A Hair-Raising Tale ***
- - from the Spanish Main
PAYMENT IN KIND
By: Lorenzo Dee Belveal
Whatever the weather does in Honduras, it does too much of it.
During a so-called hot-season that lasts roughly from January, through September, the entire country approximates the seventh ring of hell when the devil leaves his door open. If deprived of shade between the hours of sun-up and sundown, humans and animals simply wither, vaporize, and disappear upward in the shimmering heat waves that radiate from every inanimate surface. By mid-morning each cloudless day, ornamental backyard fishponds contain boiling water. Asphalt streets dissolve into molten rivers of black bubbling tar. Chickens pant like lizards and lay soft-boiled eggs.
When the wind blows in Honduras, only firmly anchored underground installations can be considered safe. Hurricanes bring winds of 150 to 200 miles per hour that move buildings, relocate entire plantations, and have been known to take the hair off horses and cows as cleanly as if they had undergone all-over electrolysis.
Dramatic as these climatic excesses are, they become minor attractions when compared to a Honduras rainstorm.
Anyone who holds to the orthodox notion that rain is supposed to be delivered in individual drops., and on a predictably downward track, will be quite unprepared for a Honduras rain. Unlike other locations on our plane., gravity exerts no discernible influence on precipitational activity in this keystone of the Central American isthmus.
Rain does come down. It also arrives on the bias, on the diagonal, on the oblique, on the horizontal, and in concentric circles. Beyond this, Honduras is the only place where - for some three months of each year - it rains from the ground, up!
Some minimal appreciation for the intensity of a Honduras rainstorm may be gained from the fact that a visiting sportsman once caught a forty-two pound bass in the middle of downtown San Pedro Sula. The angler was wearing SCUBA gear and fishing from a third-floor balcony of the Gran Hotel Sula when he landed it.. Local consensus at the time held that the fish lost its way in the heavy weather and swam into town quite accidentally, from Lake Yojoa - some seventy miles to the northwest.
We were into the second week of November when the events I shall now recount began; which is to say that it had been well over a month since existence in this water soaked clime could be likened to anything short of standing under Victoria Falls with an umbrella. I had been house-bound for the entire time, except for short sallies forth to replenish my stocks of liquid and staple necessities. These forays., it must be added, had to be carefully coordinated with infrequent pauses in the deluge - when nature lets up ever so briefly to change the various angles of onslaught. As a prisoner of the ongoing inundation., I divided my time and attention between Proust, Chaucer, and Chivas Regal.
Chivas Regal, for the enlightenment of the deprived among us, is a glorious potable derived from fermented grains for potency, carmelized sugar for color, peat fires to add an indescribable pungency, and - most important of all - saintly patience. To the unimaginative, the end result is merely scotch whiskey. To a connoisseur, it is a major miracle: A liquid successor to the heavenly manna. It is also a touchstone that can transform a Honduras rainy season into a period of pleasant introspection; and a welcome opportunity to renew one's touch with the old giants of literature.
I was thus happily engaged when an insistent rapping at the door jarred me back into sober reality. Answering the commotion, I was pleased to discover that the caller was my good friend and, it might also be added, sometimes-protégé of sorts, Carmichael Xavier Brackenshaver. The name is unarguably a product of his own fertile imagination; but it makes no difference what he formally chooses to call himself, since the name is almost never used. He prefers being called "Ceex" (pronounced as "seeks") by all who hold a claim to his acquaintanceship.
I opened the door for him and he flew through it as if he was propelled, then spun and quickly threw the dead-bolt and placed the safety-chain. His state of agitation could not be missed., as he turned to face me.
"Come in! Come in," I needlessly urged him., leading the way into my sitting room. He moved unerringly to the sideboard where he found a glass and poured it half-full of whiskey from an opened bottle. Then he re-crossed the room and sank onto the sofa with an audible sigh of relief .
Man, am I glad you're here!" he exclaimed.
Likewise, to be sure," I responded. "Particularly if there is something I can do for your benefit.
You appear to be in the veriest kind of foofarah. Soothe yourself with that beaker of whiskey and tell me what has reduced you to the bundle of nerves I see before me."
He took off a huge draught of the liquor, grimaced and turned his eyes on me. "I'm in big trouble!" he declared with conviction.
"There are many kinds of trouble," I reminded him. "What looks overwhelming to you may,. to me, seem quite manageable. Would you care to expand on the considerations that have brought you to my door in the middle of what promises to be a bigger flood than Noah ever witnessed?"
"I'm gonna be killed," he stated flatly and with a tinge of regret in his voice.
"Well, now" I parried for time to think, using the pause to pour a fresh charge into my own glass. "As trouble goes, getting killed is about as big as it gets. I'l1 grant you! But before we start choosing burial clothes, why don't you apprise me of the events that have brought you so near the end of your earthly travels." He peered morosely into his glass., then emptied it in a gulp.
"Ortez is here!" He said it with a tremor in his voice. "He's looking for me!"
"Come, come, dear Ceex," I chided him, "arrange your thoughts in some reasonable sequence and give me a lucid narrative. These spurts and starts are getting us nowhere." I replenished his empty glass.
"Who is Ortez, and why does his presence put you in such a nervous tizzy? I can’t help you unless I first understand your predicament."
He took a swallow from the glass and leaned forward., elbows resting on his knees and his eyes downcast in a perfect picture of utter dejection. "Carlos Ortez is a Cuban dope smuggler who lives in Miami.," he said.
"If he lives in Miami," I replied., what in the name of common sense is he doing in Honduras - in the rainy-season? Unless he has destroyed his own mind with his illicit merchandise, he should realize that nobody with an iota of intelligence comes here at this time of year!"
"He's looking for me!" Ceex answered plaintively. "He wants to kill me!"
"How do you know this? Have you talked to him?"
"Oh. God, no! I haven't talked with him.." he assured me. "I got a phone call a little while ago from the night manager in the Guanacaste Bar. He said two Cubans were in there last night looking for John Holtorf - and that the description they gave him fit me perfectly."
"A case of mistaken identity?" I asked. "Who is this John – ah --whatever, The name means nothing to me,"
"Holtorf," Ceex supplied. "It's the name I was using when I made the deal with Ortez. Only he would know it. So it has to be Ortez."
"Might that be your real name?" I inquired in disbelief.
"It makes no difference, Ceex.," I assured him. Whatever your proper label might prove to be, I have come to know you as a gentleman and a boon companion. Whatever you lack in polish and social accomplishment you more than make up in loyalty and good humor. In view of this, I shall expend my very best efforts to make sure this blackguard fails in his quest to do you in. But first, you must give me all of the salient details - in chronological order, if you please!" I dropped an ice-cube into each of our glasses, as Ceex continued to study the carpet pattern between his feet.
"Even expatriate Cubans who make a lucrative business of international smuggling will rarely undertake murder for small or transitory reasons. Would you like to tell me what it is that you did to the gentleman that made such a deep and lasting impression on him? I can only imagine he is here to redress a wrong of impressive proportions. Nothing less than this could lure a rational being into this sovereign mud-hole in the middle of the rainy-season!"
"He thinks I owe him a trailer-load of marijuana," Ceex said. "Either that, or ten-million dollars."
The figure left me gasping for a moment. Such a princely sum, it seemed to me, could make almost any degree of hardship - short of being murdered - well worth while. "If those are your alternatives., a truckload of cannabis - or ten-million dollars, might I suggest you give him the merchandise and be done with it. This presumes, of course, that the obligation is fairly yours." I eyed him questioningly.
"Oh, I can understand why he’s pissed off.," Ceex conceded ruefully. I showed my distaste for his crass language with a frown, but allowed him to continue. "You see, I have this friend in Miami who repossesses cars. That’s his job. Anybody who gets too far behind with the payments well, my friend finds the car and takes it back to the finance company. In his business, he spends a lot of time in shopping center parking lots looking for cars to fit his pick-up orders.
"One day he's checking license plates in a mall in North Miami and gets a whiff of real strong marijuana. He bird-dogs around for a while and locates it coming from a semi-trailer at the edge of the parking lot." He sipped his drink and went on. "It's about ten o'clock in the morning when he finds it. He called me and said he figured somebody would be coming to get it as soon as it got dark. We talked it over for a while. Then I went and rented a diesel rig and picked up the trailer myself in the early afternoon."
"Nobody tried to stop you?"
