Incident in Cartagena: Chapter 1

Sid was pissed that they wanted him back at the boat by 1:00AM but that was the price he paid for traveling as an educator with the Coast Guard. The problem was that he had fucked off most of the day and did not make use of his time and was now behind the eight ball in a very big way. He had told himself that he was going to use the night to be a producing machine and crank out work until dawn. It didn’t matter now, though, as it was time to bolt.

He walked swiftly through the hotel lobby and was enveloped by the soppy heat as he exited the building. A cab was idling at the curb and the driver nodded to Sid as he opened the rear door.

“Port Authority,” Sid said. The driver looked at him as though he was speaking a foreign language, which he was. Sid’s greatest frustration as a traveler in Latin America was his inability to speak or understand Spanish and he had vowed on more than one occasion to begin a program of study. Like many of Sid’s plans, however, it had yet to occur.

“Excuse me Senor. May I be of assistance?” Sid looked over his shoulder and saw a hotel attendant standing next to the taxi.

“I need to get to the Port Authority,” Sid explained. The attendant appeared as confused as the taxi driver. Sid was sure that was what the executive officer at the ship had said the port was called but these guys weren’t getting it. In a final attempt to clarify, Sid told him he needed to get to where the Coast Guard ship was moored.

“Ah, si Senor,” the attendant said with a grin. Sid’s translator communicated the desired destination to the taxi driver and then told Sid how much the fare would be. Sid thanked him sincerely and pressed a 10000 peso bill into the young man’s hand. He then followed his bags into the rear of the taxi, taking care not to spill the beer he had grabbed from the minibar just prior to leaving his room.

Sid’s driver shot out of the driveway and soon the little car was bouncing its way up the boulevard and away from the Cartagena Hilton. Sid had enjoyed himself in the northern Colombian city; in fact, some would say he enjoyed it a bit too much. Sid had learned to enjoy his port calls since he began teaching on cutters, especially after traveling on a ship in the middle of nowhere for eleven days with shitty food and no booze. Sid was pretty good at rationalizing his excesses and, since he was pretty sure this was going to be his last trip to Cartagena, he had decided to do it up right. He was pretty sure he had not been seen by anyone the night before as he was accosted by the two lovely Colombians and was led to their room in the Walled City. Sid had not been with two women in twenty-five years and he had forgotten how much fun it was to watch. He had no regrets. That was about to change.

Sid was thinking these sorts of pleasant thoughts when he noticed two policemen standing in the middle of the road just ahead of the taxi. Although his interest level peaked when the cops waved his driver to the curb, he certainly wasn’t frightened because he had witnessed automobiles and motorcycles being pulled over in Cartagena many times previous. It was routine there and Sid was not alarmed, even when the policeman asked the driver to exit the vehicle. Sid watched the driver extract documents from his billfold and hand them to the cop for inspection.

Sid did get concerned, however, when he saw the reflection of headlights in the driver’s rear view mirror as a car pulled in behind the taxi. If these sorts of stops were routine, why would there be a need for a backup at this point? Sid watched the mirror as one of the policemen approached his window.

“Good evening, Senor,” the officer said as Sid rolled down the window. “May I ask you to step outside of the taxi?”

Jesus, this can’t be good, Sid thought. Were they pissed because he had an open beer between his legs? He silently cursed himself for not chugging it before he entered the vehicle at the hotel. It was too late now. Sid opened the door and exited the cab with beer bottle in hand. The cop didn’t seem to take notice.

“May I see some identification?” the policeman asked. He quickly decided to be compliant at this point and silently pray that this was all going to work out just fine. Cartagena’s finest were just doing their job, he reasoned.

“Certainly,” Sid replied. He pulled his wallet from his shorts and set the beer bottle on the pavement.

“Are you American?” the cop asked.

“Yes, I am,” replied Sid as he handed the man his driver’s license.

“What brings you to Cartagena?”

“I am traveling with the United States Coast Guard,” replied Sid.

“May I see your military identification?”

“I am a civilian aboard the ship and possess no military ID.” Sid wondered where all of this was going. After all, he wasn’t driving the taxi. He looked over and the other cop and his driver were smoking and observing him.

“I see,” the officer said, looking at Sid’s driver’s license and then back at Sid as if he was comparing the photo with the face. “May I see your passport?”

Sid felt his hands sweating as he realized his passport was not in his possession.

“Sir, I apologize but my passport is back on the ship.” Sid watched the officer’s eyes for any sign of compassion as he silently pleaded that this interrogation would be over soon.

