Temptations, seductions, even real love cannot deter the assassin. But, things really get complicated.
The Ultimate Hit Contract
Part Four:And It’s Not In The Index
The road from Huancayo to Ayacucho was not paved, but it was scraped and maintained and just wide enough for two trucks going in opposite directions to pass. It ran along one ridge after another. There were no guard rails and at every bend Clifford was facing a thousand feet sheer drop into a fading green river valley. For most of the first ten hours, terraced farms strung down slopes so steep. If his previous experiences hadn’t told him better, it seemed impossible that anyone could tend them without falling to their death. He smiled at that as he slowly passed group after clan of poncho clad men and women bent to their tasks as far down the slopes as he could see.
The Andes were very jagged and glaciated in this area. When he closed in on Ayacucho, he shifted his Glock from its back holster to the seat beside him. He also stopped long enough to get two extra loaded clips from his satchel. He shoved them in the crease between the bench’s seat and back.
It turned out the only danger he confronted continued to be insane bus drivers chasing each other for the next paying passenger and a variety of over loaded trucks determined to shove anything in their way into space. The latter had two things in common. They all tilted to one side or the other, and most of their tires were not only bald, but unraveling.
Later he added a third. If there was a speck of room up on their loads there were five or more Indians sitting stoically. The men wore tight little wool caps but their women’s head gear was always a black or brown Derby, barely fitting the very upper portions of their heads. He had always guessed that they were nailed in place, for he had never seen one fall no matter how fierce the wind or how far over their owners bent. Each time one passed him, the men nodded and the women glared at his truck bed silently accusing him of selfishness.
Ayacucho was preceded by five separate military check points and one manned by Shining Path followers. At each military stop Cliff only had to shove a few Soles in half concealed fists. At the Shining Path, he waved, and shouted “ Via Che!”His beard, long hair and battered Toyota, plus a generous wad of Soles allowed him to reach the outskirts of the besieged city.
Cliff chose a pension with a lock in space for his truck, and a room with a door that locked both inside and out. The room was sparely furnished, but as clean as a Marine barracks ten minutes before a general inspection. After a coffee and some hot rolls, it only took ten minutes walking about to discover two things. One, the town was in a constant state of siege and Bernardo had been there just three days ago.
The second came after a more few bribes. He was now on his way to Cusco, the ancient Inca capitol and a major tourist attraction on the way to Machu Picchu, the mysterious Inca ruins three hours by train north of the city. That was a long trip from here.
The third came as he was eating lunch. Melba strolled across the square and dropped down opposite him.
“Hey! I’m living a charmed life. Santiago was quick and dirty and I thought I was going to freeze my tail off up here. Lo and behold in steps my very favorite bear to keep me warm.” Cliff had to bite his lip to keep from asking her about the photograph.
She waited, skirting her real purpose until well after lunch, but not too long after they shared a hot shower in her hotel and a long satisfying romp in the king sized whatever. After a long stretch, and satisfied sigh, she sat up and lit another one of those thin dark cigars.
“Can’t get use to a guy who doesn’t smoke. Does the taste bother you?”
“Not where you like my lips the most. But your hair’s got a smoky nicotine quality that my oft busted and battered nose doesn’t mind too much.”
“So, I guess I better get down to this before I decided to get down somewhere else.” She shifted so she faced him. He was still stretched out on his back. “Look, I could lie and tell you there’s been a change in plans. But we’ve got something going that won’t let me do that.”
“Is this about Bernardo?”
“You haven’t been in Chile have you? You’ve been trailing the Holy One, right?”
“No. Well, yes, but I’m assigned to track you.”
“In case I won’t shoot this guy?” Cliff didn’t bother facing her as he added, A”You gonna shoot him or me? Or both? In what order?”
“My choice.” That ended act one.
Cliff got up, walked over, picked up her purse and dumped it onto the dresser’s cracked marble top. “I haven’t got any weapons, Dickerson. No poisons, no tablets. And my Biretta is in my Carry On which is locked in the hotel safe. It’s in your name if you want to check.” He pulled on his boxers before he sat down opposite her on a lounge.