"A couple of guys in a car were watching me pretty close, but I guess they thought I was authorized. Anyway, they didn't make me any trouble."
"I’m beginning to get the picture, Ceex. Please go on."
"Wel1, it seemed like a good idea to get the grass out of Miami as soon as possible. Sure as hell, somebody was going to be looking for the stuff - and I didn't want to be around when they found it. I drove the rig up into the Everglades and parked it next to al old abandoned air strip. Then I hitchhiked into the closest town and bought twenty gallons of paint and a spray-gm. It only took me two hours to change that aluminum trailer to blue - all over." He sipped meditatively.
"As soon as it got dark, I got back on the highway and headed north. I sorta figured if I got to Georgia., I'd be okay."
"Allow me to recapitulate, if you please," I interrupted him. "A friend of yours 'fingered' a cargo of cannabis that was in the process of being delivered. You rented a vehicle to pull the trailer, hitched onto it and took it into the Everglades for long enough to paint it. Then you spirited the hijacked cargo into Georgia. Niceties aside, Ceex, does this fairly cover the progression of events?"
"Yeah, I guess so," he mumbled guiltily.
"Very well. Please continue," I invited him.
"I stayed with the back roads and finally got to Fargo, Georgia. That's a little town on the west edge of the Okeefenokee Swamp. A few miles north of the town I found a farmer who was willing to rent me his empty barn. I parked the truck and trailer inside and caught up on some sleep. Then I began trying to decide what to do next."
"A pretty pickle if I ever heard one!" I offered. What did you decide?"
"Well, I got the farmer to drive me back into Fargo., and I called my friend in Miami, who had found the trailer to begin with. He was pretty upset. Scared! He said the word was out on the street that the grass I had taken was supposed to go to Carlos Ortez." He looked up at me to see if the name made an impression on me. It did not. "In case you don't know, Ortez is a real big-time smuggler; and has a reputation for being one mean sonofabitch. My friend told me that the way he heard it, Ortez was madder than hell - and that he probably had the license number off the trailer, and our descriptions."
"I'm not surprised that he was upset., Ceex. No doubt he hated to lose the cargo. But more than this, the circumstances under which you took it right from under his nose would certainly constitute a hard blow to Latin pride. Yes, Ceex., I can see where this might spawn some serious resentments on his part. Latins place great emphasis on matters of public image. Please go on."
"He hadn't paid for it yet,." he continued, "so really all he had lost was the grass. I thought this over and decided it might be smart to see that he got the shipment. Al1 the difference would be that he would be buying it from me, instead of the Columbians who brought it in."
"Not an inconsequential difference, Ceex."
"My friend was able to come up with a telephone number. I called it and talked with Ortez. Told him that his shipment was ready for delivery, provided he was willing to come to Georgia to get it."
"Was he agreeable to your offer?"
"Yeah. He wanted it. He offered me the same price he had agreed to pay the Columbians - ten-million - but he wanted to check samples."
"Understandable. He wasn’t buying a penny whistle!"
"Sure. I could see his point of view," Ceex conceded. "He agreed to send two of his people to Homerville, Georgia, to complete the deal and take the stuff off my hands."
"Capital! And did he?"
"Yeah. I met the two Ortez guys in Homerville, the following morning. I took along a plastic garbage bag filled with stuff for them to sample. They loved it. It was beautiful!"
"Get on with it, Man! What next?"
"They showed me the ten million. It was in used bills, just like we had agreed, and packed in two smal1 suitcases. I told them where to find the trailer - in the farmer’s barn, but they didn't want to do it that way. They said they didn't think we could trust the farmer. He might have figured out what was going on."
"A sensible apprehension. How did you overcome it?"
"We all went back to the farmer's place and waited for it to get dark. I gave the old geezer two-hundred dollars for the use of his barn and we headed the rig back up Highway 441, toward Homerville."
"All three of you were in the truck?"
"No. I was driving the truck and they were in their own car behind me" he explained.
"Where was the ten-million dollars?"
"I had it in the truck with me," Ceex replied.
"It's about twenty-five miles from Fargo, to Homerville, and everything was going fine. That road is narrow as hell - and as crooked as a banker! It follows right along the edge of the big swamp. I had the police-radio turned on and was scanning the frequencies when I heard them talking."
"The Georgia State Highway Patrol was all over the band - setting up a roadblock for me at the City Limits of Homerville. Man, it sounded like every cop in the southeast was coming to the party." His eyes glowed in recollection of the event.
"And did you do?" I wanted to know.
"The only thing I could do, " he replied. "There was no way I could take a side-road, because there aren’t any side-roads. And the main road was too damn narrow for me to turn around and head back south. Anyway, I had these two Ortez goons following me real close. They weren't about to let me change the itinerary without their okay."
"Good thinking., Ceex! What then?"
"I swerved ‘way over to the left side of the road and then cut hard back to the right., while slamming the brakes on the tractor. This jack-knifed the trailer right across the road. The dudes following me were plumb bottled up - unless they wanted to chase me on foot and in the dark. I grabbed the suitcases full of money and a flashlight and took off into the underbrush."
"Did they follow you?"
"I doubt it. They looked like city-types, and that swamp is supposed to be full of snakes and alligators. We had talked about it earlier. Anyway, even if they had tried to follow me, they had the whole damned Okefenokee swamp to look for me in! After three or four hours I came out on a paved road and caught a ride to Valdosta with a farmer hauling a load of chickens to market."
"A commendable accomplishment, my friend!" I complimented him. "Worthy of Agatha Christie. However, permit me to digress for an inquiry. How do you suppose the authorities got onto your game?"
"That damned farmer tipped ‘em!" "Ceex" replied vehemently. "I paid that crooked sonofabitch twice what he asked for the use of his barn for a week. I only used it two days - and he turns me in. I'm sure of it!" He shook his head in sad disbelief at the perfidy that had been worked on him.
"Reprehensible, Ceex! Truly a bounder of the first order, regardless of the nature of the business involved. I am delighted that his shameful ploy failed to trip you into the outstretched arms of John Law. Please resume your tale. I find it most engaging."
"That’s about the size of it." He held out his empty glass for another dollop, which I provided.
When I got to Valdosta - that’s in Georgia, too - I wanted to get some wheels. So I bought a pretty good Chevy sedan off a used car lot and headed south to Highway 10. I kept on 10 to Houston. That's where I bought the Cadillac and the Airstream. Traded the Chevy in on ‘em - and got more on the trade than I paid for it!" The recollection seemed to please him for some unaccountable reason. "All set up to travel, I hightailed it for Mexico City, Guatemala - and finally, here to Honduras."
"Could it be that your friend in Miami., who put you onto the cargo of smoking material initially, might be the culprit who turned the dogs on you - as the saying goes?"
"Not a chance," he answered emphatically. "One of the last things I did before leaving Texas was to buy a new pair of boots. Then I put a million dollars in the empty boot-box and air-expressed it to him. I know that guy! For a million bucks in cash, he would swear that, instead of being crucified, Jesus Christ drowned in his bathtub. -- No, Ortez got his information somewhere else. But he got it. That's all that's important now!"
"Agreed! And now he is here to press his claim against you in the most direct fashion imaginable., it would seem. If, as you have already conceded, he intends to collect ten-million dollars or kill you,, then it truly behooves us to fashion a plan for thwarting his murderous design." I studied him momentarily. "I am assuming you came here seeking my assistance?"
"There isn’t anyone else I can go to," he admitted plaintively. "You know this country. You speak the language. Just help me get out of sight until this blows over. I'll pay you whatever you want!"
"Tut-tut, my boy," I chided him gently, "what are friends for? The first order of business is to secure your personal safety." One does not pick a bird until it is down. I resumed.
"Once this is done and this unpleasantness is well behind us, then there win be ample time to convert gratitude to coin of the realm. In the meantime, did anyone observe your arrival here?"
"I don’t think so,," he said with conviction. "It's raining cats and dogs out there. I didn't see anybody else in the street,"
"Excellent. Then for the nonce we wil1 remain here and keep dry. I pulled the curtain back and peered out. A lull in the heavenly outpouring prompted a happy thought. "Since the Mayan rain god has decided to not wash us all out to sea before lunch, I shall be pleased to venture forth for provisions. Is there anything you might crave to help while away the time, as I make plans for your deliverance? Obviously you must not put your own nose outside during the daylight hours. What with a pair of human bloodhounds baying at your heels."