“Senor Calhoun, I am sorry but you will have to come with us.” His tone had suddenly changed. The men who had driven up behind Sid’s taxi were approaching.

“May I ask why? It’s imperative that I am back at my ship by 1am.”

“I am sorry, Senor. Again, I apologize, but we must verify your identity before we allow you to go. It should not take too long.”

Sid thought about arguing with the cop but abruptly decided against it, sensing that it was better to just go along and hope that he wouldn’t end up tied to an iron post in a dark room with a burlap bag over his head.

“These detectives here will take you to our station and make sure you are processed as quickly as possible,” the officer said.

The goon started to escort Sid to the sedan.

“Can I at least grab my bags?” Sid pleaded.

“By all means,” the officer said with a smile.

Sid walked to the taxi, opened the door, and retrieved his computer bag and his backpack. For a split second, he thought about making a run for it, because this whole thing just didn’t feel right. Then he thought, Where the fuck would you run to, idiot? He leaned down, picked up his beer bottle, and threw it back in one gulp. Then he smiled and said, “I’m ready now.”

The goons looked at him and pointed to the back seat of their sedan. They got in the front seat and soon the three of them were driving through a section of Cartagena most Americans most likely never see.

It didn’t take Sid long at all to notice that there was no door handle on the inside of either rear door. Not that he could have used them without seriously injuring or killing himself, because the driver was speeding through the streets and treating traffic signals like they didn’t exist. It wasn’t long before the lights of the city were behind them and they were engulfed in total darkness. Aren’t police stations usually in cities, he wondered?

“Hey, where are we going?” he asked the passenger in the front seat. The guy just looked at him and turned his face back to the road. Sid knew he was not on his way to a police station. Sid told himself that he needed to keep himself composed, no matter what happened. He wished he would have paid more attention as the command chief had warned the crew that kidnapping was a remote possibility in Cartagena.

Sid was more than a little freaked out when the driver pulled in front of a large iron gate that spanned the width of a lit paved driveway. A man stepped out of a small brick building and opened the gate so the car could pass through.

The passenger in the front seat exited the sedan and opened Sid’s door, then escorted him to the front door of a large brick mansion. Another man was there to allow them access to the building. Sid knew that this was no police station. If it was, cops were tremendously overpaid in Colombia, he thought. The foyer had a very high ceiling and led into a spacious living room where huge windows offered a lit view of the manicured gardens outside. There were large works of art on the walls and a polished black grand piano in one corner of the living room.

Sid was led into a paneled office just off of the living room where he was warmly greeted by a tall, well dressed Hispanic who reached for his hand and smiled. Sid kept his hand by his side.

“May I ask where I am?” the professor said.

The man ignored his question. “I am so sorry to have detained you and disrupted your travels in this way, Mr. Calhoun.”

“So am I, but I guess you have your reasons,” Sid replied. “I assume me being here right now has nothing to do with cops needing to verify my identification.”

“You’re obviously an intelligent man, Sid. May I call you that?”

Sid knew he needed to find out as much about this guy as he could. “I’m at a disadvantage here, sir. You know my name, but I do not know yours.”

The man laughed and then said, “My name is Diego and I welcome you to my home.” He then walked behind a huge mahogany desk and motioned for Sid to take a seat in front of him.

“Your name is Sid Calhoun, and you are a professor traveling with the United States Coast Guard cutter FRANKLIN. Your program offers college credit through Jameson College in New Hampshire. Is this not so?”

Sid kept quiet and wondered how this guy knew so much about his work. The man called Diego continued.

“You’re probably wondering at least two things right now, Sid. One of the things our are curious about is how I know so much about you and your work aboard FRANKLIN. Allow me to answer that by saying that there is a real benefit to putting lots of people on the streets of Cartagena to talk to visitors who are not quite old enough to drink legally in the U.S. but quite old enough to drink here in Colombia.”

Yes, Sid had worried about that. Young kids drinking legal alcohol for the first time in a country known to be at odds with the U.S. over drug distribution, pumping out their chests with locals even though they had been warned to keep their business to themselves. Sid knew it was asking a lot of young people to do what the Coast Guard asked them to do in these situations.

Diego paused and lifted the lid of a gold box on his massive desk and extracted a huge cigar. “Would you care for a smoke?” he asked the professor. Sid simply shook his head.

Diego flicked the lighter on his desk, raised the flame to the end of his cigar. then sat back and puffed until the tip was a glowing red ember.

