The Mermaid Experience – Chapter 19

July 13

It had been three long days since the smuggler had picked Phil and Allen up. Other than keeping them tied up, the man had been very kind. He shared his food and water liberally with both of them, and he seemed to be extra concerned about Allen, making sure he had plenty to drink and watching intently when Phil checked on his burns. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been a whole lot Phil could do. With no clean bandages available, Phil figured it was best to keep Allen’s wounds bound up with the original gauze from the emergency kit. At least that had been sterile when he took it out of the packaging. Phil peeled back a corner from time to time to get a look at the burns underneath, and they seemed to be healing OK. There was no sign of infection at least.

It was now dark, and Phil could hear that the sub was slowing down. The smuggler was running just beneath the surface, watching his surroundings through the periscope. They must be approaching their destination. Phil wondered what would happen when they arrived. Would the other smugglers be as well-disposed towards two castaways as the one who had picked them up? Or would they end up on the bottom of a river somewhere? After several hours of slow-speed maneuvering, the sub surfaced and the smuggler drove the nose into the shore. He turned on a small flashlight and looked at Allen and Phil, making a shushing motion with his finger at his lips, then climbed out and left them alone for a few minutes. When he came back, another man was with him. This new man looked like a scene from National Geographic magazine, with dark hair cut raggedly short, a thin bone piercing his nose. He was barefoot, and clad in a loincloth and a dirty Hard Rock Café t-shirt. The new man hopped nimbly down into the sub, while the smuggler stayed outside with a gun in his hand. He made motions like carrying something, and the new man released Phil and Allen from their handcuffs, then jabbered to Phil while lifting Alan’s feet.

Phil gathered from the pantomime that they wanted him to help lift Allen out of the sub. He grabbed Allen under the arms and helped lift. Allen helped as well, reaching up to grasp the hands of the smuggler up top. Once out on the top of the sub, Phil and his native helper slid down the side into the shallow water, still carrying Allen between them. They tried to avoid getting Allen’s legs wet with the dirty brown river water. The smuggler motioned toward a narrow path through the overgrowth, and Phil continued to help carry his friend through a few hundred yards of jungle until they arrived at a small native hut hidden in the trees. Most of the hut consisted of poles with a thatched roof above and no walls, but one small section was walled off. They carried Allen into this section and laid him on a hammock inside. The smuggler guy handed a pair of handcuffs to the native guy, and he cuffed Allen’s hands to the pole at the end of the hammock. Then he motioned with his gun to another hammock. Phil sat down and allowed himself to be handcuffed to another pole. Their two captors spoke to each other in some language other than Spanish for a few minutes, and then the smuggler left. When he left, the light left with him, and Phil could barely make out the native man, who lay down calmly on the floor. Without much else to do, Allen and Phil lay back in their hammocks and went to sleep.

When they woke up a few hours later, the native man was coming through the door accompanied by a woman. She wore a brightly-colored sundress and sandals, and her long black hair was done up in a braid that went down her back nearly to her waist. She seemed upset or nervous about something.

“You talk English?” She asked.

“Yes, we speak English.” Replied Phil.

“I name Ismelda. My brother ask me talk to you.”

“Your brother is the man who brought us here?”

“Yes. Hector is my brother. He want to help you, but we must be careful.”

“Where are we?”

“Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.”

Phil whistled. They were very far from home. He had never heard of Puerto Cabezas, but he knew where Nicaragua was.

“My friend needs to get to a hospital.”

“Not here. El Guapo find out, and then your friend be dead. My brother has plan.”

“OK, what’s the plan?”

“We make un acuerdo, a promise together. We help you go home, you take us with you. But no jail for my brother.”

“We can try. I can’t promise no jail because I’m not a judge, but we can promise to put in a good word for you.”

“What your name?”

“I’m Phil, and my friend is Allen.”

“Thank you. Phil, if we take off those.” She pointed to the handcuffs. “You will not run?”

“No, I won’t run. Where would we go?”

“No go. Safe here. El Guapo not find you. You have friend who can help? We call on telephone?”

“Yes, we have someone we could call.”

“You come with me. Manua show us how to go. Your friend Allen stay here be safe.”

“Allen, are you up for that? Will you be OK here alone?”

“If it gets us help, I can manage it.”

“OK, I’ll go with you. Lead the way.”

