Selected as a Finalist for 2021 Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award for Best Thriller!
The Brazilian Amazon
Falcão checked the man’s cage every hour, on the hour.
He knew little about the man imprisoned inside, except that he was a very dangerous man that the people in charge wanted to break. He didn’t know why. He was only a guard, recruited by a Brazilian firm with a polysyllabic acronym for a name. He had been hired on a one-year contract to do security work at an off-the-books compound hidden somewhere deep within the Amazon rainforest.
He was not permitted to talk to the prisoner, except to give him basic orders—stand back from the door, stick your arms through the opening in the door, that sort of thing—the kind of commands that required no verbal response. Only obedience. Immediate and absolute obedience.
Even though it was rumored that the Americans were the real owners of the compound, he had never actually seen an American onsite during his six months there. At least not that he knew of, that is. Everyone he encountered at the camp spoke Portuguese and a few even spoke the native dialect of one of the various indigenous tribes that, until recently, were lost to the modern world, hidden deep within the thick, impenetrable jungle.
He assumed they were all Brazilians, but he really had no way of knowing short of asking, and idle questions were frowned upon. Seriously frowned upon.
The man in the cage looked like a wild animal. They had not allowed him, not even once, to shave or cut his hair during the entire time he had been held there. Eight months. The jailer couldn’t even tell the man’s age. He might have been in his thirties or he might have been in his fifties. He had no idea. The cramped cell made it difficult for the man to do much of anything except sit, stand, or lie down in a fetal position.
Even though he had seen the man at least ten times a day, every day, for the past six months, Falcão—pronounced fall-COW—probably would not be able to pick him out of a two-person police lineup if the man ever cut his hair or shaved. He suspected that was the whole point, that no one should ever know who the man was.
Still, Falcão could not help but wonder.
The prisoner’s hair was a light, mocha brown color, while his eyes were dark as coal. That matched him with about seventy-five percent of the population in the world. He did not get down on his knees to pray five times a day, so he probably wasn’t a Muslim. That at least eliminated a couple billion people from the mystery surrounding his identity…at least, he thought it did.
His long, filthy beard made it impossible to distinguish his facial features. He could be Asian, but Falcão didn’t really think so. No, the man was almost certainly a Westerner, whatever the heck that meant these days. Culture and ethnicity were not necessarily the same.
He had once walked in on one of the man’s interrogations, which was being conducted in Spanish, so he assumed the prisoner was either a Spaniard or a South American. Maybe even a Mexican or a Central American. He didn’t know for sure, though. He could even have been an American. He had heard that lots of people in the United States speak Spanish.
The only real distinguishable characteristic of the man in the cage was that he was tall, very tall, at least a foot taller than Falcão.
The man was sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep. He was curled up in a fetal position because the cramped bed of lice-infected straw was at least a foot too short to accommodate his lanky frame. His body faced away from the door, toward the cinderblock wall, his only movement coming from his steady, rhythmic breathing.
He glanced down at the luminescent dial on his cheap Chinese wristwatch. It was just past three in the morning and everyone else in the camp, perhaps even the other guards, was sound asleep. Everyone, apparently, except Falcão.
Who was this man? he wondered, and why is he being singled out for such harsh treatment?
There were only four prisoners currently in the compound, which had the space and staff to handle at least thirty people. One of the prisoners had died a few days earlier. Falcão and two of the other guards had buried the man’s body in a shallow grave about a hundred yards outside the compound fence.
Each of the other prisoners was permitted two hours a day of exercise time outdoors in the inner courtyard, one in the early morning and one in the late afternoon. They were given decent food to eat—basically, it was the same food the guards and the rest of the staff ate—and were permitted to bathe and shave once a week.
Not the tall man, though. He smelled worse than the wild animals Falcão encountered during his periodic hunting forays into the jungle in search of meat to eat. His body was almost certainly wracked with open sores underneath the filthy rags he wore.
Falcão angrily slapped his bare leg, killing an ant that had just inflicted an exceedingly painful bite. He hated all the bugs in this Godforsaken hell hole, but especially the ants.
During his first three or four months at the compound, he had not felt sorry for the mysterious prisoner. Only indifference. Gradually, that indifference turned to grudging admiration. Anyone who could so stoically endure the abuse and privation the tall man received must be a man of tremendous inner strength, he often thought to himself.
He began treating the man with kindness, or at least as much as he could get away with. Perhaps the absence of cruelty was a better description. Something in his gut told him that it might one day save his life.
After all, kindness begets kindness.
* * * * *
Treachery is the great equalizer and human beings, by their very nature, are treacherous animals. Nearly every great fortress that ever fell in battle throughout history had suffered betrayal from within.
