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T h e S h a d e s o f P a r a d i s e

a novel

by

J. Alvin Read

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T h e S h a d e s o f P a r a d i s e

The Shades of Paradise

Part One

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CHAPTER ONE

February 1997

Beth Tierney peered through the window as more than thirty thousand feet below the Gulf Coast slipped behind and, for the first time in thirty-five years of life, she was beyond the continental limits of the United States. It was a little frightening: back there was her whole existence and she was leaving it, not on a two-week holiday, but really leaving it on a spur of the moment decision, after a lifetime of weighing carefully every choice. As a child, she excelled in school then continued on through graduate school to earn a Master’s of Science. Later, she advanced to a prestigious position, invested wisely and participated in community activities, yet when a series of crises struck taking her parents and career, she found that what remained was a dry, empty nothingness. For all those years of effort, sacrifice and planning there should have been something more that remained, something of meaning that would endure through the worst of times, to buoy her with purpose and direction, but there wasn’t. When put to the test, the sum of all she had been and done resulted in a failed attempt at life.

She needed out – and this was it: her brand new beginning.

Through all of her four and one half years of graduate school, Vermont had felt like a foreign place. She had

constantly encountered people whose speech was so strange as to be practically unintelligible and with food and customs fascinatingly different from Wisconsin’s. But Costa Rica wasn’t prim and proper New England: it was a totally foreign, sizzling-hot Latin culture, her new world and where she would finally begin to live – in a place so different from home it seemed anything was possible. Beth didn’t want to miss any of it. She wanted to see it all and do it all: improve her Spanish, learn how to dance the meringue, the salsa – all those hip-swaying sexy dances – eat spicy foods and tour the country from one end to the other.

According to information she’d downloaded from the Internet, Costa Ricans were friendly, not at all like New

England where everyone seemed to delight in giving misleading directions to strangers. And down there too, somewhere below all that blinding white puffiness, situated on ‘her beach’ in the tiny Caribbean pueblo of Chauita, would be Cabañas Arrecifes, her own little treasure unearthed by exploring every Costa Rican WEB site she could find. She pulled the Cabañas Arrecifes brochure from her bag and smoothed it flat across her knees, marveling at its tranquil beauty, not to mention her good fortune for finding it. It seemed too exotic, too intensely beautiful to be more than fantasy, yet there it was, photographed in living color. She pictured herself in each scene. There she would be, lounging in a hammock slung between palms while turquoise water lapped the white sand, or perhaps in the other picture, seated at the bamboo beachfront bar sipping a cocktail and chatting with the smiling waiter. Or she could be snuggled into bed inside one of the thatched cabanas with the breaking surf lulling her to sleep. The center photograph, the largest, was of smiling tourists bathing on the white-sand beach with a colorful sailboat plying the water behind. “That’s me,” she whispered. “No more high heels or business suits for you, Lady Tierney. You’re moving to Bikini-town.”

Outside, amazing things were happening: in the engines the liquefied, then refined remains of solar energy collected by a forest millions of years ago were converting into heat, then kinetic energy, at such a rate as to hurl them through the air at six hundred-fifty miles per hour. Wow! She could just envision and, at odd moments when they passed through a wisp of cloud, actually see the air divide as the wing, driven at such immense speed, cut through it to create at its upper surface a void that literally sucked the tremendous weight of the aircraft to over thirty thousand feet above the ground – five miles, wow!

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A voice among the muted babble in the rows behind reminded her of her singular regret over walking out on life: Mrs.

Leonard. Dear old Mrs. Leonard was a true, dear and steadfast friend and neighbor and the only person to remain loyal through all the trouble. As a child, Beth and her friends feared the old woman and were banned from her yard. Even bent at the waist, head buried deep among flowers, she could still somehow sense the presence of any trespasser. It was a mystical talent that earned her the nickname, 'the seeing butt'. Time did its thing and turned that all about. She grew up and, next door, the seeing butt became like one of the family. She taught Beth and her mother secrets of gardening that resulted in a fragrant band of flowers encircling their yard – from which mischievous children were banned. There were piano lessons, each Tuesday and Thursday for six continuous years in which Beth learned that the old woman had an ear for more than simply children in her garden and in her teenage years, when parental opinions were viewed with suspicion, she would listen with an understanding ear and offered sage advice. And now, she was Beth's only friend.

Her seat suddenly dropped away like the floor of an elevator, sparking a tiny flash of terror that a chime for the fasten seat belts sign, an accompanying change in engine pitch and a reassuringly smiling stewardess combined to alleviate. Pressing her nose to the window, Beth squinted into the brilliance. Regardless of the speed, they seemed to drift, gradually settling into a cavernous ravine between towering mountains of feathery-white billowing vapor whose size dwarfed the airplane to a mere speck. Sunlight glared, then glared again like flashbulbs igniting before her eyes as the plane sliced through fringes of cloud; then all was gray and the world of space and objects was lost to a nether world where relative speed was non-existent, an in-between place devoid of features, with no up, down,, here nor there. How good it would be to emerge and find that the previous year hadn’t happened. All right then, but where then might she find herself? Would it still be today with all memory of the previous year erased, or would it be a year earlier, before it all began? It was an interesting question, but one thing was certain: she wouldn’t be on a plane to Costa Rica. She’d be back in her office in Green Bay, still deluding herself that Mr.

Andreesen secretly adored her and considered her work indispensable.

Finally on the ground and settled in for the long bus ride to the Caribbean coast, Beth reclined her seat and sighed comfortably. She wondered at the strange system of streets without names, buildings without addresses and whether she would ever be able to understand Spanish spoken so rapidly. If she couldn’t speak with anyone, how would she get along? And how was she to find things even if she did understand, like bus terminals for example, if there were no addresses or street names?

Locations, Erika had explained were identified by citing directions from the closest landmark and she knew none of them. The fact was she was a little frightened. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to function in this strange Latin culture, but going back would be giving in and she couldn’t do that. There certainly was nothing compelling back in The States: no career, no retirement program, no friends except Mrs. Leonard, and not a house either – sold that. The old neighborhood had lost that familiar home feeling that had always made everywhere else seem wrong. She had no parents, no husband, no children, no life – nothing, nothing at all. No, scared she could handle: she was staying.

It seemed inconceivable that, just over a year earlier, she had been snug in a comfortable life: a fat cat, on top of the world with a well-calculated life’s course plotted. How quickly a life can crumble away! The first blow came on January fourteenth more than a year ago when, like a house of cards in a tempest, her career blew away. Even the weather had been awful. For nine straight days, an Arctic storm had straddled the border between Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territories, refusing to move. It pulled the jet stream south in a deep arc across the face of North America. Driven before it, a massive volume of subzero Arctic air moved unmercifully southward, becoming stationary over the Midwestern States. Temperatures dropped to record lows, day after endless day. Beth had begun to wonder if it might not be the dawning of a new ice age. The morning of the fourteenth, a biting north wind bore down upon the city. It whistled in quick, cold, and nasty from the north,

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across the frozen bay. Around the buildings of downtown, the stiff wind swirled, creating confusing eddies that lifted glistening blizzards from snow banks, blinding pedestrians, and snatching away hats. In the narrow canyons of avenues, the bitter air channeled again gathering speed as it resumed its southbound rush.

She should have turned around and gone back to bed when she opened the garage door and the neighbor’s dog didn’t come out to bark. Every living thing with half a brain was hidden away from a razor sharp wind whose bite was capable of freezing flesh beneath fur and overcoats alike. Half of the office staff wouldn’t be in, but she was intrepid even when her car just groaned, draining power from a frozen battery. She valiantly pounded the steering wheel and said the magic words: “start, damn you, start,” and her mother’s hand-me-down caught. Innocently unaware of what awaited, she blew a column of frozen breath towards the windshield in grateful relief.

It was early that summer that H.G. Andreesen Consulting relocated to the center section of the converted strip mall, yet the promised conversion remained a far off dream. Mr. Andreesen was now on his third contractor and although the upstairs offices were completed, moving the hammering and sawing to the first floor hadn’t improved things much. And just then, during the worst cold snap of the year, the door to the parking lot was solidly barricaded requiring a long, frozen walk around the block. Every morning of the interminable cold snap with temperatures defiantly remaining well below zero and with a stiff breeze from the bay, Beth pulled her mittens on, snuggled a wool cap tightly over her head, and climbed from the car for the frigid walk. The morning of the fourteenth was no different. After trudging the icy length of the alley, she came to the short slice of side street and Lum’s Chinese restaurant, with its pagoda-like roof, green and red paint and a golden dragon at the door, the first milestone of her daily trek. Around the next corner, the first store in the block-long strip was Vincent’s Hardware, above which the owner lived with his family, a fact appreciated for not having to wallow through foot-deep snow.

Each morning, astride his little tractor, Mr. Vincent would clear freshly fallen snow from the sidewalk along the entire length of the strip.

Adjoining the hardware was South Bay Luncheonette with neon signs adding shimmering highlights of red and green

to twisting rivulets of condensation descending its bay windows. Outside, as she approached the frequently opened glass door, the frigid gusts laced with snow carried the inviting scents of brewing coffee, ham and eggs. By then, she was shivering inside her coat with her chin already trembling, a sure sign her teeth were about to chatter. She did the only sensible thing and followed her nose to sanctuary, joining other harried commuters stomping snow from their shoes while waiting for take-outs.

The place was alive. Busy kitchen sounds mingled with the steady drone of conversations punctuated with laughter, and always in the background Green Bay’s all news radio station. A satisfying feeling of security came from being a member of the busy throng passing through the doors of South Bay, which drove the wheels of Green Bay’s commerce. The other satisfying feeling came from central heat.

Vista Travel, which occupied a space the width of a door and window, appeared tiny and lost sandwiched between the luncheonette and its larger and more prestigious neighbor, Beth’s office. A week earlier, the routine of her morning trudge around the block changed when a poster portraying a Costa Rican beach she simply couldn’t pass without staring at, appeared on an easel in their window. It was a sweeping panorama of a pristine, white sand beach, with aquamarine water and an out of focus frond hanging in the foreground. Words other than ‘Costa Rica’ in large blue lettering across the bottom were unnecessary. The image of serenity manifest that held her spell-bound said it all.

The morning of the fourteenth found her, once again, in the subzero wind enjoying a before-work pause gaping

dreamily at the poster as coffee steamed from its cradle of double-insulated mittens. She easily imagined herself there: rays of a tropical sun warming her skin as an onshore breeze gently lifted her hair. Real coconut oil would melt lusciously into her

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skin, making it supple and shiny while baking to a toasty tan. Of course, there would be a good book to read and, possibly even, a piña colada served in a coconut and made with real pineapple. Somehow the captivating poster and, interestingly enough, the bitter cold too combined to bring the sensations of the beach almost close enough that regardless of below-zero wind biting her nose, beneath her overcoat, she was basking in the sun.

Leaving the Caribbean, she crunched her way over the last twenty yards of brittle morning moisture and pushed

through the new revolving doors into the offices of H.G. Andreesen Consulting. The lobby, with its high ceiling and wide reception area, was designed to impress, make a positive statement for H.G. Andreesen. With the entire front wall of glass and the many white outlined rectangles of smudged, gray, yet unpainted, sheet rock for walls, it wasn’t much for lasting impressions. She strode across the lobby, to the women’s room below the stairs. “Good morning, Miss Tierney,” Rebecca Norton, the new administrative assistant said. Her voice was strained, containing a cutting edge of false politeness that caused Beth to turn and look in wonder at the boldness of this young snit. “You should know there are some government officials waiting for you in your office.” Again, the haughty tone. Startled, she stared curiously at the young woman. She knew she wasn’t very well liked by fellow employees who generally considered her to be a mousy, workaholic whose bitching about details that mattered little or not at all to government inspectors. Beth received invitations to social events only when not doing so would be socially uncomfortable, like to the office Christmas party. She knew and accepted the situation; no problem.

Unpopularity was okay, but outright rudeness wasn’t.

“The government people can wait for a minute, thank you, Ms. Norton,” Beth retorted and returned to her closet. She pulled off her camel hair overcoat, boots and woolen leggings then turned to study her reflection, nodding, satisfied with her confident professional presentation, although her dead straight hair that bent like a folding ruler when she lifted it was a disappointment. She could just as easily have inherited her father’s slight wave, but it was what it was, so she kept it blunt cut above the shoulders for easy maintenance: and straight across the back – simple. Her only attempt at style was to allow it to curve slightly longer at the sides of her jaw, which compensated for a narrow face. Business suits were meticulously chosen, invariably leaning towards brown with the skirts cut to a half inch above the knee with an off-white blouse and black Pilgrim tie. As much a part of her apparel as her clothes was her suede briefcase, laden with papers. It had been a gift from her father, presented in honor of her master’s in geology that, regardless of how old or battered it became, was a pride to carry. A sudden heart attack claimed his life five years earlier while he was yet in his prime and she only thirty. His loss was a crushing blow, but her pain was nothing as compared with her mother’s. Then, a scant two years later, she was taken from her too, in a death more attributable to broken heart than to anything medically specific. Watching her mother waste away had been agonizing.

Each day, through her very pores another small bit of her soul would slip away until she was but a ghost peering from the deeply recessed eyes of a skeletal body. Beth tried every day to reach her, to offer some small amount of cheer, but death was inevitable, and a welcome relief for both when it came.

Beth found herself alone in the world. Earning, shortly after Mother’s passing, a prestigious upstairs office renewed her focus. She assumed a new pride in herself for her abilities as a geologist. The pride didn’t come so much from the prestige of the office or from having her very own south window to nurture African violets, or even filing cabinets that were hers alone.

It was that the office and position of project engineer were symbolic of the respect she had earned for consistently surpassing expectations and planted her firmly on the highway to success. Each new project became her reason for being and consumed her totally. Career dedicated to H.G. Andreesen, she was comfortable in the knowledge that she was valued for that very carefully considered choice. She, in turn, was thrilled for the opportunity to be an active participant in cleaning up a tiny portion of the nation’s groundwater mess. The term workaholic used behind her back didn’t faze her; she acknowledged it.

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Her accusers’ lack of sophistication didn’t allow them to appreciate her love of ecology or that she considered her work to be her entertainment. They all had spouses and family; she applied her devotion to career and the accuracy of her data. Since the bitter ending of her last relationship, more than three years earlier, she’d devoted herself entirely to career. Office popularity mattered not, what did was that her professional approach and quality of work were highly respected and appreciated by those who counted, particularly Herman Andreesen himself.

The government inspectors waiting upstairs would be there to review her data detailing the extent of contamination for a proposed cleanup site. Her figures were dead-on precise, as always, and she was confident the government inspectors were familiar enough with her work to already know the same. Nevertheless, it was a small but necessary step, and she was prepared to do it well and insure that H.G. Andreesen would be selected as the clean-up contractor. “Well, Miss Tierney, you thirty-five year old workaholic,” she recalled saying to her mirrored image, “let’s go convince our government bureaucrats just how desperately they need us.” Slipping on heels and with a tiny adjustment to her skirt, she spun from the closet, closing it with a flick of the wrist.

Two wide staircases framed either side wall of the lobby. For those unable to climb, on the back wall beside the new marble faced reception desk, torn brown paper protectively covered the stainless steel doors of now operating elevators. Beth’s office was in the middle of the easternmost of two green-carpeted corridors. Between the two, were the kitchen, conference rooms and storage closets. It was a good arrangement that afforded every second floor office a window. She climbed the east wall stairs, taking them with a light skip. Her sturdy, sensible, low heels clicked the count: thirty-one stairs, the last thirty-one steps of a safe, structured life.

Coming around the corner, she stopped short. Her office door was open and inside people were moving about.

‘What’s this,’ she asked herself, ‘who gave permission to whom to enter my office? Rebecca Norton, I’d bet!’ Outside of her opened office, a man and a woman, fellow geologists at H.G. Andreesen, conferred in hushed tones. Slack jawed and staring in her direction, the whispered conversation abruptly ended and, as she approached, the eyes of both flicked nervously. Without returning a word to her offered greeting, both slipped quickly into their respective offices. There wasn’t time to consider what it all meant.

“Ms Beth Tierney?” An unknown woman standing beside her desk fired at her in an accusatory tone.

“Yes, may I help you,” she snapped before taking in the entire scene. Her cabinet had been broken open and a

uniformed officer was intently scanning her files from the bottom drawer, reading project titles to another who transcribed the information onto a clipboard. The remainder of the drawers had been sealed shut. ‘FBI, DO NOT OPEN’ stickers formed X’s over them. Her top desk drawer lay, bent and broken, on the desktop and beside it, her computer in pieces.

“Ms. Tierney, I am agent Paula Hobson with the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” said the woman in the trim, navy blue suit with an ID hung from a light chain about her neck. Her outstretched hand offered a document as she spoke. “He,”

she said nodding to the man with the crowbar, “is my partner, agent Fred Rogers and this is a federal warrant to seize all of your files, personal and professional, paper and electronic. You will surrender your briefcase at this time, Ms. Tierney.”

Herman Andreesen, the founder of the firm, stood behind the agents, gulping and tugging at his tie, but saying nothing. Beth couldn’t understand how he could just stand there while this was happening. She had always counted on him to be able to fix problems, and he had always come through, but now he avoided her attempts at eye contact. Wordlessly, she offered her briefcase to Agent Hobson. The other one, Rogers, she remembered, had frightening eyes that seemed to be his center about which the rest of him moved. They didn’t waver from their focus on her, following every movement, while the rest of his body struggled to remove tightly fitting black gloves.

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The following ninety days were a surrealistic dizzying spin through one nightmare after another. She had been named as one of the principal figures in billing fraud perpetuated by H.G. Andreesen Consulting against the US government in an FBI investigation of Super Fund contractors. The specific charges alleged that she conspired with Herman Andreesen to bill the government for work not performed. Beth was stunned to see her name listed as project manager for false projects, which apparently existed only on paper, but complete with data from projects she actually had supervised. Convincingly accurate forgeries of her signature and initials appeared in every appropriate location. The total fraud amounted to more than two million dollars. She was driven home in the caged rear seat of an FBI sedan followed by a caravan of two others and a white van boldly emblazoned with large, black FBI lettering. They pulled up in front of the house with emergency lights flashing and the whole neighborhood watched as she was escorted in, an FBI agent at either arm. Brandishing a search warrant, the agents ransacked everything like a wrecking crew marauding through the house, hauling off her computer and every one of her files –

files capable of proving the charges to be groundless. She sat on the sofa by the front window, defeated, knowing that every gossip in the neighborhood was out there, witness to how old maid Beth Tierney brought shame to the proud memory of Ken and Angela.