"I'l1 leave the grocery list up to you.," "Ceex" replied pulling a roll of bills from his pocket and peeling several off the top, "but I want to pay for it. If you can find a bottle of J&B scotch and some beer, it'll probably come in handy." He handed me the money,
"Ceex, you are certainly welcome to share the full offerings of my humble abode with nary a thought for obligation. However, if paying for an order of supplies will give you pleasure, then who am I to deny you?" I took the money from his hand donned my foul-weather gear and took to the street. As I departed , Ceex was sitting dejectedly at the windows, peering into the rain-swept grayness of a terribly dreary morning.
My foraging trip was really quite pleasant. Closer examination revealed that, consistent with his usual liberality, Ceex had given me four one-hundred dollar bills. How can one not be attracted to such pecuniary largess? I ask you! As a result, I was able to tend the needs of our larder with a truly lavish hand. In addition to a loaf of bread, a pound of margarine, coffee, eggs, bacon and a small jar of grape jelly, I purchased three quarts of J&B scotch for him., three quarts of Chivas Regal for myself, and two cases of Heinekens beer for us to share. The thought occurred that perhaps I had gone overboard on non-liquid comestibles, but with no firm idea about how long our state of siege might last, the excess - if any - seemed forgivable.
Doing business at the snail’s pace that characterizes merchandising in this backwater of civilization, along with the need to outmaneuver recurrent cloudbursts, consumed the better part of three hours. It was with a sense of real accomplishment, therefor, that I was finally able to hail a cab, stow my provisions aboard and return to my digs. The driver assisted me in transferring the merchandise from his hack to the hallway outside my door. This work concluded., I thanked him kindly, gave him two pesos in gratuity and wished him good-day. He departed murmuring reciprocal sentiments. I rapped at my door and was more than a little surprised to have it opened by a short, beefy, black-whiskered man that I had never seen before in my :Life. He reached out and grabbed a fist-full of my raincoat and hauled me into my own parlor like a sack of grain.
"What’s going on here and who are you?" I demanded to know.
"That's Carlos Ortez,," Ceex answered me from his chair in the far corner of the room. "This is Poncho Sandoval." He hooked a thumb toward a great hulk of a man who perched on the window-sill and covered the entire tableau with a pistol half the size of a cannon. "Ceex" looked completely dejected as he viewed our predicament through tired eyes. "When they knocked on the door I thought it was you. I opened it."
"Whoever you are," I fumed at them., "this is my home and you are not welcome here. If you have business with my friend, I suggest you take it up with him through proper channels.
"Now I shall ask you to leave!" I turned toward the door but Ortez grabbed my arm in a powerful grip and leered closely into my face.
"Don Guillermo - I am told that is your name, we are going no place for the time being, and if we do decide to go somewhere you are both going with us!" He hauled me back into the center of the room. "Your friend,, Johnny - or Ceex - or whatever he is calling himself this week, owes me lots of money. I am here to collect it." He looked at Ceex from a snarling countenance. "If I do not get the money I am going to make guitar-picks out of his fingernails - and I shall make a billfold out of the skin on his back." His voice was slow and steady as he glowered his rage.
"It is fortunate that you are here. It will simplify things for me. If you try to leave, Poncho wil1 kill you." The big man on his window perch bared a large inventory of gold-inlaid brown teeth in what I took to be his idea of a smile, but it didn't look a bit friendly.
"I have groceries in the hall," I told Ortez. "Would you like to bring them in, or are we to give up food and drink as part of your reign of terror?"
For an answer he pulled a pistol from the waistband of his trousers and waved it at me. "You bring in the groceries., Senor. I shall observe you. Do not try to run away or call for help, or you are dead." He went to the door and opened it about halfway. Standing behind it, he kept me constantly covered by the pistol as I transferred the provisions from the hall to the kitchen. Then he closed the door and bolted it. While this was going on., Ceex sat immobile and said not a word. His expression was the clearest clue to his despair. Finished with the grocery bags, Ortez waved me back into the sitting room and pushed me roughly into a chair,
"Now we will talk," he announced with a grin that only served to emphasize the malevolence behind it. "You," he waved his pistol at Ceex., "You make a beeg mistake when you run away with the money when the police block the roads. Bandito! I call you Bandito because you have too many names. In Florida you are Johnnv. In Honduras you are 'Seeks" What kind of name is that? It makes no difference .... You are a crook! You are a thief!" He shouted the words but Ceex made no reply.
"I have a good friend here in San Pedro Sula who is in the business of exportation. He has give me permission to use his warehouse while he is on a trip to South America. We will go there tonight when it is dark. Then you will have three days to return the money you steal from me - or replace the merchandise you lose for me." His eyes covered Ceex as unblinkingly as would the eyes of a reptile. "Unless you do one or the others, Bandito, you are a dead thief! Do not forget that."
"All of this has nothing to do with me," I declared staunchly. "You may stay here for a few hours if you wish. I agree to this only because Ceex is a friend of mine. However I have no intention of going anywhere with you,"
Ortez smiled thinly and the big man at the window turned his eyes in my direction. Ortez spoke. "Don Guillermo, it is your misfortune to have this bandito for your friend, but to me it is a comfort. If it becomes necessary for me to kill him, it may be convenient to have you to take the attention of the police from us. For this reason I shall regret to shoot you before this other business is finished - but I will do it if you try to do anything foolish," His eyes and the big pistol waited for my answer, but I was unable to frame one. Only my heavy breathing seemed to break the oppressive silence.
After a highly charged minute or two, Ortez turned wordlessly into the kitchen and returned with a can of beer. He then flipped the television onto one of the unending Spanish-language soap-operas that infest the local medium and settled himself into a chair.
I poured myself a drink and offered one to Ceex, who declined morosely. It likewise became quickly apparent that the beverage held no attraction for me. The four of spent the day like zoo-animals in a cage, rarely speaking or moving except to visit the bathroom or go to the kitchen for a snack.
Midnight had come and gone before our captors decided the time was ripe for our removal to the chosen site of incarceration. Having made the decision.. Sandoval was dispatched to bring their car up to the back door. Under the intimidating sights of their two pistols., Ceex and I were required to place a supply of edibles into the vehicle, along with several bottles of liquor and all of the beer I had purchased earlier. Then we all loaded aboard and Ortez drove us through the deserted streets to a large warehouse on the southern periphery of the city.
The site selected for our detention while Ceex tried to satisfy the claim against him, was a loft in an apparently abandoned coffee warehouse. The aroma that greeted as the doors were thrown open to allow the vehicle to enter was unmistakable. However it looked completely vacant and unused in the headlights of the car. Under the close direction of the Cubans we were herded through a door and up a long flight of rough stairs that were dimly lit by two small electric bulbs. My ascent was complicated by the fact that I was heavily laden with a variety of grocery bags and bottles. Ceex was carrying a case of beer under each arm.
The accommodations Ortez had arranged for us were more than adequate in size but fell far short of what one might hope for, in terms of amenities. The loft consisted of two rooms divided by a wall and a door. The larger space was perhaps fifteen feet wide and twice as long, Lengthwise down its center stood three large worktables; in the middle of each stood an array of balance scales, bunsen-burners, beakers and test-tubes. At first glance it looked like some sort of small chemistry laboratory. Four sofas and an odd assortment of mismatched chairs, small tables and stools were ranged around the walls. Three ceiling lights bathed the area in a sterile white glare of illumination.
Securing the door behind us with a pair of dead-bolts and a padlock, Ortez directed us to leave our cargo on a table and then steered us to our left and through a door into a medium-sized office. This space was outfitted with a battle-scarred desk on which sat a telephone. Several chairs, a steel safe and a green metal file cabinet completed the furnishings. On one side was an open door leading into an odiferously filthy bathroom, and next to it another door ajar provided entry into a storage closet.
"Sit down!" Ortez ordered., taking the swivel chair behind the desk for himself. The gorilla-sized Poncho leaned in the doorway, almost filling it with his bulk. Ceex and I found chairs. "It is now about one o’clock.," Ortez announced as he checked a large gold watch on his wrist. "It is Monday - Lunes, Bandito. You now have three days until midnight on Thursday - to give me back all of my money, or replace all of the lost merchandise. Unless you do, when twelve o'clock comes on the night of Jueves, I shal1 begin making you very - very - sorry you ever met me."
The declaration was made with a quiet firmness that did something unaccustomed to the hair on the back of my neck. Ceex blanched visibly and had some difficulty finding his voice.
