Coming in from Paris, Harry, Joselyn, and I decided to steer clear of the U.S. air carriers with connecting flights through the States. We feared that Thorpe might have his net out to snag us coming through U.S. Immigration before we could make our way south to Mexico.
Instead we caught an Air France flight from Paris direct to Mexico City. There we hopped a connecting flight to Cancun. Arriving just before midnight, we rented a car and took rooms for the night in a small hotel just south of the city.
This morning we get up early, grab a light breakfast, and drive south along the Mayan Riviera. The sun is bright. The azure blue sea is beautiful, rolling waves piling up on the sugar-sand beaches as we race along the highway.
We head for the coastal town of Tulum. I have not been there in years. My recollection of the area is of ancient Mayan ruins, walls of white coral stone on the cliffs above the beach overlooking the Caribbean. The conquistadors who first glimpsed them from the sea described them in their journals as alabaster marble palaces. It was a view that sealed the fate of the Mayans, for it inspired visions of limitless silver and gold in the minds of the Spaniards.
For the better part of an hour we drive along the coast highway. There are people on the beaches and the occasional “Tourista” van with vacationers, though not nearly as many as I recall from my trip to the Yucatan ten years earlier. Stories of heads lopped off in resort towns like Acapulco and shootings along the border tend to put a dent in tourism. Ordinarily the excesses of narco violence would cause me to wonder what risk we are taking by coming here. The fact that we are chasing Liquida is its own set of perils, causing any other fears to seem incidental.
Joselyn is sitting next to me studying a tourist map from the hotel. In one hand she has a printout of the notes from the flash drive hidden in the eyeglasses of the dead man from Paris. We still have no name for him.
“It looks like there is a connecting highway going west out of Tulum.” She plots it with her finger on the map. “Coba looks as if it’s, maybe, I’m guessing about forty kilometers west of Tulum. I’m not sure about the scale on this map.”
“I don’t remember exactly,” I tell her. “It’s been a long time. The last time I was down here I was pretty well lost. If it wasn’t for Herman, I’d probably be buried in the jungle out there somewhere.”
“How did you meet him?” she asks.
“He was working for a security company in Cancun. We hired an entire team of them for executive protection. Herman turned out to be the only one I could rely on. We connected and the rest is history.”
“Along the way he took a few bullets,” says Harry. “Herman’s a regular magnet. If it’s made of metal, you can be sure he’s got a piece of it somewhere inside him. For a man with nine lives, he’s used up twelve of them.”
“If you’re keeping score, you must miss him,” says Joselyn.
“What’s not to miss? Biggest human shield I’ve ever seen,” says Harry. “You bet I miss him. And for a big man he moves pretty fast. At least he did before this latest episode. Who knows now? He may be nothing but a walking comp claim. May have to put him out to pasture.”
“Yeah, you tell him that. Just make sure you’ve got a forty-yard running start when you do it,” I tell him. “Harry likes to sound indifferent and cold,” I tell Joselyn. “The fact is he and Herman have a lot in common.”
“What’s that? Yeah, now you’re gonna tell her we’re half brothers,” says Harry. “Same father, different mother. How is it we’re the same? Tell me.”
“You’ve got the same selfless spirit. Don’t be ashamed of it. You’re just a smaller shield,” I tell him. “If somebody shot at us, it would be a footrace to see which of the two of them got to the bullet first. Harry’s only problem is he’s not fast enough.”
“Who, me?” Harry sounds hurt.
“Never!” he says.
“Do you remember if there was a hotel in the town of Coba?” Joselyn changes the subject.
“I didn’t know there was a town,” I tell her. “As I recall, Coba was more of a wide spot on the road. Except for the Mayan ruins, there wasn’t much there. Last time I came, I was driving in from the other direction, coming east off the highway between Cancun and Merida. I passed the turnoff to Coba and never even saw it. I ended up a few miles from Tulum before I realized. I had to turn around and go back.”
“So you’re telling me it doesn’t have a Holiday Inn?”
“Not unless they’ve done a lot of urban renewal in the last ten years.”
“We have to sleep in the car tonight, I got dibs on the backseat,” says Harry.
“As long as you don’t snore,” says Joselyn. “You do, you’re sleeping in the jungle.”
“We’ll find something. As I remember, there were some archaeological tourism lodges in the area. We might not get electricity or Wi-Fi, but they should have beds. The ruins used to draw a fair number of tourists. I don’t know if they still do or not. The cenotes used to get some divers as well.”
“What’s a cenote?” says Harry.
“It’s a pool of fresh water. Some are underwater caves. The Yucatan is dotted with them. Similar to Florida,” I tell him. “The entire area is flat as a board with a low canopy of jungle. Very dry in places. It has coral underneath with aquifers, subterranean rivers that flow through the porous rock. Every once in a while, there’ll be an opening to these underground rivers, a small, deep pool with steep perpendicular sides.
“Floridians call them sinkholes. The Spaniards called them cenote s. The Mayans believed they were sacred. A source of water. They built their cities around them. At one point it’s estimated that Coba may have had as many as a million people living in the area.”
“You’re kidding,” says Joselyn.
“No. Not even half of the ruins are excavated. Thieves used to come in at night and dig for treasure. The government tried to keep them out, but the area is so large it’s like trying to fence off the city of L.A. Now I’m sure the authorities have bigger fish to fry with the cartels. There is also a lake as I recall, and gators-what the Mexicans call crocadillos. I was told to stay away from the lake. I remember it had deep muddy banks. The crocs have been known to take a few tourists who ventured too close to the water.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” says Harry. “Anything else I should look out for?”
“Yeah. A man with a long sharp knife,” I tell him.
“How are we going to find this place? The facility with the antenna array?” says Joselyn. “Assuming it even exists.”
“I’ve been wondering myself. But it might not be as difficult as we think.”
“Tell me,” she says.
“One thing I remember from the last time I was here were the cellular telephone towers. The jungle canopy out there…” I gesture out to the left as we drive south along the highway. “In most places, it’s no more than thirty feet high. The cell towers stuck up above it like fence posts. You could see them everywhere. A large antenna array is going to stick out,” I tell her.
“So all we have to do is climb a tree,” says Harry. “And hope we’re in the right place.”
“Actually I was thinking more like a small airport,” I tell him. “Do you see anything like that on the map?” I ask Joselyn.
“Not on this, but then it’s not much of a map,” she says. “Wait a second. I thought I saw something…” Joselyn turns the map over and looks at the other side. “Here it is. Beaches, cenotes, archaeological sites. ATV rentals. Ultralight flights.” She looks at me. “I don’t know if you’re up for something like that.”
“As long as it gets high enough and stays in the air, it’s fine by me,” I tell her. “Where do they fly from?”
“According to the ad, a place called Playa del Carmen.”
“It’s up ahead,” says Harry. “I just saw a sign a few miles back.”
“Let’s see if we can find the airport,” I tell them.