RS Perry’s Ecuador
Copyright © 2019 All Rights Reserved Published by Penelope Ltd
Purchase Available May 5
Centro Nacional da Infecção, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 2000
Mateo and Luiz stood before an old wooden door with dingy, peeling paint. An iron bar with spots of yellow-orange rust crossed the door at waist height. One end of the bar disappeared into a metal slot like a giant deadbolt. An old-fashioned iron padlock secured the other end.
‘No one has entered here in a long time. It is a funny old lock,’ said Luiz.
‘I don’t like this place,’ said Mateo.
‘I wonder where the lock came from? Maybe from Portugal,’ said Luiz as he inserted the oversized key he’d been given into the lock.
Mateo lifted his upper left lip, arched his eyebrow, and looked toward Luiz, as if to say, You think this old lock will open? Then he thought, I hope not. Luiz turned the key. He twisted it, then twisted harder. The key reluctantly turned—grating—and the heavy lock fell open.
‘I don’t want to go down there,’ said Mateo with a shiver. ‘These ancient places make me nervous.’
‘Why, you believe in ghosts?
‘Never mind. Let’s see how long this is going to take.’
‘First, we see how many samples there are. Maybe only a short time or hours. Soon we will know how long it will take.’
‘I will go to my cousin’s wedding next week, so I hope to God this doesn’t take more than a days.’
‘You have cousins here in Brazil, Mateo, or do you go home?’
‘Yes. No, I mean. No cousins here in Rio. I have to go home to Colombia.’
Luiz pulled the iron bar out of the slot and set it against the wall; it rang like a bell as the steel hit the concrete floor. The shrill ringing permeated Mateo’s mind, renewing his nervous shivers. Luiz reached into the darkness and around the corner to the wall, pushing his fingers through sticky cobwebs. Eventually, he found the light switch, illuminating gloomy walls.
They stepped through the stale air, down worn, stone stairs, batting clingy cobwebs out of their way to a windowless basement. The walls were covered with years of accumulated grime. Dust clung to gossamer webs. The upright freezers, once shiny white, showed spots of rust, erupting like miniature orange volcanos.
‘Hijo de puta,’ said Mateo as he counted. ‘Eight freezers. Many more than is good, but maybe they are not too full. Just so we’re finished before I have to fly home next Wednesday. We could work this weekend?’ he said hopefully to Luiz.
‘Uh-huh,’ said Luiz dismissively.
‘Don’t you think working this weekend would be a good idea? Get it over with, yes?’
‘Maybe you, Mateo, but not me. I have plans.’
Luiz started opening the freezer doors. ‘We’re in luck. Look at this one on the end. It’s almost empty. We can transfer the samples fast from the next one, so they don’t thaw out. I was afraid we were going to have to bring down boxes and a lot of dry ice to keep them cold while we worked. We’ll inventory this one first. After that we can move the next refrigerator’s samples into it. Put on your gloves and move a table in front of the freezer.’ He pointed at a rickety table against the wall. ‘Clean the top off while I get the computer booted.’
‘Let’s look in the other freezers.’
‘They will be what they are. We have a job to do. Let’s get started.’
Mateo unloaded the first freezer’s contents, setting several small boxes and Styrofoam containers on the table.
‘Tell me what the first box says, then put it back in the freezer. Rápido, so they don’t thaw. Going fast should suit your time schedule, too.’
Mateo started reading labels. Some he read with difficulty. Luiz typed them into the computer spreadsheet. Containing only a few samples, the first freezer went quickly. They started on the next, which was packed full. Mateo took out a couple of stacks of small boxes and wire containers holding glass slants, set them on the table, and then closed the freezer door.
‘There’s hundreds in here. This could take forever. Do you suppose any of this is bad?’ asked Mateo.
‘I don’t think so. My boss said they are old. Professor Iglesias told him that many are probably not alive. He thinks most are samples of plants, mushrooms, and soil bacteria. But he said to be careful as the crazy old professor that collected them could have stored anything. After they have our inventory and see what’s here, they will either destroy them or move them to the university microbiology department.’