"I don’t have ten-million dollars," he croaked. "I've had a lot of expenses."
"How much do you have?" Ortez asked evenly.
"I'm not sure. Maybe seven - or eight."
"Then I will take that, Bandito, and you can make up the rest of it in merchandise. I know there is a lot of merchandise to be had in Honduras. My friend who owns this warehouse does a beeg business!"
"I don't know anything about buying drugs,," Ceex declared. "This mess with you is the first time I ever had anything to do with drugs. I don't even know where to begin looking for anything like that."
The Cubans listened from behind glazed expressions. Ortez spoke. "Naturally I do not believe you, but it makes no difference. The problema is for you to solve, Bandito. Get the money. Get the merchandise. Or get killed! You have about seventy-one hours to do it."
"I'l1 try," Ceex promised, "but I can’t do it if you keep me here. I'll have to go talk to people - make arrangements. You know that!"
"You think I am a fool, Bandito? You are going nowhere! There is a telephone. You can use it, but I will listen to everything. If you try to call anyone for help, it will be a fatal mistake." He yawned hugely. "It is late. Tomorrow will be a busy day for you."
He got up and herded us back out into the larger room and onto a pair of the sofas. Poncho produced a briefcase from which he took two pairs of leg-irons. He then chained Ceex and me to our respective makeshift beds. Ortez and Sandoval took the sofas across the room from us and each of them removed their shoes.
"I am a light sleeper, Senores," Ortez informed us. "If you disturb my sleep I may decide to shoot you before morning. It is better if you do not talk. Do not snore. Do not make any sound at all!" He reached up and flipped a switch that plunged us into darkness, except for light that still burned in the office area.
"Buena noches, Senores. Hasta manana." Cradling his pistol to his chest., he fell silent. The other Cuban was already breathing heavily from his improvised bed.
Truth to tell, sleep was not on the top of my priority list. While I had done my best to maintain some patina of courage through the train of events, in my heart I knew it to be pure bravado. Disloyal as it was, I rued the day I ever set eyes on Ceex, while damning my bad judgment in going to his rescue in the matter of the outraged serving-wench. (Careful readers will recall that I had first made his acquaintance when he precipitated a great brouhaha by encroaching in the panties of a barmaid. In his defense it must be posited that he was, indeed, searching for ninety-seven dollars and fifty cents, U. S., that he felt sure he was being diddled out of.
Still, on balance, his tactic lacked finesse. He should have found a more adroit means for entering his claim. But all of this was bubble-blowing. I had sought to save him from the results of his own gaffe, and now found myself an innocent victim in what gave every indication of being a large and most unfortunate serving of undeserved retribution.)
Lying there in the near-darkness, chained to a battered sofa that felt like it had been stuffed with billiard balls, my spirits reached something like an al1-time low. While I could make no claim to knowing all of Ceex’s involvements, I was willing to wager all I possessed that he was no journeyman in the drug trade. In all of the time I had known him his recreational intake had been of a liquid nature: More specifically, scotch whiskey, wine and beer.
Moreover, although he might occasionally over-estimate his capacity by some modest amount even with "gun’ales well under", as we say, he remained a gentleman and good company for all of it.
With the fortune he owned to bankroll almost any imaginable indulgence - he had no need to engage in any manner of commerce for profit - and he didn't. Quite the contrary, he was the very embodiment of generosity; with a disregard for pecuniary matters that can only be envied by those of us who lack the personal qualities - and the funds - to make it possible. Considering all of this, I was forced to the reluctant conclusion that he was telling Ortez the regrettable truth when he swore he had no idea about how one might proceed to obtain large amounts of illicit drugs.
Nor could I offer any assistance. For thirty years I had maintained an unswerving loyalty to liquid inebriants. As for substances that might be smoked, sniffed, injected, chewed or eaten, I had not the slightest interest. Having found one's hearts desire, infidelity holds no attraction. But lying there in the gloom and wondering how many hours of life remained to me, I would have given both of my thumbs for the close friendship of a large-volume dope dealer who was willing to extend me a couple million dollars worth of ready credit.
It must have been close to first-light when the sound of an explosion nearby blasted me back to aching consciousness, from bone-weary sleep. It was a sneeze, but of monumental proportions, beginning with a long whooshing inhalation, a pause - and a reverberating blast that rattled the walls and caused the tables to dance in cadence. I came bolt upright to see Ortez scramble to his feet, pistol in hand, searching the gloom for a target. Then came the second sneezes even more powerful than the first one. This time the source stood revealed, because the force of the blast threw Sandoval off his couch and onto the floor with a bone-jarring thump, He groaned and lay there.
"Que Pasa, Poncho?" Ortez shouted. "It is a wonder I did not shoot you. I am a light sleeper. You cannot sneeze when I am asleep! I told you this before."
"I couldn't help it.," Poncho replied miserably. "Something got in my nose,"
"Well, get it out, so we can go back to sleep.," Ortez ordered.
"I can't. Carlos," the big man said. "I have what is called the allergia. Dust makes me sneeze. Animals make me sick! Gatos give me red spots all over my body. If I eat fresas then I can not breathe at all! I can not help it."
"There are no cats or strawberries in here, Poncho!" Ortez told him emphatically.
"Verdad," the big man conceded, but there is dust". He underscored his point with another sneeze that shook the roof and bulged the walls. "Then we will have to clean this place," Ortez replied, flipping a switch that bathed the room in light. He hauled himself off the sofa and came over to remove the leg-irons from me. Then he did the same for Ceex. The big pistol peeking over the top of his waistband served to discourage any ill-advised heroics.
"You will now clean this place," he informed us. "Don Guillermo, you will clean the floors. Bandito, you will clean the walls and the furniture. You will not stop until all of the dust, - and all of the cats and all of the strawberries are gone - and Poncho stops sneezing." He laughed loudly at his own joke, as Sandoval unleashed another massive sneeze. "Okay, you two. Get busy. Just remember, if you do anything I don't like, you are dead gringos. Comprende?"
Among the treasures contained in the closet at the side of the office were a pair of misshapen brooms that clung to their handles like oversized apostrophes, a mop, a pail, a couple of sponges and a vacuum cleaner. Ceex opted for a bucket and a sponge for his project, while I selected the more robust appearing brooms and attacked the office floor. With my first few sweeps of the broom, a cloud of dust arose that occluded vision and floated through the door like a gray wraith. Several monumental sneezes in rapid succession made it clear that the dust cloud had reached the Cubans where they sat in the larger room. Both Ortez and Sandoval lodged noisy protests.
"Quit that!" Ortez shouted. "You are choking us to death! The broom is no good. Is there nothing else? Get a mop."
"How do you feel about a vacuum cleaner?" I inquired. "There's one in the closet. Maybe it will be better."
"Try it!" he ordered. "The broom is no good.',
Removing the vacuum cleaner from the closet, I undertook to assemble it and, with some small assistance from Ceex, succeeded. It was the type that features a horizontal barrel that slides along the floor on a pair of runners. A long hose with a metal snout fastened into one end of the contraption, and an electric cord snaked out the other. I found an electric outlet and plugged it in. The machine sprang to life with an impressive roar. Ortez came to lean through the doorway and observe the activity, and Sandoval soon came to join us also, Anything mechanical has an almost hypnotic attraction for people to whom a machette represents the state of their industrial art.
Ceex had turned to his wall washing with great vigor, covering broad arcs with his damp sponge. I poked and prodded the metal snout of the vacuum cleaner hose into every nook and cranny.
It only required a few minutes to prove that the vacuum cleaner was a great improvement over the broom. This verity may be the precise reason for the invention of the machine in the first place, although I am not in possession of hard facts to prove it. The two Cubans observed with rapt attention.
I cant’ be sure of the moment at which the sensation became noticeable. All I discerned initially was a warm., thoroughly pleasant., satin-lined glow that began with an assortment of transient tingles., tickles, tiny muscle tremors and a feeling of euphoria that totally enveloped me. The air smelled of jasmine, golden poppy fields, a tinge of ozone like that which follows a thunder storm, dew-laden grass, newly-opened dog-wood blossoms, freshly-baked bread, and the faint sweet-damp musk of an aroused woman. The bouquet was such that I found myself inhaling as deeply as I could, and lamenting the fact that my lungs could not accommodate more of the delicious aroma.
