Juan and his boys were gone almost a month. I assumed, by week three, he was dead in that jungle. Nicola was sure they were all fine. “You don’t know the jungle. The jungle is a different world from the world you know. You can’t understand the jungle!”
It took me half an hour to decipher her words every time she spoke. She knew as much English as I did Spanish. You learn fast when your only companion for a few hundred miles speaks a different language. I found I did not understand as much as I thought I did.
The day Juan left, I drove north with Nicola in her Jeep. We drove back up the Pan-American Highway to get some black market antibiotics and some basic medical supplies: more bandages and tape, rubbing alcohol, and gas for the generator.
Nicola had a rough edge, but she had a good heart. She was a pretty girl with a squeaky voice. Long brown hair framed rich, brown eyes, and it fell just above small, soft breasts. I could never stop looking at her perfect, round ass, but I was scared to try to get in her pants. Nicola had a dark vibe. I think she’d kill me as soon as fuck me.
After our short trip into civilization, we returned to her cabin over the footbridge next to the dark jungle. We parked her Jeep, an old and rusted green, U.S. Army surplus, next to the Chevy. The house with the expansive tree belonged to some people she knew. “They’ve gone missing,” Nicola explained. “That happens to people around here. I don’t ask questions, but I keep an eye on their place.”
Back in her bedroom, she motioned toward the bed. “Vendajes,” she said. I knew she meant it was time to change my bandages.
I took off my t-shirt and lay on my back as she pulled the sticky tape off my skin. Nicola was definitely a “rip the band-aid off” type of girl. Nothing was gentle with her.
She rubbed down each cut from the previous night's, knife fight. Swearing under her breath, she scrubbed the wounds until they bled again. I managed to understand something she said about making them bleed clean, and that was good enough for me. I put my head down on the pillow; it smelled of mildew and sweat. I could not tell if it was her sweat or mine. I tried to relax.
Nicola asked me a question. I couldn’t or didn’t have time to figure out what she said. I felt the zipper on my cargo shorts come apart. My cock was in her mouth. I propped myself up on my elbows and enjoyed the show.
The next hour or so was a heated, steamy, violent blur. Recently suppressed primal needs were exposed, raw and unbridled. Clothes ripped from our bodies lay abandoned on the floor. The taste of sweat and spit and a woman’s wetness was overwhelming. Bitter and creamy, salty and sweaty, I lost myself in the heat of Nicola’s tender curves.
I could feel my wounds rip open, my blood flowing onto the sheets, covering our bodies. I didn’t care. The dark, metallic tang mixed with the desperate aroma of desire and release. I needed this. I think Nicola did too.
My face between her thighs, I heard her whisper “fuck.” Then louder. “Fuck!” It was a universal word. I screamed it back at her, flipped her over, and entered her from behind. She knew I’d be coming back for more. I needed to drink from that well many, many times. My thirst for that woman would never be quenched.
I pulled her long brown hair, our pace intensifying. She screamed and swore at me in Spanish. Her edginess turned me on. The violence turned me on. The cold brutally turned me on. A heat grew between us, and it was hotter than anything I’d ever felt before. I collapsed onto her shaking, warm body, and felt her small arm fold across my back. The burning, tropical sun cast shadows across us, and for a moment, I closed my eyes.
“Vendajes,” she said.
I laughed. “That’s how this all began, with vendajes!”
“Ducha y luego vendajes,” she said.
We walked to the porch. A blue, fifty-five-gallon cistern made of branches was perched on top of a wooden frame. Quite an elaborate series of plugs and levers were rigged to make up the waterworks. A large funnel system at the top trapped as much rainwater as possible.
Nicola’s shack had running water as long as there was gas to run the generator. Why the shower was that rustic contraption was never clearly explained to me. A lot of things in this part of the world were new and confounding to me.
