COTOPAXI

More Adventures of Arch Patton

By J. Strauss

The road from downtown Quito out and around to Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest peak, takes about an hour and a half to negotiate. Actually there are several dirt roads that branch off when one begins to near the national park, but they all lead to the same base camp part way up one side of the nearly twenty thousand foot high volcano. Arch Patton had been assured that the last eruption of the monster had occurred somewhere back in the eighteen hundreds.

The ancient Besta Bongo van took the weather beaten roads badly, jostling all four of them together. They’d been hastily assembled and flown in for the mission. Arch checked out his companions. All three were too young, too white, too male and too big for the job, but team leadership of Agency missions didn’t often extend to selection of personnel. That happened only in movies, like the appearance of scantily clad beautiful women. Arch had known it was going to be a rough ride just by looking at their vehicle. The Besta had large wheels on the front and dual smaller ones on the rear. The geometry was bad for any driving not performed on smooth tarmac. Besta translated, appropriately, to ‘beast’ in English.

The diesel motor clattered away. The van had to be a diesel. Cotopaxi was so high that gasoline engines would not run up to the highest rest station located just below where a technical climb was required to get to the peak. The little turbo diesel would sound like it was popping corn near their goal but it would get them there, or so everyone said.

Their driver and guide was named Jelisco. Jelisco wasn’t pronounced with the silent ‘j,’ like most Spanish words. Jelisco was supposed to be spelled with an ‘x’ which meant it stood for ‘sandy place.’ People knew that but you can’t start pronouncing a word with a first letter of “X” so they used “Zel.” The driver droned on and on about his name, where he lived and where they were going, all of which bored Arch to death, but there was to be no nodding off on the trip up. They were headed for a meeting with followers of the FARC rebel group. The group had Bolivian origins but overran the countryside mountainous parts of Ecuador. Patton knew the loosely bound bands were composed of amateurs. Farmers and junk peddlers. That made them very dangerous. Except for lacking the best equipment, armed amateurs were among the most dangerous opponents Arch faced. Mentally ill opponents were even worse, but in the business he was in, the difference was often a decision impossible to make.

Arch moved up next to the driver, while the other men remained where they were. Huey, Luey and Duey sat sprawling across the two bench seats behind him. He could hear them chatter but not make out what they were talking about. From their expressions, when he bothered to glance back, he assumed the discussion had something to do with his geriatric age. Fifty was over the hill for field operations. Sixty, unheard of. Yet here he was.

None of the rest of the team could be over twenty-five, he reflected, but then their work was of a more actively violent nature than his own. Somebody back at Agency headquarters in Langley had once asked him if he personally hurt people on any of his missions. He’d told the man the truth, which was not if he could help it. After all, he hadn’t added, he had people for that stuff.

The Besta stopped and idled when they reached a fork in the road. A triple-tined fork. The driver asked which road they should follow, giving the merits of each, ad nauseum. Since it didn’t matter, Arch pointed at the tire tracks to their right. Jelisco jammed the transmission into first gear, without seemingly using the clutch, which made him flinch with discomfort. He shook it off. The van belonged to the driver. The vehicle, as long as it got them back and forth, didn’t matter.
The road swung around a shallow crater, which appeared to stretch all the way to the base of the conical peak in the distance. Spirit Lake, run dry during the last eruption, was nearly the same as the Spirit Lake located below Mount St. Helens before that blow up.

The lake disappeared as they entered one of the high dry forests. Kapok trees became dense, their purple blossoms giving away the spring season.Kapok Thorns Thorns dotted the trunks up and down, except for the older trees that shed them completely.

Arch had been told that the thorns were to keep animals from going after the moisture trapped inside the younger trunks. The thorns were not necessary when the trees were older and their bark much harder.

Two bands of small children appeared ahead of them, one band on each side of the narrow tracks the van was negotiating. As they approached closer Arch saw a string or rope extended out from each band. It curved down across the Bongo’s path.

“These child banditos, “ Jelisco exclaimed, with undisguised contempt, “shall I drive through their stupid string?”
“No,” Patton replied, “Stop right here.”

Arch climbed out the door to confront an approaching child. All of kids he could see appeared to range in ages from about ten down to five or six. All were thin, serious faced and wearing “T” shirts and torn off trousers. None of them wore shoes.

A small boy walked up and extended his right hand, palm up.
“Ten dollar check point,” the boy stated, very seriously. The boy’s hand was steady, as was his gaze. Arch couldn’t remember back to when he’d seen larger or sadder eyes regarding him with such patience.

The boy’s “T” shirt had the word Zorro written across it in red lettering.
“So, you would be Zorro?” he asked, reaching into his pocket. Arch heard the sliding side door of the Besta opening, his team exiting the van behind him.

“Si,” the boy answered. “I take from the rich.”
“Well, that’s not exactly it, but what the hell, close enough.” Patton searched for a ten-dollar bill in his wallet. American money had been adopted by Ecuador as its currency ten years before. The canvas pack inside the van was loaded with Agency money, but there would be nothing in it as small as a ten.