I was not the only one affected. I saw Ceex begin to visibly sag, as his washing motions on the wall became more and more ragged. Then Ortez sat down on the floor inside the office door and rolled his eyes heavenward in an expression of unspeakable contentment and joy. Poncho Sandoval seemed to buckle at the knees initially, then he slowly slid downward inside the door opening until he was sitting in a fetal position, with his head resting on one fully flexed knee. I saw the sponge fall from Ceex’s hand. He stooped to pick it up and sprawled, face down, across the floor. With my last vestige of voluntary function, I grasped the electric cord and jerked it out of the receptacle in the wall. Then I collapsed into the swivel chair behind the desk and entered Paradise!
There is no way for me to account for the next several hours, except to say that they were filled with such a melange of dreams, sensations and heavenly experiences as to boggle coherent recollection and defy any attempt at coherent recountment. I flew through balmy scented air like a graceful bird.
I coursed through a crystalline sea in the form of a magnificent fish, sang with a choir of angels and experienced sensual delights that would have turned all of the gods on Mount Olympus quite green with envy. I became a disembodied receptacle for all of the imaginable and unimaginable pleasures. Beyond explaining! Beyond mortal experience! Beyond language!
My next brush with reality came at the hands of Ceex, as I reluctantly edged out of my glorious stupor to find him bathing my face with cold water and urging me to wake up. My first reaction was to ignore his invitation and return to my newly-discovered Nirvana, but he would have none of it. In due course he overcame my objections and, figuratively speaking, dragged me kicking and screaming back into disappointing rationality. Hauling myself erect in the chair where I had spent the preceding several hours, I noted that Ortez and his goon still occupied the same precise locations where I had watched them collapse earlier.
"Great God, Ceex!" I expostulated., "are you all right?"
"Never better.," he assured me with a crooked grin. "Man, that was some kind'a trip!"
"How about them?" I asked,. gesturing toward the two inert forms on the floor. "Are they dead?"
"Naw! Just sleeping - and we've got to keep ‘em that way until we figure a way out of this." He helped me out of the chair and, leading me around the two motionless bodies, out into the larger room. He settled me on one of the couches and returned to the office. My legs were, only marginally manageable. Shortly I heard the vacuum cleaner roar to life once more, after which Ceex came out of the office and carefully closed the door behind him.
"Now we're going to have some coffee and get our heads straightened out.," he declared expansively. *Then we've got to make some plans."
He busied himself with the preparation of coffee in a grimy pot he ferreted from a box of utensils under one of the large tables.
"In the interim," I said, "perhaps you can let me in on what has happened up to now. Man and boy I have had some exposures to a variety of paralyzing agents, but nothing like this has ever before come to my attention. If you can explain it to me, I will be most obliged!"
"Can't be sure," he admitted with a furrowed brow, "but I've got an idea. Ortez told us that the guy who owns this joint is a big drug dealer. From the looks of the place I'd say they put their shipments together here.....look at all of this equipment." He gestured at the array of equipment on the tables, then went back into the office. He turned the vacuum cleaner off., came out and closed the door tightly behind him.
"I'm just guessing, but my guess is that they hid some really powerful stuff in that vacuum bag. When you turned the machine on, a lot of the fumes from it came out into the room. We breathed it and BINGO!" He hit his forehead with the heel of his hand in a gesture of finality.
"What do you think it is?"
"Beats me!" he admitted, pouring coffee for both of us. "It sure as hell isn't grass - unless it's a strain that makes sinsemilla seem like tea leaves. Marijuana is the only dope I know anything about. I've never had any experience with the other stuff."
"Nor have I." I posited. "However, from a single encounter with this product - whatever it might be - I daresay it is in a class all by itself." I groped for words. "My vocabulary is utterly inadequate to describe its delights. If heaven offers such enticements, I’ll be packed and ready to go this afternoon!" Ceex heard me out in smiling concurrence, sipping his coffee with obvious enjoyment. "- and I'll go with you, " he murmured, "and carry your bags, but first we’ve got to find out what it is. This stuff could change the world!"
"Before undertaking that, Ceex, what about our erstwhile captors in the other room. Is it your intention to permanently dispose of them? If so, I must demur. Murder - even murder by vacuum cleaner - is not my style, much as those blackguards probably deserve it."
"I'm not gonna kill them." he assured me, "I just want to keep ‘em on ice for a while. They're doing great! In the meantime, we've got to find somebody who can do an analysis for us. We need a damn good chemist - and it's gotta be somebody we can trust!"
"Perhaps I have the man," I replied. "A recent acquaintance of mine is a Dr. J--, who has only arrived here some three months ago. Prior to joining United Fruit Company as Chief of their Analytical Chemistry department, he held a similar position with a major pharmaceutical manufacturer in Chicago. How does this possibility strike you?"
"Perfect! Provided we can trust him to keep his mouth shut."
"I see that as no problem." I replied. "Dr. J--- has become something of a regular at the establishment operated my friend Donna Ramona. We have known each other pleasantly and shared a few guilty secrets, for the past dozen weeks or so. I would have no qualms concerning his circumspection"
"Donna Ramona? - Oh, yeah! She's the dame who runs the whorehousel" he acknowledged.
"Please, Ceex! Such coarseness is un-called for. Suffice it to say that Donna Ramona is a social catalyst without peer in this cultural wasteland. Aside from her quite unique commercial activities, I find her friendly approbation well worth cultivating!" He accepted the verbal chastisement in good grace.
"Suits me.," he replied "but now we’ve got to get our, asses in gear! First we've got to take that vacuum apart and get a sample of whatever is in it."
Retrieving the machine from the office, where we were pleased to note the two Cubans were still blissfully ensconsed in the arms of euphoria, Ceex quickly fathomed its combination, Unbuckling its hinged end, a brown paper bag stood revealed. Ceex unsnapped a wire collar and pulled the elongated packet from its chamber. The bag was about half full of a grayish mixture that had the approximate consistency of dry Portland cement. Interspersed in the agglomeration were such treasures as cigarette butts, a shirt button, some coffee beans, a piece of broken shoelace and several paper clips.
"An unsightly mess if I ever saw one!" I declared. "If this is any indication of the quality-control they lavish on their merchandise, then God should grant special protection to their customers."
Ceex nodded in agreement. "You’re right about that, old buddy!"
I glared at him in response to his verbal laxity. Intemperance in speech is, on careful balance, one of the most deplorable traits of the man. At times I feel like the only one who realizes this. He tried to ignore my mute reprimand. Taking a heaping handful of the material from the vacuum bag, he put it in a plastic bag that he had taken from a stack on the table. He tied the top of the transparent container and handed it to me.
"You take this to your friend and see if you can get him to run some tests on it. I’ll get the car keys for you." Returning to the office, he rifled the pockets of the still motionless Ortez until he found car keys and another one that fit the padlock on the door.
"I’ll stay here and baby-sit that pair of apes,." he told me. "If they show any signs of getting restless I'll run the vacuum cleaner some more. You take as long as you need. We’re gonna get along just fine here! -- Oh, yeah. When you come back, how about bringing some sandwiches and a six-pack of cold beer. I'm starving!"
Ceex came down with me to open the warehouse doors and pass me through. I watched him close them carefully behind me.
The trip to LaLima was like traveling in a wheeled submarine. Rain came in torrents, obscuring the pot-holes that make Honduras roads a terror under the best of conditions. I drove in constant fear of disappearing into a watery void at any given moment. But it didn't happen. In due course I recognized and passed the turnoff to the airport. After what seemed like an eternity, the gray shapes of the fruit company compound loomed on my left. I sloshed through the gate and picked my way into a parking space not far from the entrance.
Wrapped in foul-weather gear and clutching the plastic sack in my hand, I raced through the door and into a reception room. A middle-aged woman greeted me through a small hole in a large glass partition. I gave her my name and asked to see my friend, Dr. J-. I cloak the gentleman in anonymity out of consideration for the fact that he has already been identified as a sometimes client of the most notable of the area’s innumerable brothels. Nothing is more abhorrent than a tale-bearer in substantial circles. After the briefest of waits, I was delighted to see Dr. J - emerge into the reception area to greet me warmly. There was the momentary awkwardness that occurs when people who are familiars in one area of activity suddenly find themselves on unaccustomed turf; but the feeling quickly passed.
"Don Guillermo, how nice to see you!" he declared with unmistakable sincerity, "How can I be of help to you?
I held out the plastic bag containing the material taken from the vacuum bag. "If at all possible, I would like for you to analyze the contents of this bag for me." He took it and peered at the stuff quizzically.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Perhaps we might speak a bit more privately." I suggested.