Three months into the torture, a call came from chief investigator Rogers informing that she was no longer under investigation. She was to be escorted into the closed, former offices of H.G. Andreesen Consulting and permitted to recover personal possessions. She also appeared at the property clerk’s office in the federal building, downtown to claim the remnants of her home computer and other property removed from the house. Official acknowledgment of her innocence made her feel better, but for only a short while. While the FBI informed her that she was no longer a suspect, they didn’t bother to inform former friends, neighbors or other groundwater consulting firms. In the eyes of most, she carried the stigma of guilt and was viewed with suspicion as a criminal element, someone whispered about, avoided. Her letters of introduction and resumes submitted to consulting firms were returned unopened or with scathing comments attached. Anonymous messages,

condemning her, appeared regularly in her e-mail, people she had known her entire life turned their faces from her, garbage was dumped in her driveway and Mrs. Leonard, her only loyal friend, told of a circulating petition, which demanded that Beth vacate her home. As large as is the United States, the community of groundwater geologists is small and the scandal, complete with Beth’s name as a perpetrator, was common knowledge throughout. To her absolute dismay, came the realization that there was to be no restarting her career, not in Green Bay or any other city. She was unemployable.

She sobbed herself to sleep at night, feeling totally alone in a cold and hostile world. Of the secure life she had, there was nothing left. She was without family, friends, husband, children, and apparently without future either. The singular employment opportunity, the result of months of constant searching, was, ironically, with the federal government, evaluating clean-up proposals as an independent consultant. The work could all be done on-line; apparently they preferred her out of sight despite anti-discriminatory hiring regulations and all she could hope to earn would be but a tiny fraction of her former salary.

Worse: the job was mundane, mindless paper shuffling requiring neither inspiration nor creativity.

Three AM found her unable to sleep, surfing the net, trailing thoughtlessly a link she created by joining the words:

‘life, work, and where’ as the root of a WEB search. To play the game, she simply clicked her mouse and page after page of sites appeared, related somehow via electronic reasoning to her three chosen words. Screen images flashed hypnotically to the idle tapping of her finger as her tormented mind sought escape from her dilemma. Another click and, on the screen before her, appeared the same Costa Rican beach scene she had seen in the window of Vista Travel. Her finger caressed the smooth, curving surface of the mouse delaying the next click while the beach and all of its glorious colors filled her eyes. Winter, the FBI, Green Bay, even the loss of career melted away and she was there, running, almost flying, towards the surf in a tiny red

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bikini. She began toying with the thought of a two-week vacation, although not taking herself completely seriously, until her breath caught like a hiccup with the realization that Costa Rica could happen, and it didn’t have to be for just two weeks either.

There was not so much as one compelling reason to stay, so why not sell everything, take the stupid on-line consulting job and just GO? With a laptop, she could work anywhere on Earth, and in Costa Rica at least she wouldn’t be vilified at every turn.

  

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CHAPTER TWO

A cacophony of horns, brakes and roar of diesel engines announced their arrival at the Caribbean port city of Limon where the majority of passengers disembarked at the side of the road, finally allowing her a window seat. They were at the outskirts of the city, but it didn’t look like much: mostly a collection of ancient clapboard buildings and unpaved side streets lined with humble homes. The throng walking and riding bicycle was comprised entirely of Black people without any evidence of the minority Ladinos, Native Americans and Whites she had read of. Ahead, the line of cars, trucks and buses inched along, while bicycle traffic threaded its way through at twice their speed, apparently frustrating drivers who fruitlessly blasted away at their horns. Adding to the bedlam, vendors walked beside the bus, hawking through the open windows cold drinks, ice cream, coconut candies, tamales wrapped in banana leaves and a multitude of other foods she intended to try.

The map showed Limon to be on the coast, but a glance down every street failed to provide even a glimpse of the sea.

Then, approaching the tiny airport, she had her first breathtaking view of the Caribbean. There, stretching into the misty distance was a palm lined, sandy beach. It was beyond lovely; its beauty was so utterly heart stopping that she felt flush for it, but something was wrong – missing. It was people! There wasn’t a soul to be seen. It was inconceivable! Where was everyone? The sun was shining, the surf gentle, the colors unimaginable; the sand should be covered with towels and umbrellas, yet it continued in that manner. For the next several hours they drove south, paralleling a coastline that was practically continuous beach backed by coconut palms and, with the exception of driftwood and an occasional dog, it was empty.

Dark was nearly upon them when the bus lurched over rocks and potholes and came to a stop opposite a cantina with a wide covered porch where several dogs lay like melted butter, an occasional tail flip their only sign of life: the heart of the tiny pueblo of Chauita. The streets were of pot-holed soil with the only traffic two cars parked half in the road. There were few people about: a pair of barefoot teenage girls giggling in conversation as they passed, several tourists in swimsuits seated on stools at the counter of a roadside stand where a sign promoted tropical fruit licuados, and an old man, bent under the weight of a wheelbarrow, making his way slowly through the ruts. The bus stop featured a bench at the side of the road with a rickety support of sticks to hold aloft a badly rusted roofing panel for protection from rain and sun. Looking eastward, she saw only a quiet lane with homes and bungalows to let, but no sign of the sea. She thought to walk the lane and find the Caribbean to dip her feet in before returning and sampling a fresh fruit licuado. While she pondered where to stash her bags, a dark muscular man approached.

“Señorita Tierney?” Between hand gestures and her limited Spanish, she understood that his name was Jesus and he was there to drive her to Cabañas Arrecifes. He loaded her bags in the back of a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi then held open for her the passenger door.

“No, I walk – camino,” she said embellishing her words with the motion of two fingers walking.

“No Señorita, no se puede. Esta muy lejos.”

Lejos, lejos – ah yes, she remembered: far. ‘It’s very far,’ he had said. But, it wasn’t: she had the map right in her bag and it clearly showed Cabañas Arrecifes only four hundred meters, about the length of four blocks, from where they stood in the center of town. “Mire esto,” Beth demanded, pulling a street map of Chauita from her briefcase. She pointed to the center of town then to the cabañas and the arrow between the two with ‘400 Meters’ written upon it. One didn’t need Spanish or

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English to understand that. He took the map, seemingly fascinated, studied it closely, then insisted anew that she should ride with him. Slightly miffed at his single-mindedness, she climbed in only to be glad she did several minutes later when they pulled off of a dirt road through a bougainvillea shrouded entrance to a parking area where, barely visible at its depths, a small wooden sign hanging askance under a palm was the only identification. Cabañas Arrecifes, it said in faded red lettering.

Looking at the sign, she had to admit that Jesus had been right; she never would have found her way and, even if she had, the sign would have been impossible to read in the descending dark.

Deciding on a quick tour of the grounds before total darkness, she set off for an opening in the parking lot’s perimeter of shrubbery, leaving Jesus to tend to the bags. She found herself on a gravel trail bordered with varieties of flowering plants completely unknown to her. There were flowers from the delicate simplicity of two petals about a single stamen to chrysanthemum-like clusters, and orange and white beauties that could have been sculpted from wax. She continued along enjoying the scents, passing two well-separated cabañas on her right while on her left was a shrubbery-enclosed patio topped with a trellis grown over with hibiscus. Then, with the Caribbean in front, shimmering under a waxing moon, she found nestled among the palms like a fairy tale dream her cabaña: number three! It had bamboo walls with a thatch roof that also covered the open front patio. Flowering shrubs grew along one side and a stand of banana at the other. Screened windows with open shutters were to either side of the door, on the side walls and two others at the rear. The door was locked, but peeking through a window, she could see that the inside walls were finished and that the furnishings appeared as comfortable as they had in the brochure.

Closer to the beach, enclosed behind by the arc of cabañas and shrubs, she located two other bamboo structures, also with low overhanging palm thatch, trimmed square above doors. A sign listing rental rates for snorkeling equipment, surfboards, and two small sailboats identified the first as the sports shop. The other, with its face open to the Caribbean, became the beachfront bar from the brochure and there before it, on a tiny patio under an awakening starry sky and washed over with a warm February breeze, was a cluster of tables, the gentle beat of reggae and a panorama of beach overhung with palm. In perfect animation of her daydreams, the bartender was busily preparing drinks for two couples on barstools, while a third sat at a table on the patio staring out to sea, arms intertwined, enraptured by it all. And, in that moment, an unacknowledged secret fear that the brochure was nothing more than a collection of retouched photos dissipated like dust before the wind and her spirits, her thankfulness and her hopes rose higher and higher. Cabañas Arrecifes was everything she had hoped for and more, so much more. She hugged her arms about herself, smiling and took a seat at an empty table to order her first all-natural fresh fruit piña colada.

A crowing rooster sounding as though it was perched on the headboard woke her early the following morning. Bed

was a soothing cloud of enfolding comfort: rolling into its loving embrace for another forty winks would have been heavenly perfection, but Mr. Cock-a-doodle Rooster was an insistent taskmaster. Grudgingly, she allowed her eyes to open, but just a crack. And, what a sight they opened to: she had awoken in the belly of a dinosaur! Mosquito netting became visceral tissue enshrouding her. From high above where they joined a single pole that could be breastplate, bamboo ribs of the beast that had swallowed her whole descended about her. Even the rising sun conspired, tinting the entire scene in glowing pink. Sunrise over the Caribbean and she was missing it! She flew from bed, wiggled into the bikini and raced to the sand before another minute could pass.

Breakfast and several sipped cups of coffee later, Beth was ready to explore. Cabañas Arrecifes’ main building

presented an entirely different image from the gloomy shadow it had been at night. Located back from the beach near the gravel road, it was a beautiful building of white stucco with Spanish arches overhung with flowering bougainvillea and with its

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entire ground floor open to the central patio it enveloped on three sides. Within, was the reception area, a parlor, bar and lounge, a kitchen emitting odors that whetted her appetite, a dining room and gift shop. The second floor appeared to be living area for Mrs. Cecilia, the delightfully friendly mistress over all, her husband Alberto, a fountain of information about the well-tended gardens and master at repairing anything, together with their two children, eleven-year-old Oscar and Wendy, the shy eight-year-old who tittered behind her hand when Beth attempted to speak with her. Mrs. Cecilia was a beautiful Black woman who painstakingly did her own and Wendy’s hair in hundreds of braids with colorful beads woven in at the tips, wore delightfully interesting jewelry, and whose English was like a harmonious song.

Beth had selected the outdoor terrace, dappled in sunlight filtering through overhead bougainvillea and open to the cabañas through an overgrown arch, as her preferred breakfast area, as had the Dutch newlyweds and the Italians with four children who all ate in their swimsuits. Two American men she had noticed at the bar the night before were however, fully dressed and had their meal in the dining room. The one with white hair and tight Western clothing even wore his cowboy hat, a high, white suede one that, with his conversation, became animated.

She didn’t believe the map would be necessary, but she grabbed it anyhow and set off to become acquainted with

Chauita. Picking her way southward along Main Street over rocks and potholes, she was surprised at the twenty-degree temperature difference between beachfront and street and to discover the potholes filled with water and a mini-flood crossing the road. The day had dawned to clear blue skies with no hint of what must have been an overnight downpour. Bordering the street were the broad leaves of banana, several varieties of palm, shrubs and flowers whose perfumes turned February to August. From the large open window of an unpainted clapboard house, a young woman captured Beth’s attention to expound the virtues of the cakes and cookies she offered for sale. She spoke with Mrs. Cecilia’s beautifully accented Caribbean English in a lilting rhythm that was a delight to hear, but moved so slowly in putting Beth’s selections in a sack and counting change that it made her wonder if she had forgotten she had a customer. Perhaps nothing moved too swiftly in Chauita where the heat bore down like a leaden weight, but the open warmth and laid back temperament of the townspeople she met invited conversation that more than made up for lack of motivation.

Before the week was out, Beth was familiar with Chauita’s every lane and already feeling a part of the community for being stopped to chat as a familiar friend whenever she strolled into town. She had been virtually adopted by Margarita, a wizened old woman who ran a tiny store and whose passion was applying folk wisdom to the lives of all she met. Beth told her little, yet Margarita suggested she ‘pluck chickens,’ a sure cure, she contended for those who mourn their parents. She had the correct collection of pebbles and seeds to place before a candle and herb to produce a tea, which would combine their forces to reenergize her ‘field,’ weakened she said, by a betrayal. And at the entrance to the national park, where pristine beach and monkey filled jungle were protected from development, the guards accepted her as a local and she paid no fee. But Cabañas Arrecifes and the beach in front was where she spent most of her time and what she referred to as home. Alberto and Mrs.

Cecilia accepted her into their family fold as one of their own and the title jefe pequeño that she assigned to Oscar, her new little boyfriend, was adopted even by them as his second name. He had earned it for knowing, as any ‘little boss’ should, virtually everything about Cabañas Arrecifes and for always being close at hand. He seemed intensely curious about her, staring in rapt fascination as she did the most mundane of things: copy columns of data from one page to another, light a candle or retie her hammock. When given a rake to clean the grounds, the area in front of her cabaña seemed to receive the majority of his attention. He was shy, usually not answering when spoken to, but his face lit with joy when Beth read the words Chicago Bulls from his favorite t-shirt. “Yeah, Cheecago Bulls,” he responded enthusiastically, elaborately pantomiming a

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hook shot to an imaginary basket atop her roof. His favorite pastime, however, seemed to be watching her eat as though she was some strange creature whose habits he wished to study.

Rounding the corner from the dining terrace to her cabaña one morning, Beth had a near collision with a woman skin-and-bones thin. She was caught short with her mouth open to offer apology when the woman sneered and shoved roughly against her with both hands before running off towards the beach. “Well, excuse the hell out of me!” she said to the woman’s disappearing image, then noticed her door ajar. She ran out to the beach after her, fearing that everything she had had been stolen, but the woman was swift and nothing remained of her but a small figure far down the beach. She returned to the room with a heavy heart dreading what she would find missing. Her pocketbook had been sitting right out in the open on the night table with everything in it: money, passport, credit cards, my God, what else? There was the wristwatch and the wedding ring from her mother in the little saucer next to the bathroom sink.

She was actually frightened to enter her own room; she approached feeling weak, her insides in turmoil. Upon going in, her first sight was the purse on her nightstand, just as she had left it. Opening it cautiously, she was washed through with relief to see that everything was there. A glance in the closet and around the room showed nothing amiss: her clock, clothes, shoes and books appeared perfectly in order. Maybe the woman hadn’t been in her room after all and Wendy, cleaning her room, had left the door open. Feeling meekly embarrassed for her suspicious mind, she entered the bathroom and was caught short. The woman had been there! The contents of her toiletries case lay scattered on the counter below the steamed-over mirror wiped clear in a small area over the sink. On the floor was a soaked towel amid watery footprints but, in the dish where they had been, the wristwatch and ring remained untouched. The woman had taken a shower, used her makeup and not stolen a thing. She knew she should count herself extremely fortunate, but what persisted was a creepy sense of violation.

  

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CHAPTER THREE

A rumbling distant thunder shook the still air of dawn, contradicting the otherwise total serenity. Rising from their nighttime roost, a twelve-wing squadron of pelicans fell into formation above the palms. They swept out over the water to parallel the beach then, mimicking their leader, each in turn dove steeply. They descended effortlessly, perfectly in formation and settled into a file riding the updraft from the incline of an incoming swell. With wing tip feathers etching fine lines onto the satiny surface of turquoise water, their breakfast quest began, then suddenly, from three feet below, a shadowy figure surged upwards. Keening shrilly, the leader flapped its wings to lift sharply skyward, scattering the column in mad disarray.

Unaware of the turmoil, Beth burst through the surface in a watery eruption gasping for air. Her feet found the bottom and rising, she tossed her hair in a wide arc, enclosing herself in a ring of spray. The springy new feeling to her hair was wonderful and particularly noticeable when it was wet. She liked too the way the loose curls created accent that seemed to round her narrow face, and how, after a week under the Costa Rican sun, her usual mousy blond had lightened. A golden tan colored her skin, and her eyes, in the tropical sunlight, shimmered deep blue.

Before her, spread a beach of golden sand with coconut palms arching above. Towards either mist-shrouded horizon, as far as her eye could see, it was pristine save for driftwood sculptures carved by waves and wind into fantastic creatures.

Little waders – sandpipers, she thought, remembering the name from a half forgotten book – scampered before the incoming rush of foam then, just as swiftly, reversed to poke with needle sharp beaks for hidden morsels. Their busy peeping seemed in perfect synchronization with the surf while far inland mountain peaks reflected the first pink rays of sunlight.

She was still new to it, yet felt kinship with the landscape more profoundly than with a lifetime among Wisconsin’s hills and lakes. She loved it and everything new in her life, even including the swimsuit that had been so difficult to buy.

She’d had a regular two-piece in mind when entering the Green Bay shop but, upon seeing the miniature strips of cloth it was made of, lost her nerve. Only the attendant’s problems in locating any others in their boxed up summer collection led her to buy it and now, here she was, wearing the skimpy thing outdoors, on a beach far better than the one she had once only imagined. “This is Paradise! Paradise!” she shouted to the heavens, her head thrown back, arms spread to embrace it all.

Abruptly as a striking bolt of lightning, fear prickled her skin as, from the thick growth of jungle above the beach, someone shouted rude hooting noises. She froze, instincts screaming with chilling clarity: you are defenseless and virtually naked! Her eyes flashed to the left, then right: nothing. She was alone with a pervert on a deserted beach in a strange land!

Which way to run? The trail back to the cabañas began high on the beach in the shade of the trees where her towel lay – and just where some degenerate lurked! She was trapped! A terrible sense of injustice welled hot tears up to her eyes.

In a tide of reversing emotion, anger took over – mouse-woman lost again. Beth Tierney wasn’t going to let her

morning be spoiled by some creep! She stomped up through the surf, arms swinging like pistons only to stop short at the discovery of fresh footprints crossing her own from when she had run to the surf. Two people had passed: their wavering trail continued along the beach, broken where the surf had erased its memory. So, there were two! That made it worse, much worse: trembling fear returned. She ran the short distance to her towel, grabbed it and wrapped it tightly around, tucking in the corners firmly. Scowling into the jungle, she stood with her legs spread, hands on hips and upper body swaying defiantly.