‘Yes, they are old. This box says P. Aeruginosa, 1966 on it,’ said Luiz.
‘Older than me,’ confirmed Mateo as he looked around at the disintegrating walls.
‘This one I know. It’s a bacterium. It is one we are sometimes asked to culture in the lab.’
‘Ana…car…dium occi…dentale.’ Mateo struggled with both the spelling and pronunciation. ‘What’s that?’
‘I don’t know much more than you. I only know the names of bacteria we culture for the hospital.’
For the past three days, Jago’s band had moved along the edge of the expansive Río Napo, staying in front of their pursuers.
Jago gambled that the army pursuers would continue to chase his small band in the same way, and not jump ahead to ambush them. If the army leader was skilled, he would lull them into the complacency of the chase. If he was arrogant, he might assume his men could overtake them. Or maybe Jago was wrong, and an ambush was only minutes away. Jago knew, however, that sooner or later this would end. A mental guessing game between him and the army officer who was chasing him further and further south and away from his home country.
Chesswits, he said to himself. While his English was limited, he enjoyed playing word games with himself. He was alive because he was good at reasoning and liked playing games of wit. But how good is the army commander? Perhaps he is better, Jago mused, and he will play a better game than I will. He sensed he had prolonged the game as long as he could. Spotting two dugouts partially hidden at the bank’s side, he made a decision. They passed a narrow disused game track that he would later take after a little misdirection. They boarded the canoes and paddled downstream for a mile.
As they drifted with the murky current, Jago pointed to an overgrown area where the trail veered away from the river. After landing, they set the canoes adrift before ascending the muddy bank, picking their way through the dense growth, and crossing the trail into the jungle. Carlos scooped water from a puddle into his hat and washed away their muddy footprints. He was the last to cross the trail, brushing their tracks away with a handful of long grass.
As they slowly worked their way parallel to the path and back toward the game trail, San broke the silence, whispering to Chico, ‘Why not stay in the canoes and get far away?’
Chico made a cut sign across his throat.
San looked irritated and continued anyway. ‘I think it is better we stay in the canoes,’ he said.
Chico whispered, ‘We’re sitting ducks in the canoes. Ahora, silencio.’
After moving through the tangled growth, Jago found the little-used game trail near where they had taken the dugouts. Spider webs spanned the little track, glistening silver in thin shafts of the late afternoon light that filtered through the dense canopy.
The webs stretched innocently across the insect superhighway, apparently invisible to the fast-flying speedsters. To the insects’ eyes, there were few obstacles to skirt in the relatively uninhabited space above the trail. Whether it was their diminutive cognitive powers or reckless behavior, they raced over, around, and occasionally, into a sticky thread.
Jago reached down to a web and, with a long elegant finger, flicked a filament, sending a vibration along the shimmering thread to its patiently waiting weaver. Camouflaged by its stillness, a large black and red spider gingerly stepped across the web, moving quickly but hesitantly. Jago tickled the thread again, and the spider moved toward the source of the vibrations. Jago smiled, stood, and stepped over the web, continuing methodically ahead.
Jago’s pursuer’s commander assumed his prey was now lulled into a false sense of security as they progressed along the wide river. Soon, when the helicopter arrived, he would fly men ahead and snare his target in an ambush, just as Jago assumed he might do. A two-pronged ambush: men in front, men behind, and the helicopter with its gunner coming in from the riverside.
Jago wondered, however, why the forces behind them had not set up an ambush immediately. Perhaps the army commander had no transport. They had heard a few boats moving up and down the river, but they observed none with army troops. No helicopters had flown overhead, scouting for his band. This didn’t mean, though that the choppers had not flown around them out of hearing range, ferrying troops for an ambush.
In this game of cat and mouse, one would win and the other lose. Jago was not arrogant enough to assume that, while he had evaded his enemies for most of his life, he would always win.