Shower day was the day after a heavy rain. During the dry season, Nicola explained she’d bathe in the river. I was happy to be here during the rainy winter. I told her I didn’t trust the river; it was infested with piranhas and alligators. Nicola tilted her head at me, her expression like that of a confounded cat. She turned away from me to start the shower, but I swore I heard her mutter “pussy.”
Watching Nicola, still naked, working the process to start the shower was one of the true joys I’d experienced since arriving in that little slice of Hell. We washed each other underneath the lukewarm shower water and dressed. After stripping the bed of the sheets we’d ruined, Nicola had me lay down again and covered my cuts in bandages and tape.
I looked forward, with great anticipation, to the next time my bandages were changed.
I was tired; my legs were weak. I decided I’d needed to cut down on the coke and booze and eat better if I want to keep fucking this girl. If not, a part of me feared she’d kill me before Juan returned. Death by fucking Nicola; I could think of worse ways to go.
That routine was the extent of the next three weeks. I was not completely sure what Nicola’s role here was. We spent our days in near silence or fucking like dogs. Cars would sometimes come by, parking across the bridge, and the occupants would walk to Nicola’s hut. Money was exchanged. She did a pretty solid business selling coke and other chemicals to the locals.
Nicola was always armed. Even in bed at night, a loaded and locked .45 was only inches away from her grasp.
Days were spent in silence. There was no sense of anger, simply quiet. We ate meals together, and we’d sit at night on the porch with smoky lanterns burning to keep away any one of the million species of bugs. We’d drink local whiskey and beer and smoke some weed, but it was almost wordless as if the effort to communicate was not worth the energy. We slept together, and there were moments of what could almost pass as affection – a kiss goodnight, a non-sexual back rub – but most of our time was spent in comfortable silence.
Finally, after nearly a month, while sitting on the porch, we heard a voice yelling: “Richie, pendejo! Nicola!” It came from deep within the forest. Juan Carlos and two of the four guys that left with him emerged. One of the men carried four dead chickens draped over his shoulder. I ran full tilt into the path that led to the edge of the jungle.
“Jesus Christ, brother!” My heart stopped as I saw Juan. Dressed in the same clothes he was wearing when he left, he looked like he’d lost twenty pounds. His shirt was filthy, ripped, and unbuttoned, flapping in the warm breeze. His bare chest and legs were covered in cuts, scratches, and what looked like thousands of bites of some kind.
The group stopped in front of Nicola’s shack. A fast, fiery conversation ensued. Juan took two of the dead chickens and handed them to Nicola. The other two men walked off. Juan looked at us, sized me up and down, and smiled at Nicola. He knew.
He put down his gun and proceeded to strip himself naked and walk under the shower. The water, still warm from the direct sunlight of the day, tricked over his body. I stood by the door. It wasn’t much of a door: only four, wide floor panels nailed together, about three feet high, open on the bottom and the top. It barely shielded your nakedness as you washed.
“I thought you were dead!” I said, shaking my head.
“No such luck, Richie,” said Juan. “I’m exhausted. I hope Nicola can make us some food. I’m starving. Tell her to clean and cook me a chicken. Tonight, I want to relax. Tomorrow, I’ll fill you in on our new job.”
I left Juan to finish his shower and walked into the small, dark kitchen. A tiny window captured the fading afternoon sun. Two flowers, in tiny clay pots, sat on the shelf. Nicola kept a bird feeder right outside the window. Sometimes in the morning, I’d catch her singing to the birds and her flowers.
Nicola was nothing if not a contrast in every aspect of this life. Everything about her and this place made no sense to me. It all just happened day in and day out.
In the center of the kitchen was a wooden chopping block. The grains of the wood were stained dark with the blood of many beasts. I stood and watched Nicola butcher the chickens. She didn’t need Juan’s orders. Fresh meat was rare here. Fish from the river was more common. The precision with which she dismembered the chicken bodies left me a little concerned. I could only hope she’d never turn that knife on me.