The secret compound hidden deep within the Amazon was to be only the latest example.
It all started when the master control for the perimeter lights suddenly cut off. The thick tree canopy above prevented any light from the moon from penetrating, leaving the compound in total darkness. Pitch black. Three seconds later, a rocket-propelled grenade took out one of the guard towers, sending it up in a ball of flame that filled the compound in bright light. A moment later, a second RPG took out the second tower.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Marco, one of the contracted security guards, silently opened the door to the staff dormitory—an open bay Quonset hut that contained ten bunkbeds—and tossed in a flash-bang grenade before quickly closing the door. Two seconds later, on the heels of the explosion, he burst through the door. His weapon on full-automatic, he sprayed the room with bullets, pausing only to nonchalantly switch out magazines.
Using the spotlight on his weapon, he quickly checked each of the seven bodies, firing a round into the head of each, just to make sure they were dead.
While that was going on, an unmarked UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter landed in an open clearing about fifty meters from the compound, kicking up debris and anything not tied down in the process. Eight men, each dressed in black, sprinted from the copter to the building where the prisoner was now sitting up on the bed inside his cage, his back pressed against the wall.
For the first time in six months, Falcão heard him speak, as the armed men burst through the door.
“Soy Fósforo,” he called out to them in Spanish. He pronounced it FOS-four-oh.
He looked down at the whimpering Falcão, who was now curled in a ball on the dirt floor, making sounds like a frightened animal.
“Pathetic, cowardly dog,” said the prisoner with disdain, spitting in the cowering guard’s direction before putting to rest the notion that kindness begets kindness. “Put him out of his misery…then get me the hell out of here.”
* * * * *
The sound of his ringtone blaring “The Aggie War Hymn” jarred Pete Cortez from a deep sleep. DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH…DAH-DAH…DAH-DAH. That was about as far as the ringtone got before he was able to snatch the phone from his nightstand and hit the talk button.
“Cortez here,” he said, groggily. He rubbed his eyes with his left hand while he held the mobile phone in his right.
“Special Agent Cortez, this is the operations desk at the JTTF. The SSA wanted me to call to let you know that the Venezuelan known as Fósforo has just been broken out of a secret compound located somewhere outside of the United States. He wants to see you in his office at six this morning.”
The SSA was Jack Gonçalves, a supervisory special agent with the Houston Joint Terrorism Task Force. He was also Pete Cortez’s boss.
He glanced at his mobile phone to check the time. It was only three o’clock in the morning and he had only been asleep for a couple of hours.
Now that he was well into his thirties, the bachelor life was starting to wear him down. He figured he could still catch another ninety minutes of sleep before hopping in the shower and grabbing a bagel and coffee before heading in to work…and he’d still beat the traffic, although just barely.
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“Not that I can say over the phone.”
“Then I’ll see you all at six.”
* * * * *
It was a little past four in the morning, local time, when the helicopter carrying the Venezuelan and his rescuers set down on a grassy soccer field in Santarém, a river port at the confluence of the Amazon and the Tapajós rivers. Founded by Portuguese colonists in the mid-1600s, the jungle city now boasts a population of a quarter of a million people and is located five-hundred miles inland from the river’s mouth at the Atlantic Ocean, deep within the heart of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.
It had been a forty-five-minute flight from the remote jungle compound where the Venezuelan, whose real name was Mateo Calderón, had been held prisoner for the past eight months.
Two large, black SUVs were waiting to take them to the nearby town of Alter do Chão, a freshwater beach resort along the Tapajós River, just half an hour’s drive from Santarém. Sunrise would not be for another two hours, so they would arrive at their destination while still under the cover of darkness.
Even so, the visibility outside was a major improvement from the near total darkness of the jungle compound.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the sun again,” said Calderón to the man sitting next to him in the back seat of the vehicle. “The tree canopy blocked out the light for most of the day, and they kept me in a locked cage inside a cinder-block building for the entire time I was there. One never fully appreciates sunlight until one is deprived of it.”
Even though the vehicle’s air conditioning was turned on full blast, they had rolled down all four windows an inch or so to allow for the stench emanating from the Venezuelan to escape.
“We’ll have to reintroduce you gradually to the sun and to the light,” said the man beside him, a medical doctor who had been flown in from France to oversee his recovery. “The same with your food. Just a little at a time, all bland in the beginning. By the second week, we hope to have you acclimated enough for you to seriously begin regaining your strength.”
The plan was for him to remain in seclusion for a couple of weeks while he recovered from his long captivity.
“Where exactly are we?” Calderón asked.
“We’re still in Brazil, in the middle of the Amazon,” said the doctor. “The city we flew into is called Santarém. It’s the largest city between Manaus and Belém, on the Atlantic coast.” He pronounced it sahn-tar-RAIM.