“Another thing you’re probably pondering is how you are going to get yourself back on that boat in time to meet your curfew. And, of course, you’re wondering who I am and why I have detained you. Here is the deal.”

Diego placed his cigar in a crystal ashtray that sat on the corner of his desk and looked at Sid with no trace of a smile.

“My colleagues are not pleased, Sid. Please understand that this is business and business only.”

Sid’s fears were suddenly confirmed as he realized what this was about.

Diego continued. “As a professor of entrepreneurship, you are no doubt astute enough to know that businesses do not remain businesses unless they make a profit. As businessmen, we fully realize that we will end up relinquishing a percentage of our product to the Coast Guard and their foreign and domestic affiliates each year. That’s one of the costs of doing the type of business we do. Occasionally, though, U.S. interdiction efforts interrupt our operations to the degree that we are significantly hindered. FRANKLIN’s detainment and subsequent scuttling of the SPSS in the western Caribbean two weeks ago was such an event. My colleagues have decided to take a stand.”

Sid’s head was reeling as he knew he was in deep here. Two weeks before, he had been in his stateroom preparing a lecture when he had heard the pipe that FRANKLIN was in pursuit of a self-propelled semi submersible vessel that had been spotted by a Navy surveillance plane from 30,000 feet. Sid had gone up to the bridge and listened and watched as FRANKLIN’s small boat had pursued and detained the SPSS, only to see the crew scuttle the vessel. Before it sank, however, the small boat crew had managed to reach inside of the craft and extract five bales of cocaine and bring it back to FRANKLIN. This provided enough evidence to justify an FBI diving team to travel to the area and eventually bring up what amounted to over seven metric tons of cocaine, which, according to the media, had a street value of nearly two hundred million dollars.

Sid’s mind was racing as he considered the many questions in his head. The cartel had obviously been watching him and planning his kidnapping in order to exact some sort of revenge on, whom? Were they seeking to punish FRANKLIN command for doing its job, or were they looking to exact revenge on the feds for being a little more successful with their drug interdiction techniques than the cartels had predicted? And, how did Sid fit into their strategy? How and why did Sid fit into their equation?

“We have brought you here with us this evening because you are an outsider on that ship, and, frankly, you allowed yourself to be an easy target. You…”

At that point, there was a knock at the door and Diego hit a button beneath his desk to open it. A short Hispanic with no neck entered the office and spoke brusquely to the drug lord. He then turned and left.

Diego looked at his Rolex and then back at Sid. “Time is short. We have much to discuss. We need you to transport a package aboard FRANKLIN and deliver it to the United States for us and we need you to be discreet about it, obviously. You will deliver this package at a specific time and to a specific location.

Oh, this can’t be good, thought Sid. It’s bad enough that Sid had already pushed the limits of his guest status aboard cutters in the past by bringing small quantities of contraband on board. That was hairy enough. He had stopped that business when he was sucking out of a rum bottle shortly before turning one night and his roommate, who had supposed to have been on watch, had barged into the room unexpectedly. It was all Sid could do to hold the warm liquor down as he nearly choked from surprise. After that incident, Sid had vowed to go without, no matter how long the voyage lasted. Well, at least between port calls, anyway.

Being forced to carry a package given to him by a sleazy drug lord was about a million times worse, though, but Sid’s host obviously wasn’t giving him a choice. Sid was fearful of what the drug lord had over him besides his life, if anything. He decided to ask the obvious.

“Hypothetically, what occurs if for some reason I am unable to deliver this package?” he asked tactfully.

“Excellent question Sid,” Diego said with a small grin. “As a psychology professor, I assume you know a bit about operant conditioning?”

Sid was knowledgeable about operant conditioning, which is a theory of learning developed by behaviorist B.F. Skinner that stated that people’s behavior is reinforced based upon consequences of that behavior.

“We offer you a reward if you succeed, and we also must inflict punishment if you fail to do as we ask. Once the package has reached its rightful recipient, you will receive instructions regarding the retrieval of your reward. If, for whatever reason, your cargo fails to arrive at its destination at the appointed time, your family members will perish in most unpleasant ways.

Sid felt fear that was quickly followed by anger. He sensed it would be very unwise to allow his host to see either.

“Why me?” he asked Diego. I’m not an official part of this mission. I’m simply a civilian out here teaching.”

Sid had a million questions but knew he probably wasn’t going to be given the chance to ask them, let alone get them answered.