"Of course! Forgive me! Come with me." He led the way through a door and down a long corridor, then into a laboratory. He closed the door behind us and invited me to use one of the stools that stood around several white-topped tables.
"We won’t be interrupted here," he assured me. "Now, what did you say this is?" He waved at the plastic sack as I placed it on top of the marble-topped table."
"I didn't say," I told him, "but it's some kind of hallucinogen."
"That's a very wide spectrum, Don Guillermo. Is it a natural substance? A synthetic? Where did it come from?"
"From a vacuum cleaner bag," I admitted frankly. His expression changed from curiosity to disbelief.
"And you have no more information than that about the stuff?"
"Only that it has the power to transport us to the far distant side of that proverbial Cloud-13; and make stops at every heavenly amusement park along the way!" He hung on my words with open-mouthed enchantment. I continued, "Add up every physical, emotional, sensual, and mental delight you have ever experienced, heard about or imagined; then multiply this sun by your telephone number-- and then raise the result to the tenth power. If the arithmetic is carefully done you may have some modest appreciation for the nature of the genie you hold in your hand."
"You're serious!" he replied in an awestruck voice.
"Never more so, Doctor. Can you do the analysis for me?"
"I can certainly try. These damned rains have left me with a lot of time on my hands. The rains have kept us from gathering the genetic samples we need from the experimental plantations." He opened the envelope and sniffed it guardedly. Then he dumped the entire contents into a large glass petrie dish.
For the next three hours I was an interested observer as Dr. J- poked and pried at the enigma with the specialized tools of his esoteric science. Minutes amounts of the sample were mixed with fluids, weighed, examined under microscopes, spun in centrifuges, burned in vacuum bottles, combined with various catalytic agents and dilutants. He prepared four miniature cocktails from the substance and served them to a white rat, a guinea pig, a rabbit and a nondescript dog. Each of the animals sniffed the concoction with initial suspicion, then lapped it up eagerly. Within minutes they were all in deep and beautific sleep.
As each successive procedure was completed the doctor made entries in a loose-leafed workbook. As the column of entries grew he began a monotone mumbling that gained steadily in volume, but not in understandability. At last he heaved a great sigh, turned off the last of the bunsen burners and collapsed on one of the stools. He shook his head in the clearest confusion.
"Well, what do you make of it?" I asked in a voice limned with impatience.
"I've never seen anything like it - ever!" he replied softly.
"In what respect, might I ask?"
"In all respects.," he intoned almost reverently. "Guillermo, a favorite question in logic for young chemistry students involves a hypothetical 'universal solvent'. The question is usually posed this way:
"If you were to stumble across a solvent that actually dissolved everything it touched., what would you do with it? - -The answer, of course, is that you could do nothing with it! Being a universal solvent, it would be impossible to contain it in any kind of package,"
"An interesting notion,." I admitted,, "but what does this have to do with the material I brought you?"
"You seem to have found the universal hallucinogen!" he declared. "It hasn't failed a single test I've applied. It is organic. It is inorganic. It is mineral. It is chemical. It is synthetic." He went to the window and stood with his back to me, scratching his head and looking out on yet another waterspout. This one threatening inundation for the entire western hemisphere.
"I don't know what to tell you," he went on. "There are other tests I want to do, but first I have to get some additional analytical materials from the supply house." He turned to face me. "Doing a thorough job on this is going to take time! If you will leave it with me, I should be able to have your answer in three or four days."
"That long!" I demurred.
He smiled wanly at me. "Guillermo, I hardly know where to start." We walked together to the visitors' lobby, where I domed my rain gear again and we said our goodbyes. Then I headed back into the storm once more.
Arriving back at the coffee warehouse, Ceex was as animated as a child on hearing my preliminary report from Dr. J--. When I finished recounting my meeting with the chemist, he went into the office to check on our comatose captives and start the vacuum again. Closing the door on the noise and the unconscious figures, he came back to pour drinks for both of us and then sat down.
"Guillermo, old pard, we’ve got a real tiger by the tail!" he enthused. I glowered at his loose idiom but he ignored my silent rebuke. "Here is what I think we ought to do. This place is loaded with dust. Christ! It looks like it hasn't been cleaned in years. I figure that the bird who owns this place runs a lot of dope through here, and that all the dust around here is more of whatever we found in that vacuum cleaner. If so, it's just waiting to be sucked up - and I think we ought to do it."
"A capital idea, Ceex,, but how are we going to run the vacuum without adding our own bodies to the pair that already languish behind that door? I'm not quite ready to join the Cubans - in life, or in death. At least until it is certain they have revised their murderous plans for us."
"I'm with you on that one! What I thought I might do is go get a couple of gas masks. That ought to keep our heads on straight -while we do the job. What do you think?"
"It could work." I acknowledged.
"I’ll do it!" he declared, and went down the stairway two steps at a times, calling back for me to turn off the vacuum that still purred busily from behind the office door.
The ensuing thirty-six hours were devoted to capturing every speck of dust we could find and reach in the big warehouse. Ceex had, in addition to a pair of industrial gas masks that made us look like bugs from outer space, acquired a large supply of the paper bags that fit inside the barrel of the vacuum cleaner. Beginning in the office., we proceeded through the loft areas, down the stairway and into the lower environs of the big structure. The fruit of our labors was seen in the form of four dozen bags., numbered and neatly stacked in the trunk of the Cuban’s sedan.
Ceex replaced the original material into the machine, gave the smugglers another treatment and we sat down to congratulate ourselves. Without the slightest notion of what to do with it, we were convinced that we had enough of the 'Space Dust' , as Ceex called it, to put the entire population of the western hemisphere into a catatonic state.
Our state of excitement about the cleaning project was such that it was well past noon on Thursday before I was free to telephone Dr. J--for whatever additional enlightenment he had to share with me.
"I've been trying to call you since early morning," he told me, "but your phone must be out of service."
"Undoubtedly," I agreed, "since that is the usual condition of all of the telephones in this terminally backward enclave. However, I have not been at home - which could have compounded your problem in reaching me. But on to a more crucial consideration. Do you have anything more to relate concerning the material you have been analyzing for me?"
"Indeed I do!" he answered with palpable excitement. However, I think it might be best for us to meet somewhere to talk. Someplace where we can have absolute privacy. Do you have a suggestion?"
"How about Donna Ramona’s?" I replied without a moment’s hesitation. "Truth to tell, I know of no other individual in whom I place greater confidence. She will certainly make a private parlor available for us - and the other amenities she offers are bountiful to say the least. " How does this strike you?"
"Perfect! Shall we say six o'clock? That’s about right for cocktails."
"Done," and I thank you, Doctor. - -Until six., then." We rang off.
Some skimpy descriptions of Dona.Ramona and the unusual establishment over which she presides has found its way into an earlier account, so it is unnecessary to repeat it all here. Just let me say that if political and diplomatic skill were requisite qualifications for lofty public position, Dona Ramona would stand at the hierarchical apex of the ruling classes. Although heavily engaged in commercial activities that have no place in drawing-room conversations, she nevertheless holds herself to a standard of dignity and convivial decor that would be admirable in a reigning queen.
Trial and error had taught us that we needed to run the vacuum contraption about fifteen minutes each five hours. This schedule was adequate to keep the Cubans in a thoroughly flaccid state of suspended animation. Managed on this timetable, all bodily functions except pulse and respiration seemed to come to a standstill; and the Cubans resembled nothing so much as a pair of unstrung marionettes.
In view of this happy circumstance, I invited Ceex to accompany me to Dona Ramona’s for the meeting with Dr. J--. He welcomed this respite from his close custody of the two inert forms in the office. We operated the vacuum one more time, unplugged the telephone and took it with us, and locked three doors behind us to discourage the unlikely possibility of escape by our moribund captives. We stopped briefly at our respective domiciles for ablutions and fresh linen, arriving at our destination a few minutes after the appointed hour. Dona Ramona greeted us with her accustomed graciousness and warm hospitality.
‘"What a great pleasure, Don Guillermo, she effused. Dr. J- is waiting for you in the Caligula Room. He said you would appreciate privacy, so I took the liberty of hiding you away in the very best I have to offer!"
"You are thoughtful to a fault, my dear. How will I ever be able to repay your consideration?"