Ismelda spoke briefly to the native man, Manua, in his own language, and he unlocked both sets of handcuffs, then picked up his bow and arrows and led Phil and Ismelda out into the jungle. It was nearly dawn, and the sky was starting to lighten up slightly, but it was still dark in the jungle below the trees. Manua led them through the forest, which was fairly clear of undergrowth once they got away from the water. Ismelda had a small flashlight, which she shone at their feet, but Manua didn’t seem to need any extra light. Phil could see no trail or landmarks that he could recognize, but Manua walked without hesitation, as confident as a man in his own bedroom. After an hour or so, they came to a track that looked like it had been made by a wheeled vehicle. Two parallel ruts led straight through the jungle, with many large potholes and roots in the way. Once they reached this road, Ismelda seemed to gain confidence and turned off her flashlight. Manua waved at them to fall back and he scouted ahead, with his bow at the ready. Apparently he was more concerned about meeting humans on the road than he had been about wild animals in the jungle before. Eventually, Phil could see that the trees were thinning out, and the road improved slightly. A few ramshackle houses lined each side of the road. At this point, Manua held up his hand and indicated they should stop. He led them behind some bushes out of sight of the houses on the road. Ismelda reached into a pocket in her dress and pulled out a cell-phone. She checked it a moment, then nodded and handed it to Phil.

“You call friend now? Tell him they come Puerto Cabezas airport, we bring you and Allen, we all leave together, yes?”

“Yes. I’ll do that.” Phil looked at the phone, which was an older model but should do for his purposes. It showed a single bar of signal. Apparently they had to come this close to town in order for it to get that much. He dialed John’s phone number, adding the 01 country code for the United States. To his surprise, the call went through as quickly as if he had been in Houston.

“Hello, John Sykes here.”

“Hi John. This is Phil.”

“Phil!! Where are you! You’re alive?”

“It’s a long story, but yes, I’m alive. We’re in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. We were picked up by a man from this town.”

“What are you doing all the way in Nicaragua? Why didn’t he just bring you back to Galveston?”

“He didn’t want to be arrested. Listen, I don’t think I have long to talk. Allen is hurt. His legs were burnt pretty bad. There is some danger here and we can’t take him to the local hospital. Can you get to the airport here and pick us up?”

“I can make some calls. We should be able to get there. Can we call you back on this phone?”

Phil looked at Ismelda. “Can my friend call back on this phone?”

“Yes, he can call back. But you ask him. Hector and I come with you, yes?”

“John, we have one condition as well. In addition to Allen and I, we need to bring two other passengers with us. And I don’t think they will have all the right documentation.”

“Sounds like a pretty complicated situation. I’ll call some friends and see what we can arrange. We’ll move as quickly as possible.”

“Thank you. Allen seems to be doing OK so far, but he really needs to get to a hospital.”

“I understand.”

Phil handed the phone back to Ismelda.

“Can we get clean bandages and some pain relief for my friend?” He asked her.

“I try to send later, yes?”

“OK. But please hurry.”

“Yes, I hurry. All hurry.”

Ismelda seemed to be getting increasingly nervous. She finally said she had to go, and started walking down the road into the town. Manua motioned for Phil to follow him, and led him back through the jungle to his shack. Allen was there, sleeping uneasily as he struggled with the pain. Manua left them both in the shack for a while. When he came back, he was carrying a handful of leaves. He gave three of them to Allen and pantomimed chewing. Figuring it couldn’t hurt, Allen put the leaves in his mouth and chewed on them. Soon the pain in his legs lessened, and he felt a little hazy and disconnected.

“Thank you.” He told Manua. The native seemed to understand his gratitude. He put the rest of the leaves in a clay bowl and placed it on the floor near Allen’s hammock. The three of them waited there throughout the day. Manua brought them roasted meat and strange vegetables and fruits to eat. He showed Phil a hole behind the shack where he could use the bathroom. When Allen needed to go, he used an old water bottle that they had used for that purpose in the submarine, and Phil took it outside and dumped it in the hole. After it got dark in the evening, Hector came to visit them. He brought a roll of bandages and a tube of antibiotic ointment with him, as well as a note written in English.

PLANE COME TOMORROW AT 6:00 P.M.

MANUA AND HECTOR TAKE YOU THERE

Phil had Allen sit up in the hammock while he carefully unwrapped the old bandages. In a few places, they adhered to the skin and pulling them off was very painful. Allen chewed some more leaves and they continued the unwrapping. When they were done, Phil inspected Allen’s legs carefully by flashlight. There was still no sign of infection, and new skin seemed to be growing in some areas. When he tried to get Allen to spread his legs so that he could look at the inner sides, he moaned in pain and the legs didn’t move. Upon close inspection, it appeared that in the three days of being bound together, the lesions burned into Allen’s legs had stuck to one another. Rather than risk damaging Allen’s legs any further, they decided to re-wrap them with the legs still together. Phil applied the antibiotic cream and then used the new bandages to wrap them up. This time he had plenty of length, so he overlapped the bandages as he wrapped, making Allen’s legs and feet look like a mummy.

