Two to Tango

On a trip down the Amazon, Nick Madrid is soon paddle-less up the proverbial creek. And things don't improve when - having survived kidnap, piranhas and spiky fish that swim up a stream or urine to lodge where a man least wants a spiky fish to lodge - he joins a Rock Against Drugs tour of the Andes. For now he has ti discover who is trying to kill pain-in-the-posterior rock star Otis Barnes - or even who isn't ..

Chapter One

He wore mud-splattered workman's trousers and a hostile expression. I wore Armani and a cheesy grin. He probably wondered what this guy was doing dressed up to the nines balanced on a slippery, rickety plank above a foul-smelling latrine on the banks of the Amazon. I might have been wondering the same but my mind was on other things. Specifically on the long knife in his extended right hand. My smile faded.
Three hours in the Amazonas and already the trip was a disaster. Things had started to go wrong the minute the plane landed at Leticia, where Colombia dips its toe in the piranha-infested waters of the Amazon. Two hundred kilos of cocaine had just been found at the airport in a consignment of fish bound for Bogota. My friend Bridget and I were obliged to stay in our plane with the other passengers, the air conditioning turned off, whilst the authorities investigated the slip-up. The slip-up being that some customs officer had been stupid enough to find the cocaine. Everybody knew that large volumes of it were shipped out of Leticia every day from cooking factories in the jungle. The authorities were bribed more than enough to look the other way. Whoever had found the shipment clearly wasn't with the programme. Bad luck for him. The zealot would be demoted by the end of the day, dead by the end of the week.
'It's nothing to do with me,' I said indignantly when I saw Bridget looking at me.
'It was your idea to come here,' she said, wafting the airline magazine in front of her face in a vain attempt to shift the sluggish air.
'My idea for me to come here. Your idea to tag along.
'She flared her nostrils.
'I don't tag.'
'I still don't understand why you didn't visit your friend in Cartagena as planned.'
'I changed my mind, okay?'
She gave me a steely look. 'You have a problem with that?'
'Absolutely not,' I said quickly, sinking lower into my seat. When we finally got out of the plane, the humidity in the air on the tarmac wasn't noticeably less. I was perspiring heavily by the time we reached the baggage hall. I could feel the sweat soaking into the collar of my jacket. Damp patches appeared under my arms. A squat, chubby man wearing a baseball cap was holding up a piece of cardboard on which our names - Nick Madrid and Bridget Frost - were crudely scrawled. His trousers were at half-mast and he wore a creased blue shirt, tight over his bulging belly. We signalled him over. Introductions were brief. His name was Joel, our guide for our trip on the Amazon. Bridget looked at the itinerary clutched in her hand.
'Let's get to the hotel and those Welcome Cocktails, Joel,' she said briskly.
'No hurry, Mrs Bridget,' Joel said, looking askance at her pile of luggage. 'Hotel three hours upriver.
'What?' Bridget said, looking down at the itinerary again.
'Boat leaves in one hour.
'We've got to go on a boat?' 'Bridget, we're on the Amazon for God's sake,' I said.
'How else do you think we're going to get around?
'It sounded romantic to me. I imagined either a power boat to whisk us to our hotel or maybe one of those old paddle steamers, like in the Herzog film, Fitzcarraldo. Perhaps I could buy a panama hat to go with my rather stylish linen suit. I considered a fly whisk but I wasn't sure if I was on the right continent for that.
'Take us to the nearest bar then,' Bridget said before stomping off, head high. Joel and I looked down at her luggage. He halfheartedly took hold of the handle of her largest case. Given that it was almost as tall as he was, I took it from him and staggered off after Bridget. We left the luggage at Joel's travel agency and went to buy my panama in a shop along the street. Then Joel suggested we have our drink in a bar on the waterfront in Peru. The border with Peru is a five minute bus ride west of Leticia. The port almost merges to the east with neighbouring Marco in Brazil. The bus - actually a battered old transit van with two lumpy bench seats - took us from the clean, modern, single storey buildings of the Colombian town to a rundown waterfront. Joel led us on foot along a dusty street into a shanty town of food stalls and open-walled bars with tin roofs. Hard eyes watched impassively as we went by. We stepped carefully on rough gangplanks across the muddy shallows of the river to reach a bar on stilts. We plopped down at a table overlooking sluggish brown water. Joel and I were both soaked with sweat. Bridget restricted herself, by force of will alone I'm sure, to a wet sheen. I had been hoping to present myself as a man of the world but with sweat dripping off my ears I looked your average red-faced Englishman abroad. Here the Amazon wasn't much wider than the Thames at Westminster. Rusty, rotting hulls were sunk into the mud along the opposite shore. An old wooden steamer lay on its side beside a modern, drab green gunboat that bristled with guns fore and aft. Dug-out canoes were pulled half out of the water on both banks. On an upturned hull beside the bar children took turns at diving into the turbid waters. We got through two jugs of beer in half an hour: Joel was a man after Bridget's heart, although he was the only one belching, loud and often. Half-Indian half-passing sailor, he turned out to be fluent in six languages and have a fondness for quoting George Bernard Shaw. So much for first appearances. He tried hard to impress Bridget but his Shavian wit was rather undercut by the blasts of beery breath he belched over her as he spoke. It's a cultural thing, I whispered to her as Joel called for another jug of beer. Bridget ignored me. Nothing new there then. She was busy ogling a half dozen fit-looking Caucasian men huddled at a nearby table drinking beer and talking little. I braved the wobbly gangplank which led to the lavatory. The lavatory was a rudimentary affair. Very rudimentary: a hole in the floorboards. I looked through it at the foul sludge below. I recalled visiting my great uncle in a little village called Earby when I was a kid. He had a long drop toilet in a shed at the bottom of his garden. It comprised a wooden seat with a hole in the middle fixed above a stream in a ditch some four feet below. The stream ran under each of his neighbour's outhouses in turn. The foreman who gave my great uncle a hard time in the local factory lived a couple of doors downstream. Once I waited for him to go into his outhouse then I crept into my uncle's, set fire to a crumpled newspaper and dropped it into the stream where it drifted, blazing, down to the unsuspecting foreman. I was halfway across the garden before I heard his roar of pain, back in the house before he fell cursing out of the outhouse, trousers round his ankles, one hand on his singed bum. I was smiling at the memory when I turned to leave and came face to face with man with the knife.