“Show’s over, assholes!” She shouted, drawing her makeshift robe closer in a tight angry tug. More loud hoots – but they came from above. What? Beth squinted into the deep shadow of overhead branches. A dark form moved, catching her eye,

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then another: monkeys! Big ones! There must have been a dozen peering down at her. Fear washed away in a wave.

Laughing at her foolishness, she played with the monkeys. Moving to one side, the bodies of the entire troop leaned perilously from their branches in the same direction then back again when she did. It was a dance with multiple grunting partners all of whom followed her lead.

Beth returned to her towel and the task of lathering on sunscreen while the troop of howlers, bored by her motionless sitting, staring off to the sunrise, lost interest and disappeared into the jungle. “My own beach,” Beth whispered, her gaze savoring the details of her surroundings. “Look at this beautiful place. A slice of heaven on Earth and today, it’s all mine to enjoy.” The panic caused by the monkeys convinced her that she still had a long way to go, but how much loosening up could she expect of herself after just a couple of weeks? What she really needed to do was to stop feeling sorry for herself. Grateful would be more appropriate. After all, the whole nasty mess had given her this opportunity to start life over, and not many people are as fortunate. This time she intended to do it right, without the mistakes of the past: the truth was that they all did her a favor, she just needed to chill out.

Far down the beach, two people jogged beside the low surf. She watched as they approached, appearing to grow

larger. They weaved, following the shimmering remnants of waves slipping towards the sea on the nearly level beach, their feet splashing in an inch of water. When a wave surged onto the beach, they snaked towards the trees. Then, as it spread itself thin again, slowly returning to the sea, the joggers veered seaward again, maintaining their steady, splashing progress. “The footprints return,” she said aloud, “let’s see who these guys are, Robinson Crusoe and Friday perhaps.” Closer still, they came until she was able to see that it was two men, both barefoot with brown skin and dark hair. Each had an athletic body, but one had the build of a marathon runner and the other could be a heavyweight boxer. The thinner, leading as they banked up the sand towards her and slowed to a walk, wore a yellow cotton turtleneck pullover with sleeves removed, knee-length blue shorts and moved his narrow frame with quickness apart from the exercise.

“Good morning. You must be Miss Tierney,” he managed to say between pants. The man’s appearance was shocking.

Scars covered his entire face. One, particularly visible from her vantage below, was an ugly mat of wrinkled flesh, burned black and pink below his chin and down his throat to disappear under the turtleneck. His nose was also wrong, it appeared to be made of two mismatched pieces. The upper and lower halves met off center at a deep scar that crossed the entire right side of his face, a dark line slanting below one eye. She smiled up to him, trying desperately to keep her reaction from being apparent. His hair was normal; that helped. It was dark, short and cut military style: she focused there. He stood erect in the sand, soldier-like, arms at his side, panting lightly. Meanwhile the bigger man behind remained bent at the waist, hands cupped over his knees, fighting for his breath.

“You’re right, my name is Beth Tierney. You have me at a disadvantage, though,” she acknowledged. No answer.

His left ear, opposite the scar had an oversize hole pierced through it. Bright morning sunlight caught the hole perfectly, creating the effect of a huge diamond earring. She held her smile, trying not to notice. “How do you happen to know my name?” she asked more directly.

“My pardon, Miss Tierney. I’m your host, Truman Herrera. I own Cabañas Arrecifes.”

“Oh, but I thought Alberto and Mrs. Cecilia…”

“That’s okay, Miss, most people assume they are the owners. I prefer to remain in the background. People are put off by my scars,” he said laughing easily, “so, it’s better for business, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, don’t say that. Under those scars, you have fine features: Italian, I’d say.

“Yes, on my mother’s side, you’re very good.”

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“It’s your eyes and your nose. You have kind of a Roman nose, if it wasn’t – like that,” she finished lamely not knowing quite how to express herself without insult.

He laughed good-naturedly. “See what I mean? The gentleman with me is Jesus Calderón,” he said, gesturing

grandly towards the muscle-bound man behind him. “Jesus is our security man, and very good at his job, actually.”

“Oh yes, we’ve already met. He was at the bus stop to meet me the night I arrived.”

“Chauita is a sweet little town. I can assure you, you’ll not have any problems here. Nevertheless, if you’d like to have Jesus escort you at any time during your stay, just ask. Unfortunately, however, he doesn’t speak any English,” he declared in a pure North American accent.

Truman had a sincere friendly expression that put Beth at ease and narrow cheeks like her own. The right one

dimpled when he smiled, which he did often, so it was first present then gone again, making his conversation pleasant to watch as well as to hear and the scars no longer matter. “I can speak some Spanish,” she answered, “just not very well. I studied it in college, but I’ve never actually used it.”

Diga hola a la Señorita Tierney, Jesus.” Truman said speaking slowly and enunciating carefully for her benefit.

Mucho gusto en conocerla, Señorita. Para servirle,” Jesus replied, lifting himself erect and smiling broadly. He was handsome with a meaty face and wide, muscular neck. Bulging shoulders and arms enclosed a trim torso with visible abdominals. He had no tattoos or jewelry and wore his hair long in back to hang over his shoulders, but trimmed close at the sides and his black swimsuit was every bit as revealing as Beth’s bikini bottom.

“See? I understood what he said,” she proclaimed. “He said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss. I’m at your service,’

right?”

“One hundred percent.”

Tambien, tengo mucho gusto en conocerle de nuevo, Señor Jesus, (And it's a pleasure to meet you again, Mr.

Jesus),” she replied, twisting her tongue around the strange sounds.

“That’s very good, Miss Tierney,” Truman responded. “Your Spanish is excellent.”

“Not really.” A mid-air battle between a gull and frigate for a fish held their attention momentarily. “Come to think of it, I did have one problem,” she added, responding to the issue of security. “A girl broke into my room a couple of days ago, a very skinny girl – pretty. I think she just took a shower and might have stolen some makeup. I don’t know, but nothing else was missing: it was all quite weird. At any rate, now I’m keeping my room locked.”

Truman turned towards Jesus, still bent over behind him and spoke rapidly in Spanish. “I’m sorry about the incident,”

he said, directing his words to her. “We know who this woman is. She’s a crack addict from down the beach. I’m sending Jesus to talk to her. You won’t be bothered again, Miss Tierney.”

“Please, call me Beth. Miss Tierney is too formal for me. It feels as though you’re speaking to another person. What did you say your name was?”

“Truman Herrera.”

“Have a seat, Truman Herrera. After running for so long, your legs must be tired.” He had thin lips framed between trimmed, black mustache and square jaw and straight black eyebrows. In the shadow below, equally dark eyes returned a gaze, captivating, for its capacity to switch from cheery sparkle to cold stare. He could be a very handsome man…

“Thank you, Beth,” he sighed settling into the sand beside her. “I try to stay in shape,” he continued. “When I’m here, I get out early every morning. Run maybe five or six K. It’s good for Jesus too. As you can see he doesn’t get enough

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aerobic exercise.” Jesus looked quickly, curiously, at the mention of his name mixed into the strange sounds of English then, seeing he wasn’t wanted, returned his attention to the beach.

“Your English is excellent, Truman. I can’t even hear an accent. Have you lived in the United States?”

“Yes, I lived there for several years,” he replied with a touch of defensiveness. “How do you like our beach?” he quickly added.

“I love it here, Truman. I could easily stay forever, but I want to see the rest of the country too. I’m thinking of possibly spending a little time in San José, but then, I believe I’d like to come back. Cabañas Arrecifes is too perfect to leave for long. Right now though, I’m not going anywhere. This,” she said with a sweeping grin, “is for me.”

“I know how you feel. It suits me too.” Truman smiled shyly, his dimple growing deep. “That’s why I bought the place. It’s home now.”

“Now I remember you,” she said suddenly. “You were here the night I arrived. Have you just returned from

somewhere?”

“Yes I have: from the near dead. I’ve been flat on my back with malaria. I caught it years ago and it still flares up now and then. Some people get it and it never bothers them again, but in my case, when it comes, it’s as bad as it was the first time.”

“I’m sorry. Are you all right now?”

“Oh yes, it’s gone now.”

“I notice that your cowboy friend isn’t with you. Doesn’t he like to run?”

His right eye began to twitch. “He’s not here,” Truman said, gaining his feet as he spoke, “and he won’t be coming back. If you’ll excuse me, Miss Tierney, I’m going to cool off with a swim.” There was an angry edge to his voice and her name had once again become ‘Miss Tierney’. He walked purposefully to the surf and was soon a small figure rising, then disappearing, behind swells.

“Well, I sure do have a special way with men,” she spoke aloud. “What did I do wrong this time, I wonder?”

Beth walked quickly to catch up with the large lead Jesus’ fast pace had afforded him. As she fell in beside, he began to speak, but too fast for her to follow, although she was able to understand that he was saying something about the woman who had broken into her room. She definitely heard something about the woman being a stupid prostitute and a crack addict.

Then he said she lived in a box. A box? At least it sounded like caja and until Jesus pointed to a pair of feet protruding from a corrugated cardboard carton under the palms, she assumed it to be a local way of describing a shanty. “Alli. La puta vive alli.

Mira, (There. The whore lives right there. Look),” he said. Beth did look and could hardly believe what her eyes were telling her. The young woman was, indeed, living in a box. It was a refrigerator box with a door cut in its side and laid over with palm branches. She looked like an abandoned puppy, skinny as a rail and glaring with malevolent eyes from her box. Her adversary, Jesus, stood like a mighty giant before the frail cardboard doorway, yelling down to the coiled wisp of a woman.

She had a complexion of soft cocoa, wide, low cheekbones, deeply hollowed cheeks and a bone-thin body. Her full lips were drawn into a snarl over a gleaming set of perfectly matched teeth, and fiery eyes glowered from below thin eyebrows arched into a threatening V. At that moment, their fury was directed sideways and upwards, exposing a wide crescent of menacing white while bony shoulders were drawn together, readying to attack. Like a cat’s, her hips moved slowly easing her weight over her coiled legs. She wore iridescent-green spandex pants with a filmy peasant blouse, dirty and without color that plunged low over a flat chest. Peering inside the box around the woman, Beth saw a small pile of clothing folded to form a pillow, a

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towel that served as a blanket and in the far corner, a stack of notebooks. Outside the raggedly cut doorway, were the ashes of a small fire and a solitary empty can reflecting sunlight.

The woman backed deeper into her box, frightened, but clearly prepared to defend herself. Reaching in, Jesus pulled the twisting, screaming woman out by her wrist. The shouting match that ensued was well beyond Beth’s level of

comprehension probably because it was primarily curses, not taught in college Spanish. She did, however, hear both make references to her and understood beyond any doubt from the simultaneous shouting that there was no meeting of the minds.

Without warning, Jesus slapped the woman with such force that dust flew from close cut curls of dirty, dark brown hair, and she fell sideways into the sand. She was up again in an instant screaming more rapidly than ever and threw herself at him face on, only to be slapped to the ground again. “You pig!” Beth shrieked, diving into the fracas by pounding the side of Jesus’

head with her fists. The woman, quick to seize the opening Beth’s attack afforded her, sprang on him like a starved alley cat, clawing at his face and chest while Beth stepped through his legs, looped her foot around his ankle and threw herself against his chest, dropping him. Sitting in the sand, Jesus held out his hands palms out, defeated – big muscles and all. He crawled to his feet amid a withering verbal onslaught in two languages then quickly walked away, turning only once to shout what must have been a parting vulgarity. The box woman ran after him, hurling sand and insults. Conceding defeat, he smiled, dropped his upraised arms to his sides, turned and jogged away leaving Beth and the young woman squealing with glee and exchanging a triumphant high-five salute. Their broad victory smiles faded in the short moment it took to remember the reason for Beth’s visit.

“I doan steal notheeng, lady. I keep notheeng,” the box woman swore. Her dark eyes opened wide, white flashes of defiance in their corners. Thin, mobile eyebrows enunciated each word with fluid arches. Broad, skyward, pointing motions alternating with trembling hand gestures ignited her delivery with burning passion. “You go away from here, gringa!”

“I’m sorry about Jesus. I didn’t know he would do anything to hurt you.” Beth backed away one step from the frenzy of the skinny woman, vaguely indicating with her hands and eyes the figure of Jesus, retreating down the beach. She paused, readying to say something, but wasn’t able to find her words. The woman, breathing heavily, waited nervously for her response. Finally, Beth broke the silence: “He... They said... you live here,” she minced, indicating the box. “Do you have food to eat? I mean, are you hungry?” She pantomimed eating gestures, but the woman didn’t reply, rather she glared at Beth with eyes that spoke for themselves, saying they hated this gringa. Abruptly, the box woman softened, shrugged and sat in the sand, raising a light puff of dust as she did. The eyes blinked coyly.

“You wan what, lady?” she asked.

“Breakfast,” Beth stammered. “I’m going to breakfast at a restaurant in Chauita. Come with me. Please. I’ll pay,”

she continued when the woman simply gaped at her from her seat in the sand. “Food,” Beth finally said, not reading understanding in the woman’s eyes. “Eat.” More pantomime.

“You buy breakfast for Herminia? Why?” she asked. “Why you buy breakfast? What you wan, lady?”

“Okay,” Beth retorted sharply. “I have to have a reason? All right. I want you to come with me so we can talk. Is that okay? Will you come to breakfast with me so we can talk, Herminia? Your name is Herminia, right? My name is Beth.”

Herminia was ordered out of the restaurant the moment she stepped foot inside and remained flinching nervously

outside while Beth returned for take-outs. Inside, the heavy-set woman who had done all the yelling sat perched on a stool behind the counter. She leaned conspiratorially over the cash resister, glowering at the figure of Herminia pacing in the street.

“That one is thief, child,” the woman hissed. “You be careful ‘roun her.”

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“Even a thief needs to eat,” Beth replied, miffed at the bitter and inhumane reception. Although angry, just below the surface the woman’s warning unsettled her. Uncertain as to her own feelings, she sat at a table waiting for the food, alone with her thoughts while, before the open doorway, Herminia paced, casting furtive glances to the shadows inside. The desperation written in those eyes was frightening. Breakfast would be eaten, she concluded, somewhere safe. When the food was ready, she cradled the two breakfasts in precarious balance against her body and went with Herminia to Chauita’s bus terminal to eat.

They both sat on the bench under the rusting sheet of corrugated steel. She handed Herminia a breakfast plate, lay her own across her knees and began returning the change to her purse.

“Theese, for Herminia?” Herminia asked, stopping Beth’s hand in mid-movement. She answered Beth’s cold scowl

with a wide smile. “Please lady, Herminia buy cigarette.” She sighed and surrendered the approximately one dollar and fifty cents value of change, immediately chiding herself for doing so. Jesus was likely right about her being a prostitute and probably about being a crack addict too. He hadn’t been right, however, about her being stupid. She spoke English, for one, which was more than could be claimed for him and, despite her constantly moving, nervous energy and apparently widely recognized history as a thief, Herminia had a sense of humor and speaking with her was fascinating and exciting too: in Green Bay, she would certainly have run from such a person.

* * *

Pausing at the entrance to the open-air bar in central Chauita, Beth was amazed at its very existence in this miniscule pueblo. A scant three blocks away, she had been sitting on the beach where the only sounds had been nature’s own. Reclined on the trunk of a palm that angled low over the beach before curving skyward, she had just watched the full moon rise over the Caribbean, entranced by the evening’s delicate spirituality. Revitalized and suddenly hungry for human contact, she had recalled the bar the box-woman, Herminia, had so vividly described. She had often seen it down the road from the bus stop, but in her observations, it appeared a sleepy-town bar with but a sprinkling of customers deep in its shadowy interior and simply assumed that was it for Chauita excitement and that the little town simply retired to its bedrooms at night. However, from Herminia’s vivid descriptions it sounded anything but sleepy-town and now, standing at its entrance, it literally clamored with life as a full two hundred fifty watts of amplified base thumped the night air to the beat of Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier.

Rotating beams strobed through breaks in low hanging fronds, throwing pulsating spears of color through the night that, like a flashing lure trolled over the reef, attracted tourists and locals alike.

She wore a beige ankle-length skirt (a borderline item almost given to Goodwill with the rest of her ‘brown stuff’) and above, for color, an orange shirt unbuttoned and tied in front. Moving to a table against the open-air front window from where the entire bar was visible, she settled in to watch the action. A large red, yellow and green flag with a clenched fist surrounded by barbed wire in its center almost completely covered the wall behind the bar and from the center of the big room, a varnished tree trunk rose thirty feet to support the conical roof. At two tables in the back, tourist couples were having candlelit dinners with the tables around them covered with drinks, but void of people. Their occupants were in front on the dance floor, bodies gyrating and arms swaying above bouncing heads under the rotating lights while at the bar, dozens of simultaneous conversations were shouted above the music or whispered in ears. She listened to two locals engaged in a heated argument whose meaningless jousting switched from Spanish to English mid-sentence without missing an insult. A young man with dreadlocks bouncing came in from the street and approached her table.

“Wa’s hap’nin, Mama?” he shouted into her face over the music. “You looking for sumpin special?” She shook her head and watched as he returned to the street to join a companion in the shadow of a tree. With each tourist that passed, one or

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the other would emerge from under the tree to join the newcomer, chatting away as though they were old chums. Surprisingly, some seemed to be seeking the hustlers rather than the other way around. They were selling drugs! It was a pretty exciting discovery and she thrilled to watch the brief meetings with stealthy exchanges and rapid departures.

A tightly pressed throng surrounded a long table across the dance floor. They seemed intent and quietly focused for long minutes, but then would erupt with boisterous laughter, moans and shouts, only to become silent and intent again. She strained for a peek, but was unable to see beyond the milling bodies on the dance floor and at the table. Sliding from her seat, she wove her way through the dancers for a closer look and snickered when seated at the head of the table, she saw Truman.

Formal, Mr. Truman was dressed in a crisp white shirt over the customary turtleneck (black), playing poker with about ten others seated around the table. He looked comfortably relaxed, yet commanding and dignified while the others seemed tormented with every decision of bet or get out. There didn’t seem to be much value placed on the ‘poker face’ Americans consider pivotal strategy. They were animated and loud enough to give the sound system a run for its money. Bets were slapped down with theatrical flourish. The audience observed silence during play, but the players were having plenty of loud fun. When a hand was finished and the lucky winner scooped up his prize, of all the spectators, only Jesus remained stonily calm. He stood as a sculpture behind Truman; only his eyes shifting, taking in every movement. She watched a few minutes then, bored with poker, strolled away, sidestepping across the dance floor towards her table.