“Okay. I won’t look under the pillows as long as you don’t move.” His tone did not carry a trace of mirth or sarcasm. “What’s going down?”
“I lied a little about following you. I have been with him. Last five days. Most wonderful experience I’ve ever had. And that includes The Corps, Cliff.”
For perhaps a full hour he sat silent as Melba narrated how her original mission was exactly what he suspected but her shocked expression when he mentioned the photograph was convincing.
But she fabricated most what followed his question. She claimed that to stay out of his range, she decided to get a firsthand experience, so she hired a plane and got flown into a dry lake bed and hiked almost all day with two guides until she got to San Martin de la Andes.
She described it as a huddle of roofless abode huts, with a population of less than two hundred. There were a few tracts of land raising the Opium poppies. She was told that the only outsiders who ever came there were major drug trafficker dropping by twice a year to collect and pay for the generous harvest. The place was so destitute there wasn’t a church building; just one simple clay cross, with one arm ready to give up the cause. Once a month if weather permitted a priest came to give communion, bless the dead and baptize any new arrivals.
Since this was one of the villages Cliff had serviced with C tablets, he knew she was lying. At least about the location, but he didn’t judge that as a reason to expose his insight just then.
“I got there almost a day before he came through the pass, the nut cases hanging back, chanting and swinging their arms like it was Palm Sunday or something. The village kids ran out to him as if he had buckets of Hershey Bars. I stood at the corner of a hut and watched him drop down and embrace every one of them. Kiss each infected red cheek. And ...This ... Look. You know how strong the sun is when you’re up that high. You need sun glasses just to... And anyway, when he got there it seemed the sun wasn’t as strong. That the wind wasn’t as harsh.... That ... I sound like I’ve just ... Cliff, there’s something very strangely wonderful about the guy. So I hung around.”
“Sounds like you got converted, Melba.” Her puzzlement amused him for just a full breath cycle. Then she relaxed and continued.
“Can’t go that far, but ...” Now her tone shifted to almost pleading. “I got a proposition ... And you gotta hear me out. Okay?”
“And what happens if I don’t take it? You gonna get rid of me?”
“Not me.” Then her tone flattened. “But someone will if you don’t buy this and when you confront him, you can’t pot this guy.”
“Can’t visualize me not being able … Nevermind …Go on.”
“They put the first two and a half million in a bank you called and you transferred it to one they can’t get at. Before you left they gave you another hundred grand for expenses. What if I tell you how you can get the rest of it and disappear? Don’t say anything. Let me finish.
“They want Bernardo on a slab of wood somewhere up here because he’s actually following the four words that will change the world. ‘All men are brothers.’ He’s showing these people one by one that they don’t need a gun to get equality. That he can teach them how they can do something besides become a human pack animal until their backs gives out. You should have seen how San Martin’s peons changed in just a couple of days!”
“Melba. All this crap you’re telling me is exactly why your employers want him gone for Christ sake. And forget about them. When I was up here giving out vitamin C, it took a while for the bozos in our State Department to decide we were a subversive group. But it didn’t take long for them to get everyone of us declared persona non grata and tossed out. What the hell. We were making a dent in the damned armor, changing the economic culture.
You know, there’s Castro in Cuba, and at the time a socialist president in Chile. President Nixon said they were each a part of a pincher that if we didn’t break it they would take over all of South America. And don’t even smile.”
“I know you’re all right. But ...You’re only up here for the money. And if you play my hand you can have all of it.” She gave a long pause, took a deep drag, then added, “And me too ... For as long as you like.”
“Stop … You’re partially right. It is the money. But there’s more to it than that.”
“It’s all I got.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you that isn’t so.”
“No it is. I’m getting paid to kill this guy. And no matter what the hell you think, or believe, that’s what I’m gonna do, Melba.” He sat up, got up, walked over and put both arms about her. It was like embracing an oaken board.
“Will you at least come with me and see what ... I mean how he affects anyone he touches?” She remained in his arms, but he only held a bag filled with fears doubts and regrets. “How about the priests, you see any of them embracing this Bozo?” Her head did not move. “Yeah, it’s a safe bet every one of them sent a warning letter to their superiors.” She drew back, turned her face toward the windows.