“Where’d you learn English?” he asked Zorro, conversationally.

“American School in Quito,” the kid replied, his hand still out. “Mother sick. No work. No school.”
“Sorry about your Mom. Hope this helps,” Arch said, about to take two fives from his wallet.

“You want me to handle these assholes, sir?” a voice whispered from behind Arch.
He flipped his head around. The team, arrayed behind him, looked like the A-Team from old television, although none of that kind of exotic weaponry was in evidence.
“No, I think I can handle this one,” Arch threw back over his shoulder, rolling his eyes involuntarily as he turned. He then placed two fives in the boy’s hand. The money was out of sight in less than a second.

“Thank you, sir,” the boy stated, formally.

“That’s okay, ten bucks isn’t that much,” Arch responded.

“No, I meant about my Mom,” Zorro said back, then ran to join his friends by the side of the road. The back of his shirt was stenciled with two large letters, obviously put on by hand. The letters were an “E” and a “P,” almost run together in black ink.

They got back inside, the string was lowered, and all the children waved enthusiastically. Jelisco ground the van ahead in first gear.

Arch broke the silence when they were again moving smoothly through the trees.
“You’re here to do what you’re told,” he said, his body twisted around to view the men in the back, “and I won’t put up with suggestions from any of you at any time unless someone is about to die. We don’t do children, which you’re not far from being yourselves, and we certainly don’t mess with locals over ten dollars. You know why you’re here. Just do your job.”

The men remained impassive, looking back at Arch, but not responding in any obvious way to what he said. Jelisco raised his eyebrows, glanced over quickly, but then returned his attention to driving.
The van dropped down gear by gear, the road steep but the lack of air pressure was the real problem. The turbo screamed but could only do its job of ramming in more air if it was rotating at its highest rate.

By the time they reached the fence down from the base camp the diesel was distinctly knocking about two or three times a second. A man could walk faster than they moved, but at eighteen thousand feet above sea level the effort would hardly be worth it.

F.A.R.C Revolutionary Armed Forces of ColombiaThe Bongo gasped to a halt, the engine dying without being shut off. The gate to the fence was closed. Several climbers and hikers milled about outside, but no one attempted to get through. A poorly painted sign hung from the metal gate. It said “Cerrado FARC.” Closed by the Revolutionary Army of Colombia was not a notice to be taken lightly. FARC had operated in Ecuador for years, generally in silence, but every once and awhile blood flowed in small rivers. The four letters were commonly seen about the countryside, but actual confrontation with FARC members was an uncommon although terrorizing experience.

Arch told Jelisco to remain where he was until they returned. The driver, for once, was without words, his widened eyes going from the sign, and then back and forth to the three men getting into their kits outside the open door of the vehicle.

“I’m going in,” Arch said to the men, “Johnson, you’re in charge. What do you do if you hear nothing from me and the fail safe device doesn’t go to alarm?”

“We do nothing for an hour, and then we make our way up to the building to see what we can find there. If we find nothing we leave. If we find bodies, we photograph and then leave.” The man read his instructions from the morning’s five paragraph combat order perfectly, from memory. Patton was impressed.

“Your mission?” Arch inquired, feeling better about the three wet workers who’d been assigned.

“To provide security and cover for the team and the objective until we’re all safely extracted from the country,” Johnson intoned, again perfectly.
“Good, no heroics. No assaults. You have the Naval Commo?”

Johnson produced a small hand held radio that looked like it should be in some science fiction movie rather than a tool of the present. Somewhere way above their heads, beyond eyesight and hearing, two Predator drones orbited above the maximum altitude for Ecuadorian fighters. Each was armed with two Hellfire missiles capable of delivering one hundred pounds of high explosives each, using pinpoint electro-optical accuracy. Johnson controlled the fail-safe “pickle” device should they be needed to assist in retreat, flight or escape, once the kidnapped American was exchanged. However, in the event that Patton and the American were killed, no combat action was to be taken.

Arch hadn’t been happy about that part of the mission plan, but he understood its wisdom. If both of them were dead then trying to blow up scattering rebels in the forest would probably be counter productive. FARC did not know they had captured a CIA agent held for ransom. They thought they had an oil executive because that’s what the idiot had been passing himself off in the bars of Quito, attempting to get laid. They knew that they didn’t have much, however, as the ransom amount been reduced to fifty-five thousand in cash during earlier negotiations.

Wilbur Morrison was the man’s name, which, as far as Arch was concerned, was a completely appropriate moniker for the idiot.

The mission was easy. Simply exchange the cash for the man, walk back down the hill from the rest camp, get in the van with the agent, drive back to Quito, put the man and themselves on a C130, and get the hell out of Dodge.

Arch was nearly ready. He carried no weapons, just the canvas bag filled with bundled hundreds, an Iridium 9555 satellite phone, and personal identification with wallet and passport. The Knuckledragger’s carried heavier stuff they’d had delivered by diplomatic pouch to the US Embassy in Quito. Patton punched an auto dial button on the 9555. Johnson answered without their being a ring. The phones were set to vibrate.