"No doubt we will be able to think of something," she answered mischievously, directing us through the door of our assigned parlor. Dr. J- arose to greet us. I introduced Ceex to the scientist, after which we all placed orders for refreshments and made small talk until a comely young woman had brought them for us. With glasses in our hands, the three of us situated ourselves around a low, ornately carved table and seized on the topic that had brought us together.
"You sounded quite excited on the telephone," I began. "Is the substance I gave you really all that unusual?"
"Don Guillermo," the man opened in a tone usually heard only in cathedrals, "I am convinced that you possess a substance that is unique in all the world!"
"Is it a single strain, or a conglomeration, as we discussed earlier?"
"I don't know. I think it is a compound, but something very strange has happened. Something that very rarely occurs in chemistry. The resulting material I have been working with for the past two days is much, much, greater than any mere sum of its component parts, Don Guillermo. I don't know how it might have happened, but the conglomeration defies definitive separation, isolation and component analysis."
"I don't understand.," I admitted in confusion. "Can you be more explicit for us. We are not chemists, you know."
"Don't think yourselves at any disadvantage because of it," he said. "I am a chemist., and all my greater knowledge accomplishes is to let me operate at a higher level of confusion. I’ll begin at the beginning." He took a long draught from his glass and leaned forward across the table.
"I told you before, it tests both organic and inorganic. It is both a natural and a synthetic substance. Also, it contains a positive electrical charge - and no amount of dilution alters this.
"As for specific components the list reads like a hallucinogenic pharmacopeia: I have identified cannabis, peyote, lysergic acid diethylamine, caffeine, nicotine, psilocybin, barbiturates and papaver somniferum - that's the opium poppy. Also," he went on reading from a pocket notebook, "there is jimson weed, betel, amanita muscaria - the so-called ‘magic mushroom, belladonna, both butyl and ethyl alcohol, chlorpromazine, dilaudid., coca leaf and refined cocaine, dimethyl triptamine and raw hashish." He took another sip from his glass and rolled his eyes heavenward. Those are all organics.
"Coming now to manufactured and/or synthesized materials, we identified elements or trace amounts of such things as amphetamine, benzedrine, codeine, seconal, heroin, nembutal and morphine - an alkyloid. Also evident is a substance known as STP which, in the street translates into "Serenity, Tranquility & Peace" or "Scientifically Treated Petroleum." He flipped to the next page of his notebook and went on.
"From the family of esoteric herbs and occult substances, I identified ginseng, dried banana skins, nutmeg, rhinoceros horn and cactus resin." He looked up from under lowered eyelids. "Under miscellaneous, add what appears to be a trouser button, a small safety pin, some coffee beans, two well-used toothpicks and three rubber bands. Also we can't overlook a pair of theater ticket stubs that appear to have been purchased in a year ago in Hialeah, Florida."
He closed the sma11 pad, returned it to his pocket and emptied his glass in a draught. The three of us sat silently for at least two full minutes. The only sound was the ticking of a large clock on the mantle.
"My God!" I murmured,, "The inventory reads a dope fiend’s celestial cornucopia. What do you make of it?"
"Either there is something utterly and absolutely new in that bag," he placed a small glassine envelope into the middle of the table, "or we are looking at a blending of hallucinogens that absolutely defies imagination. If this was done by design, it has to be the work of years - and from the mind of goddam genius!
"How else could it have been produced?" Ceex asked.
"At the risk of sounding like an idiot." Dr. J--- replied with obvious reticence, "it just might be an incredible accident." He hurried on with his justification. "I only say this because of the odd circumstances under which this material came into your hands. A vacuum cleaner bag is hardly the receptacle a researcher would choose to hold the components - or the results - of such protracted labor! While there is no way I can imagine to calculate the odds against such an occurrence, it has to be conceded that it could happen. --Oh, one further thing that I forgot to mention: It is luminescent!"
"It’s what?" Ceex asked in a tone of total frustration.
"It’s luminescent. It glows in the dark when agitated."
"Jeezus Keerist!" Ceex exploded. "You make it sound like we've located the Holy Grail - or King Solomon's Mine."
"Or more than either of those," Dr. J- offered in complete sincerity. "I don’t mean to pry, Gentlemen. However, if there is more to this story than you have told me; for instance, if you have a formula from which this substance can be replicated, it will make you rich beyond your dreams of opulence!"
He studied our faces for a signal, but none came. "Unfortunately, perhaps," I assured him as a fresh round of drinks arrived for us, "the limited information I gave you constitutes our total knowledge on this topic. Our discovery of the stuff was the veriest kind of accident. I was merely seeking a way to facilitate some long-deferred housecleaning. When I started the vacuum cleaner all that followed was as much a surprise to us as if it had been an earthquake."
"Don’t feel too badly about it," he told us. "I find it hard to imagine anyone being able to put a price on just the contents of that sack you brought." He fingered the little plastic envelope as if it were an icon.
"Speaking of money and things like that," Ceex interposed, "you went to a lot of trouble for us and we appreciate it. I'd like to pay you for your work, if you'll tell me how much it is." He reached toward his wallet pocket, but Dr. J- stopped him.
"Since you say you have more of this, perhaps you will give me this lab-sample in payment for my work.." the Doctor suggested.
"Our pleasure, Doc, and if you need a refill, don't hesitate to let us know," Ceex agreed without hesitation.
"This will be more than ample, I assure you. It's just that after hearing you describe the effect of this substance, and having watched the laboratory animals as they experienced it, I can't resist the temptation to sample those same feelings!" He opened the envelope and took a tiny pinch of the grayish powder between his thumb and forefinger. With his hand poised in mid-air he paused, looking at the two of us. "Will you join me, Gentlemen?"
Without waiting for an answer, he ceremonially distributed a minuscule sifting into each of our glasses. Then we raised our magic libations in symbolic unison and silently toasted the ineffable discovery.
The next several hours are impossible to describe with any sense of reason or continuity. I do recall that our first recruit was Dona Ramona, herself. Upon first observing the dramatic escalation of our merrymaking she sought to credit it to an unaccountable improvement in the quality of the liquor she was serving.
When I briefly explained the real reason, nothing would do but that she be allowed to sample our magic potion. Shortly thereafter she ordered the doors locked and barred against any additional clients. For those of us fortunate enough to be locked inside the establishment on that fateful night, it was an experience we shal1 treasure to our last moment on earth. As some anonymous reveler declared in the thick of things, it had to be a night to compare with the best heaven has to offer.
In addition to Dona Ramona, who presided over the festivities with a Bacchanalian flair and unfettered imagination, her dozen or more lovelies drank their potions and joined the activities with an abandon last seen when the gods romped with earthlings on Mount 0lympus. Several local businessmen, an embassy attache’, an airline pilot and an army Major, along with Dr. J-.. Ceex and myself, made up the balance of the company.
The good Doctor dispensed the magical substance with the most painstaking exactitude; not out of penury, but with an eye to keeping us balanced on the absolute apex of functional efficiency and sensual appreciation. His practiced hands fine-tuned our respective states of receptivity and response like a Concert Master brings his string section to perfect pitch, and then led us on to experiences and sensations never before vouchsafed to mortals. We were nothing short of Herculean as the substance transformed us to reincarnations of mythological gods and goddesses.
Our total perspectives fell under the enchantment of the night. The strains of music that filled the rooms became substance: to be felt and tasted as well as heard! We floated and swam in the velvety chimera of melodic sensuosity - as if it were an ocean of palpable eroticism beyond imagining. We danced as sylphs, comporting in a golden void. Like dust motes floating in a beam of morning sunlight.
We cavorted and passed by; paired and parted; laughed and loved with the happy abandon of beautiful children turned loose to romp through an existential sky full of white clouds, and over the hills and valleys of an Elysian landscape. Time and dimension dissolved into a glorious immediacy that surrounded us in the sights, sounds and sensations of every conceivable pleasure - and that utterly filled our beings and constituted our cosmos.
Individuality gave way to a complete amalgamation in which we merged and mingled like the atoms in matter…...both giving and receiving whatever we possessed or craved; without the slightest thought for social forms or strictures. We were above such mundane concerns: Immortals, impelled only by our common strivings for the ultimate levels of unalloyed delight.
Regardless of the stimulae, a time comes when strength is gone; when senses are sated; when one’s very survival depends on a return to reality and a time for physical restoration. It was nearing daybreak when Ceex came to coax me from Dona Ramona’s capacious bed, and to remind me that some other pressing concerns had claims on our attention. Reluctantly I stirred myself awake and, after the warmest salutations to my still-horizontal hostess, went along with him.
