Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of our serial novel, Over the Edge, each chapter written by a different author. Click here to read the previous chapters.
“Your father owns the Rainforest Riviera?” Cynthia called out to Mateo’s retreating back. He stopped and turned around.
“Yes, he and his Iraqi partner. Have to go. Nice to meet you,” he turned away.
“Wait. Can we talk again?” Cynthia felt wistful.
“Of course. How about in two days. Noon. Have Rigoberto bring you back here.”
“Great!” She said, as he disappeared into the woods.
She was out of breath as she got back into the limo, as if she’d been on some wild adventure. Rigoberto smiled and said nothing.
“He’s interesting,” Cynthia said.
“Si, es verdad, Ms. Curry,” Rigoberto said.
“Can you bring me back here in two days?”
“Si, Ms. Curry, maybe the arpia flew by, but we don’t see him?” Rigoberto laughed.
Cynthia turned her face away from the windshield in case she was blushing and looked out the side window to watch the lush tropical landscape speeding by. In less than an hour they drove through elaborate black and gold iron gates onto a long, circular drive banked by fruit trees and terraced gardens, and stopped in front of the Rainforest Riviera. It reminded Cynthia of the Villa Del Balbainello she’d visited on a bus tour, a splendid place overlooking Lake Como in Italy, unlike the seven-day budget bus tour itself a friend had talked her into, which had been perfectly hideous. She was accustomed to traveling either as a young intrepid and penniless hitchhiker or a professional woman who could afford to travel in style– one extreme or the other, one might say – not traveling on a bus without a bathroom for hours on end with middle-aged strangers only to be run from one tourist spot to another at breakneck speed. One time, she was forced to threaten the bus driver. “Listen, I’m not a camel. I have to pee. Stop this thing. I’m not proud. I’ll go on the side of the road. Or, here in the aisle. Your choice.” And, so the driver, aghast, pulled over. She wasn’t proud of her behavior, but she had been desperate, not to mention in the grip of claustrophobia as well as sick to death of the lousy food hotels threw at budget bus tour groups.
She checked in at the front desk and was given the key to a room so lavish it took her breath away. Gold faucets in the bathroom, a tub the size of a small swimming pool, a four-poster bed fit for royalty and enclosed by velvet drapes. She unpacked and went back to the lobby in search of a bar. It was just past three, normally too early for a drink, but hell, she deserved one, didn’t she? Why had Ron thought it was a good and safe idea to send me, a woman for God’s sake, to look for Zain Toma? Hadn’t it been audacious enough of him to con me into hiring this Iraqi guy by hinting if I did so, there’d be a great job waiting for me in D.C.? Who said I wanted to move to D.C. anyway? Well, I had complained to him there weren’t any men in Massachusetts, but I wasn’t serious. I’ve had enough men in my life, thank you very much. How did Ron know Zain wasn’t some terrorist? And, suppose I do find him here. Am I meant to drag him back to Pine Rock? To what avail? Why the hell do we even care if he disappeared? Yes, definitely, I deserve a drink.
The bar was long, the ceiling high with grand crystal chandeliers casting a soft, glittering light. The bar stools were black leather and there were black leather banquettes along the walls and black leather lounge chairs with glass cocktail tables around white marble pillars. The floor was black and white checkered, the room itself a restrained work of art. Other than the bartender, who looked like Julio Iglesias, the room was empty. Cynthia sat in the middle of the bar, thinking she would seem pathetic if she sat at either end.
“Buenas tardes, Senora, what is your pleasure?”
“ A dry martini.” Variations ran through her mind – shaken, stirred, bruised, straight up, dirty, flirty fruit with a twist, but she thought keeping it simple would show she was a woman with an unequivocal mind on a serious mission looking for answers. She thought her no-nonsense drink order might inspire him to give her straight, good information. After all, didn’t bartenders know everything? But, instead of being direct and asking if he’d run into a guest by the name of Zain Toma, she asked if Senor Suarez Munoz was around, because she had a message for him.
“No se’ Senora. Pero, si usted desea, a message I can get to him.”
“It’s only that his son says ‘hi.’ ” As soon as the words fell out of her mouth, she felt trivial and ridiculous. Or, well, like a lonely woman making banal conversation.
“Oh, veo! His son, eh?” The bartender lifted his eyebrows and with a crooked smile put the frosted glass down in front of her. She had to force herself not to throw it down her throat in one gulp so she could get the hell out of there. She felt sure he was mocking her and was obviously going to be of no help. Besides, she was never comfortable sitting in a bar by herself. A hot bath. Yes, she needed a hot bath to calm herself down. Normally Cynthia wasn’t nervous when travelling, but this was hardly a normal trip.
She had a deep, dreamless sleep, then spent the next day aimlessly walking the streets of Panama, going into shops and buying nothing. She went back to her room and took a long nap, called room service and ordered corn cakes with shrimp and mint, ahi tuna with coconut rice, black beans and sweet potato and a pot of Te Verde tea of for lunch. Then she turned on the television and was surprised to see so many channels with American reruns. It dawned on her as she watched In the Heat of the Night, Sanford and Son and That 70’s Show, that she was killing time until she’d see Mateo again.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Mateo wasn’t decked out in as many feathers covering his naked chest and legs this time. Rather, he wore a red bandana around his forehead, a cowboy hat, with his long brown hair trailing over his shoulders and down his back, an embroidered shirt, a beaded vest and tan trousers. Cynthia wondered if he’d covered himself and toned down his witch doctor attire for her sake.