Everyone followed carefully in his footsteps as he walked around, over, and sometimes under the dew-laden webs. The army would have expert trackers. He avoided soft soil and mud, leaving little sign that humans had passed this way. León followed the none-too-intelligent and less-experienced Carlos, making sure he left no sign for others to follow. Jago stopped to watch a slow-moving, eight-inch, brown-colored, hard-shelled turtle, admiring its prehistoric beauty.
Jago was tall at six feet four inches, and thin, with sinewy muscles that looked ropy through his taut caramel-colored skin. A black drooping mustache, together with a few gray hairs and sleepy-dog brown eyes, suggested an amiable character.
‘The depression to our left probably leads to a stream. Search and see if you can find a place for us to stay for a few days,’ he whispered. Chico was smart. He had been with Jago since he was old enough to carry a weapon. He could be relied on to choose a good overnight spot.
Chico, mature for his age, shared with Jago a caution that had kept them alive through the years and out of the clutches of the government troops. San did not share their caution. ‘Why don’t we keep going? I don’t think they will catch us,’ said the fifteen-year-old.
Jago held up his hand, silencing him before turning to his sometime lover. ‘Cherry, go back along the river and make sure our army friends don’t notice our little subterfuge when they pass.’ Cherry, wearing bandoleers crisscrossing a tan shirt and amplifying her breasts, turned to leave, giving the young San a look that suggested exactly what she thought of him.
Jago, ever the patient teacher, explained to San what he didn’t need to explain to the others. ‘They pursued us long enough to think we will keep running along the river in front of them. They will soon call additional troops in ahead of our route, or perhaps send men by boat or plane ahead of our path to set an ambush. Their commander possibly will try to catch up with us, push us into the ambush, and his trackers will see the place where we took the dugouts and assume, we are on the river. It would be very lucky for them to find us camped here.’ Then he added, ‘as long as we are careful to leave no sign for their trackers and keep quiet.’
Jago assumed his role as leader naturally and with a dedication to instruct and pass on knowledge, both about war and peace.
‘I see,’ said San, ‘it is smart thing to do but still we must have luck.’
‘Our lives are decided by judgment and luck,’ responded Jago.
A bird-like whistle, blending with the jungle sounds, came from the direction of the river. Cherry was sending a note of caution, not danger. Jago motioned the others to fade into the jungle.
After ten minutes, another whistle twittered through the green understory, and the men reappeared. None were concerned, as it was the way they spent their days, cautiously moving in and out of the shadows.
‘Good place with water,’ said León as he, too, appeared from the dense jungle understory.
‘Show the others. Set up a guard. I’ll wait for Cherry, and we will be along just after dark.’
Jago whistled his unique birdcall. Several minutes later, Cherry silently and slowly walked off the trail to Jago, her white teeth showing in the fading early evening light. Except for a small scar below her right eye, her shoulder-length black hair and an unblemished light-coffee complexion suggested she was younger than her twenty-nine years.
She liked and respected Jago, just as he did her. They had known each other since she was thirteen years old. He had been her first lover one year later. They had never belonged to each other and had only made love infrequently over the years. Occasionally, they embraced each other. She couldn’t say she loved him other than in a paternal way, but she would willingly give her life for him. He had been the only family she had after hers was killed, and she was abandoned in an army camp as a blossoming teenager.
They walked indirectly to the camp, approaching from the opposite direction that León had taken earlier. Jago whistled his evening birdcall, alerting them they were arriving. A return whistle indicated the exact direction to their night’s resting place.
A smile broke out on Jago’s face as he reached out, slapping Lobo on the shoulder. The big man had remained still as they approached, nearly invisible in the dark shadows cast by the last vestiges of twilight filtering through the jungle trees. Lobo was the same size as many of the tree trunks. Jago nearly missed him. As it was, he only sensed Lobo when he was close enough to reach out and touch him.
The three veterans of many battles moved carefully to their small campsite. The ten-foot-by-ten-foot clearing was faintly lit by early stars. They sat on the damp soil by the edge of the trickling water to eat their sparse rations. León, San, Chico, and Carlos were already in their net hammocks around the edge of the clearing, talking softly while they ate.