The rain persisted, but nothing could dampen the golden glow that suffused every fiber of my being. I closed my eyes and spent the entire trip savoring transient wisps of the delicious night now ending. I could only wonder if the immortal Omar could have ever known the tiniest silver of the 'paradise' I had so recently departed. My reverie was ended by our arrival at the warehouse. I swung the big doors open and Ceex drove the machine into the cavernous building once more.
Since our fleshly engagements had detained us well beyond the five or six hours during which we knew the Cubans would remain totally inactive, it was with some trepidation that we went quietly up the stairs to the loft. Among our other precautions, we had taken the pistols from our captives. Hence, we felt adequately armed by the rough clubs each of us had picked up on the floor below. Ceex unlocked the loft door and flung it open, his bat at the ready. His apprehension was unfounded.
Ortez slouched at one of the tables, idly tracing geometrics with his forefinger in some sugar that had spilled. Poncho Sandoval sat flat on the floor just inside the office door, carrying on a mumbled conversation with the attachment on the end of the vacuum cleaner hose. Both men looked up listlessly as we entered, and then they returned to their mindless diversions. Keeping our clubs at the ready in case of some trickery or other, we moved into the room and around to the far side of the long tables.
"How’s it going?" Ceex asked guardedly.
"I'm hungry!" Ortez replied in a plaintive wail.
"Me, too," Sandoval concurred from his place on the floor.
"Who are you?"' Ortez asked in obvious confusion.
"Don’t you remember us?" Ceex asked in clear disbelief.
"No. Are you our friends?" Ortez queried., studying us closely.
"We sure as hell are!" Ceex assured him. "I'm sorry we were gone so long,. but we are your real amigos! He shot me a quizzical glance. "We’re gonna fix you something to eat now." I put the box containing our food supplies on the end of the table and began preparing sandwiches. Sandoval continued his mumbled monologue with the vacuum cleaner nozzle.
"'Where is this place?" Ortez inquired, as I handed him a sandwich and Ceex passed a beer to him. "Are we in jail?"
"No - no! You are on a trip. It’s like a vacation," Ceex humored him. "Don't you like your vacation?"
"Not much. I want to go home," Ortez-whined.
"Me too!" his henchman pleaded.
"Where do you live?" Ceex asked gently.
"I forget" Ortez said dreamily.
"Me too. I forget where I live, but I want to go home," Poncho said, munching listlessly on his sandwich.
"Well, we're gonna fix that for you," Ceex promised. "You eat your sandwiches like good boys, and then we'll figure out how to help you get home!" Both of them mumbled their gratitude.
By just observing the pair it was perfectly clear they had totally slipped their moorings to reality. They munched at their repasts and sipped at the beer in dispirited dejection, paying not a whit of attention to us nor anything else around them.
"Damned if they ain't absolutely peaceable" Ceex remarked.
"Hardly the word.," I corrected him. "You might expect the same results from pre-frontal lobectomies. They're a pair of boiled potatoes!"
"You suppose it's permanent?"
"Being less than an expert on matters of this kind, I hesitate to speculate. However, they don't show any signs of dramatic recovery," I pointed out. "On the other hand., Ortez seems to have lost interest in his complaint against you. He hasn't threatened to kill you in the last hour. I find this reassuring."
"I’ll drink to that," Ceex agreed, "but what are we going to do with them? I'm not sure enough about his change of heart to be willing to spend another night in the same building with them - unless we crank up that vacuum cleaner again."
"Only in the face of clear necessity," I protested. "In light of their present conditions, I'm fearful that another session or two in their dream worlds might prove excessive. Disposing of a brace of Cuban corpses is not an assignment I would relish, regardless of how richly they might deserve such an end.
So what do we do? Just walk off and leave them here?
"By no means., Ceex! We’re in uncharted waters. Their recovery might prove to be no less dramatic than their present debility. If so, we could find ourselves right back at square-one!"
"If we don't want to kill ‘em - and we can't leave ‘em here, just whatinhell do you suggest?" His tone turned petulant. "I’m tired of baby-sitting these bastards."
"My feelings, also, Ceex. Therefore, it is my thought that our best course of action is to ship them back to Miami, without further delay."
"Can we do that?" he asked in patent disbelief.
"I’m sure it can be arranged, provided their travel documents are in order. Moreover, it seems the safest of assumptions that people who conduct international traffic in narcotics would be the souls of discretion in keeping their passports and visas in impeccable condition!"
My presumption proved correct. The same briefcase that had contained the leg-irons Ceex and I had worn, also held U. S. passports for the pair of them, along with 90-day visas bearing the imprimatur of the Honduras Consul, Miami., Florida. Of course the whole kit and kaboodle could have been forgeries, but they proved quite sufficient for arranging the departure of the pair - when accompanied by a one-hundred-dollar bill.
The emigration official at the Villeda Morales airport palmed the money in a single motion and stamped exit permits into the passports without an upward glance.
It was still the better part -of an hour before the flight was due to depart, so Ceex and I escorted our charges up a flight to the cantina. We ordered scotch whiskeys for ourselves and a pair of Cuba Libres for our departing visitors. If they appreciated our gesture of belated hospitality, they failed to acknowledge it.
As a modest precaution against last-minute contretemps, I dusted the tiniest, most minuscule serving of the gray powder into their drinks. They downed them to the last drop, albeit without much enthusiasm. When the flight was announced we steered our limber-kneed companions to the boarding gate and obtained permission to help them onto their aircraft. I explained in my flawless Spanish that they were a tad under the weather due to some strenuous dissipation. The gate attendant looked them over and seemed on the verge of turning us back until Ceex wiped that thought out of his mind with a crisp, new bill. I’m bound, If Hondurans controlled eternal life, a pawnbroker could buy it for a bland expression and one-hundred American dollars.
With the Cubans firmly buckled into their assigned places, Ceex and I bade them Bien viaje, and returned to the terminal observation deck, from which we watched the plane taxi out to the end of the runway, then turn to race down the runway and soar into the air. As it lifted up over lush greenness of the banana plantations we turned to each other for a firm handshake and unspoken congratulations for a most satisfactory end to a highly uncomfortable piece of business. For my own part, it felt as if - after several days of having the Cubans sitting on my chest - they had decided to get off.
Some modest odds and ends remain to be cleared away.
Most importantly, vacuum cleaner bags numbered 2- through -48 proved to be full of warehouse dust. Nothing more. The sojourning owner of the building may still be wondering how his premises became so unaccountably clean.
Since the Cubans had never mentioned anything about their automobile, and since it was clearly impossible for them to take it along on the plane as baggage, Ceex suggested that we view it as a kind of going-away present. I had no difficulty getting an army Major, whom I know on quite intimate terms to arrange for a new title and registration in my name.
It was close to a week after we had seen the Cubans off, that Ceex stopped by my rooms for an hour of pleasant conviviality. When he was ready to leave, he handed me a cashier’s check. Glancing at it, I saw the number "1" followed by a string of zeroes that put me in a state of shock. Unable to speak,, I stood gasping like a land-locked trout, while he squeezed my hand and thanked me.
"This is much too much, Ceex," I babbled. "Your generosity exceeds all of the bounds of either reason or expectation," I told him.
"You saved my life," he said simply. "How can we put a price-tag on that?" Then he left.
One further thing. We divided the contents of vacuum bag No. 1 into two equal parts. I have no idea what Ceex did with his portion, nor do I care. As for my share, I gave a small envelope of the stuff to Dr. J- and another to Dona Ramona. The balance of it is close by, but not where one might consider it easily available. The city's minions have been redoing a paved area in the middle of Parque Central.
I happened by their project on the morning they began pouring cement and, without being observed, managed to drop a plastic bag into the bottom of their excavation. Then I stood by and watched them put a foot of wet concrete over it. While I couldn’t bring myself to just throw it away, neither did I want it too ready at hand, if you follow my drift.
What with my new-found affluence, life seems sweet enough without major chemical alterations. When some modest adjustments are called for, a glass of scotch whiskey is the perfect tool. Sometimes I recall that night in Dona Ramona’s and briefly lament my inability to recapture the experience in its entirety. But the feeling is short-lived. Such out-of-this-world adventures are not meant to be indulged in this incarnation.
How did the poet put it?
"If man’s reach does not exceed his grasp, what is there a heaven for?"
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