“So, where are all the feathers?” she asked
“Oh? So you wanted feathers, did you?”
“No, I don’t care. I was just wondering.” Her laugh was like an abrupt bark. Jesus! Why am I acting so ditsy?
“Come this way.”
Cynthia turned to wave goodbye at Rigoberto. She followed Mateo in the direction of the woods.
“Ms. Curry, I come back for you. Not to worry,” Rigoberto shouted.
“Where are we going?” Cynthia asked
“To my humble abode. Don’t be scared.” He smiled at her over his shoulder.
“Who said I was scared?”
Mateo was barefoot and had no trouble walking on a narrow path covered with raised, gnarled tree roots and undefined decayed matter. She was glad to be behind him so that he didn’t see her trip every few feet. Worms and snakes busy in their endeavors wiggled along the ground. Broad-leaved trees and hanging moss created a canopy, preventing full sunlight. Tall trees, looking to be a hundred or more feet towered and broke through the canopy and into the hidden sky. Birds streaked by too fast for Cynthia to identify them, except for colorful parrots who sat still and looked down on her as if transfixed by her presence. She saw a sloth hanging from a branch and another curled up sleeping in the fork of a tree. Insects buzzed and floated in the damp air. Cynthia had a feeling of being under water. There were tree frogs, snails, ferns, lizards, mushrooms and orchids everywhere. And, creeping plants that looked like glossy house plants with tendrils that wrapped around the trees like they intended to strangle and choke them to death.
“The vines are good. They don’t kill the trees. They are food for wildlife. And, good for medicine and hallucinogens for healing people,” Mateo said as if reading her mind.
“I saw two sloths. I think they were sloths,” Cynthia said with excitement.
“You might see some monkeys swing by. They are a happy, sweet bunch. You like monkeys don’t you?”
“Oh, yes. I love monkeys. I love all animals.”
“Yes, I can see that about you.”
They came to a small clearing in the middle of which stood a massive tree holding a bamboo tree house with a front porch. A rope ladder hung over the edge of it.
“Here we are, home sweet home,” Mateo beamed.
“How charming,” Cynthia said, as she was thinking My God, he’s one of the monkeys he referred to. Is there a bathroom in there?
“There’s an outhouse on the ground on the other side of the tree,” Mateo said, reading her mind again.
There were two rattan chaise lounges with comfy-looking floral pillows under a cluster of palm trees to the side of the clearing. Cynthia all at once felt exhausted and wanted to collapse on one of them.
“Yes, lie down. Stretch out your legs. Relax. I’ll bring down drinks and some food.”
Mateo’s obvious ability to read her mind was beginning to feel eerie. He soon climbed down a ladder with one hand, the other balancing a tray (a circus performing monkey, no less) which he put on a low wicker table between the chaise lounges.
“What is all this?” Cynthia thought she’d never seen such a beautiful and colorful array of food.
“Lunch. A couple bottles of Balboa beer. A papaya, pineapple, tree tomato and passion fruit salad. Empanadas with avocado, fried yucca, yellow rice and little red beans, no meat if you don’t mind.” His smile was as radiant as the sun and he had long eyelashes, which Cynthia hadn’t noticed until now.
“I’m starving! We’re having beer?”
“I have an iPhone, remember? Certain things are exempt from my vow of poverty. I want to live a simple life. Not a dead one. Bon, let’s eat and drink. When we’re done, we’ll talk and I’ll tell you what you came here to find out. The whole story. Oh, I see you are feeling impatient, Cynthia. Okay, I’ll give you some hints. In Iraq, to this day, you get the death penalty for being gay. Your missing professor, Zain Tomas, while working in D.C. was seen in gay bars having the time of his life dancing shirtless with other men. Evidently, he had thought it was safe being so far from home to come out of the closet. His father was told that a hit was put out on his son, so he used his connections to have him sent to you. But Zain being a modern man without shame and unbeknownst to you and all the girls at your school who had eyes for him, continued to be who he was, and who could blame him, but he was foolish in doing so. One is never safe in certain worlds. For instance, do you know that in Panama there is an alliance of drug and arms trafficking, politics, real estate moguls and the Russian mafia? Have you heard rumors of your own President making millions by allowing Colombian drug cartels and other groups to launder money through the hotels he owns here in Panama? Maybe true, maybe not. People like the commotion of mystery to distract themselves from their ordinary lives, but often there is no mystery. There are only a couple of themes in human society when it comes to power and corruption – money and sex to be exact.
“An unusual thing is that Zain’s father and mine, the two of them old friends and partners, both love their sons. They hate how we are and what we do, but they love us. And, we love them despite their nefarious affairs. Are you getting the picture, Cynthia?” His eyes were dark green like ponds deep in the woods. They regarded her with kindness and perhaps affection. Her heart jumped like a tiny frog leaping under a bush. Then picked up speed like a racehorse. Blood coursed through her veins and there was an onrush of adrenaline. Was it terror and dread of danger? Or, was it excitement, passion and longing? She couldn’t be sure.