Truman suddenly was at her side.

“I haven’t seen you here before, Beth,” he shouted in her ear.

Yelling over her shoulder in answer, she replied: “This is my first time in town at night,” then stopped to allow a couple to dance by. “Do you come here often to play poker with your friends?” she asked.

“Sure, when I’m... Hey, this is no place to talk!” he said. “What do you say we grab a beer and go to the beach?”

“Good idea!” she shouted back, wincing from a stepped-on toe. “Let me see if I can find my waitress.”

“Don’t worry about her, just head for the door. Jesus will pay the bill and bring out the beer,” he called over the top of two dancing heads, pointing to the door and Jesus.

“Are you sure?” she yelled above the din.

“My treat,” Truman shouted, passing a few bills and shouting instructions to Jesus. Beth glared fierce defiance at Jesus as she passed him, but said nothing. “Jesus tells me you beat him up,” Truman taunted in the relative quiet outside, a teasing smile playing the corner of his mouth. “I hired him as my bodyguard because he has black belts in a few of those martial arts.”

“Bodyguard? You need a bodyguard? So why did you tell me this is a quiet little town?

“It is, it’s peaceful. It… It’s just me,” he said laughing self-consciously. “At any rate, knocking him on his butt is very impressive, I dare say. You must be one tough lady.”

“Don’t joke,” she snapped. “I hope you gave it to that big gorilla. He’s a coward and a brute for hitting that skinny little woman. She’s so light that you could lift her with a feather. I should punch him again, right now. You’re an asshole, Jesus!” she yelled, showing her fist when he feigned lack of comprehension.

“I put him on notice. His job is on the line,” Truman vowed, holding up two fingers in a cub scout salute. “He’s on his very best behavior, I promise.”

* * *

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Strange, Beth thought, settling cross-legged into her nook on the ox-bow palm, how quiet is the beach! The only sounds were breaking waves and an occasional rattle of fronds in the slight breeze. The birds, such a noisy lot in daylight, were silent, all tucked into their wings in sleep, and the bar music couldn’t be heard. Truman found his spot in the sand, chosen for the easily defined dark island of moon shadow cast by a tree and settled himself comfortably. The air, moving lightly across her skin, carried faintly the odors of seaweed and fish. Beth looked to the moon, higher now, risen to a position almost overhead, and bathed her face in its soft glow.

“You’ve been here at least two weeks now,” Truman said from his shadow. “How is it that this is your first night in town?”

“Well, evenings, after dinner, I usually walk on the beach, then watching the stars I get sleepy and it’s early to bed.

The routine is so pleasant that I never gave a second thought to coming into town. Besides, I didn’t think there was much of anything happening.” She observed him as she spoke, noting that in the deep shadow, his scars were hardly noticeable. What could have happened to this man, she wondered. He was charming and smiled so easily, yet he could quickly become tense and withdrawn. “That way I’m up in time to see the sunrise,” she mumbled, looking out to sea, away from him, to keep her mind on the conversation. “Every sunrise is different, you know. All spectacular.”

“I need to apologize,” he continued. “I’m afraid I was rather rude this morning on the beach.” She turned towards him: was he reading her mind? He was difficult to make out in his shadow, just a vague blur. “That man you saw with me, the one with Western clothes… well, he’s someone I haven’t seen for a very long time.” He gestured graphically, attempting with his hands to instill gravity to his words. “I became upset that you assumed he and I were friends and I apologize for that. I know I over-reacted and I don’t want you to think it was because of anything you did.

“Don’t worry about it, Truman. You needn’t apologize. I understand perfectly: I’d be just as upset if, for example, someone mistook my ex-boss for a close, personal friend. Is this guy someone you used to know well, like I did my ex-boss?”

“No, I hardly knew him, but he is definitely not someone I want anyone thinking is my friend. He is a man with an extremely vile reputation.” It had been a mistake to ask: he began squirming uncomfortably. “So, where are you from?” he asked in a tone that coaxed response. So, he wanted to avoid mention of the cowboy; had he perhaps something to do with Truman’s scars. “With that accent, you have to be from somewhere in The States. The West Coast, right?”

“Well, it’s the States all right,” she replied. Her smile grew and eyes flashed sideways, taking him in. “It’s not the West Coast though, it’s the Midwest; Green Bay, Wisconsin, a mighty cold place this time of year. Have you ever been there?”

“No, I can’t say that I have. What do you do there?”

“Not do, Truman – did. I’m a groundwater geologist and used to work for a firm that located and eliminated sources of contamination to keep water safe for drinking, but these days I’m an independent consultant and do my work through the Internet. You’ve probably seen me out on the dining room patio with a pile of papers and my computer. Well, that’s me in my new office.”

“Now, that’s what I’d call an enviable job, free to go wherever you choose. How did you manage to work your way into such a great position?”

“Enviable job? I didn’t think anyone else would ever see it that way, but you might say I jumped at the opportunity when it came along. And you? You said you had been in the U.S., but not Wisconsin. What part have you visited?”

“I spent time in the state of Georgia a number of years ago. I loved it there. Yours is such a beautiful country with everything so clean and well organized, you know what I mean? Even the poorest of people live very rich compared to us.

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And your highways! People here in Central America can’t even imagine roads of such quality! In my opinion, that President Eisenhower of yours ought to be canonized as the patron saint of travel for your Interstate highway system.”

“That’s funny, I wouldn’t think of highways as a tourist attraction. What does Costa Rica have of interest that isn’t likely to appear in the guide books?”

“Actually, I don’t know Costa Rica so very well. I was born and raised in Jinotega, Nicaragua, a little town high in the mountains.”

“Nicaragua? No, I know almost nothing about your country. Where exactly is Jinotega?”

“It is an old town in the northeast of Nicaragua and not at all like anything in the US. There certainly are no Interstate highways, for example. In fact, the very best roads in Jinotega are just simple cobblestone lanes that are looked upon with envy by other towns in the region. Does that begin to give you an idea why people from Central America couldn’t even begin to imagine your Green Bay?”

“Jinotega… I like the name. What’s it like there?”

“It’s just thirteen degrees from the equator, but because of the altitude it gets chilly,” he answered. “At night, a jacket is necessary and, in rainy season when it’s perpetually covered over by clouds, it’s really cold.”

“Yes, but cold is a relative term. It can’t be anything like Wisconsin,” she challenged. “Imagine air so frigid it hurts any uncovered skin and lakes frozen so solid that people drive cars out on them. That’s cold, and that’s what it’s like in Wisconsin even as we speak. You know, far-away places have always intrigued me, but I’ve spent my entire life studying or working because, somehow, that always seemed more important. All I've seen of the world is Wisconsin and a little bit of New England where I attended university. Believe it or not, this is my first time out of the country, so why not be my tour guide and tell me a little about Jinotega, okay?”

No answer.

She sat quietly allowing him time to gather his thoughts then, still not receiving a reply, she said: “Hey there, Truman, are you still with me? What are you thinking about so deeply?”

“Nothing. Really, nothing,” he offered.

“I’ve found,” she answered, “that if you put your thoughts into words for another person and listen to how you

express yourself, you are often surprised that your own description is different from how you thought it might be.”

“My thoughts into words? That is not so easy as it sounds. I have so many rushing together at just the mention of Jinotega – you can’t imagine – but all right…” Truman cleared his throat, preparing himself, overdoing the melodrama in her opinion. He dug into the sand and tossed handfuls onto his feet, the act somehow releasing memories. “Let’s see...” His words dragged thoughtfully. “This isn’t easy because the war changed – oh not just Jinotega, but everything, and so completely, too. It’s as though I remember two distinctly different Jinotegas.”

“Oh yes! The war in Nicaragua, of course. You were at war. I’m so sorry, I should have remembered. Listen, you don’t have to do this if it’s difficult. Would you like to know about the Green Bay Packers?”

“No, no, it’s alright; put my thoughts into words, like you said. I don’t know that I’ve ever talked with anyone about Jinotega. This could be interesting. I was trying just now to think of how I could avoid mention of the war and just tell you how Jinotega was before, the way I would like to remember it, but I don’t think I can avoid the trouble completely. Ah, but you’ll see.” He let go, allowing long protected memories find their way to words. “All right, I have to start somewhere, right?

I’ll try to tell you how I remember it in 1968. That was the year I left Jinotega with my cousin to attend the University of Managua.”

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Beth snuggled deeper into her nook, hugging knees to breast. “Go on Truman, I’m listening.” Staring off across the rippling line of moonlight dancing over the water, she relaxed, waiting for Truman’s words to create an image.

A deep sigh came from his shadowy figure. “When you say, ‘tell me about Jinotega,’ the first thing that comes to mind is of running barefoot with my cousin Raul, but we were growing up in a country spiraling its way to civil war. As I think back, I see so many events signaling what was to come, but then, no one was noticing. At the time, that was just the way things were. Okay, let me see if I can get 1968 right. I remember…”

* * *

There weren’t many cars or trucks on the streets of Jinotega, Nicaragua in 1968. Most walked to where they were

going or hitched a ride on a wagon drawn by horse or oxen. Many farmers and the rich rode horseback while oxcarts with thick wooden wheels painted brilliantly in reds, oranges and yellows, hot Latin colors, carried the heavy cargoes. The few cars that did appear were enough of a novelty to draw stares and troops of running boys. Although Jinotega was the provincial capital, it was but a quiet, mountain farm-town whose citizens were tillers of the rich volcanic soil. It was a community proud of its reputation as the best in all of Nicaragua for produce and dairy products.

Among the many farms of the long valley there existed but two tractors, owned by the province’s two wealthiest

families. They had come into their hands over the others as a result of influence with the government in Managua, which oversaw the donations from the US AID farm program, President Samosa’s showpiece. Ironically, via a Spanish language acronym for The Institute for the Well Being of Poor Farmers, the aid, which further enriched wealthy landowners and froze out the poor, was named INVIERNO, the Spanish word for winter. The other farms of Jinotega Valley, owned by the poor, were worked using shared teams of oxen managed by a bare bones budget local farmers’ cooperative that attempted to secure for the campesinos the highest possible price for crops while purchasing seed and fertilizer as low as possible. However, try as they might to avoid it, foreclosures on small farms were a common event with bank credit a near impossibility for small farmers.

When it was available, the interest rates charged on those few high-risk loans converted them into instruments of doom, impossible to repay. Lucrative government and export contracts for crops were awarded only to rich farms with the right power connections in Managua. To many of the campesinos in those years, the offers from those two families for their land seemed a better choice than competing. Displaced families swelled the poor barrio south of Jinotega known as Las Latas (the tin cans), so called for the corrugated steel used to build the shacks. By 1968 Las Latas, where plank footbridges crossed open-sewer ditches between shacks and street, was Jinotega’s fastest growing community. It was a neighborhood of dirt streets, without electricity or running water, a neighborhood of barefoot children in tattered rags, hunger, alcoholism and hopelessness.

For Truman, his cousin Raul and most of the town folk however, none of this touched their lives. The quiet streets of central Jinotega where the boys had grown and played were the only world they knew. Everything that had shaped their lives was contained within the mountain ridges visible from the center of town. (Las Latas remained conveniently out of sight). They were just two young men soon to be leaving for their university studies in Managua with their minds occupied by thoughts of how best to impress the young women about town. They, the same as everyone else in town, knew next to nothing about the world beyond their valley. Leaving for Managua was tantamount to a trip to the moon, elevating them to the level of celebrities in the eyes of Jinotega’s girls.

The buildings lining the cobbled streets of central Jinotega are built flush to the edge of narrow stone sidewalks.

Thick plank doors, ten to fifteen feet in height and arched at the top, open abruptly along stucco walls, continuous from one corner to the next where changes in color are the only division of one building from the next. Steep stone steps at each

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entrance extend slightly onto the sidewalk. At cross streets, building corners are cut diagonally with canopied double doors open to bars or stores within, and walls are of three feet thick adobe, wider still at the bottom and covered over with smooth stucco painted white or light pastel. Large windows through the walls are sealed at night against the chill mountain air with heavy wooden shutters matching the doors. Inside, the rooms are big, with twenty foot high ceilings and glossily waxed ceramic floors. Kitchens are always at the rear, open to an enclosed garden, where smoke from wood stoves escapes to mingle with the odors of baking bread, rich stews and the sweetness of flowers. Over the years, Truman and cousin Raul had sampled the cooking from most of the kitchens of Jinotega. As a result of that experience, they knew which offered the best food and when. Jinotega was a place where a strange face was seldom seen, life followed a steady, predictable peacefulness and doors were seldom locked.

Truman and Raul were first cousins, playmates as well as constant companions from birth, born but one week apart and who had grown up in homes joined by a common wall. Several generations earlier a door had been cut through the wall, uniting the families already joined by blood. As teenagers, they became so good at fast footwork handling of a soccer ball that, for the years they were on the school team, Jinotega was the unbeatable champion of the region. By 1968, however, football was kid’s stuff. Now they were men, soon to leave for Managua and a sight to be seen together. They were out to claim the world and as many women as possible along the way. Raul spoke with a baritone, masculine voice that girls swooned over.

Truman, constantly at his side, appeared short, but he wasn’t; by Nicaraguan standards, he was tall – tall, narrow and darkly handsome. It didn’t matter to them what the cost, they’d pay on time, but only the best clothes rode on the backs of those two.

They wore tailor-made western boots and tight fitting jeans, American made Levi’s, of course. With the girls, they worked as a team as well as they had in football, being seen in town with only the prettiest or the richest.

Beth broke her stare from the Caribbean and with it, her trance. Turning to face Truman, she stretched, suddenly realizing how stiff her back and legs had become. The moon was higher and brighter, bathing her in its light and under it, hers was the face of a woman from an old black and white movie, a face of deep shadows with softened edges, aglow in a moonbeam. “It sounds like a beautiful place to be a child, Truman, and in no way comparable to Green Bay.”

“Raul and I were so innocent then,” he said speaking as though he hadn’t heard a word. Beth saw his head turned, however, watching her intently as he spoke: he needed to continue and seemed to be seeking permission – she remained quiet.

The pile of sand from Truman’s tossing had grown, covering both feet now. She watched as he pensively tossed another handful, back-boarding it from his leg. A moving light played across the shadows, illuminating his scars. Beth searched for the source of light and found it when a wave flashed moonlight from its mirror-like face. Memories were continuing to flood his thoughts. She had coaxed open a locked door, releasing an avalanche: apparently, he had many other thoughts in need of expression. His eyes locked to her stare and he continued. “It was the beginning of the end of the world as we knew it and there wasn’t anyone in Jinotega who saw it coming, but Raul and I sure learned quickly enough when we got to Managua.”

“Why, what happened there?”

“Plenty, but are you sure you want to hear this stuff. Maybe you find it boring.”

“Not at all. I’m fascinated, truly, I am. Please continue.”

University brought changes the boys couldn’t have dreamed of during their idyllic Jinotega childhood, changes that tore them apart as cousins, then tore apart the very fabric of their country. The social discontent that had for years festered among the country’s poor exploded on campus igniting the fiery passions of youth. Students clogged lecture halls to hear impassioned speeches from labor leaders and anti-government protest organizers who had proudly assigned themselves the

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name Sandinistas. It was a name derived from a martyred revolutionary hero of a century earlier, Augusto Sandino whose near success at agrarian reform against impossible odds had again found its hour. Protests on campus eventually spilled onto the streets of Managua as student rallies, strikes and marches drew larger and larger crowds until the streets about the university were impassible to traffic. Police were called with the result that campesinos by the thousands descended on the capital where their frustration and anger had, through the young, found voice. Campus walls were covered with posters and slogans and the discos and casinos frequented by students became meeting places, either for supporters of the protesters or for those agreeing with the government. There was no middle ground. It became a choice of one camp or the other in the country’s headlong dash towards self-destruction.

“So,” Truman said, jerking his feet free of their sand mountain prison. “What do you think? Would you rather that you went to school in Managua?” He was out of the shadow now, the moon beyond its peak. He looked somehow more relaxed as though talking about his homeland and its problems had lightened his burden.

“Holy cow, Truman, what a story! It gave me goose bumps. I find it hard to imagine living through something like that. So then, I guess the war started and you must have been in that too. Isn’t that how you got all those scars?”

“I guess I do look like I’ve been through a war,” he said, sighing again. “I’m afraid you assumed correctly. Yes, I fought in the war.”

“It’s so horrible, you make me feel like crying.” Silence reigned for the next several moments. There was nothing more to be said. Sharing the silence smoothed with the sound of gentle surf eased them from images of such intensity. She could see his tension melting as his shoulders relaxed. “Truman,” she called quietly, without turning towards him.

“Humm? Yes, what is it?”

“May I ask you a personal question?”

“Certainly. What is it?”

“Which side did you fight on?”

He exploded with rollicking laughter, embarrassing her. His laughs subsided and his gaze found her eyes. He laughed again, infecting her with giggles. “I was a Contra, Beth,” he said, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. “Do you know why us Contras were fighting?”

“I have a confession: I knew there was a war going on in Nicaragua, but for me it was just another news item of

mankind’s ugliness and I really didn’t pay very much attention. It wasn’t just Nicaragua, though, was it? I think I remember El Salvador and Guatemala fighting too, but now that I know you were involved, I’m going to research the war on the Internet.”

“Well, you’re right: all of Central America was affected, but the conflicts were for the most part separate. So you know nothing about the Contras?”

“No, only that, the government was communist, right? And the Contras, that was you, were fighting a guerrilla war against them with our support. So far, so good?”

“So far, so good. Go on, this is interesting.”

“Alright, so then later, there was this big hullabaloo in Congress regarding the Iran-Contra Affair. That’s you again.

For a year, it seems, or maybe more, those televised Congressional Hearings went on and on with Oliver North and all those guys. It’s embarrassing to say, but that is about it for the extent of my knowledge.”

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“Don’t concern yourself about it, Beth. If you are going to know next to nothing about something, you couldn’t have picked a better topic. Discussing war is very unpleasant for such a beautiful evening. Why don’t we talk about you? What is there to know about Beth’s world?”

“Beth’s world? There’s really nothing to know, I’m afraid.” She was suddenly embarrassed about her mouse-woman existence and fall from grace, wondering if she could bring herself to tell him. No, she decided, no reason to get into that, then realized there was nothing else: all she had ever done was to be mouse-woman. “My entire life can be summarized simply by telling you it has been uneventful and methodical. There you go, that’s the quick tour of Beth’s world: a most boring place.”