'Deutsch?' he said
'No. Sorry.'
'Americano?'
'No, sorry. I'm English. And you are...?
'Give me your money or I'll break your face,' he said, raising the knife.
'That's not actually correct,' I said, without thinking.
'I think you mean, Give me your money or I'll cut your face.'
'Give me your money or I'll cut your face.'
'That's better,' I said weakly. I stood there for a moment, unsure what to do. I was in a confined space, with no room for manoeuvre against a knife. Not that I knew how to manoeuvre against a knife. I thought I'd try trembling instead. It seemed to come naturally. He took a step towards me and raised the knife higher. I am an Englishman abroad, I thought. A certain standard of behaviour is expected of me, especially faced with danger. I gave him my wallet. Well, there's no point being a damned fool about it. He took it, then moved forward again. He had only taken a couple of steps when another man appeared in the doorway behind him. This man reached round my would-be assailant and grabbed his wrist. The knife clattered to the floor. The next moment the robber went through the wall into the mud below. I looked at my rescuer. He was from the table Bridget had been ogling. Slim build, neat black hair, bright blue eyes. He held out his hand. My wallet was in it. I took it gingerly.
'Thanks,' I said.
'Nice duds but I should go easy on the Armani around here,' he said, in a strong London accent.
'You're English,' I said. I always state the obvious when I'm in shock.
'Only between you and me,' he said, grinning.
'And I'm dying for a piss.' He walked past me.
'If I were you I'd get your little party on the road to wherever you're going.'
'We're going to Puerto Naneiro,' I said. The man looked over his shoulder at me.
'That a fact?' In the taxi back into Leticia I told Bridget what had happened. She seemed unconcerned, but then she was busy trying to get the mud off her Versace trousers. Back at the travel agency we got Bridget's luggage onto a trolley which Joel, grunting, pushed down a bustling street. He was almost horizontal, his feet scrabbling for purchase in the mud as he slowly inched the luggage forward. The narrow shops on either side were filled with sacks of produce and racks of hardware. We came to a large pontoon with a bustle of people on it. Skiffs and dug out canoes were moored there. I looked around for our paddle steamer. Joel took us to a narrow skiff tied up to the barge. I looked down at it blankly. I'd seen bigger boats on the Serpentine. It was about twenty feet long with a crude tarpaulin roof to keep the sun off, a steering wheel at the front and outboard motor at the back. There was bench seating for maybe six people. Bridget and I swapped quick glances. No time to change into something more African Queen. Dressed as we were, we piled Bridget's expensive luggage on a tarpaulin over the puddle in the front of the boat. We sat down. Water slopped around our ankles. We took off up the river, wreathed in diesel fumes, hammered by the sound of the engine which vibrated through the boat. Bridget remained silent, her lips pursed. This made me very nervous. She'd been in a foul mood for the past couple of days, flying off the handle at the slightest thing. Strange expression that isn't it? Why should you be on a handle in the first place? I focused on the Amazon. It was a surprise. The sun was very hot; it was humid. But the frothy clouds could have been hanging over London and the trees on the banks too looked English. We passed over sluggish brown water threading through impossible green countryside. Gentle hills succeeded by dense undergrowth. Herons and fisherhawks flapping low across the water. The canvas roof didn't give much protection from the sun and its reflection off the water as we scudded along. The humidity on the river combined with the smell of the gasoline - and maybe the sight of the river water slopping over her luggage and her Ferrigamo shoes - made Bridget feel bad about an hour into the journey. She was about to vomit over the side when I pointed out that, given the stiff breeze coming from fore, this wouldn't be very polite to Joel, sitting aft. She looked around for something to vomit in, grabbed the first thing that came to hand. I'm not sure the panama really suited me anyway.
'Can we stop somewhere for a bit,' Bridget said to Joel. Joel suggested we stop at the Indian village we were scheduled to see two days hence.
