Chapter Fifty-Six

Liquida would have to leave most of his luggage behind. He grabbed a few things from his suitcase, including an extra stiletto from the bundle in his bag. He put one of the knives in a scabbard that was sewn inside the lining of his light jacket and slipped the other into a separate sheath and slid it into his pants along the side of his hip.

The prefabricated metal building was designed like a fortress, steel walls with small slits for windows in some of the rooms, none of them large enough to crawl through.

Liquida’s room didn’t even have that. It had only an air- conditioning register high on the wall pouring cool air into the room. There was a larger rectangular return duct in the ceiling that sucked the warm air back through the system.

The oversize commercial air-con system was one of the few concessions to comfort in the facility. Liquida assumed it was necessary to maintain cool temperatures for the electronics, banks of large industrial computers housed in a room down the hall. Beyond that was the control room where Leffort worked. Armed guards were installed at several locations along the corridor. The entrances and exits were all sealed by solid steel doors, each one controlled by an electronic passkey.

Bruno hadn’t given Liquida a key. When Liquida asked for one, Bruno apologized, claiming it was an oversight, and told him he would get him one as soon as he could. But the key was never produced.

Earlier in the day when Liquida made a bid to take a walk outside, he was turned back by one of the guards. He was told that without a key he was not allowed to leave the building. Liquida didn’t press the matter. Instead he went back to his room. He poked around carefully, looking for hidden camera lenses. He didn’t find any. At least they didn’t have him under surveillance. It was while looking for cameras that he realized his only way out was through the air-conditioning register in the ceiling.

He put on his jacket, stood on a chair, and found the catch on the hinged metal vent over the register. He opened it, dropped the covering vent down so that it hung open from the two hinges, and pulled out the rectangular fiberglass filter.

Liquida stepped down from the chair and looked for a good place to hide it. A cheap particleboard cupboard that served as a closet rested against one wall. He slid the thin rectangular filter behind it and walked back to the chair in the center of the room.

He looked up. The opening into the sheet metal duct system was easily large enough for Liquida to fit through. It was a good two and half feet wide, and at least eighteen inches deep. He had shimmied into much tighter spaces before. The only problem now was, the partially healed muscles under his arm from the knife wound given to him by Madriani’s detective, the big black guy Liquida had killed in Washington. This was still painful and weak.

Liquida grabbed a spool of heavy thread from the sewing kit in his luggage. He took a stick of chewing gum from a package in his jacket pocket, popped the gum in his mouth, and pulled out a good length of thread from the spool. He looped the thread over itself several times until he had four strands, each one about fifteen feet long. Then he snipped the end of the thread with his teeth. He passed one end of the four-strand thickness around the top slate on the back of the light metal chair, then tied the ends of the thread together so that the entire fifteen feet formed a single continuous loop. The other end of threaded strands he passed through his belt. He tugged on it to make sure it wouldn’t come free.

Then Liquida stood on the chair and took a deep breath. He chewed the gum. It was better than breaking his teeth on a bullet. As he reached up with his hands inside the frame of the register, he felt the first twinge of pain under his arm. He didn’t wait. Instead, with a pull from his arms and a healthy jump from his legs off the chair, Liquida hoisted his upper body up into the opening in the ceiling.

He felt the sharp pain, the tearing of scar tissue as the muscles under his arm reminded him of the slashing cut. He paused, his weight on his chest just inside the sheet metal duct, his legs dangling into the room as the sweat dripped off his forehead.

Liquida breathed heavily and chewed on the gum as he waited for the searing pain to pass. It took almost half a minute to subdue the agony before he could move.

Slowly he slid his hands forward and pulled his body along the inside of the sheet metal tunnel. Each move was a new experience in pain. Finally everything but his toes was up inside the metal ceiling duct.

Then slowly he reversed the process. He shimmied backward, pushing himself back over the hatch in the ceiling until only his head and shoulders remained over the open register.

With his right hand he reached back and fished for the end of the threaded loop under his belt. He found it and pulled it free.

Liquida took up the slack in the thread and pulled on it gently until all four legs of the chair cleared the floor. Slowly swinging the chair like a pendulum, back and forth, he made three full passes toward the wall near the head of the bed. On the fourth pass, he let out the thread and dropped the chair so that it landed neatly with the back against the wall.