Too bad, that wouldn’t suffice to satisfy his curiosity. He continued studying her expectantly. “All right Truman,” she said,

“you asked for it, but no sleeping permitted in the audience: I grew up an only child to loving but overprotective parents.

First, I was a Brownie, then a Girl Scout: my big girlhood adventures. Do you know what those are?”

“I don’t know about Brownies, but Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, yes I know.”

“Brownies are the same thing only for younger girls. Joining wasn’t my decision; my parents signed me up. They were like that with me always: right up to the end of their lives they were directly involved in all of my educational and career decisions. Anyway, Brownies and Girl Scouts was a way they approved of for me to enjoy supervised outings with friends.

The months of summers I spent with my mother on my grandparent’s dairy farm and on weekends, my father joined us. I fell madly in love when I was there – with my grandfather’s horse. She was my truest and most trusted friend; knew all my secrets, you see. Riding or grooming that old mare, I would be talking to her, telling her everything.

“Through high school except for a few girl friends I studied with, I was pretty much a loner. I did my under-graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the state capital and while there I became passionate about ecology. I remember thinking that my life might have meaning if my work, in some small way, resulted in something good for the planet.

They were the idealistic dreams of youth, I know, but that’s how I felt. Anyhow, Vermont has an excellent geology department, so I applied and studied there for my Masters.

“Later, following my father’s advice, I worked for several different outfits to gain experience and build my resume before settling in with a home-town agency. Working in Green Bay, I lived with my parents and was able to save most of my salary. Then, after my parents passed away, this opportunity came along and I jumped at it. Now here I am. I’m talking too much, but anyhow, that’s it for my story. I told you it would be dull.”

“I don’t think your life is a dull story at all, Beth. For me it’s fascinating when I hear the underlying story of the stability and wealth people in the United States live with and accept as normal. The odd part for me is the unawareness of how uniquely special and pampered are your lives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not faulting you or your country: it’s something more akin to envy or awe. At any rate, it’s good to have you here with us in Costa Rica. I hope you find everything to your liking at Cabañas Arrecifes,” Truman said, his grin and dimple clearly visible in the moonlight.

“Oh I do, everything’s wonderful! Cabañas Arrecifes is like a dream come true and Alberto and Cecilia couldn’t be kinder. The bartender, all right, is a little grumpy sometimes, but I’m getting used to him and maybe even a bit fond of his surliness. Do you live here all the time?”

“Yes, this is my home. The second floor is my apartment.”

“Your apartment? I thought Alberto and Cecilia lived up there with the kids.”

“No, it’s mine. They have rooms behind the kitchen.”

“I see… What happened that you became so badly scarred?” The question was far too forward. She pulled her hand over her mouth, but it had already slipped out.

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“That was a long time ago, Beth. A very long time…” He pursed his lips, swallowing dryly.

Oh no, now what had she done? She watched him wipe a finger over a twitch tickling the corner of his eye. “I’m sorry, Truman,” she said. “That was inappropriate of me and none of my business. But, it was the war, wasn’t it?” Another blunder.

“Yes, it was the war,” he droned through clenched teeth. Sucking in a long breath, he released it in a hiss, thin streams of air between his teeth. “You make me remember too many things: things I haven’t thought about in years. It’s late; I should go,” and he was on his feet. Walking. She joined him, falling in step at his side, embarrassed and forcing herself into silence.

  

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CHAPTER FOUR

Mornings acquired a familiar rhythm that began each day as the first light of predawn drew the curtain on dreams, stirring Beth awake. In her bikini and a towel over her shoulder, she would walk barefoot through sand still chilly from the night. Then, nature’s latest rendition of sunrise would hold her mesmerized until the strengthening solar rays felt warm upon her skin when she would run to the surf and dive headlong into a breaker. Following the morning swim came breakfast on the patio with a leisurely sipped second coffee enjoyed while browsing the national newspaper, La Nación. Finally ready for work, her breakfast plate would be replaced by the laptop, files removed from her briefcase lain in columns across the table and she would settle in for several hours on the computer. It was a routine well worth adhering to, but this morning the thought of the young woman in a box with nothing to eat gnawed at her conscience through sunrise reverie. The gaunt face and skeletal shoulders of the woman mingled with haunting memories of her cousin Evelyn who bore an uncanny likeness to the passionate Latin woman. The resemblance went way beyond the moody eyes and radiant smile, it extended deeply into their personal lives. Evelyn had sold her body and let drugs ruin her life too – end it, actually – something Beth could and should have prevented, and of course, hadn’t. It was a phone call she couldn't forget.

“It’s Evelyn, Beth; I need to talk to you, please. I’m sorry about everything. Can I come over?” Her voice carried tones of panic and the tremor of suppressed tears.

So what did Beth do? Offer compassion, understanding, help? How well she remembered that she hadn’t. She

pretended not to notice her desperation; vengeance is what she had wanted and she wanted it to hurt. “You know, some of us are trying to make something of our lives, Evelyn. We don’t want to run around with a bunch of losers or sell ourselves to dirty old men. We have minds and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to use mine: I have homework.” How smug she had felt, slamming the telephone into its cradle – justice!

Evelyn died later that night of a drug overdose… Now down the beach there was this woman, Herminia whose eyes

harbored a hurt and lonely soul cowering behind a ferocious exterior exactly as Evelyn had. It was uncanny and so unfair: Was she to be forever reminded of her? There was deep suffering within this wisp of a woman and not a soul alive who cared enough to offer relief. Evelyn had also been without anyone to turn to, with the exception of a cousin who was to hang up on her at her moment of greatest need.

Enough was enough: a beautiful morning was going down the tubes with so many depressing thoughts. Beth was off

to lighten her mood by making sure the young woman ate. For a person living in a box, a person who has passed beyond caring, seeking only an easy glide from this world, the last thing they might expect to be awakened to is room service. The police, a sniffing dog, even a pervert would be quite normal, but breakfast, hot on a serving tray, was the stuff of fanciful dreams. Herminia snatched the tray from Beth’s grip and began wolfing the food, not sure what next to expect from this strange woman. Her eyes flashed questioningly at Beth while food disappeared between finger-licking smacks. Beth could read the woman’s question in her eyes: First, this gringa jumps in to rescue me from the security guard, then comes a free meal, now breakfast. Wasn’t this the person whose room she had broken into? “Why you geeve me theese?” she asked, hovering over the food like a lioness. “You wan something from Herminia?”

“I just wanted you to have something to eat, Herminia. I was worried about you. But I don’t understand, why are you living here? Don’t you have a family somewhere that cares about you?” Beth sat on her towel, in the sand beside Herminia’s

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box. Her favorite white cotton shirt provided protection from the sun. Open buttons revealed the red bikini. The sun, low over the Caribbean, slanted its warming rays on to them under the palms. Except for the birds, they were alone on a long expanse of wide beach. A concerned wrinkle formed on Beth’s forehead as she pondered the starved woman’s choices. She strained to imagine the despair that had brought Herminia to such hopelessness. Herminia looked up from her plate and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth.

“You know notheeng, huh? I am addic. You unnerstan? Nobody wan addic; addic is thief.” Herminia moaned the

words, shaking her head in disbelief at Beth’s lack of comprehension. She tried again. “My mother, she tell Herminia, ‘Go away – no come back.’ I unnerstan, then I come to beach. Now I leeve here, hokay? Sorry I go in your room, lady. What your name, again?” Barefoot and in ragged jeans, many sizes too large, tied at the waist by a frayed, blue rope, she spoke proudly and defiantly as though Beth’s attempts at kindness were demeaning. Faded lettering on her ancient tee-shirt molded over bones proclaimed: “I pigged out on Fisherman’s Wharf.” She cocked her head and raised a solitary eyebrow with her question.

“My name is Beth, Beth Tierney. The dark intensity of the woman’s eyes found her own for a moment’s contact then returned to the food, eating as though she hadn’t seen food in weeks – she probably hadn’t, not much anyhow. “How long have you been living here, Herminia?” she asked.

“You remember my name,” Herminia questioned, talking around her food. “I leeve here three months now.”

“But why, Herminia? Why are you living this way?” Beth waved an open hand at Herminia’s nothingness. “You

don’t have any clothes or food or anything.”

“I am addic, crack addic. The crack addic he theenk only for crack, every day more. At feenish he no wash, no eat –

then he die. Everything, I sell everything, for crack. Look at me, lady: I am dirty; I no have clothes; also, I am too skinny, so now, I no work. Ees the men: they no like Herminia no more. Other day in your room, I take shower and use your makeup so Herminia can make date at bar.” Her eyes flashed sideways and a humorous smile exposed perfect teeth. “I am theenking maybe some very drunk man, he geeve Herminia money. Then Herminia buy food. Theese is what I theenk, but I lie.” The smile melted. “Even to me, I lie. The money she is for crack.” She shrugged and looked far out to sea where a ship seemed poised on the horizon. “Only God, he forgive me,” she said smiling again, her eyebrows arched high on her forehead.

“But, you’ll die, living this way. Don’t you know you can’t stay here?” Beth pleaded.

“Si, I know; soon, Herminia, she die. Everbody tell me same ting. Many friends from street already dead. She ees very bad, theese crack. You no can unnerstan.” Herminia gave up; she returned to her food, talking simultaneously. “Theese food she ees very good. God bless you, Beth Tierney.”

* * *

“Beth, oh good; I’m so pleased to have caught up with you. May I have a moment of your time, please?” Truman

leaned through the window of his big Mitsubishi four-wheeler, straining his neck that he might direct his words to her alone, a difficult task because she was huddled in the rectangle of shade of Chauita’s ‘bus station,’ receiving the latest gossip from two elderly local women. Talking with these women was pure culture exposure and she didn’t want to miss a bit of it! He could wait.

“Sure Truman, later, okay! I’ll catch up with you back at the hotel.” He sat there with the motor running, filling the air with exhaust stink, not moving except to lean further from the window. Another inch and he would spill out onto the ground. “Truman, please, I’m kind of busy at the moment.”

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Truman tapped on his horn. “Beth, Beth. Could you come over here, please?” His schoolboy enthusiasm was

charming, but annoying. She excused herself and found him in the car with two couples from Holland. They were on their way on this particular full-moon eve to sign up at the National Park as observers of sea turtles laying their eggs. Of course she wanted to go along.

Dawn was not far off when the tourists had been returned to their rooms and she and Truman sat in rocking chairs in his little retreat from the world: a private patio, built out over the dining room. A protective barrier of potted plants shielded them from the sea breeze and any probing eyes on the beach while above, the stars assumed their proper places in the heavens.

For Truman, they represented comforting order and stability. He amazed her with his knowledge of the constellations and planets, running to his room at one point for binoculars so she could see with her own eyes several of Jupiter’s moons. It was a breathtaking and sobering sight for its majesty of perfection and the realization of the unfathomably vast distances and our insignificance. The moon, with her own mountains and crater ridges clearly visible through the glasses held her spellbound as it slipped behind an earthly peak. Beth spoke of her real love affair, the one with Mother Earth: how the harmonious yet fragile balance of all the elements of nature combine to create the tiny biosphere where we all live, and how endangered species like the sea turtles are powerful indicators of the damage we’ve already done to it. Initially, in undergraduate studies, she said with a laugh, she found earth sciences to be drudgery because the extent of destruction seemed to indicate an impending end to all life, making it all seem so pointless. However, in the year she took off from studies before graduate school, she became involved with an environmental group dedicated to cleaning up the horribly polluted Fox River. She helped trace sources of pollution and recruited other volunteers to clean long sections of shore front and, in just one year, saw real results for their efforts. That experience convinced her that with a career in groundwater geology, the fruits of her labor could be not only ecologically sound, but drinkable. With that dream in mind, the normally grueling graduate regimen of chemistry, geology and environmental sciences transformed themselves into a fascinating trail of discovery leading to an intimacy with the planet itself. “And you?” she asked. “What did you do after college?”

“I went back to Jinotega, but just for a few months, because while there the opportunity to study in the United States came along.”

“Jinotega…” She tried to imagine it, high in the mountains of Nicaragua. How different from flat, dull and frozen Green Bay. “You said that Jinotega changed so greatly that it seems like two different places. Had the transformation already taken place when you returned from college?”

“Well, it was starting, but there was much more to come.”

“Would you tell me about it, please? Your town has been on my mind ever since you first described it.”

The Jinotega he and Raul returned to after graduation in 1972 wasn’t quite the same sleepy backwater town, removed from the world’s problems, they had left four years earlier, he explained. Military patrols covered over Sandinista political slogans with a fresh coat of paint on one wall or another almost every day. Farmer’s groups protested at the entrances of the big estates (including that of his fiancée’s parents) and the police, who were called out to break them up, occasionally got rough: too rough. Skulls were cracked and arms broken by police batons and there were people, who after being arrested, hadn’t been heard from again.

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Sandinista party membership became a criminal act, forcing meetings underground and binding them into a secret

fraternity. In the midst of this, the town tried to ignore the problems and continue its quiet provincial life. Central park’s evening crowd enjoyed the nightly music from the central gazebo the same as it had for the one hundred thirteen years since its construction. Housewives shared gossip and old men played checkers at the park benches while tight groups of young men circled the park clockwise admiring the giggling young women circling counterclockwise, all under the watchful eye of the entire town. Crops were planted, babies were born, and young men married their sweethearts.

John Hall, Truman’s professor friend from Managua, offered to put his name on a list of young officers being sent to study in the United States if he would join the Guardia Nacional. Everything would be paid for, plus he would earn a salary, and when he came back he would be a captain. It was an officers’ training program that offered a choice of several fields of study beyond the minimum military requirements. He would even be given a free apartment with private bathroom, hot running water, kitchen, everything: he was going!

Truman suspected Raul might be involved with some of the trouble the FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberacíon

Nacional, was stirring up in Jinotega; his father-in-law after all was a commissioner. Truman knew in his heart the government would soon eliminate the Sandinista Party and prayed that, until then, Raul would be able to keep himself out of trouble.

However, in his current state of political confusion, he knew Raul would never be able to understand that where he was going and what he was about to do was for the good of Nicaragua. He just couldn’t bring himself to tell the truth. What he told him, one night when they were sharing a drink in town, was that he was going to the University of Georgia to study for a master’s in Business Administration and, for the remainder of that night, politics didn’t exist. It was old times again. They walked arm in arm between cantinas singing Beatles songs. The high walls echoed their voices and footsteps on the cobblestones. There words formed trails of vapor that the crisp, high mountain air swirled into the night and swept away. A month later on March 8, 1972, Truman left for the US. It would be twelve years before he would see Raul again.

* * *

“Hello Beth, where are you off to?” Truman’s turtleneck was bright orange and with it, he wore white, knee-length

shorts.

“Hi, Truman!” Beth was jubilant. It was another day of brilliant, sun drenched colors that began with a sunrise that tinted the entire eastern half of the sky and radiated a fan of pink beams that crossed overhead to disappear behind the mountains. A gentle tropical breeze blew in from the Caribbean. She wore her white bikini, woven sandals and a wide brimmed straw hat to match, and in her hand was clutched a large paper sack: Herminia couldn’t be allowed to go hungry on such a glorious day. “I’m taking some food down the beach to Herminia. Want to tag along?”

“Who?” He had listened in astonishment when she told of Herminia’s addiction and disregard for her own well-being, knowingly choosing crack over food, family, and life itself, just staring at her, stunned that she actually felt compassion for the woman who broke into her room. When he’d warned that the woman could be dangerous, she giggled at his gravity. Beth replied that despite her addiction she thought the woman appeared to have a lot going for herself in intelligence and various talents. ‘Smoking crack was her own choice,’ he’d said shaking his head in disbelief, ‘as was becoming a prostitute, thief and danger to the community.’ ‘I don’t agree,’ she had countered. ‘I think the fault lies with the bastards who get rich selling it.’

Apparently, he disagreed with that too, because he had seemed even more upset. He backed away from the wall of the beachfront bar, rising to the tips of his toes to see the progress of two men climbing among the exposed bamboo rafters replacing thatch. He wanted desperately to supervise, but the men knew their work better than he and his shouted instructions

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were ignored completely. He glanced between Beth and the workers. Suddenly, his expression changed – for the worse. She was sure of the reason: he’d realized he was about to join a mission of mercy for a person he’d rather be booting out of town.

“Okay, sure, sure I’ll go along. I can see I’m not needed here,” he said, surprising her. “Maybe that new friend of yours knows what became of my bartender.” Coconuts, falling from sixty feet above, rather than dropping into the sand, ricocheted from a tree trunk to crash through the roof of the bar like out-of-control missiles, he explained as he walked steadily along the beach.

Beth, at his side, spun pirouettes in the sand with the sack held high above her head. “And then, what happened,” she questioned, finishing a spin to face him.

With a frightful noise, the coconuts impacted among the shelves in an explosion of falling thatch and shattering glasses and bottles.

“And then?”

“And then, the disagreeable German bartender, overpaid because he spoke four languages, became terrified out of his skin. Customers in the bar stated that, after blanching and appearing on the verge of passing out, he seemed to acquire superhuman strength and leapt over the bar in a single Olympic vault. With tremendous force, he shoved people aside, ran down the beach and hadn’t been heard from since.” Enjoying the elaboration he added to his story, Truman, infected with Beth’s high spirits, began walking with a light carefree springiness. It did her heart good to see the change: he had been so very frustrated with the workers. She had come to like him very much, he was kind and generous and his patience with her seemed unlimited. The lessons he had been giving her with the small multicolored sailboat hadn’t been going well. It seemed that she did everything she had been shown and exactly the same as he, yet she couldn’t control the boat at anything but a slow, straight course. Through all the failed lessons, which would have driven many men to angry frustration, he remained calm and patiently instructive, continuing to refer to the lessons as fun. Then came the day when she conquered the balance between tiller and sail and the days after were spent skittering over the light chop between reef and shore. She thrilled then to sailing, laughing in delight as she strained to maintain control, offering more and more sail to the wind. For real speed, Truman taught her how to hook toes and lean far over the waves giving the little boat more leverage against the wind, teetering at the edge of keeling over as they took wing across the water and she would fly upside-down, inches above the water, arms waving and whooping with joy.