‘We search in the morning and make sure the soldiers have passed,’ said Jago as he stood.
Mateo and Luiz were nearly finished with the second freezer. It had taken them the better part of four hours. Mateo knew that, at this rate, they would not finish in time for him to leave. He estimated it would take until the end of next week. He started to move at a faster pace, which did not accomplish much. Mateo became exasperated when Luiz typed too slowly, and he had to wait.
In Mateo’s haste, he dropped a sample. Luckily the Styrofoam container cushioned the fragile glass. Luiz scowled. ‘Calm down and pay attention. Most of these are probably harmless, but don’t be careless. Some might kill you.’
Mateo ignored the lecture. ‘I will have to continue this weekend to have any chance of my family leave. Could you please help me a little?’
‘Sorry, my friend, but not a chance. Maybe you can ask Anibal or Fausto? It has to be someone from the lab. You can’t bring just anyone down here. It’s lunchtime. Let’s go.’ And he started up the steps.
Mateo frowned and reluctantly followed him. His mind kept going over and over how to get this job done. He was not finding any solutions. He had been given a week off starting Wednesday, but with the condition that they finish the inventory first.
They were sitting outside on a bench eating the lunches they had brought with them. ‘I don’t see any way to get this done except to work this weekend. I’ll find someone to help me, but I need you to leave me with the computer.’
Luiz was getting tired of hearing about Mateo’s problem. ‘Okay, enough! You can use it this weekend, but it better be in perfect shape on Monday. And you can’t miss any samples. If Doctor Santos finds out that we missed any, we’ll be out of a job. And spell them correctly. If I say okay for you to work this weekend, don’t let me down?’
‘Gracias. Muchas gracias.’
‘When are you going to learn some Portuguese? Obrigado. Muito obrigado.’
‘Muito, muito obrigado.’
‘Let’s go back. I want to leave early,’ said Luiz.
Mateo rolled his eyes. That’s it, then. I’ll keep working tonight, too, he thought. I have to get ahead of this. I want to go home and to the wedding party.
Mateo worked until just after midnight and managed to get almost to the end of the third freezer. He was bored, his mind was taking flights of fancy, and he started thinking about just chucking some samples out. He couldn’t. Both his cultural indoctrination and upbringing to do the right thing mixed with the thought of doing something which, if he were caught, he would have to pay a penalty. I like my job. Mierda. I need it. If I can get to the fifth freezer this weekend, then we can finish by Tuesday.
The next morning, Mateo pulled himself out of bed and walked to work, stopping for a shot of espresso at the Jacaré Café on the way. It was the only place where he could get an espresso that compared to that of his home city of Bogotá. The proprietor knew what he liked and knew his distaste for the sweet cafezinho that Brazilians seemed to like.
Mateo walked along the tree lined Rua Vincente de Sousa as he neared the hospital, then turned right onto Rua Bambina. The beach was not far away. If only he could spend the day there, instead of in the basement dungeon. Just thinking about what ghosts might be lurking made him shudder.
By lunchtime, he had efficiently finished the third freezer and was partway through the fourth when he decided to take a break. He had only purchased a Guarana soda at the Jacaré Café. Now I wish I had bought a lunch, he mused. Earlier, he had thought missing lunch would help him finish earlier, and at the same time diminish his midsection. Now that he was hungry, he regretted it, even though his mind kept telling him to lose his belly for the wedding. The thought of the girls that would be there finally took his mind off his hunger.
The soda was cool and one of the few things he had learned to like in Brazil. The freezers were good for something—keeping his liquid lunch cold. He sat on the stone steps with the freezers spread before him. He felt he was making good progress, but this freezer was full, and many of the containers were small wire racks holding multiple glass tubes. It would take him many more hours.
He got up and walked to the fifth freezer to see whether it was packed with small or larger containers: all small, just like the one he was working on. Mierda. Not good at all, he thought. Still, if I keep working fast, we will be done on Tuesday.
