In one of the hundreds of conventionally inaccessible corners of the Andes mountains above the path of a Rio Ucayali tributary, towering cumulous red cells rolled in from the east. Lush foliage turned a deeper shade of green and rock cliffs emanated a subdued, almost metallic paleness in the oncoming change in solar reflectivity. The gathering winds blew the edges of a gray and olive green camouflage tarp tied over a miniature tent frame. Rain fell from the sky within minutes.
The small tarp tent sagged under the weight of the water coming down. A small niche in the mountain kept some of the downpour's fury from hitting the shelter, but the proximity to the incline was a two edged sword. Massive amounts of runoff were now pouring across the ground underneath.
Irwin scrambled to get the bags higher off of the ground. At the same time he thought about his son Jacob back in the part of the world he left behind. His eighteen month old little boy drove his actions, and thinking of the child made him even more determined. Irwin gritted his teeth as the atmosphere itself turned partially into water. After he secured everything Irwin pulled a seat closer to the back and waited for the rain to subside.
Although it was barely two in the afternoon the entire valley had grown dark when the storm moved overhead. The primordial rain forest at the base of the mountain grew very quiet at the coming of the clouds. The birds of the area stopped calling. Nature held its breath.
The river in the bottom of the valley swelled and raged out of control. Irwin could see parts of it far below, twisting like a snake through the jungle. Every now and then a tree loosed its hold on the wet earth, went sliding into the river and careened out of sight around the bends. The previously dry and safe area beyond the camp took on a slippery and dangerous glaze.
Irwin shook his head at the bad luck. In the morning he had to climb over the top of a ridge to the north with a gun strapped to his chest and eighty pounds on his back. He longed for the sensations of being with Jacob and his mother, Jaina. He didn't know if he would ever see her or his son again, but he would use every fiber of his being to make it through.
Five days earlier he and Jaina met their longtime friend Riley in San Mateo Juatelo. They looked forward to the reunion as a welcome respite from only speaking to Indians and occasional Peruvian government officials. Seven months on a dig in a remote corner of the Andes above the jungles left them starved for news of home and American companionship.
Looking back, aggravation pestered Irwin. If only he had found something out of place about Riley's sudden appearance. He regretted his trusting nature.
A young Indian mother watched Jacob the night Irwin and Jaina met the short, diminutive academic in a small cantina in the village. The open air establishment boasted lightbulbs hanging from wires stretched between support posts. Beer can tabs covered every inch of the wires, and at least one hundred more feet of string hung up for the express purpose of displaying the tabs. A few villagers sat at the bar, made from part of the side of a trading boat carted from the river a mile away.
The trio exchanged small talk at one of only two tables over a small repast of stew and tortillas before moving on to a round of cervezas. Nothing seemed out of place. They laughed jovially as the Foster's kicked in. Part of their amusement consisted of conjecturing over why the place had Foster's. A couple of hours ticked by. The conversation became serious out of the blue.
"We need to go somewhere private so we can talk, Irwin," Riley told the forty-two year old archaeologist. "There are things we need to discuss that are better broached somewhere else."
"What's going on, Riley?" Jaina asked suspiciously. She had known Riley longer than Irwin. The two men only met because of her. She suddenly felt tension in the air, and she didn't like it.
"It's better you not know. It would really be for the best if you waited here," Riley informed her succinctly and politely. The tone of his voice left no doubt the statement was a subtle imperative.
"Anything you have to discuss with me you can discuss in front of Jane," Irwin said with a slight trace of impatience.
"Not this. This is something she doesn't need to be part of, Irby." Riley called him Irby back in graduate school. The nickname had always been playful. Using it then didn't suit the sudden change of mood.
Irwin started to protest, but Jaina put her hand on his arm. "It's all right. Go see what big secret Riley has to tell you. I'll wait here."
Riley took that as a cue to stand up. Irwin voiced a concern, but Jaina hushed him. The two men walked from the cantina, Riley leading the way.
"Where do we need to go so you can tell me what's on your mind, Riley?" Irwin asked, with more an edge in his voice.
"There's a house around the next corner. There are some people inside I'd like you to meet."
"What are you talking about? I don't want to meet anyone."
"Irwin, you don't have a choice. This will happen. The best thing you can do is stay cool and calm, and listen."
"What's going on, Riley? What are you getting me into?"
"It's not me, Irwin. It's so much bigger than me. Here's the house."
Riley tapped on the door of a plain looking stone house in the middle of the block. In the semidarkness Irwin could discern flaking paint on the shutters that covered the windows. No trace of light inside the house met his eyes. A few seconds after the knock he heard two bars being removed from the door.
When the door opened a wiry Indian man waved them both inside with a light semi-automatic rifle. Irwin's blood suddenly ran cold. He walked into the house behind Riley, wanting at that moment to grab the small man and break him over his knee. They were led to a room with a table not far from the front door.