Herminia didn’t see them approach: she wasn’t seeing much of anything. They found her below a palm, lost in drug-induced thought. In the sand beside her, lay her metallic tube used for smoking with both ends blackened, a scattering of spent matches and bits of aluminum foil. She was emaciated, yet the sack of food interested her not in the least. Peaking in the bag, she smiled radiantly and as the gracious hostess, offered it to them. Talkative, she seemed to feel it necessary to explain that with sufficient crack, she could sit immobile for an entire day or even two, without a thought for food, and less for physical activity. It was when she was fourteen and began to work in a San José brothel that she was introduced to it. (Evelyn’s age the summer on the farm when Beth first saw illegal drugs. Now here was Herminia, with those same eyes following her to an early grave.) The owner of the club where she began her professional career supplied the drug to perk up girls for working the long late night hours. The fact was, he wouldn’t allow any to work in his club who wasn’t a user – and buying from him.

English was a burden for Herminia that was unnecessary when she spoke with Truman. A lengthy conversation in

Spanish, at times heated and others broken with laughter, began and Beth contented herself with leafing through Herminia’s journals. Hers was a tiny script that filled hundreds of pages, but Beth understood little beyond mention of herself as ‘the

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gringa loca’, but the writing captivated her, nevertheless. It seemed so improbable that a person in her position would take pen in hand and fill volumes, but she had.

“You see,” Beth said on the return walk. “It’s like I said. The monster that pushed coke on Herminia when she was fourteen is, in my judgment, far more responsible for her addiction that she. How I’d like to get my hands around his neck!”

“Maybe,” he said, “but I know enough about addicts to tell you that, as far as they are concerned, nothing is ever their fault. Yet she is, like you said, entertaining and intelligent, although I’d be very careful around her if I were you.”

  

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CHAPTER FIVE

The months passed and with them, so too went the rainy season. No longer at noon would dark clouds begin to form above the mountains and sweep with amazing speed across the coastal plain to dump a waterfall of rain on the coast. Beth missed lying afternoons in her hammock watching water drip from the fronds of her roof and the awesome shows of lightning bolts passing from cloud to cloud above the sea but, with it over, there was more time to play in the sunshine. One sunny noon, Truman proclaimed that, because of the sun’s high angle, it was a perfect time for snorkeling. She was at first a bit annoyed when after only one half of an hour he suddenly proclaimed that it was time to quit. She could easily have floated above the magnificence of the coral for the rest of the day. It was his misshapen nose allowing water to enter his mask; she was sure of it.

She was also sure that a plastic surgeon could realign it and probably do a lot to minimize the scars. Why he didn't do it, she was dying to ask but dared not. Any mention of the war sent him off into a deep funk. Another semi-annoying thing was Truman's strange relationship with children. He was one day playful and another grumpy, complaining of their noise. He had recently created an incident with Alberto and Cecilia over Oscar that seethed for days. Following his father’s instructions, the boy in his favorite Chicago Bull’s tee shirt, had taken machete to the shrubs, trimming back new growth. Truman was understandably startled when he descended from his apartment and emerged to the sight of a sweeping blade clipping off twigs beside his door, but his reaction was entirely out of line. He shouted like a madman, admonishing the boy never, never to come near his door again, then read Alberto the riot act that if he was incapable of doing his own work, Truman would find someone who could. Apologies were later offered but, in the minds of all, the memory lingered, and Truman had since been walking around withdrawn and sullen

It was the following Wednesday morning, the day after Truman left on another business trip that Beth's briefcase went missing. She was reviewing pages of data with notes and sketches of a contaminated water table in Missouri covering her favorite table in the patio dining area, trying to accomplish enough to call it a day by noon. Remarkably and, in retrospect, regrettably, the work had been fascinating, capturing her entire attention. It had been almost like old times as she extracted an almost intuitive sense of the geology from test wells and core sample data, conceptualizing the delicately balanced and interrelated dynamics affecting water movement through the various materials. There was strong correlation with another project she had recently studied. She reached for the file in her briefcase on the other chair – but there was nothing there. She stood beside the table, staring at the floor around the chair and behind where she had been sitting, frantic with worry. The memory of setting it on that chair was correct, she was sure of that. Had she taken it with her to the bathroom? No, she couldn’t remember anything like that.

Herminia! It had to be… A short earlier, she had glanced up from her work to see Herminia slip in from the beach as she often did to watch her work. She hadn’t looked good, Beth remembered, nervous to the point of jittery. She had been offered breakfast, but refused and, when Beth returned from a trip to the washroom, she was gone. Beth quickly suppressed the thought as prejudicial and twice searched the bathroom, her cabaña, the dining room and even checked out on the beach. With the sun sinking behind the mountains, she set off with a heavy heart to see if perhaps Herminia had returned to her box.

Walking along the shore, she reviewed what she would say if she was there. Herminia was normally volatile and, from what Beth had glimpsed that morning, she was more on edge than ever. If she hoped to recover her property, she would have to be tactful. Her musings came to a sudden end when a curious object washing in the surf became recognizable as a large section of

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cardboard. She ran towards the pulpy mass and as she drew close recognized from the bold lettering, Atlas Conjelador, that it was the remains of Herminia’s box. The sand under the palm where it had been was littered with Herminia’s meager possessions. A sea breeze flipped pages of a journal lying open and others were scattered where they had been thrown into the bushes. Tee shirts, tattered panties and shorts protruded from the sand or tangled themselves into the undergrowth with the debris of Herminia’s home. Where the box had been upended, someone with heavy-soled boots had crushed a mixture of pencils and toiletries into the sand: Jesus had exacted his long-awaited revenge and Herminia’s life had spun another revolution in its downward spiral. Despite repeated attempts to locate her, Herminia and her briefcase were irretrievably gone.

* * *

Beth eyed Truman warily from behind the bougainvillea. Something was up with him. The thing is she couldn't figure

out what it might be. It seemed he was trying to impress upon her that he was a thoughtful, generous guy. Yet, if it was a show for her benefit, what then was he doing over there, unaware of her presence, speaking encouragingly to a work crew instead of his usual nitpicking and cursing?

Noticing her emerging from the bush, he smiled that crazy, Truman-only grin of his. “Hey Truman. Working hard?”

she asked, sauntering up beside him.

“No, not me but these guys are working their tails off. I promised them double pay if they can have this concrete deck ready and cured well enough for painting tomorrow and it looks like they have the situation under control.” Turning, he called to the foreman, “Okay, stack that stuff over there then take your guys down to the bar and have a couple beers. On the house!

And thank you all.”

Alright, Truman, I get it; you're a super good guy and a generous boss. Okay? Now you can go back to being normal.”

“What?”

“Come on; you know what. You're going around flashing that wacky smile at everyone. Then you suddenly give

Alberto, Cecilia and both kids a three week paid vacation they hadn't been expecting. Just like that. No grumbling about people who don't do their jobs properly. Instead, 'Have a good time and don't worry about anything here'. And now here you are giving away free beer and double pay. So, what is it?"

“What's up with me is in large part you. I...”

“Me? So, I'm responsible for your behavior?”

“No, no, not at all. I'm totally responsible and really regret how I've been acting lately. I've spent a lot of time while I was away thinking about myself. That incident with Alberto's boy opened my eyes to the fact that I've not been myself for the whole while that you've been here. There has . . .

“Oscar. His name is Oscar.”

“Yeah, Oscar. Sorry. Let's see. Okay, I bought this place because I needed a peaceful place where I could recuperate from the wreck the war made of me. And its been good. I have many regrets, of course, but I have feet whole, healthy and comfortable here. That is until a man I knew from back then showed up. I've been kind of an uptight asshole ever since. And he arrived about the same time as you so what you've been seeing isn't really normal me. At least I hope so.”

“Are you talking about that cowboy guy?”

“Yes him, but he's no guy, he's the worst there is. As far as bad goes he's done it all and more. I've always had bad memories lingering around the fringes of my mind ready to jump out and put me in a mood but it has bothered me less and less over the years. Now, having seen him, that fringy stuff has moved to the forefront. Its been messing me up. I suppose that's why I was so hard on the boy, Oscar, and with everyone else as well; especially you. You're a wonderful person, always kind

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and considerate to others and you don't deserve me being such a gloomy crab. I spent a lot of time alone while I was away reflecting on myself and how to deal with my past in a self-supportive way that isn't a burden to others. What I'm doing is trying to more like you.”

”Truman, you give me way too much credit. I'm just a screw-up exiled from Green Bay. You need a better role model.

Try Mother Teresa. So what is this concrete slab supposed to be?”

“Can't you see? Its going to be a basketball court. The poles, backboards and nets and all the other gear will all be here and installed before they get back. I'm having it made as a birthday present for Oscar.” Truman grinned, puffed his chest while encircling her with his arm. “It’s beautiful Lucia,” he said, “and the least I could do to make up for how I was with the boy, don’t you agree?”

'Lucia'? Her smile vanished, but rather than destroy his buoyant good mood, she refrained from saying anything other than to agree that the court was splendid and Oscar a deserving child.

* * *

“Truman, look, it’s her!” Beth was standing at the water’s edge, adjusting the binders on a pair of water skis. Truman looked up from tinkering with the outboard motor. It was Herminia all right: she stood a short distance down the beach, holding a paper bag cradled in her arms, staring in their direction.

“Let me take care of this, Beth,” he said, casting a tool into the boat and beginning to wade ashore.

“No, Truman. She’s here to see me, this is something between us,” she said and set off towards Herminia. Halfway to her, she looked back to see him standing with her skis, watching intently. She continued.

“I save papers for you, Beth. Here.” Her face wore a look of deep sadness and began crying as she held the bag out.

“Herminia ees very, very sorry: ees bad woman.”

Looking in, Beth saw that it contained the stolen files. “I don’t need any of this,” she said angrily. “I’ve replaced it all. Where’s my damn briefcase, Herminia? That was a gift from my father and I want it back!”

“Ees gone. I sell it.”

“You sold it?”

“Si.”

“How much? How much did you get for my parents memory, damn you?” She couldn’t control her hands from

trembling. They were cold and she too was crying, her chin wrinkling and bobbing.

“Tres mil.”

“Three thousand colons? That’s all? That’s all you think it was worth?”

“Very bad. Herminia is very bad, Beth. Maybe man sell it back. You geeve Herminia cuatro mil and I try, hokay?

“Four thousand colons? Give you four thousand colons? Do I look like a fool? Is that what you think I am because I was good to you, Herminia?”

“No, Beth,” she replied between whimpers. “You are only friend for Herminia. If man say no, I come back with

money.” She crossed herself, kissing her thumb. A compromise was reached whereby Beth would accompany her and

remarkably, half of an hour later, the beloved briefcase was again in her hands.

Herminia accompanied her as she returned to Cabañas Arrecifes swearing up and down that she was finished with

crack. Not only was she going to quit, but she pledged to clean herself up, get a job and return Beth’s money, “soon”.

“Sure Herminia, sure and Herman Andreesen is out of jail and wants to give me back my job, right?”

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That stopped Herminia dead in her tracks. “What? You lose your job because Herminia take your papers?”

“No Herminia, I still have my job. All I’m trying to say is that the way to fight addiction is not to say that you will never touch the stuff again, but to do it one day at a time. You don’t worry about tomorrow, you just work at keeping yourself clean today.”

“Si, si, Herminia already know. Four days, no smoke.”

Beth studied her face. She didn’t look any better except that perhaps the whites of her eyes were clearer. There was sincerity in her expression, but she dared not trust that: she suspected her to be possibly a better actor even than her father. “So you expect me to believe that your life has changed and now you’re trustworthy? Guess what? I don’t. Surprised? But, I’ll tell you what: if you want me to believe you, come by tomorrow morning for breakfast. If you’ve been smoking, I’ll be able to tell, so don’t bother to come; I won’t want to see you.”

Much to her surprise, Herminia did appear for breakfast the following morning and the next and every morning

thereafter, clear-eyed and calm until Beth came to expect her. Poor Truman didn’t know what to make of it. His exasperation with Beth regarding Herminia was close to driving the man mad. Once, it reached such a level as to leave him stuttering. He’d been trying to convince her that no good was going to come of helping this woman and she’d responded that he owed it to Herminia to order Jesus to replace her box.

If his head was able to spin like a top, it would have. “I… No, I mean… What, I owe her? You mean, for a thief?

Beth…” He couldn’t go on: he was about to burst a blood vessel and the more he sputtered the more impossible it became for Beth to stop snickering.

Since Jesus, in his capacity as security man, had destroyed the box, her reasoning went, ultimately, Truman was the guilty person. The honorable thing to do was repair the damage.

“Guilt, me? My fault? You have it all backwards, Beth. What about her being a thief? Doesn’t that count for

something?”

“It counts for a lot, Truman; she knows that. She has a lot to make up for and a long way to go. Let’s face it: her life is a wreck, but she can salvage it. There is hope. But, what chance does she have if she doesn’t so much as have a place to live? Come on Truman, destroying someone’s home, regardless of the motivation, is terrible. This is your chance to right a wrong and help Jesus in the bargain by having him accept responsibility. Besides, you have those boxes from the basketball equipment that he can put together and maybe even make something better than what she had.”

Jesus did fashion another box-home, albeit reluctantly. Throughout, a mini-drama played out between Jesus and

Herminia. At several points, he walked off, bluntly refusing to return. He would not work for a woman, he insisted, who cursed his entire family, referred to him as the son of a whore, ridiculed his work and constantly belittled his manhood with unflattering references to the size of his penis. Nevertheless, a new shelter was erected that, made of wooden shipping crates was far better than the original. Herminia had a new home and came fairly regularly for breakfast. The mornings she didn’t, Beth knew it would be days before she would reappear, sick and hungry-looking, vowing on all saints never to smoke again.

Meanwhile, Truman evolved into Chauita’s basketball coach. The game was new to him, so Beth downloaded a complete set of rules compiled for school coaches with reams of tips. He acquired a referee’s whistle and Oscar’s basketball court became a training camp that attracted every boy and girl in Chauita. As skills improved, teams were formed and evening basketball games became a ritual.

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Beth and Truman were resting from a swim, their heads above the surface with toes poking the sandy bottom,

enjoying a lively conversation when Herminia once again became the topic, and Truman’s mood plummeted like a dropped rock. “Why are you so interested in this woman?” he asked, springing buoyantly to keep his head above the swell of an incoming wave. “She’s stolen from you twice. What else do you want to happen?” He was looking directly into her eyes.

Beth had no doubt that he had thought the incident with the stolen briefcase would put an end to Herminia in his life but, of course, it hadn’t. His cold stares and quick departure when seeing them at breakfast spoke for itself. She knew she had gone too far with the box and since then, he’d been different – quieter, probably angry and that saddened her. “There’s something about her, Truman. I can’t even put my finger on it. I used to see homeless people in Green Bay, but they didn’t affect me the way she does. Perhaps they should have. Some people just seem to fall through the cracks in society and get left behind by the rest of us, and the more needy they become as the gap grows, the less willing we are to care. A large part of how I feel about her comes from my experience with my cousin Evelyn. She was so defeated by rotten breaks in life that, when the drug pushers got to her, she was already as good as dead, and her life by comparison with Herminia’s was a bed of roses. I could have helped her, but I didn’t. So, I guess I’m feeling guilty about Evelyn and trying to redeem myself through Herminia.

I’m sorry to involve you in my personal mission.”

“Um-hum. Well, I have to admit that, when she returned your papers and led you to your briefcase, I was totally surprised. I’ve seen her when I was out jogging. So I decided to take your advice and try to understand her a bit. She seemed to need to talk so I listened while she has told me a little about herself and you’re right: her life is a gruesome story not her own fault at all if what she said is even partly true. Anyhow, she has allowed me to read several of her journals and it’s remarkable, but her writing is better than just legible; it’s actually interesting.”

Beth listened, but could hardly believe her ears. His attempts at self improvement were paying off. “Truman, you surprise me!” she said, beaming. “I thought you hated her.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that, but until you came along I would never have tried to converse with her.”

“She’s a thief, there’s no doubt about that and a prostitute too. But, you know, Truman, those are things that were forced on her. So were the drugs. Plus, she is intelligent and can be rather enchanting. So, I suppose that’s why I feel guilty eating when I know she’s down the beach with nothing.”

He appeared not to be listening. “You have ideas about helping her, don’t you?” he asked at length.

“Well, yes, I’d like to help her, if only I could. What she really needs is to get off crack. She claims that she would like to go to a resident detox center, but the free government ones don’t accomplish a thing, drugs are smuggled in just the same and, according to her, they are more plentiful and cheaper than on the street. She seems convinced that she can do it alone, so I’m trying to help by feeding her when she isn’t high.” Beth’s head was washed over by a wave.

“She doesn’t have any clothes – does she?” Truman asked when she emerged. “I’ll tell you what: if you think you can keep her from selling them, I’ll lay out the money for some. I won’t give any cash to her, you understand, but if you go with her to Limon to buy the stuff, I’ll give it to you.”

This was unbelievably wonderful. “Oh Truman, you’re a love!” She kissed him, then splashed her way towards

shore, leaving him to stare after her, touching his cheek.

* * *

The new clothes found their home in the closet of Beth’s cabaña and thereafter following breakfast, Herminia, rather than leaving, would shower and try out hairstyles and outfits (frequently Beth’s), emerging for appraisals well into office hours.

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Nonetheless, she still disappeared occasionally only to materialize several days later, a tight bundle of nerves with oscillating emotions that could within moments take her from pathetic tears to a screaming rage over some misinterpreted word or gesture.

Between these extremes, she was no more stable, switching randomly throughout the entire range of human feelings, although mostly she was paranoid, paralyzed by fear. When the dangers she imagined on the beach became too horrific, Beth allowed her to sleep in her bungalow and endured, flatly refusing to give up on her. She needed to talk and the restrictions imposed by English often drew Truman into conversations that continued then without her, affording relief from the intensity. Apparently, the extended dialogues had an impact, because permission was given for Herminia to eat the remnants of the buffet and daily special. She took it as her job, always on hand when meals were done. When she was told, Cecilia could hardly believe her ears, but Herminia’s helpfulness in the kitchen came as an even greater surprise. Sunken eyes began to sparkle ever more brightly and cheeks fill out as she quickly put on weight. A woman’s figure returned to her emaciated frame, erasing the starved kitten look, and a healthy color began to replace the pallor of death.