“Why you? Because no one will fuck with you, Professor,” Diego said. We are aware of your work and we know you are highly respected. Your position alone gives you credibility. The way you conduct your mission enhances it.”

Sid was uncomfortable as the drug lord complimented him. Shit, he realized he was being burdened with this gig because of his competence!

“You also have some reservations about this so-called ‘war on drugs’ which you and I both know has been a huge waste of time and money. Not that we think you are so anti-drug war that you’d willingly carry our package for us across international borders without any incentive, but we think you are less apt to act in accordance with a belief system that praises the efforts of your federal government.

“Finally, we know two other important points about you. For one, we know you are in serious financial trouble and that you could benefit greatly from a sudden influx of cash, money that would allow you to wipe out your debt with minimal effort and allow you to give your family what they deserve.

“Secondly, you love your family very much and would want nothing drastic or disastrous to affect their lives.”

“You will secure the package in your stateroom until you hear from us.” Diego reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and extracted a small black flip phone and held it out to Sid, who made no move to reach for it.

Diego smiled and set the phone on the desk. “This is our means of communication,” he said. “You will power it up when you get to your next port. You’ll need to respond within five minutes of receiving any message or bad thing can occur. In addition, you’ll need to carry the phone with you at all times and wherever you go until the package reaches its final destination. If the phone is not with you at all times, bad things can occur.”

Diego picked up his desk phone, punched a few buttons, and, seconds later, a beautiful tall African woman entered the room through a side door carrying a small black satchel. She approached Sid and sad down on a low stool next to his chair.

“This is Margo,” Diego said. “Margo is going to perform a simple operation on your hand. Don’t worry: it will be painless. She is going to implant a small chip in your hand that will communicate with the phone. If the chip and the phone cannot communicate with each other while you are in port, bad things can occur.” Sid was beginning to really hate that phrase.

As Diego watched, Margo unwrapped a small towelette and wiped it across the back of Sid’s hand. Soon, his hand was numb. Margo then removed a small scalpel from her satchel and made a tiny incision in the top of Sid’s left hand. Then she took another tool and pushed the small chip into the incision. When she was done, she placed a small adhesive bandage over the incision, loaded up her satchel, and left the room without ever speaking a word.

“The last thing you should know, Sid, is that you are not the only one being tasked with a mission aboard FRANKLIN. We are watching in order to make sure nothing goes wrong with this plan of ours. You will need to follow our direction from this point forward. Perform as we ask and everything will work out just fine for you.”

The drug lord, or enforcer, or whatever the fuck he was, sat back in his chair and picked up the device Sid was to carry again.

“Are you now ready to begin your mission, Professor? he asked with a broad grin. The guy was obviously proud of his plan and how well he had executed it up until this point.

Sid realized he had been given no way out at this point and he was going to have to acquiesce to Diego’s orders, at least until he could figure a way out of this situation. He reached across the broad desk and took the device Diego held in his hand.

“You need to go,” Diego said as he stood. Rest assured that we are watching you and hoping you will not deviate from our plan. You will receive further instructions when you arrive at your next port call.”

Sid looked at the screen on the phone Diego had handed him and saw a photo of his two young sons. He felt sick and full of hate as he slipped the device into the pocket of his shorts.

“Isaac, give Professor Calhoun his package,” Diego said to the young thug that stood by the entrance to the office. Isaac nodded and handed Sid a black backpack. Sid estimated that it weighed about fifteen to twenty pounds.

“What is it?” Sid asked as he glared back at his host.

“That is not your concern, Professor. Your mission is not to wonder what is in the package. Your mission is simply to deliver it safely and soundly, understand?”

Sid nodded.

“Good,” said Diego. “We’ll be in touch. Safe travels, Professor.”

Isaac opened the door and Sid was led outside to the driveway, where a taxi was waiting for him. He opened the door and saw that someone had placed his bags neatly on the rear seat. There was also an unopened bottle of Aguila and an opener sitting on top of his computer bag. Sid smirked as he slid into the taxi next to his bags and wasted no time opening the beer and throwing the cap on the floor of the cab. The driver had brief words in Spanish with Isaac before he put the car in gear and drove out into the street.

There were a thousand questions running and bouncing against each other in Sid’s mind as he smoked and rode back toward the lights of Cartagena. What was in the package? What did Diego mean when he said that Sid was not the only one on FRANKLIN involved in this mess? How many were there? Were they working under the same conditions or was their participation more voluntary in nature? His head throbbed as he sucked the last of the beer from the bottle.