'I thought it was very remote,' I said. Joel waved his arms at the river.
'You don't think this is remote?' Just what I needed. Another wise-ass. Bridget stayed in the boat so I went alone into the Indian village, camera clutched in my sweaty hands, squelching through river mud in my expensive Timberlands, the sun beating down on my bare head. I felt uneasy since I didn't know what the basis of the visit was - were the villagers just being exploited as tourists attractions or was there something in it for them? Joel led me through the village, taking morsels of food from every hut on stilts we passed. The villagers, in grass skirts, were short, pot-bellied, skinny legged, the women with slack breasts and dead black hair tangled down their backs. They were sullen and incurious, unwilling to meet my eye or respond to my greeting. I can't say I blamed them. A stone age tribe, I reasoned, unused to civilization. I looked at the hammocks hung beside the cooking pots in the open huts. A way of life unchanged for centuries. I hated intruding on them like this so I let Joel daub my face with bright orange vegetable dye in 'traditional' Indian manner. Oh yeah? At least it raised a titter among my new companions. One of them thrust a small object into my hand. A dolphin carved out of teak, with quite a wicked-looking forked tail.
'Plenty freshwater dolphin in Amazon, Mr Nick,' Joel said.
'See them leaping maybe tomorrow. Sacred to this tribe. Very good carving.'
'It's, er, beautiful, I said politely, looking at this smooth piece of wood trying to get some sense of tradition from it. It was really nothing more than another piece of tourist tat, albeit one made by a Stone Age tribe, but I realized by the way everyone was looking at me that I was expected to buy it.
'Hardwood isn't it?' I said, concerned I would be contributing to the destruction of the rainforest.
'Sure, teak. Last forever.' I agreed to buy it and the Stone Age tribesman led me into his open hut. I had imagined him spending days sitting by the river watching the dolphins and whittling but when I entered his hut I saw not only another three dozen identical dolphins but also a large modern poster featuring a dolphin that looked exactly the same as the one I had in my hand. When we approached the far end of the village, I noticed one of the younger Indians was wearing football shorts under his grass skirt. Then we came to a football match in progress on a properly marked out, full size football pitch with brilliant white goalposts. The pitch was right next to an enormous satellite dish. I looked at the dish with disappointment and suspicion. I half expected the voice of the global media tycoon whose paper I was writing a piece for to boom out:
'How's the article coming along, Mr Madrid?' I trudged back to the boat feeling ridiculous, surreptitiously trying to wipe the gunk off my face. Bridget saw me and smirked. I presented her with the dolphin.
'Too generous,' she said, turning it round in her hands. After another hour bouncing around on the wide brown waters we approached the small village of Puerto Nineira, the last Colombian outpost on the Amazon.
'I can't see a hotel that looks as if it will have Welcome Cocktails,' I said. Bridget raised her head from my hat. 'I can't see a hotel at all.' I looked along the flat line of single storey wooden structures. She had a point. The boatman cut the engine and we drifted in to dock at a small bar on stilts, connected to solid ground by a good twenty yards of rickety-looking planks. A dozen or so soldiers were sitting at plastic tables on plastic chairs, chugging soft drinks from the bottle. Broad-shouldered, shaven-headed lads in combat fatigues glanced at us blankly. None looked older than 20.
'We were going to eat here,' Joel said, 'but because of Mrs Bridget they will bring the food to the hotel.'
'Doesn't the hotel have a restaurant?' I said. According to our itinerary, our hotel was basic. Before, I'd been thinking that if it served cocktails, how basic could it be? Now, I was beginning to wonder. Joel threw me a pitying glance as he and the boatman began to unload boxes. Then we set off again up the river. Twenty minutes later we docked at a stump of wood sticking out of the shallows. The bank here was a steep slope some hundred yards long. I looked around for a sign of human habitation, let alone a hotel. All I could see was a muddy track running up the slope with wooden planks at regular intervals. Leaving the boatman and his assistant to handle the luggage, Joel led us up this muddy track. About fifty yards into our slithering progress we were halted by an enormous dog, barking wildly and jumping around us. It was being friendly in its way. It provided my wrinkled, sweat-stained 700 suit with the last splashings of mud and slobber it so desperately needed. At the top of the slope we reached a wooden hut. There were others beyond it in the trees.
'This must be reception,' I said to Bridget cheerfully.
'I'll never forgive you for this,' she replied, thrusting her head back into my hat. There was no bow-tied waiter holding a silver tray of cocktails. The hut was a bare room with wooden walls and floor and a tin roof. There was a table, three plastic chairs, a dingy sofa and two hammocks. I could see a kitchen through an open door.
'Not reception then,' I said.
'Hammocks?' Bridget snarled. Joel walked by.
'Hey, Joel,' I said.
'What's the scoop on those soldiers back at the bar.' Joel turned as half a dozen swarthy men wearing army fatigues, bandanas and Che Guevera berets came out of the kitchen. Each one carried a machine gun. The one who had come out first looked at me coldly.
'The scoop on those soldiers,' he said, in a faultless English accent, ' is that whilst they are looking for a ruthless guerilla leader, he has just kidnapped two British journalists.'
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