One afternoon Beth interrupted Truman working in the back room of the beach bar counting inventory. She explained that she would be away for a while because her tourist visa was about to expire, requiring a border crossing into Panama through the city of Sixaola, and that Herminia, convinced she had beaten her addiction, insisted she was also leaving, returning to her life and work at Hotel Paradise in San José. He fixed her with such a sorrowful expression that she quickly added that renewing her visa meant that she would be out of the country for only a few of days. But, as she so often did with Truman, she misinterpreted, for he replied that he too was leaving and would be away for two weeks on another of his periodic business trips.

“Again?” she questioned. Cabañas Arrecifes was a very different place when he was away and with Herminia also

gone, it would feel deserted when she returned. “Why do you go away so often?”

“I have other business interests in Nicaragua and Honduras and, every three months, need to go keep the books in order and check up on things,” he replied.

Beth had long wanted to see the sights of San José and tour the country, taking in the reserve at Monte Verde, the Pacific beach of Manuel Antonio, the active volcano, Arenal, Lancaster Botanical Gardens in Paraiso, Cartago and white-water rafting, but she had been having such a wonderful time in Chauita that her departure had been continually delayed. This seemed the perfect opportunity to give her skin a rest from the sun and see more of Costa Rica. He then suggested that he could wait for her to return then perhaps she would like to accompany him as far as the City of Limon where he would need to be for a day before continuing on to Nicaragua. She could avoid the uncomfortable bus and Limon could prove to be interesting, he said, because he was also inviting her to join him for brunch with an important politician, Mr. Gordon Edward, a colorful figure whose name was frequently in the newspaper. He accepted that Herminia ride with them so the two women could travel together to San José. She was instantly euphoric over the unanticipated change in her plans. She would miss Truman, but seeing the rest of the country would make up for his absence and, when she returned, he would already be back.

He expressed skepticism about bringing Herminia to the brunch, but there seemed to be no other choice even though Beth offered assurance that nothing would happen to embarrass him.

“Wow! This is going to be great. Thank you!” She beamed mischievously, placed her hands on his shoulders and

kissed him, full on the mouth. Opening her eyes, she was greeted to the sight of a dark, cloudy expression upon his face and his body rigid with his arms at his sides.

“Yeah,” he said flatly, “it’s hot and crowded in here. Come on, let’s get out!” He lifted her arm from his shoulder, turned and headed back towards the hotel. Her euphoria evaporated. She was crushed. How could she have been so sure of

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his feelings and yet so wrong? She hurried beside him and slipped her hand into his. He held it, but with the lightest of touch, walking on without speaking. She turned to look at him, but his gaze was focused on a distant past, and there rolled from his chest a deep, growling sigh, cut short as he heard himself. A meek smile came as he noted her gaze upon him. She made no reply beyond grasping his hand more tightly while pondering the conflicting signals and the name, Lucia.

* * *

Beth, returned from her trip to Panama, declared herself on vacation, packed away her computer and gave it to Alberto and Cecilia. As far as San José was concerned, she knew exactly where she was going to stay. The stories she’d heard about Hotel Paradise had created such an image in her mind that she wouldn’t consider anyplace else. After that, who knew? She was free and ready to go.

Stretched out in the back seat of Truman's Mitsubishi, Herminia had fallen asleep right away. Her deep breathing was a gratifying sound; she could speak seriously with Truman. At the wheel, he appeared introspective, preoccupied with something that caused him to glance occasionally at her without comment, before losing himself again in thought.

“All right, Truman,” she asked at length, “what is it?”

“What’s what?” He focused on the highway, avoiding her eyes.

“There’s something troubling you. It’s me, isn’t it?”

“You? No, it’s not you.” He gave her a quick glance. “Not directly, anyhow.”

“Truman…”

“Well, take a look at me, Beth. This face of mine scares the hell out of most people and it’s kept me isolated. I don’t know how you put up with it, but I’m not asking. This time we’ve shared has been the best I have felt since, well, since – since a long time.” He looked her direction again, fixing her with a soft gaze, smiling warmly. “But, it has also stirred up thoughts of things that happened a long time ago – and,” he said glancing quickly from the road to her, “thoughts about my wife, too.”

The word exploded in her ears.

“Wife? You never said you were married. Why haven’t I met her? Where is she, anyhow? Nicaragua? Is that where you go on your little ‘business trips’?” She leaned forward to see better his reaction: He said nothing, staring down the highway, swallowed, the scarred tissue of his throat lifting and shook his head tightly. At length he spoke:

“She’s dead. She died in the war. Her name was Lucia.” Another explosion: Lucia, the name he had accidentally applied to her. She gaped at him unable to speak. God, there was more: his lip trembled and he began speaking: “I lost my children too. My daughters were Lucet and Laura and I had a son; his name was Pablo and he was two years old. I know I should have said something much earlier, but I prefer not to talk about them.”

“I’m sorry, ” she said. “So sorry. I had no idea.” Why did she have such a talent for saying just the wrong thing?

She felt dreadful.

“It’s okay, how could you have known?” he asked, stroking the back of her hand with a look in his eye that said he understood. “Lucia and the children are good memories; it’s the others that trouble me. I don’t know why, but lately, thoughts I’d rather remained forgotten keep occupying my mind. Since we talked, I’ve been remembering some of the things I did back then and frankly, I’m ashamed. I was a young fool who managed to get himself mixed up with some strange characters – very strange – and some of the worst came from your country…”

* * *

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Through his college years, Truman renewed a puppy-love romance with Lucia, the daughter of the second richest man in Jinotega and owner of the best farmland along the eastern slopes of the valley. Via her father’s influence, he moved into the closed-door society of Managua’s powerfully rich. He relaxed on private estates and attending parties that were written up in society pages. He loved mingling with the power structure that steered the nation’s very direction, feeling that in some small way he participated in policy decisions going on around him and accepted as his own the currently popular political opinions circulating the country club set, learning to look with aloof disdain upon the discontented poor that marched in the streets, disrupting progress. How he resented the endlessly chanted slogans designed to destroy the fabric of Nicaraguan society! He absorbed the self-righteous contentment that came from knowing that the campesinos (country folk, or more correctly to his new thinking, ignorant country folk) represented a class of fools who wouldn’t listen to their elected officials and without the political sophistication to realize that they were, in fact, trying to help all citizens. If they had any at all, they would see that the innumerable benefits from big foreign companies investing in Nicaragua would filter down to them if they would just discontinue their protests and simply do their job. They needed only to bear up a little longer under poverty; any damn fool could see that. Government and corporate executives had solutions for their problems. President Samosa himself was always talking about the unfortunate predicament of the poor and the programs his government was soon to enact, once revenues improved. All that this milling mass needed do was wait for the profits to be realized. Rather, they rioted in the streets: screaming animals, hampering the very operations of government and business that strove for their benefit.

“Fools!” Truman parroted at cocktail parties when conversation reverted to the campesinos. On campus, he joined a discussion group chaired by a visiting Political Science professor from Indiana. Professor John Hall helped them understand that the demonstrations were positively not the spontaneous actions of Nicaraguan campesinos. He offered proof that they were events planned and staged by professional agitators from Cuba and Russia. The foreigners were filling the ignorant peons’ heads with fairy tale visions of a perfect society.

“How long will Nicaragua allow agitating foreigners to fill foolish heads with such fanciful daydreams?” he

questioned his eager audience. “The poor, ignorant campesinos haven’t the slightest concept of even the basic principles of communism or capitalism, yet they listen to this propaganda and swarm up by the thousands without ever knowing why.”

Professor Hall authenticated all of his charges, willingly sharing the evidence of captured documents, which supported, beyond any doubt his contention that it was all part of a grand communist plot to gain control of the Americas and from there, the world. “Cuba already has been lost, and look,” Hall pointed out, “the Cuban people live as prisoners within their own country.

Nuclear weapons have even been installed there.” He fired their patriotic passions, convincing the young group that time was short: the communists were organizing and gaining ground quickly. “If Nicaragua doesn’t get tough and use what force may be necessary to eliminate the agitators,” he prophesized, “this country will slip into blood-drenched chaos, then become yet another communist slave state.” He urged them to consider Nicaragua’s need for valiant young men, themselves the quintessential example, if she hoped to save herself. He assured them that the United States had drawn a line in the sand on the issue and was offering its full support to the government of Nicaragua so it should prevail over this ominous threat that menaced the entire hemisphere. Truman came to know him well, never missing any meetings. It seemed obvious that an aspiring young man would do well to become associated with a man such as Professor Hall for undoubtedly, he was more than just a visiting PhD: he obviously represented his country in some official capacity. Perhaps he had come to surreptitiously offer Nicaragua aid, or simply to open the eyes of those whom the nation needed most. Through his loyalty to him, Truman found himself included in a trusted secret group, assigned to collect data on fellow students, foreigners behind the FSLN.

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His cousin, on the other hand, studied modern farming techniques and cattle breeding. As most farmers were

campesinos and their overwhelming majority supported the Sandinistas, he became involved with a group Truman knew to be agitators. He was horrified one afternoon to discover Raul plastering an inflammatory FSLN poster on a university wall. He worried about him, baffled at how such an intelligent a person could be led so far astray by foreign communists and campesino mobs. In their first year, they clashed heatedly over politics, but after several screaming matches, the boys agreed to disagree and not discuss politics. Somehow they managed, except for some memorable arguments, one in the dining hall, when Truman could take no more of Raul’s political rhetoric and pushed him, tipping his chair over backwards with him in it.

Both were married shortly after graduation. Raul and Hilda took their vows in the snow-white cathedral with the high domed ceiling with a quiet Saturday evening ceremony. She was the daughter of the third time reelected president of the largest farmer’s cooperative in the valley. Three months later, it was Truman and Lucia in the same church, staging the grandest affair Jinotega had ever seen. They rode in a shiny black Cadillac convertible at the head of a twelve-car procession to the reception party on her parents’ estate. Every local government official was present as well as both banks’ presidents.

The Agricultural Secretary on President Samosa’s cabinet, a personal friend of his bride’s father, came all the way from Managua with their mutual acquaintance, John Hall. It wasn’t all happiness, though: bricks were thrown at the Mercedes Lucia’s mother rode in, and stitches were required to close the nasty cut on her arm.

“It went on in like fashion until the situation disintegrated into civil war,” he said in conclusion, “but there’s no need to get into all that. War is a horrible experience for anyone: the best way to get over it is to forget everything, just block it from your life and go on, and I’ve done a fine job of it – up to now. So, maybe now you can understand what’s been going on in my mind lately and why I seem so moody, but I’ll soon get over it.”

“It sounds as though you were used by that jerk, Hall. Was he an army officer or something?”

“The US Army wasn’t directly involved with Nicaragua: the CIA was in charge of your country’s interests. The few military officers who came to Nicaragua took their orders from agents like Hall.”

“The CIA! You were tricked into digging up information on other students for them? How creepy! Little wonder you don’t like to remember it, but you shouldn’t feel so guilty: after all, you were just an impressionable kid.” Apparently, talking about it did little to ease his conscience because he reverted to his quiet, contemplative mood. For a very long while, he had lived alone within the isolating barrier of a burned and scarred face with the awful memories of a war that killed his entire family. By stages, the door was opening, but she shouldn’t push. A semblance of normalcy returned as the palms lining the highway prompted Beth to tell how she and Herminia attempted to extract coconut oil in a large cauldron over a flame on the beach, like a pair of old witches: a very smelly failure!

  

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CHAPTER SIX

Gordon Edward loved election years. How he enjoyed toying with the scrambling political fat cats, vying for

invitations to fundraisers he sponsored! Any other time, he could hardly get them to return his calls. Election years were different; they all wanted to be photographed with Limon’s handsome, dynamic political leader, R. Gordon Edward. (The ‘R’

was his own addition. He liked the distinguished sound it gave to his name.) Any San José candidate worth his salt knew an endorsement from Edward from ‘Poor Limon Province’ was worth many a valuable vote back in the capital. Election year, his turn to get his black ass kissed; he relished the thought.

His desk, a massive thing of mahogany (product of Limon Province), reflected a burgundy glow onto the teak paneled walls (also a product of Limon). Seated behind it, slightly elevated on a raised platform, with ‘his’ port visible through the window behind,

R. Gordon presented the image he desired: that of an imposing leader, in charge of all he surveyed, particularly the person seated before him. He personally had designed the effect using mental images of potbellied legislators from San José as those who would be seated before him. They had always looked upon Limon and its black population as insignificant, second class citizens. Disregarding its problems, they consistently voted against funding for the province. Election years were different.

Seeking votes, they came with their slicked back hair, printed silk shirts open at the collar to display gaudy gold chains, and, of course, the obligatory crucifix lying as a trophy upon a hairy chest.

They arrived expecting Edward’s profound gratitude for honoring Limon with their presence. He wasn’t about to

grant them that pleasure, rather, he delighted in the opportunity their vote gathering political visits presented for revenge. A visiting fat pig ignored for a mere fifteen minutes on the broiling tarmac at Limon’s airport melted into a rumpled, sweat drenched, slob, panting in the heat. Following instructions, the Port Authority Police kept news photographers off the tarmac until Edward, with all the aplomb of a Prussian general, strode from his air-conditioned limousine before awaiting cameras.

Cool and impeccably dressed, he would present himself; the perfect smiling host greeting the pathetic, sweltering figure from San José.

Edward knew the greatest asset his reelection campaign had going for it, was right there – smiling back at him from the full-length mirror on the back of his office door. Now there was the perfect black man! How could anyone not vote for the image he saw reflected? Groomed to the highest standards, dressed magnificently, poised, well spoken in three languages, holder of an impeccable political record, and the architect of most of Limon’s social programs, he was everything the people of Limon could want in a politician. ‘The Power and Glory of Limon’ as headline above his picture: it still seemed to be an excellent idea. The campaign manager’s rejection of the catchy phrase as his slogan had been a major disappointment.

At thirty-nine, Gordon Edward presented to the world an image simultaneously homey, authoritarian and that of a

polished professional (a combination of traits possible only among the politician subspecies). He accomplished this remarkable feat by carrying his trim physique with an aristocratic posture and having the pampered good looks of a daytime drama hero and a speaking voice that carried tones of deep sincerity. His pride and confidence, always his most visible attributes, more noticeable even than his physical appearance, combined in the man to produce a born politician. Perhaps that came about through discovering of himself that he was a natural leader who wielded power as comfortably as others walked.

From his crib, he began learning how through expression and poise he could influence events around him and grew into a man

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who was the product of his own grooming, and it showed. His complexion was smooth and dark brown, with features suggesting mixed blood: African with a touch of Native American. His cheekbones were high and wide over a strong, square chin and slightly rounded cheeks. He held his mouth with a hint of warm smile softening the overall impression of concerned firmness, rather as a trusted family doctor. When he spoke, he did so without hand gestures. He held them loosely at his side or in his lap when seated, fixed an easy steady gaze on his listener, and let his baritone voice deliver his message.

Photographers were on their way to capture on film the perfect image capable of conveying all his wonderful qualities to the voting public. Glistening teeth, expensive glare cutting make-up across his broad nose, and a one hundred fifty dollar haircut and manicure enhanced the effects of what he considered to be nature’s best: the perfect black man.

Since becoming the Director of JAPDEVA (the Spanish acronym for the Port Authority of Limon), Edward had

transformed the previously obscure position into the preeminent seat of power for the province. His ability to influence legislation relating to Limon as it worked its way through the political processes in San José was the key to his remarkable success. Simultaneously, his personal generous donations to charities within the province contributed to his public image as the people’s true representative. He appeared often in the press and on television handing over checks, cutting ribbons, and, of course, accepting interviews.

One thing about Truman Herrera that Gordon couldn’t get used to was his punctuality. It was something Truman had to have learned those years spent in The United States. Costa Ricans, Ticos as they prefer to call themselves, have their own method of arranging appointments or arriving for them. The system even has a name: Tico Time. Under it, a person with a ten AM appointment isn’t expected until eleven. Foreigners and a few punctual oddballs like Truman can throw an office planner into total confusion.

True to form, although again, totally unexpected, Truman arrived for his nine thirty appointment at precisely that hour.

Knowing better than to ask Truman to wait for an hour, Gordon’s secretary sent him right in with the result that Truman sat in on the tail end of Gordon’s meeting with his reelection committee. As it closed and the team filed out, every head half-turned to steal a close-up peek at Truman’s face. “I don’t get you!” Gordon declared when the door had closed behind the last one.

“You have more money than the Pope, yet you walk around with that ugly face of yours, drawing more stares than Madonna.

Why is that?”

“I don’t think you draw any less, pretty-boy!” Truman chuckled, studying Gordon’s face. “Isn’t that eye makeup

you’re wearing? And what happened to your skin? You look pasty.”

“It’s foundation. We were having a photo session.”

“Foundation?”

“Yeah, you know – makeup,” Gordon explained. “It keeps my nose from shining and evens my skin tones.”

Truman couldn’t contain the belly laugh that erupted. “Who were those people, Gordy? Your fan club?”

“Don’t you follow the news? We’re in an election year and that was my campaign committee and photographers.”

Much to Gordon’s chagrin, Truman chuckled at his explanation. “What’s so funny?” he asked, “I have a campaign manager, a strategy specialist, press secretary, finance manager, plus art and image people, the works.”

“Why do you need all those people? I thought you were a shoe-in.” Gordon was right: Truman didn’t follow politics; he could not care less.

“I am. Nobody can beat me, but I’m not taking chances. Besides, I like the excitement and of course, I get plenty of press coverage and that’s good for the province. It is a good reminder to the San José assholes that Limon is part of this country too.”

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“This will be your last term, won’t it?”

“Next election Leon will run in my place. The public will know that they’ll actually be voting for me. We’ll leak the information, and then deny it officially. It’ll be a wonderfully scandalous story and the press will come flocking. Whoever dares to run against us won’t even be able to find his name in print. After all, my political record speaks for itself; what can anyone say that can hurt us? That I want to bend the rules slightly and remain where I am doing for Limon the job no one before me has been able to do? After Leon’s term is over, I’ll be free to run again under my own name. No, I’m here to stay.”

“Your brother? How are you going to get him elected? Every time I see you, it seems you’re telling me about some new sort of trouble he’s gotten into. He would be the laughing stock of the country if he ran for public office.”

“He’s never been convicted of anything,” Gordon insisted, “and officially, he’s never had any trouble: I’ve had his police records shredded. Spreading a little money and a few choice jobs around will keep anyone else quiet. He’s clean. All I have to do is keep him that way through this next term.”