Despite the fact that his native Venezuela bordered on the Amazon region, his preconceived notions of the Amazon were informed by television and movies, rather than by personal experience. He had always assumed it was just one big uninhabited jungle…and most of it is. However, the Amazon is also home to a fair number of isolated cities—cities with populations in the five- and six-figure range—that are sprinkled throughout the region.
Most are accessible primarily by boat or plane.
“Where are we going?” asked Calderón, as he stared out the side window into the moonlit darkness as the SUV picked up speed. “It looks like we’ve left the city and are out in the countryside.”
“We have leased a secluded villa with a private beach overlooking the Rio Tapajós,” said the doctor in a calm, soothing voice, as if he was conversing with one of his affluent patients in his swank offices in Paris, rather than with one of the world’s most notorious terrorists. “You’re going to need a good bit of rest and physical therapy before we can get you back to normal. I’ll be staying here with you in order to oversee your recovery.”
“To whom do I owe a debt of gratitude for my unexpected freedom?”
“A man you have never met, at least not yet,” said the doctor. “He sends his best wishes and says he will visit you in a week or so…as he put it, just as soon as you’re well enough to drink Irish whiskey with him.”
Calderón looked confused. Why would a total stranger go through all this trouble just to rescue me? And more importantly, what did the man want in return?
* * * * *
“I’d like to take a nice long, hot shower,” said Fósforo, whose nickname referred to a match, the kind you strike to spark a flame. It had been given to him by one of his soccer coaches back when he was a young schoolboy, a reflection of his quick and violent temper.
The two black SUVs—their windows coated with a dark tint to prevent motorists and passersby from being able to see the passengers inside—pulled under the portico on the right side of a sprawling, single-story villa.
The man in the front passenger seat was still dressed in the same black paramilitary garb he had been wearing two hours earlier when they had rescued the Venezuelan from the secret jungle compound. He quickly got out of the vehicle and opened the rear door for the Venezuelan and the doctor to get out.
Despite his long captivity, Calderón had not lost his keen sense of observation, even at night. In fact, his night vision had grown remarkably more acute.
He counted eight guards around the property, at least that he could see so far. He assumed that such an impressive villa would also have an elaborate, state-of-the-art electronic security system that included cameras, electronic locks, high voltage trip wires and other devices. These would deter amateurs from even attempting to enter the compound uninvited, while at the same time pissing off the professionals by making an undetected entry a risky proposition at best.
They entered the handsomely furnished home through a small ante room that, in turn, led into a modern commercial kitchen that was highlighted by black granite countertops, Brazilian rosewood cabinetry and white Italian marble floors. The owner’s wife, a forty-year-old Italian restaurateur from Milan, had overseen the design and building of a kitchen she would only set foot in no more than five or six weeks every year.
She had been gracious enough to offer use of the villa to Calderón’s mysterious benefactor in return for a guarantee of extended labor peace at her five gourmet restaurants located throughout northern Italy and southern France.
The mysterious benefactor had given the owner’s domestic staff a six-week paid vacation, bringing in his own staff for the duration of the Venezuelan’s stay. The new staff had arrived two days earlier—two days before the breakout—to familiarize themselves with the property and to make sure the house was adequately provisioned. The doctor had arrived the day before, bringing with him a team of physical therapists who transformed one of the bedrooms into a rehabilitation facility that most private hospitals would envy.
“Did you happen to think to bring a barber along with you?” asked the tall man. “I’d like for someone to chop off most of this hair before I even get into the shower.”
“Actually, I would recommend we shave off all your hair, both the top and the beard, everything,” said the doctor. “There’s a barber waiting for you outside on the terrace. You probably have half the bugs and germs known to mankind residing in your hair and on your body right now.”
“If you insist,” he said, slightly nauseated by an image of infestation that he would find hard to erase.
He was not at all happy about losing his hair. He had worn it long for as long as he could remember. It would take him a while to get used to seeing an emaciated bald guy looking back at him in the mirror.
“It’s not all bad, my friend,” said the doctor, a grin breaking out on his face. “We will also have a nurse in the shower with you to inspect and doctor the wounds and sores on your body.”
The doctor noticed the twinkle in the Venezuelan’s eyes.
“It was also requested by your host that I remind you the woman is a trained medical professional, so please let her do her work undisturbed.”
The Venezuelan grinned and shook his head slightly from side to side. With my luck, the nurse is probably old enough to be my grandmother, he thought to himself.
* * * * *
By the time Cortez arrived at Jack Gonçalves’ office on the fifth floor of the Houston FBI building, the SSA was already there waiting for him. It was still only five-forty-five in the morning, but both men were eager to get on with their business. They understood that the more time that passed, the lesser the likelihood they would ever find the Venezuelan.