He returned, removing several small boxes and racks and setting them on the table. The small containers and the individual vials were slowing him down, and he struggled with the long and unfamiliar names: Filoviridae unk, Marburg Marburgvirus (MARV), Staphylococcus aureus, Ebola bundibugyo, Variola major, Rotavirus A, Rotavirus B, Clostridium difficile. He was happy whenever an easy name came along such as India 1. He entered them on the laptop computer, over and over, out of the freezer, letter by letter adding the names into the computer, moving them back to the preceding freezer, getting new boxes and vials, adding them to the computer, and repeating the whole process, hour after hour.
Bored and impatient, he was having a hard time focusing. His thoughts elsewhere, Mateo grabbed an armful of containers and vials. Several fell from his arms to the floor, but only one broke. ‘Mierda. No, no, puta madre.’ No one would miss one vial, would they? They hadn’t been looked at for many years, he reasoned. ‘Mierda, mierda, mierda.’ Mateo took out his handkerchief to protect his fingers from the broken glass, and carefully picked up the pieces. He put them into an empty box, wiped up a tiny drop of goo, and shook the handkerchief. He inspected it and, not seeing any pieces of glass, he returned it to his pocket.
He would have to think about what to do with the broken pieces. One small vial out of hundreds couldn’t possibly be missed. He started to feel less guilty. The episode meant two things: there was one less stupid vial to write down, and he was jarred out of his malaise. He was ready to get to the job.
The day continued. He was starting the fifth freezer when his resolve let him down. ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ he mumbled to the freezers. He looked at the small box containing the broken vile and put it in his pocket. He walked up the stairs, replaced the steel bar and the old lock, and then headed toward his studio apartment, knowing tomorrow would be just as boring as today. But I am a lot closer to getting out of here in time for my flight home.
As he walked up the Rua Bambina, he saw a refuse container. He looked around and— no one was watching—lifted the lid and threw in the small container with the broken pieces of glass. He wondered if the sample had been valuable. I should be throwing many more out, he thought, but he knew he wouldn’t. He was not that kind of person. His mother and the church had raised him to follow rules.
Mateo continued walking down the Rua Bambina. He looked back as he turned the corner toward home. He didn’t see anyone. Perhaps Monday he and Luiz could finish, and he would be on his way.
Only seconds after he turned the corner, a man emerged from the shadowed alley and went to see what the passerby had thrown into the refuse barrel. He reached in and rummaged around, hoping to find some food. He pulled out a small container. It was too lightweight to hold much food. Maybe some cake crumbs. He opened it and put his fingers inside. He felt broken glass and then something gooey. He touched it to his tongue and then spit. His hope of finding an easy dinner dashed, he sighed and set out down the Rua.
‘Where’s Barbara?’ asked Jim.
‘Ah, um… Doctor Milton’s home sick. She asked me to fill in for her, ah with you,’ said Nusmen, looking decidedly uncomfortable.
The two men were close to the same height, with Jim’s defined muscles giving him the larger, wider presence compared to Nusmen’s beanpole body. Jim studied the man for a few seconds—looked at his crazy untamed hair and watched his Adam’s apple move up and down as Nusmen kept swallowing.
Then, Colonel Johnson considered the respectful way Nusmen had said Doctor Milton’s name and said, ‘The general has put a lot of faith in you. I didn’t have anything to do with you being appointed the co-director of BWC’s laboratory. What I do have is a long history with General Crystal, and I trust his judgment. And Heather always said you were not only exceptionally knowledgeable with botanical studies, but helpful with her field research. I value her opinion too, but I thought you to be…’
As Jim hesitated, Nusmen finished his sentence… ‘weird?’
Jim didn’t say anything. There were probably several psychological terms to describe Nusmen besides weird. He would bet that Katarina had a mile-long…
RS Perry’s Ecuador excerpt to p 20
Copyright © 2019 All Rights Reserved Published by Penelope Ltd
Purchase Available May 5