The station chief is checking out his face in a cracked shaving mirror suspended from a nail in the peeling plaster wall of his hut, engaged in a futile attempt to curtail a nasty crop of ear hairs using the rusting point of a pair of barber scissors. The Hitchcockian image of the filthy instrument jammed once and for all through his ear and into what’s left of his brain is never distant from Dennis Roosevelt Boggs´ mind. Once again, he dismisses the thought as a too easy way out. In any case, he wouldn´t allow his enemies the satisfaction. Hiding out here inside the Peace Corps is death enough.
As Boggs finishes surveying himself and weighs the merits of suicide over a thick mug of black coffee and a slender line of snow white coke, his two young minions reluctantly bundle a million dollars in assorted denominations into Natasha´s pink carry-on suitcase for the bus trip to Tegucigalpa. Soon a recycled yellow Oriole school bus will rumble around the corner, past the Aguafria City Hall and ticket office, which is merely a corner table inside the Carranza Asedor y Taberna, and into the village plaza, throwing up a thick curtain of chalk dust and pea gravel, to where a dozen or so villagers and campesinos are eagerly waiting to board.
Today Natasha and David play the young tourist couple on their journey back to the capital, discretely taking their seats at the rear of the bus. They will innocently chat up one another, commenting on the colourfully attired villagers, o-o-o-h-ing and a-a-a-h-ing over the passing scenery, and grinning stupidly at other passengers. They will repeat ‘buenos días’ in their bad accents, ad nauseam. Station chief Boggs has handed them a penciled note endorsed in a delirium tremens hand by the village’s alcalde in Spanish instructing las autoridades to offer them safe passage, more a plea for mercy than a get-out-of-jail-free card and wishful thinking at best.
Natasha and David both know that in their current situation only money speaks truth and today they are mercenaries in a truth brigade pegged to the tune of ten million bucks. Boggs has generously promised them an eventual reward of fifty thousand each plus the return of their passports that according to Peace Corps protocol he’s allowed to keep to risk their lives in what, back home in the mass media, President Ronald Reagan is describing as a heroic struggle for freedom in the region. But whose freedom is the President talking about?
In the window seat in front of them is a pretty, café au lait complexioned girl in a colorful Mayan-motif dress and woven shawl with a long plait of raven hair that reaches to her waist, tied at intervals with bright, rainbow colored ribbons. A scrawny mottled hen rests contentedly in her lap, clucking softly and pecking at the girl’s skirt. Her mother, an older and worse-for-wear version of the girl with long salt and pepper tresses in the same style, her cheeks darkened by sun and polished like old shoe leather, occupies the stiff aisle seat alongside her daughter. In her lap she supports a large and threadbare patchwork satchel filled apparently with their clothing and personal items, on a pilgrimage to the shrine of some obscure saint or perhaps to visit an ancient grandmother in the city.
The bus driver is about to shut the vehicle´s front door using a squealing hand lever when a squad of local police – las autoridades – rolls up alongside in their battered white Ford pickup.
Before the dust-laden air has a chance to settle, two officers emerge from the driver and passenger seats while three more men, shabbily dressed in khaki with worn-out Adidas running shoes and armed with rifles and bandoliers slung over their shoulders Pancho Villa style, leap from the truck´s cargo box.
The five interlopers strut round and round the stalled bus, like vaqueros corralling a captured mustang or picadores circling a valiant but nonetheless doomed bull. One of the men kicks a tire. Whispering in conference with one another now, they act as if they were deciding whether or not to buy the battered wreck off a used car lot or slaughter an old milk cow for meat. The tire-kicker plants himself in front and motions the frightened driver to step down.
The officers are strolling up and down the center aisle inside the bus now, selecting passengers at random and pretending to scrutinize their papers. A moustachioed old man in a tattered straw hat rises to meekly offer the men a bunch of green bananas and is rudely shoved back into his seat. As they approach the young girl with the hen, the pinch-faced one who appears to be their leader nods to his cohort in an arcane code understood only by those who relish this kind of work. The understudy, whose sardonic grin reveals blackened teeth in a set of rotting gums, points a crooked finger at the girl, wordlessly ordering her off the bus. When her mother rises to protest, a blow from the brass butt of his rifle sends the old woman reeling backward into the seat, a bright crimson rivulet of blood streaming through clenched teeth from the corner of her mouth. Everyone else is silent, as if in the presence of the Almighty.
Head bowed in submission or perhaps in prayer, the girl walks silently up the aisle, almost serenely it seems, avoiding eye contact with other passengers, then descends the two metal steps to outside. Two other policemen escort her to the truck´s tailgate. She climbs into the open cargo box then settles into a corner with the pet hen still resting in her lap, as if already knowing and having accepted with a certain native fatalism what is to come. The men, who now have what they want, abandon the bus as the driver restarts the engine and engages the clutch. The battered and bruised old yellow school bus then reluctantly inches its way out of the plaza and into the roadway, gradually picking up speed. The old woman turns in her seat to capture one last desperate glimpse of her child, tears streaming silently down her cheeks, stoic. The policemen in their dented white pickup fade with their booty into the cloud of grey-white powder thrown up behind the bald tires of the bus.
David is thinking to himself how much these men resemble the young American soldiers he remembers from family snapshots taken during the Second World War, except for the sneakers, of course. Here is where America's so-called war surplus ends up, in foreign aid channels; like his worn-out, useless drill rig. He wonders whether the vintage rifle that the man with the sardonic grin had used to club the old lady only minutes ago was maybe the same one his Dad might have toted through war-torn Europe in 1944-45. Like the contents of Natasha´s overalls, yet another unproductive thought, he decides. More apropos was the fate of the little girl and her hen.
And what did he do? Did he stand up in defense of the child against her kidnappers? Did he behave like a real American? Like a real man? And did Natasha intervene on behalf of a sister in distress? Did she show solidarity with the abducted girl? Did she?
David glances at his shrunken companion in her hard plastic seat across the aisle then turns his face away, preferring to stare through a cracked and dirt-encrusted window at the fleeting semi-desert outside.