Truman failed to understand why Gordon didn’t come down hard on his younger brother. Often, when sent to San

José on errands, a call would be received from some casino or bar concerning trouble involving a prostitute, an unpaid tab, or worse. Delicate negotiations were frequently required to resolve the problem without involving Gordon’s name. The idea that Leon might keep his nose clean through his entire next term of office was pure Mother Goose to Truman’s thinking, unless some very basic changes were made, but his opinion would have to remain his own: his brother was one subject Gordon kept strictly off limits. Moreover, he hadn’t come to discuss Leon or his selection as stand-in for an election more than two years away: it was the fishing boat, El Tiburón Limon, that was on his mind. He interrupted.

* * *

Beth had to agree: Truman had been right. After enjoying Herminia’s fascinating tour of Limon, having brunch in the finest elegance Limon had to offer with R. Gordon Edward was an experience not to miss. They dined like royalty at a table overlooking the harbor while restaurant staff fawned over their every wish. Mr. Edward (he said to call him Gordy, but she found the familiarity uncomfortable) was a polished gentleman, an entertaining conversationalist and like Truman, had a tendency towards Victorian chivalry. Upon introduction, he rose in a courtly manner, took her hand in his, pressing his thumb across her fingers and bent her palm over the back of his hand. She blushed, certain it was about to receive a kiss, but he merely held it that way as he expressed his profound pleasure at making her acquaintance.

Mr. Edward was obviously devoted to Limon and her people, a quality refreshing to a born cynic regarding the

motivations of politicians. The man’s love of Limon was positively infectious. He was also quite taken with the concept of Truman escorting, not just one woman, but two. Herminia, on the other hand, seemed completely unimpressed, arching a dubious eyebrow as she was introduced. She had seen the treatment Beth’s hand had received. Hers wasn’t offered. Truman had been uncomfortable about inviting her, but Gordon’s brother, Leon was such a boor that Herminia appeared as an elegant lady by comparison. He seemed to have a penchant for inane comments at the most inappropriate of moments. Apparently, Mr. Edward was well practiced in dealing with louts as his composure never varied.

He maintained that he “just couldn’t live with himself” if Beth and Herminia traveled by bus. Leon, he said, was bound for San José and his Range Rover offered better comfort and speed. “Hotel Paradise?” he questioned upon learning of Beth’s selection. “Leon maintains a suite there and it’s fine for him, but I wouldn’t consider it a fit hotel for a woman alone. If being downtown is important, why don’t you stay at the Holiday Inn?” She mentioned a certain sense of adventure that came with staying in a place like Hotel Paradise, although Mr. Edward didn’t seem to be the type who could appreciate the

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fascination she felt for it. She was certain the very reasons she was attracted were why he felt she should stay away, but a diplomat to the end, he simply insisted that she allow Leon to drive and escort them to dinner that evening. “It will be my treat,” he said, “and will give peace of mind to both Truman and myself, knowing that you are safe.” Beth felt more inclined to endure a crowded bus than hours together with Leon, and another meal with him was a dismal thought, but Truman’s smiling agreement on the heels of Herminia’s excited acceptance sealed her fate. She’d been betrayed!

  

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CHAPTER SEVEN

The new highway connecting Limon with San José rises from sea level to almost seven thousand five hundred feet.

The scenery is spectacular with changing climates as one climbs, providing the viewer a wide range of tropical plants throughout the three-hour trip. Camera at the ready, Beth sat in the front seat for the best view, determined not to think about Truman’s involvement in the war or speculate as to how his wife and children had died and equally decided not to let Leon be her distraction: capturing the scenery would be occupation enough. Her returning skills at photography were resulting in a beautiful collection badly in need of shots from the remainder of the country.

Herminia, streetwise and experienced, propped a pillow behind her head in the back seat and laid down, shrewdly

avoiding the torture that Beth thought staying busy with photography would protect her from, Leon. His nonstop jabbering began even before they were settled in their seats. Between sentences, his large mouth hung open as he squinted in concentration, gathering his limited thoughts. When he had sorted through the confusion – no doubt abundant – and assembled a sentence, he spoke in a rush, apparently to get it all out while the thought held together. In his haste, saliva built on his teeth and lips, producing a spray of spittle that accompanied each delivery, followed by a cleaning of lip licking and swallowing.

His face was fuller than Gordon’s with strong family resemblance about the eyes, however that was as far as it went. His round cheeks were stubbly and spotted with a freckling of black dots from ingrown hairs. Beneath the hem of a short sleeved, red silk shirt, the bulge of his stomach folded over his belt.

She glanced enviously into the back seat where Herminia lay in apparent peace, not enduring Leon’s monologue,

forced upon her with touches of his hand for attention. She smiled, noting Herminia’s feigned sleep, exposed by fluttering eyelids. Meanwhile, he talked. And talked. His lips never completely drew together, giving his voice a flat, indistinct quality.

He paused, assembling words: time for her own strategy! She bent to her camera bag and ignored completely his uninterrupted grumbling about lack of respect received for his work and a constant stream of complaints about his brother and his own particular lot in life.

For the first hour they drove fast on the straight as an arrow highway crossing the hot, flat coastal plain as Leon continued, his droning voice faded into the background as they drove by endless rows of bright green banana leaves, waving hypnotically in a hot breeze while Beth attempted to capture the sense of motion on still film. Leon’s monotone and the unchanging columns of bananas lulled her to thoughts of Truman: they were warm and teased up smiles, which quickly faded when the brush-off kiss imposed itself upon her. Later, he had been himself again, but Truman was capable of withdrawing like that, to some unreachable place within. She could just picture his face clouding over whenever something struck that secret, melancholy chord. His eyes would seem to lose focus on the physical world and he’d suddenly be tense, or sad, or seething with anger but, just the same, he’d be gone. Ghosts and mental images of, God only knows what, would transport him far, far from where he was physically. Undoubtedly, he had been to hell and back in the war, but were all of his confusing mood shifts the result of those experiences, or something else, maybe something about her?

The banana plantations were huge, extending as far as the eye could see. Fruit trucks emblazoned with familiar logos rolled by regularly, some of the cargo certainly bound for produce counters in Green Bay. It was a strangely amusing thought.

“I’m no errand boy. I’m his brother,” Leon was saying somewhere in the distant background. She heard, but didn’t listen, fixed on the enigma of Truman’s moods. Workers, seemingly immune to the heat, fitted protective blue plastic bags over

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pendulous clusters of ripening bananas while whacking away at the tree-like plants, their machetes flashing arcs of steel lopping off any leaf showing a brown edge. “He thinks he’s such a big shot. Well, he won’t talk to me like that any longer!”

She shook herself from contemplation and carefully swung the lens to cancel the car’s movement, capturing the action of two men teams harvesting pendulous bunches. In one swift movement, one would slice the thick stalk, separating the bunch from the plant while the other supported its weight. Then, together they lifted, making the backbreaking work of transferring the hefty load to a metal hook without inflicting a bruise on any banana look like child’s play. A tram-like system suspended above irrigation ditches between the rows then transported the bananas to the loading area at the other extreme of the farm. “Well, he should, shouldn’t he?” Leon gawked at her, apparently searching for a reply.

“Sure, Leon, sure, everyone can see that!” She let out half a breath and held it, steadying the camera. Great pictures!

Thoughts of Truman had been put on the shelf with her growing excitement over the fascinating photo album that would result.

At last, they were beyond the seemingly endless banana plantations. Her last picture was of one of a wooden clapboard house built on pilings and surrounded by palm trees with leaves and coconuts that looked disproportionately small atop fantastically lofty trunks. Black girls in billowing skirts were captured waving from a wide veranda. She leaned from the window to return the salute with a broad wave above the car. The mountains, no longer hazy with distance, but deep green and filling half of the sky, drew close, standing before them as an impenetrable wall.

“– doesn’t even notice me, but who gets…” His words lost their meaning: there were just his lips moving and the droning of his voice while missiles of spittle exploded on the dashboard.

Lenses were switched for fields of sugar cane, reminiscent of crab grass grown gigantic and in desperate need of mowing. Individual blades, similar but for their size to common grass, stood well over ten feet in height with taller-still, silky seed pods waving in the breeze high above the leaves like plumes of ostrich feathers. Huge, rickety wagons, over-filled with cut cane swayed from side to side as they lumbered past harvested fields, stripped bare to the earth, then burned black. Unable to pass, they followed one closely, flattening fallen stalks of cane to leave raw syrup on the tires that stuck to the road, making a kissing sound with each revolution. “I even know how much he paid. Ha! And he thinks I don’t know anything. He’ll see.”

The change from flat plain to switchback curves scaling precipitous slopes brought them to cooler temperatures

almost immediately. Sheer-face cliffs to one side and deep ravines on the other gave Beth the alarming sense they were clinging to the mountain’s side, about to tumble. She photographed a splattering waterfall cascading from a cliff face onto a protruding rock: thousands of droplets appearing as glistening globes drifting through space, then snapped another two of a wooden railroad trestle that spanned a perpendicular ravine cut by a raging stream of white rapids. It seemed inconceivable to trust one’s life to such a bridge, yet but a couple of years earlier, ancient steam trains providing passenger service to the capital crossed the decaying lattice daily. Higher still, they entered the permanent gray mist of cloud forest where direct sunlight never penetrates. In this environment of heavy mist and perpetual one hundred percent humidity exists a strange tropical world, an island ecology where sun hungry plants that thrive elsewhere on the mountains can’t survive in the murkiness. In their stead, grow plants appearing to be from a different universe.

“ – working on it for months. You wouldn’t understand, because…” It was Leon, still yammering away, audience or no. Dribble everywhere.

Clouds forming as the warm, moist air from below rose into the cooler heights, created billowing mist that tumbled across the highway as rolling fog patches. Beth worked frantically, changing lenses and settings while outside beads of moisture formed then ran in rivulets from every surface. Leon switched on the Range Rover’s headlights, dual cones of yellow through the gloom. Windshield wipers thumped steadily. Plants with leaves of gigantic proportions, looking like genetically

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altered rhubarb groping to absorb its portion of weakened sunlight through the murky air, hung from the rocks. Every branch, electrical wire, rooftop – any surface at all, was encased in a thick growth of brilliant green moss that gave a branch overhanging the road the appearance of a heavy, green spider web extending from the tree.

“ – his shit anymore. He’ll never – “

Like stepping from a steamy bathroom, they were suddenly above the mist, emerging into dazzling brightness above the clouds, a blanket of dirty lamb’s wool lain over the earth and pierced in places by tree covered peaks rising as dark mysterious islands. Gone were the strange plants, replaced by now familiar tropical broadleafs and surprisingly, fir trees. Still the road ahead tilted upward. She anticipated each succeeding bend in the road to be the one concealing level ground or a downgrade , but no – the road continued up, up, and up into the ever chillier air.

“– you must have guessed that by now. Pretty clever, huh?” He captured her with eye contact.

“Oh yeah Leon, it sure is,” she said, smiling weakly. Groaning with exasperation, she turned to stare from the side window as he continued uninterrupted. They were driving along a roadway cut into the sheer face of the gorge of Rio Reventazon. Far below, kayaks jumped through white water spray, narrowly missing jutting rocks. She leaned from the Rover’s open window for a better camera angle, thrilling to the excitement of seemingly flying high above the canyon with the raging river directly below.

“ – ering with the log barges. Right there, in Limon harbor. See what I mean? That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

She glanced in amazement at the fool yammering on without an audience then extended the upper half of her body

from the window. Below, kayaks fought with double-ended paddles to follow a slalom of brightly colored flags in the river’s center while simultaneously avoiding being dashed against rocks in a high speed race through the white rapids. Shooting around a bend behind the kayaks, an inflatable raft, loaded with people rowing wildly was suspended in time on film.

Finally, they reached the top; ahead, the terrain began to descend. “Everybody in San José knows me. I can’t see…”

Leon’s voice was still dragging on after more than two and a half hours. Woof! The Rover rocked on its suspension. They were in a tunnel pitch black except for the warm glow of headlights reflecting from tile walls. Ahead, in the far distance was a faint glow with a bright pinpoint of at its center. What a picture it could be! It would look as though she had traveled to the edge of life and photographed the tunnel of death.

“Leon,” she begged, “when I lean out would you shut off the headlights for a few moments so I can get this shot, please?” She extended herself almost entirely from the window, sitting on the ledge with her toes hooked sailboat style under the frame of her seat. Wind ripped at her hair and clothes. It filled her mouth, puffed her cheeks and tears streaked across her face. Then suddenly, the headlights were off, plunging her into inky blackness while surrounded by the roar of all terrain tires echoing from the walls. She was in absolute darkness entombed within a mountain while before her was the mystical pinpoint of light towards which we all race. Squealing with delight, she clicked madly at the shutter until the headlights came on.

“ – been doing his grunge work. This’ll wake him up,” Leon asserted, slapping the steering wheel for emphasis.

“He’ll be sorry then, you can bet on that. What do you think, Beth, will it work?”

She gaped in amazement. How can a man be so stupid? Did he actually think she heard him with half of her body

outside of the car? “Sure, it will be just fine,” she replied nodding and smiling. Somehow, she had chosen the perfect response, because he grinned, threw back his shoulders and – praise God! – stopped talking.

Ahead and far below, spread over the basin of an enormous soup-bowl valley, lay San José, the capital and heartthrob of Costa Rica.

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* * *

Beth wasn’t particularly impressed with Hotel Paradise. It was hard to say in what way it was a disappointment, but the setting for Herminia’s colorful tales should be expected to radiate and this was an edifice completely devoid of character.

Several forlorn chandeliers draped with cobwebs were the singular attempt at elegance and the paneled walls reflected runs of dripping varnish. To the left, by virtue of a short wooden railing and worn green carpeting, the lobby transitioned to casino.

Leon, swollen with self-importance, gave them instructions in authoritative tones that the entire lobby could hear carrying all the earmarks of his brother’s voice: “Remember girls, my business associate will be in the dining room at ten and I want you to be on time.” Stepping closer, he added, “Remember, my name is Ed Lyons and another thing, don’t mention anything about Gordon.”

“Sorry, Leon,” Beth retorted, “I won’t be able to make it for dinner.”

“No,” pleaded Herminia, tugging sharply at her sleeve. “Si, we go, Beth. I am back after long time. I wan everyone see me come een dining room clean and healthy weeth beautiful gringa friend and two men who take us to dinner. Then nobody talk bad about me any more. Please, please!” Beth sighed, rolling back her eyes. It could be better than sitting in her room crying over Truman’s family: with pursed lips, she nodded. Answering for them both, Herminia promptly replied that ten o’clock was fine.

“Just one minute here,” Beth interrupted. “I want to make myself perfectly clear, Leon – okay, I’ll call you Ed – I’m nobody’s date and I will have to leave right after dinner because I’m meeting a friend.”

Herminia knew exactly what she would wear. It was a black dress, bare-shouldered and tight to her body, an item that just might need letting out to accommodate her new breast size, she said wiggling them in demonstration. The dress hung in her transvestite friend Flavio’s closet, whom she claimed to be the most talented beautician in the world. She was as excited as a child at an amusement park to resume living with him: he willingly shared his entire wardrobe and for this, her big night, would artfully apply her makeup and fix her hair.

Beth had no idea what to wear for Herminia’s ‘coming out’ but the many shops and boutiques hadn’t gone unnoticed.

She hadn’t missed Green Bay at all in the nine months since leaving, nevertheless, she rushed her shower, anxious for the taste of civilization, browsing for an outfit. After seeing dozens and trying on three, two blocks from the hotel she encountered a full-length dress in burgundy. Strapless and elegant, it caught her eye from across the street through hordes of traffic. An amber necklace with matching teardrop earrings practically jumped from the jewelry case saying, ‘buy me, buy me.’ It added up to quite a bit, but she pictured herself strolling into one of the fancy casinos amid the excitement of glittering lights and gaming tables, and asked herself how long had it been since she had worn something really nice: she charged it. Shoes and a purse to tie it all together were next and by then, money no longer mattered: a hairdresser created a coiffure of loose curls while a manicurist did her nails.

* * *

She fidgeted in the lobby awaiting Herminia: she felt far too elegant to dine with slobby, spitting Leon and ward off the advances of any friend of his. The situation was ridiculous: she had allowed herself to be manipulated and now she wanted out.

Mira, la guapa (look at the beautiful woman)!” Herminia’s voice echoed from every wall. Heels tapping the ceramic lobby floor set the tempo of her squeals: “Que mujer! Linda, linda, linda (what a woman! Pretty, pretty, pretty),” she

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gushed. Beth was no less amazed with Herminia. Her friends were going to have a difficult time recognizing her, the petite, lovely woman rushing towards her bore not the slightest resemblance to the half-starved wildcat that had once inhabited a box.

A long finger of dark hair curled over a shoulder, her left eyebrow arched questioningly and her smile radiated, riveting Beth’s attention. She was truly a Spanish beauty. No small wonder every man’s head turned as she passed. How Beth hated disappointing her, but she just couldn’t

“Herminia, just a minute! I don’t think…” She paid no mind, circling and offering gasps of delight as she touched Beth’s dress, her hair and ogled the amber, caressing it reverently between thumb and fingers.

“Thank you, Beth! You are beautiful and make Herminia happy, happy, happy. My friends,” she said indicating with a twist of her head the wide entrance to the bar, “thinking, ‘Herminia? Oh this one, she very bad, went away to die in street.’

Now they will see: I am back, not so skinny and with beautiful gringa friend! She smoothed her short dress over the curve of her hip, adjusted a bra strap then raised her chin slightly, patting her hair into perfection. “We walk once around bar before dining room, hokay?”

“Wait, Herminia,” Beth said, grasping her arm. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t go in there with Leon. You saw him at lunch: this will be worse with him sitting there pretending to be ‘Ed Lyons’ and putting us on show for some other slob.”

“Si, I no like too, he meester big bull sheet. But, theese, she is easy. Doan worry, Herminia feex everything. Now, come.” The grin was heart-warming: her moment of glory was at hand. Beth was pulled into the wake of her perfume for a victory stroll through the bar. Herminia sauntered through the double doors like royalty with a wiggle, head high and radiant smile illuminating her way. Beth was introduced to ‘professional girls’ from Colombia, Panama, Surinam, Cuba and Honduras, all of whom squealed with delight upon seeing Herminia and appeared appropriately awed with her healthy figure, stunning appearance and particularly with her ‘important American scientist friend,’ Beth. All were told, to more exclamations of wonder, that they couldn’t stand around and chat because, ‘their boyfriends waited in the dining room.’