Liquida smiled to himself as he nibbled through the four strands of thread. Once he had severed them he pulled the continuous loop from the back of the chair and reeled it in until all of the thread was in his hands. He balled it up and stuck it down the neck of his shirt as the forced air from the conditioning system whistled past his ears.

He reached down and lifted the vented register cover closed. He took the chewing gum from his mouth and stuck it to the metal edge of the frame around the louvered vent, then pulled it tightly closed. The gum sealed the cover in place. Anyone looking in the room now would think Liquida had simply vanished.

At a point roughly a hundred miles north of Havana, the flight engineer on Adin’s C-130 radioed to the base in Israel. He asked to have an uncoded message sent to Joselyn Cole at her e-mail address, making an urgent request for information using Herman’s name. He needed to know Madriani’s location as well as the precise location of the antenna array and the facility in the jungle. It was now two hours later and they had heard nothing.

Forty miles out, the pilot turned off the plane’s transponder. He dropped down to wave-top height and hugged the water, trying to stay below ground radar.

Twenty minutes later the C-130 crossed over the white-foamed breakers and sugar-sand beaches of the Mexican Riviera. The pilot nosed the plane up to clear some low-lying cliffs and the buildings on top of them. They were just south of the island of Cozumel on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Herman sat up front behind the pilot looking out the windows for any landmarks that seemed familiar. “You’re too far north,” he told them.

The pilot dipped the left wing and took a heading due south.

Herman could see the coast highway out in front of them through the plane’s windshield. The white sand beaches and resorts along the water’s edge raced by beneath the belly of the plane. “Just follow the highway,” said Herman.

Every once in a while the pilot would have to pull the nose of the plane up to avoid a building or the fronds of an occasional tall palm tree. The shadow of the large four-engine plane rippled along on the beaches and bluffs beneath them as they flew.

Eight minutes later the reflection of the sun on the white coral facade of the ruins at Tulum appeared just above the nose of the plane.

“There!” Herman pointed over the pilot’s shoulder. “See those ruins up ahead?”

The pilot nodded.

“Off to the right there should be a paved road, two lanes as I recall, into the jungle. It connects with the main highway between Cancun and Merida. It’s the road to Coba. After that I don’t know,” said Herman. “I’m afraid you’re on your own.”

“Nothing more specific?” Adin was in the chair next to him.

“The area around Coba is all Paul told me,” said Herman. “Whether he had more information I don’t know. Nothing back on the e-mail yet?”

Adin looked at the navigator who doubled as the radio operator. The man shook his head.

“We’ll just have to look,” said the pilot. He dropped the starboard wing and edged the plane toward the right. Moments later they picked up the narrow thread of light-colored asphalt leading into the jungle, the two-lane highway to Coba.

“What have we got for a landing strip?” asked the pilot. “Anything in the area?” He was talking to the navigator seated to the right of Herman and Adin at a kind of desk. The man was scanning a computer screen looking at charts and global positioning satellite (GPS) maps.

“Looks like one unimproved short strip, but it’s quite a ways out,” said the navigator. He did some quick calculations using the computer’s keyboard. “It’s halfway to Merida,” said the navigator. “Off a federal highway. Mexico one-eighty, it looks like. It’s a long way from Coba.”

“Great,” said the pilot. “Somebody better tell Uncle Ben we’ve got a logistics problem. Tell him to get up here.”

“I got it.” Adin unbuckled and headed back toward the cargo area.

“What’s the problem?” said Herman.

“Nowhere to put down,” said the pilot. “We can’t run the jeep and the trailer loaded with troops and munitions on a public highway. Not that far. We’ll end up in a firefight with the Mexican army.”

Herman nodded.

“We’ll have to look for something else,” said the pilot. “There’s bound to be other strips, but they’re not always marked on the charts.”

“Places prepared by the cartels,” said Herman.

The pilot nodded. “We may have to shoot our way in and out. I’m going to pull up to seventy-five hundred feet and level off in just a couple of minutes, as soon as we get some more eyes up front here to help us look. Tell some of the guys in the back to strap themselves on the ramp and lower it a little so they can see what’s behind us, in case we missed anything.”

Herman got up and followed Adin out of the flight cabin and down the ladder.