“Melba, the first time I see this dude is going to be through my scope.” She slipped away and went to stand by the window as Cliff tried to ignore her physical attractiveness. That was just as impossible as granting any of her requests.
“You gotta believe me. I can get the rest of your fee, and there’s still some places in this world where... “
“Sure. And in a week, at most a month, I’d wear where ever out. And besides, I’ve always been the hunter. And what the hell’s so bad about doing this dude in Melba? Then we can take a long vacation. Long enough to see if we still got something to talk about, to share, once the erection ends?”
She didn’t turn from the window. Cliff sat on the couch and let his left hand search under the pillows. Then he shifted enough so he could check the back edges and found absolutely nothing.
“What if I think this man’s maybe something really special? That maybe God’s touched him like He’s touch those other few who ...”
“Melba let’s get something straight. As far as I can see it there isn’t any God so therefore there’s no Son. And that only leaves the Holy Ghost and everyone knows that ghosts don’t exist. So there’s nada!” Zilch! Nothing!” She spun and before she could counter he added, “Look, we’re all gonna die. I had it figured out what happens when I was about fifteen, but I couldn’t tell anyone then because I was too young to be that smart.”
“I don’t want to hear...”
“Anything that may be real? Well, listen anyway.”He paused and hated how his mind started screaming for nicotine twenty-three years after he gave that up. “Maybe it’s foreshadowing,” he thought.
Melba, you die. There’s this big bright white fucking light. And there’s a rush and then you realize it’s not a rush, it’s this hysterical echoing of insane laughter. And the instant you wonder or ask who’s laughing, you know it’s you. And why in the hell are you laughing? Because you’ve either guessed right or you guessed wrong. Maybe right means you got all of eternity to either suffer or enjoy. Or maybe it’s there’s really is absolutely nothing. This is it. The end and this is all you’re ever going to get. You had so little precious time. And you wasted so damned much of it trying to bribe your way into whatever you want to call it, or like me you wasted all that energy denying it.”
“That’s so you! So shitty! And if you believe that, how can you cut off some of that precious time?”
“Easy. Most of us sons of bitches don’t deserve anymore because we’ve never done one damned thing or thought up an idea that wasn’t solely for our selfish ingrate benefit! In fact most of us only want to get from the womb to the tomb without causing any ripples or making any decisions which might upset our inertia.”
“And what ... Oh forget it Dickerson.”
“No. I’m trying to tell you that this fucking world doesn’t need another Messiah, Melba! That if we don’t invent another panacea we can blame all our greed and selfishness on, we might be able to grow up. Get a little more spiritual and a little less exclusive, Melba darling. That we might start helping our fellow man, and not insisting that the little flock we happen to belong to, is the only one who’s going to be where ever, when ever. Ever think of that?”
He could see her torso stiffen, and he half expected her to have a gun in one hand as she turned to him. The cocked head and the wishful tenderness spreading across her face stopped that thought. He gave it one last stab.
“Melba, I once sat for almost half an hour listening to this woman give ever little detail to her fellow church members how Jesus had direct her to the used car she had bought that afternoon. People who try to personalize someone or think they claim created the entire universe are so fucked up!” Her eyes told him he had just fired a blank round.
“Come with me. Meet him. Cliff, he ... I saw him ... No it’s not necessary to see him. All you gotta do is see what’s going on all around him. Telling you is futile.”
“Melba? Am I gonna have to decide between the newest Bozo on my list and you? Please don’t say that.” She started toward him when he said, “Decide.” and her arms were around his neck as he closed his plea.
“You big beautiful bear! Of course I’m not going to do that. If you can’t see through all of this, if you gotta do what you gotta do I’m going to clear out and wait for you back at The Pie. How’s that?”
It was good enough for him to take her in his arms and only kiss and hug. Good enough for him to scrutinize her posture, her tone, the pauses and half whispers and decide he’d chance it that she was really telling him the truth. His senses almost fell in with his thoughts after they spent the night talking about where they wanted to go, how they had wanted someone they could talk to after the sex was over for the rest of their lives and when it came time for him to leave, they still hadn’t made love, but at least Cliff was in that state.Next morning he was gone before she woke