After a long conversation with Manua, Hector left again, making motions with his hands that seemed to indicate he would be coming back later. With little else to do, they all tried to get some sleep. They had another day of new foods and laying around in hammocks. Phil thought that it would have sounded like a nice vacation if it weren’t for the omnipresent bugs, the oppressive heat, and no sign of a beach anywhere close. He and Allen had plenty of time to chat and get to know one another. Finally, sometime in the early afternoon, Hector showed up. He seemed to be unhappy and agitated. He and Manua had an intense conversation, after which they motioned for Phil to help carry Allen again. Hector handed a small backpack to Manua, who put it on his back. Then Hector lifted Allen’s legs and Phil lifted his body, and they followed Manua back down to the river. Phil noticed that Manua had his bow and arrows with him. There was a dugout canoe in the river with a small outboard motor at the back. They put Allen in the canoe and then climbed in with him. Hector started the motor and headed upstream. They traveled for a few miles and then turned into a small stream and continued on, going slowly as they had to duck under branches and even get out and pull the canoe in a few locations. They finally came to a very shallow area and the canoe would go no farther. Hector and Phil carried Allen again, with Manua leading the way.

Before long they came to the edge of the trees and Phil could see that they were on the edge of a small airport. They were close to the runway, on the far side of the airport from the cluster of small buildings that must be the terminal and control tower. They settled down just inside the trees to wait. It wasn’t long before a small private jet landed on the runway and taxied to a stop. The plane turned around to be ready to take off again, and then the door opened and a set of stairs folded down. Phil recognized John as he climbed down the stairs. Hector took the backpack from Manua and motioned to Phil. They picked Allen up and carried him quickly to the airplane. When they reached the stairs, John helped them carry Allen up into the aircraft, then left to go make arrangements in the terminal. The interior was outfitted for a wealthy businessman, with several comfortable chairs, a fold-down table, and a couch. They put Allen on the couch. There were several people in the airplane, including Katherine and Dave Johnson. As soon as Allen was situated, Katherine knelt by the couch and hugged him hard and long. While they were thus engaged, Dave introduced himself to Phil and then started talking in rapid, fluent Spanish with Hector. Hector gesticulated wildly and spoke very emphatically for several minutes. Finally, Dave turned to the rest of them.

“I understand Phil promised we would take Hector and his girlfriend with us when we go.”

“Yes, we made a deal with him in exchange for helping us get back.” Said Phil.

“Apparently, Hector has been smuggling drugs for a man called El Guapo for the past year or two, in order to protect his sister. But now he says that El Guapo got suspicious and took his sister to his compound. He insists we can’t leave until we rescue his sister. What do you say about this?”

“Even though Hector is the one who kidnapped us. He is also the one who rescued us.” Answered Phil. “I believe his story about doing it to protect his sister. Most drug smugglers would have left us there to possibly die. Even if Hector may not deserve our help, I believe his sister is innocent, and it sounds like she is in grave danger with El Guapo.”

“Well, let’s see if there’s any chance of us helping. First, let me introduce you to our other passengers. This woman is Dr. Chase Hansen. She is from the burn unit at Memorial-Hermann hospital. She is here to look at Allen’s legs. The two men behind her are Jake and Brick. They are friends of mine who might come in handy helping Hector out.”

Dave began talking with Hector again. After a few minutes, he pulled up a Google Maps image on an i-pad and zoomed in on a particular building. They discussed it for a moment, and Dave handed Hector a piece of paper and a pencil so that he could sketch the interior in as much detail as he could remember. After a few minutes, Dave switched back to English to explain the plan to the rest of them.

“Ismelda is being held in El Guapo’s compound near the edge of the city. Hector says that his native friend Manua can get us close by going through the jungle and approaching the house from behind. In the meantime, we need John and Katherine to be actors. Do you think you can do it?”

“What do you need us to do?” Katherine asked.

“I need John to be a potential customer of El Guapo, and you will play the part of his arm candy girlfriend. Do you have any provocative clothing with you?”

“I wasn’t expecting to dress up for anything, but I have a skirt with me that we could maybe shorten. And I could wear a bikini top with it.”

“That should work. Brick will go with the two of you as your bodyguard. John will call El Guapo and set up a meeting in a hotel. Hector suggests the Hotel Las Colinas, as it is on the other side of town from El Guapo’s compound. While you keep him occupied, the rest of us except Allen and the doctor will circle around through the jungle and spring Ismelda. We’ll meet back here at the plane and leave in a hurry.”

Katherine went into the lavatory and changed into her bikini top and skirt. She rolled the waistband a few times to shorten the skirt to well above her knees, and used a few pins to hold it in place. She took John’s arm and he smiled at Allen.

“Thanks for lending me your wife.” He said.

Allen, who was in some pain as Dr. Hansen pulled back his bandages to inspect his burns, only grimaced with gritted teeth.

The two of them walked down the stairs and across the tarmac to the terminal, with Brick following behind. Once inside, they showed their passports to an official in the airport, then went out front to the single taxi waiting there. They got in, Brick sitting in the front and the other two in the back, and John started talking.