Four oil lanterns in wall sconces lit the room. Three men leaned over the table. It was an over constructed piece of furniture put together with big timbers and pegs. Another armed Indian stood behind them. Upon close inspection Irwin concluded that military discipline ran in the veins of one of the seated men. The way the man's shirt fit and the way that individual sat bolt upright, with perfect posture, gave off the air of someone who spent a lot of time in the chain of command. That was the person who spoke after Irwin and Riley entered the room.
"Ah, Mr. Colton. I understand you have a Visa to work on the ruins south of here. You've been here going on eight months with your wife and young son."
"Can I ask who you are and what this is about?"
"You could ask who I am, who we are, but you won't get an answer. As far as what this is about, there's something that we need you to do to assure the brightness of your future. We'd..."
"Assure the brightness of my future? That's a veiled threat. Have I done something to warrant this intrusion in my personal life?"
Riley interrupted, "Just listen, Irwin."
The military man changed tack at the interruption. "I understand that you have extensive education in a number of fields that do not appear in your formal credentials. You spent many years in the Cascades and the Olympics with your father, and the records on his life are extensive. He trained you in mountaineering and outdoor survival. It was no great leap to ascertain that he also imparted to you his not insignificant knowledge of an unseen, rugged world, including the production of explosives and other illicit materials."
"He did no such thing. Your information is wrong. Besides, I'm a scholar. My youth is a thing of distant memory. I have a great job and a family, and that's really all that I care about."
"Nobody is here to ask you to sacrifice your family or your job. We're here to make your future easier than you would ever believe. Some colleagues of mine back in the states came into possession of some of your notes from college, notes you locked away in a safe deposit box. You may have thought them untouchable."
Irwin got a sinking feeling in the pit of his belly. He knew immediately what the man was referring to. The man seated to the right of the military fellow, a balding man with pens in a pocketed shirt, passed a folder across the table. It overflowed with paper. Irwin didn't need to examine it to know what it contained. The sight of the documents proved he was in a very tight spot.
The man with the pens spoke up, "We need you to briefly liaise with some of the indigenous peoples in the remote upper foothills of the Andes. I can't give you the full details on what has led us to make this unusual request of a civilian in your position, but I can tell you it's very important. We need you to prepare one small batch of product."
"Who are you? Seriously, who are you? I refuse to discuss anything further without knowing who I am dealing with. "
"You really have no choice, Mr. Colton," the military man stated matter-of-factly.
"These people aren't members of a cartel, Irby. They're with the United States government," Riley articulated softly, soothingly. "You have nothing to worry about as far as we're concerned."
"What I'm being asked worries me. It has nothing to do with who's asking. Why would the United States government need somebody like me to do sensitive work here? We have enormous resources. This doesn't make any sense."
The third man spoke up. He wore a suit, albeit a plain one. "We've lost track of one of our contacts here. He is presumed kidnapped or dead, along with the people he was working with. "
The man fiddled with his tie as he continued, "There is a shift of power hanging in the balance right now in this neck of the woods. We may very well be able to wrest power from one of the long established cartels here if we can deliver a shipment to some individuals in Belize. We don't have much time, however."
"Why would you need to provide drugs in order to shift the balance of power? If you have this deal in the works, why don't you simply pay off the people involved and walk away with a clean win?"
"It's not about drugs that make money, Irwin Colton." This from the military man. "You have no idea what this stuff does to people. We are about to move to completely sever the supply line of what is currently South America's largest illegal organization in order to establish control over the substance we are genuinely interested in."
"People don't freak out that badly when they can't get cocaine," Irwin said. The line of reasoning didn't make any sense to him. The next words he heard slammed it all home though.
"We're not talking about an illegal drug or drugs, although there is a high likelihood some will be involved."
Irwin wasn't sure who said it. He felt the air leaving his lungs. He managed to say, "Holy..." That was all. He knew what it was all about now. He thought the whole thing had been a myth, and that he would never hear aboutit again.
The man with the pens launched into a prepared briefing. "You have a week to get the product ready. You'll be provided transportation to the rendezvous point and all the materials you need. The ingredients will be kept to a minimum in order to leave as little trace as possible after you are gone. The less to dispose of the less to worry about. On the way there you will receive all the information you need about location and extraction. "
"I just don't get it. Why don't you get somebody else?"
"Because we already have you here," the military man pronounced before getting up and walking out of a door on the side of the room opposite Irwin and Riley.
"Irwin, I'm sorry this meeting had to be arranged this way," Riley said. He almost reached out to embrace his old friend, but thought better of it. He also left.
"Wait. Wait one minute. I will not agree to anything until I have guarantees that Jaina and Jacob will be well looked after, regardless of what happens."
"You have absolutely no reason to fear for their well being. And if something should happen to you they will never have to worry about money again. That's all I have to say. You really don't have a choice in this, you know."
Irwin was led from the house on that note. Two United States service men, or so they appeared to be, fully uniformed and wearing black berets, waited outside. The Indian inside closed the door and slid the bars back into place. It was a long walk back to Jaina, but not as long a walk as he later faced.
The recollection faded. The rain slowed and stopped in the mountains. Mist still filled the valley, but the air had the aspect of fresh ionic energy. It failed to invigorate Irwin's mood. All the "careful" planning went up in smoke on the fourth day.