She motioned to me to grab a bowl by the door. Pointing with a bloody hand, she said, “Ensaladas verdes. Go.”
I stepped out the back door into her modest vegetable garden and picked some salad greens and some plantains. I met Nicola and Juan on the front porch. They’d started a fire in a pit outside the railings. I dropped the vegetables and went back inside for a bottle of local moonshine and three glasses.
I joined them in the hard, wooden chairs. Nicola cooked the chicken and the plantains on over the fire while Juan looked back into the jungle.
“The Soviets are fucking assholes, bro,” said Juan. “The American’s, the CIA, they’re assholes too, but the word is you can at least deal with them… work with them.
“The Russians, Soviets, are just greedy hard-asses with military backing. The CIA wants our product to feed their bullshit ‘War on Drugs.’ The cocksuckers take our coke, bring it into the US, distribute it, and lock up the users. It’s all part of some fucked up system I can’t even comprehend.” Juan took a glass of moonshine and knocked it back. “The Soviets want it all for profit on the black market. But they are hard-ass dicks. You’ll have to get used to killing those motherfuckers.”
“I can do that,” I said, finishing my own glass.
“The key difference between them,” continued Juan, “is the Americans want some level of secrecy. The Russians, they flat out don’t give a fuck. They don’t care who knows, or how they get shit. The prince, he’s in Acandi’ and running trafficking operations. He’s directing the movement of product from the south to north, then up into the Narcos islands.” He held out his glass for another drink. I obliged. “But we can discuss work tomorrow. Tonight, I want to get very drunk.”
I got up early the next morning, before Juan and Nicola. I started the generator and made coffee. I watched the news on the little TV, gave up trying to translate, and went out to the porch. I wanted to absorb another morning in this place between Paradise and Hell.
Juan was up next. He joined me on the porch with a cup, wearing only fresh boxer shorts. I looked at his bare chest, back and legs. “What are all those bites from?”
“Chiggers,” he replied. “You’ve never seen anything like them. They are everywhere out there. Worse than the bedbugs you’d get from fucking hookers in dirty motels!” He flipped me the finger.
I looked at him and finished my coffee. I’d missed my brother.
Nicola joined us. She brought the pot with her and refilled us both. Lack of refrigeration meant I got used to no cream in my coffee. Sugar was hard to come by, and expensive, so local honey was the substitute.
Juan poured another cup. “Richie,” he said. “We’ll head out in two more days. We’ll be gone only a few weeks, but it’s hard out there. These fucking chiggers are the least of it. It’s deadly: Fer-de-lance snakes, jaguars, monkeys that steal what little food you find. Fucking bugs crawl in your ears and nose while you sleep. A ten-mile walk takes a day and a half. We can use mules until something kills them, but something always kills them. The rivers are crawling with creepy shit. This ain’t no place for city boys like us, homie.”
“Pussies,” said Nicola.
So, she did know that word; she understood more than I thought. I shook my head and finished my second cup of coffee.
“I did good work out there,” said Juan. “I proved myself on that trip. I made it so we only have to do one more: this next one. After this, we’ll be back in Columbia in Acandi’ and working for the prince. The game has changed for us now with the Russians. They want more product, faster. We’re going to be working with them, using their choppers. This is the last mule and canoe trip. You should thank me for that. These trips into the jungle are an initiation. If you survive, you’ve proven yourself. This new game needs people who understand logistics and can adapt to rapidly changing conditions.” He sipped his coffee. “It’s business, simply business.”
“I can handle business,” I said.
“Richie,” said Juan, his eyes lowered. “I hate to tell you this, but the prince isn’t who we think he is. He’s not the one who did our families.”
“Look, I think the prince has a tie in there somewhere, but he’s not the guy. First, we got to get to the price, then we’ll get information, okay?”
I nodded, a sinking feeling in my stomach.
“You’d better enjoy my cousin bro. This romantic getaway is ending.”
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