapped me on the back. “I imagine they’re all basically alike in this wonderful old house.”
“Oh,” I raised my voice and spoke to the curtain of beads and bamboo. “You’d like a little tour of our office, you say? Well, certainly.”
I immediately heard the distinct squeak of the casters on Carlota’s chair. I directed the Vogts attention to her desk.
“This is where our assistant sits. This room serves as the reception area.”
“It is a wonderful old house, Bishop. Probably two hundred years old.”
I parted the beads and led Doris and her father through them. Bob Keizer and Brian Ness sat quietly in the dark at their desks. Brian was writing on a yellow note pad and Bob was reading—in the dark. They rose to their feet. I introduced the two of them to the Vogts and explained our various roles.
“How interesting!” Ferdinand effused. “But tell me, Fritz, don’t the lights work?”
I flipped a switch and the room brightened.
“Sometimes we toil in the dark,” I explained, “because without air conditioning it can get awful warm in these little offices.”
“Oh!” Doris said. “There’s no air conditioning, Dad. Will that be a bother?”
“No bother at all! And these offices aren’t small, Fritz. They will do nicely for our purposes. What’s in here?”
He indicated the passage under the clock to my office.
I glanced at Bob and Brian and their eyebrows shot up. Brian gave a little shake of his head.
“Why, that’s my office, Bishop,” I said. “Would you like to see it?”
Doris looped her arm through mine. “I certainly would, Fritz.” She smiled up at me.
I said to Brian, “I believe I left some confidential papers on my desk. Would you mind checking on them before we take our guests in there?”
“Not at all,” Brian said smiling as he passed into my office. At once I heard casters squeaking.
I turned to Bob and said: “I’m certain the Bishop would be interested in the agricultural aspects of the drug war.”
“He would?” Bob was surprised.
“He’s from Des Moines. They grow corn there.”
“They do indeed, young man.”
“Tell him a little about… um, defoliants.”
The preacher looked at me quizzically.
“You’ll find it… um, interesting.”
Bob rattled off some statistics and reviewed the composition of a variety of defoliants used in Colombia including the Vietnam war-era defoliant Agent Orange. Doris and her father listened politely until Brian returned. I glanced at him and he made a motion, jerking his head in the direction of the balcony at the back of my office. Then he shrugged. It was the best he could do.
I interrupted Bob, cutting him off. He, Brian and I then ushered the visiting missionaries into my office, my inner sanctum. I showed them my desk and work area. I opened the cabinet and showed them the arms cache. They were impressed. The office was a bit cramped but suitable. Ferdinand liked it. We talked a little about transportation in the city. I assured the Bishop that he would not need a car. “Between the bus system and taxi cabs it’s quite easy to get around.”
“I’ve found the cabbies here to be very helpful,” he said.
“And locally anything you need is within walking distance of this building.”
“Anything you need?” Doris repeated, smiling quixotically.
The look she shot at me was curious. For some reason I flashed upon Ana Maria and my afternoon walks to see her at the theater. It was as if Doris knew all about that and everything else about me. It was spooky. I furled my brow.
“What’s back there?” the Bishop asked, pointing. He was peering outside through the glass door at my balcony. You could see the bougainvillea fluttering in the breeze, a few baskets and clay pots.
“It’s a small porch overlooking the avenue below. They call it el balcón, the balcony.”
“How lovely. Can we see it?”
I blinked twice.
Doris said, “Where’s the bathroom?”
I turned to her.
“Uh-huh. El baño.”
“There’s one on every floor.”
“We should look at it, Dad. You’ll need one close to your desk.”
The Bishop harrumphed.
Bob volunteered with some enthusiasm to show them the bathrooms. He led them back through the office.
As soon as they left, Brian and I dashed to the balcony. Colonel Raiz was entering the phase of postmortem rigidity known as rigor mortis. His stiffening body was slipping from the chair, half in and half out of it. His arms were straightening, his legs sprawled. To hide him from view, Brian had grabbed the first thing he could think of, the Colombian flag we kept on hand to display on certain holidays. He’d tossed it over him.
I glanced down to the street below and swore under my breath.
Brian looked too.
A black Volvo cruiser with tinted windows came sliding to a halt. It double parked before the entrance to our office building on the corner. Another just like it came from the opposite direction and pulled up nose-to-nose with the first. Doors opened and five uniformed men stepped out. I recognized one of them—the fellow whose handkerchief I’d soiled with engine grease.
“Here they come,” Brian muttered.
A sixth man stepped from the first cruiser, exiting the rear seat. He was not wearing the jackboots and uniform of a policeman. Instead he wore a dark suit, narrow tie and a canvas-colored overcoat with its collar up. As soon as he stepped from the car he drew a pair of dark glasses from his breast pocket and slipped them over his eyes. He paused to light a thin cigar and then barked instructions to the cops. He sent two scurrying around to the back of our building. He left another at the entrance. The others followed him through the front door.
Brian and I glanced at the rigid Colonel and then eyed each other a long moment. Brian drew a deep breath and sighed.
“What now, boss?”