Mateo Calderón, who went by the nom de guerre of Fósforo, had been taken into custody by Pete Cortez late one night eight months earlier on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. The Venezuelan and his team of M-28 terrorists were attempting to flee the United States after planting a nuclear device not far from downtown Dallas. The device had ten times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, three-quarters of a century earlier.
Cortez and Calderón also had a personal history.
They had known each other since both were children growing up in Caracas, Venezuela. Cortez’s father had been an American oil company executive, while Calderón’s father was an attorney whose clients included many of the country’s rich and powerful. Despite their common backgrounds, though, the two men were as different as night and day.
“What do you mean, Calderón has escaped?” asked Cortez, a look of bewilderment and rage on his face. “I thought our brothers in the Agency had him locked up tighter than a drum.”
“As did I,” said Gonçalves, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “From what I understood, they smuggled him out of the country within hours after you handed him over to them that morning in Dallas eight months ago.”
“Do we have any idea where he is now?”
“No,” replied the SSA, taking a sip of coffee from the paper cup he had picked up at a Starbucks drive-thru on the way in to work. “From what I’ve been able to determine, they were holding him in an off-the-books secret compound buried somewhere deep within the Brazilian Amazon. Two Agency folks were onsite at the time it happened. The rest were contractors, mostly Brazilians, with a few Chileans and Argentines.”
“How long ago did it happen?”
“About five hours ago,” said Gonçalves, propping his feet up on top of his desk as he leaned back in his chair. He was wearing highly polished black wingtips and his blue pinstripe suit jacket was hanging from a metal coat rack standing in one of the corners of his office. “They’re two hours ahead of us down there and it took place just after three this morning, local time.”
“That makes it about eight in the morning now in that part of Brazil,” said Cortez, looking down at his wristwatch. He wore a dark brown leather watchband because a metal band always seemed to give him a rash on his wrist whenever his arms would sweat.
“Whoever pulled it off came in well-armed. They took out the guard towers with RPGs, killed most of the guards in the compound, and were in-and-out in less than three minutes.”
“Did they just disappear back into the jungle?”
“No, they came in two helicopters. One touched down and unloaded the raiders while the second apparently hovered above in armed overwatch. Very professional operation.”
“How many survivors?”
“Just two, both outside guards, both severely wounded. There was a third guard inside with Calderón and three other prisoners. He appears to have been executed…a bullet to the head.”
“Any indication of a Judas goat,” asked Cortez, inhaling slowly, then exhaling loudly.
He knew the likelihood of this being carried out without an inside man were slim, especially given the precision of the operation.
“Maybe,” said Gonçalves. “The Agency also says that one guard is missing.”
“Maybe he just ran away and hid in the jungle. He’ll probably show up once he knows for certain that the coast is clear.”
“No,” said the SSA, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “Both of the wounded guards say they saw the man jump aboard a helicopter with the rest of the raiders. They believe he was an accomplice.”
Cortez kept silent for a moment, his scrunched mouth grimacing as he thought.
“So, we know that it happened five hours ago, and they had a helicopter to make their getaway,” he said finally. “Hell, he could be anywhere. What do the Brazilians think?”
Gonçalves had a peculiar look on his face as he stared Cortez straight in the eye.
“The Agency hasn’t notified them yet.”
“Which, in turn, tells me that they were almost certainly not aware the Agency was maintaining a black site in their sovereign territory,” said Cortez, a wry smile on his face. “This just keeps getting better and better.”
“You haven’t heard the really good part yet.”
“I can’t imagine what could top that news, but let me have it,” he said. Cortez had a sinking feeling that whatever was coming next, he was not going to like it.
“The Agency intends to informally ask the Bureau for your assistance.”
“You know the guy,” said Gonçalves. “You grew up with him, and most importantly, you’re the one who captured him in the first place.”
“So now they’re blaming me?”
“No, they haven’t reached that stage in the CYA process yet,” replied the SSA, a cynical smile now breaking out across his face. CYA is the age-old acronym for cover your ass. “They think their best chance of tracking this guy down and taking him back into custody rests with you and your apparently now legendary set of special skills.”
“Great,” said Cortez, ignoring the sarcasm of that last remark. Sheer dumb luck was his trademark skill. “Does that mean I have to go to Washington?”
“No, even better. They want you on the ground in Brazil within the next twenty-four hours.”
* * * * *
In a daring nighttime raid, a notorious Venezuelan terrorist is broken out of a remote prison compound deep in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. In the months following his escape, strange things begin to happen in Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana.
Selected as Finalist for 2021 Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award!
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