“Do you speak English?” He asked.

“Yes, I speak English good. Where you want to go?”

“I want to arrange a meeting. Is there a hotel in town I can go to? Someone mentioned the Hotel Las Colinas?”

“Yes, I can take you to the Las Colinas.”

“Good. I hear there is a man in town called El Guapo. I want to do some business with him. Do you know how I can arrange a meeting?”

“You sure you want to meet him?” The driver asked, looking more carefully at John. “He can be trouble.”

“Yes, I know what I want. Can you help arrange it?”

“For an extra 20 Cordobas I can make it happen.”

“I haven’t had time to change any money. But I’ll give you 5 US dollars if you arrange the meeting, take us to the hotel, and then wait there to bring us back when we’re done.”

“Deal.”

The man whistled out the window to a teenager who was hanging around the airport entrance and spoke to him in Spanish. Katherine heard “El Guapo” mentioned several times in the conversation. When they finished speaking, the teenager ran off, and the taxi driver drove away. Even in town, most of the roads were unpaved dirt, so it was a slow ride to the hotel. Nonetheless, Puerto Cabezas is not a large place, so they arrived at the two-story concrete building in fifteen minutes or so. After promising to pay the cab driver once he took them back to the airport, John, Katherine, and Brick got out and went into the hotel. There were a few tables and chairs on the covered patio, and John sat down at one like he owned the place. In a few moments a nervous woman approached.

“Can I help you?” She asked in halting English.

“Yes, bring some beer for my girlfriend and I. We’re expecting to meet someone here.”

The woman rushed away to get something. She came back with two glasses of warm beer. John sipped at his for a few minutes. It wasn’t very long, though, before three men approached. When she saw them, the woman stopped hovering and quickly rushed back to the kitchen to prepare more drinks. Two of the men were obviously local thugs, their arms covered with tattoos and pistols stuck in their pants. Brick, who was standing unobtrusively in a corner, sized them up and found them wanting. The third man was thin and wiry, with wavy hair held in place by some kind of hair spray. He wore flowered shorts and a silk shirt with the top several buttons open.

“Are you John?” He asked.

“Yes. You must be the man called El Guapo.”

“That’s me. I hear you wanted to meet with me.”

“Indeed I did. I understand you have ways of shipping goods to the United States without going through customs.”

“I might. Just who are you? And how do you know about me?”

John pulled out a business card that Dave had given him, and slid it across the table. He couldn’t read the text on the card, and he had never seen the symbol in the corner. But El Guapo obviously recognized it. He picked it up between two fingers and flipped it with a third.

“What kinds of goods do you want me to ship?” He asked.

“Synthetic drugs. We have a manufacturing plant in Columbia, and we need to ship them up the coast and slip them over the US border.”

The negotiations continued for some time. The plan was for John to draw it out for as long as he could. So he changed the subject, asked about nearby beaches, and drew out the conversation as long as possible. El Guapo seemed happy to chat a little longer, as long as he could spend some more time ogling Katherine. When he thought they had gone long enough, John allowed himself to be convinced to pay 10% of the price of the material. He slipped $200 across the table and told the gang leader he would be in touch in a few days when his first shipment was ready. Then he left a few dollars on the table and they left. The cab driver was waiting as promised, and the trip back to the airport was uneventful. When they got back into the airplane, Ismelda was there along with the rest of the group that had gone to get her. Unlike the simple sundress that she had worn to visit Phil and Allen, now she was clothed in a body-hugging black gown with a pearl necklace around her throat. Her long black hair was loose and fell in soft waves down her back, and her make-up looked professional, if slightly overdone.

“Apparently the rescue operation was successful. How did it go?” John asked.

“Hector’s friend Manua made it easy for us. There was a guard at the back gate, but Manua shot him in the arm with an arrow coated with some kind of sleeping drug. Jake handled a couple of guards on the inside, and we were able to pull Ismelda out without most of the occupants even knowing we were there.”

“Let’s get out of here, then.”

John talked to the pilot and they were off the ground in minutes. After briefly checking beneath the bandages, Dr. Hansen had hooked Allen up to an IV and he was soon sleeping peacefully with his head in Katherine’s lap.

“How is Allen doing?” Katherine asked the doctor.

“Quite well, considering he’s gone almost 6 days with little to no treatment for his burns. It is a good thing Phil had some healgel and applied it early. That material has been a quantum leap in burn care. He’ll be spending a lot of time recovering, but he’ll come out OK in the end.”

After a three-hour flight, the plane landed in Houston. Dave took Hector and Ismelda to begin asylum paperwork. An ambulance was waiting and Allen was transferred directly to the back. Katherine was allowed to sit in the back with him.

Link to chapter 20

Link to chapter 18

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