“Com check,” Johnson said, before Arch could say a word.

“Five by five,” Arch answered, before hanging up and sticking the slim phone into his right hip pocket.

None of the team was wearing paramilitary gear, though it was more functional. Such gear was too aggressive looking and too revealing to anyone who might see them along the way.

Patton pushed open the unlocked gate, jostled the FARC warning aside and began his ascent up toward the rest station. The five hundred meters should have been as challenging as a quick stroll in cool windy mountain air, but it was nothing of the sort at eighteen thousand feet. By the time he reached the stairs up into the low log building he was taking half steps and gasping for air after each one. He stopped to rest before ascending to the wide long porch.

The door opened and an AK-47 pointed through the thin crack. The barrel of the weapon motioned impatiently. Arch breathed in deeply, and then staggered through the opening. Two unarmed boys quickly felt over his entire body, including running their hands through his hair and checking the soles of his boots. The search was neatly professional. They returned his satellite phone without comment, as if it didn’t matter.

The inside of the building was in good shape. No mess anywhere that Arch could see. An array of angry looking Ecuadorians stood against the walls, each with some kind of assault weapon. Only two men were seated, one of whom he instantly identified as Agent Wilbur Morrison. The other man was much older, at least Arch’s age. Patton was relieved to see that. The chances for violence would be less with a weathered veteran at the controls. Wilbur would not look at Patton, instead staring down at his own hands, which wasn’t a good sign.

“The name’s Arch Patton, late of the U.S. Who might you be?” Arch held out his right hand to the seated guy.

“Juan,” the man said, adding the honorific of senor a few seconds later. He stood and extended his hand. They shook with the table between them. The man’s grip was perfectly firm, his hand dry but tough and calloused. It was a good start, and they were speaking in English. Arch spoke Spanish, but not well. English would lessen the likelihood of misunderstandings.

Both men sat. Juan eased a cigarette out of its pack. He then took almost a full minute to light and inhale deeply from it. Ben waited until their eyes met again.

“The money’s in a sack, down the mountain, as you requested. How about I go back down the hill, get the money, take Wilbur here and get out of your hair,” Patton said, hoping to conclude the deal without any further negotiation. Quick exchanges led to the most successful and by far the safest exchanges.

“The man’s one of your agents. He says you come all the way from what is called Operations in your Central Intelligence. He says you are a dangerous man. Are you a dangerous man?” Juan blew smoke, but not toward him.

Arch stared, keeping his face impassive. Wilbur had spilled his guts, probably out of boredom or for some small reward, like a padded cot.

“Not here. Not now. Not today,” he replied, having no choice but to follow the FARC commander’s lead.

“Fifty-five thousand is not enough for such a find. We want five hundred thousand for our cause.”
Arch sat and thought. He had no authorization to meet any further demands, other than that he had brought a full hundred thousand in case of incidental problems. It was all in the bag. Even if he had to reveal the extra money, its presence wouldn’t likely act to lessen any probability of violence. He wasn’t concerned about the money on hand. As was being proven, a hundred grand would be a cheap price to pay to extricate the agent and get him out of the country, and hopefully, out of the Agency, as well.

“There’s a hundred thousand back down there,” Arch said, hooking one thumb back over his shoulder back in the direction he’d come up from.
Juan smiled a smile that showed a full set of very white teeth. It was a striking smile against the backdrop of his weather-beaten brown skin.

“I like people who think ahead,” Juan said, “but the information we have from your friend here is far too valuable to keep quiet about for anything less than four hundred thousand, so let us stop here. No more of this play. Go and get three hundred more from one of your banks. Return tomorrow.

“You seem like a reasonable man,” Arch began, but was immediately interrupted.

“I have seen the Godfather movie. Don’t take me for a fool,” Juan’s smile changed to a deep frown as he spoke.

“The sea is large and your boat is small,” Patton replied, his face remaining impassive. “Have you also read Hemingway?”

“Three hundred thousand more, on top of the hundred” Juan stated, grinding his cigarette out, then tapping the half-empty cigarette pack to pull out another.

“I don’t have that authority,” Ben replied. “I’ll have to call in from down by the fence. I’m sure you saw the other men with me. They have the satellite phone,” he lied, “But one last word here, por favor.” He looked Juan straight in the eyes, and then waited for permission.

Juan nodded, igniting the tip of another unfiltered Camel.

“I don’t care about the money. It’s not my money. I don’t care about Wilbur here. He’s a piss poor example of an agent. But I’ve done this before. And I kind of like your style. Take the hundred and go fight for your cause. You were doing fine at what you were doing here, but this stuff changes the game. The new players you will meet are not going to be anything you’re ready for. One pro to another.”

Juan considered him over the cigarette, not bothering to remove it from his mouth as the ash grew longer and longer. One of the young armed men behind Juan stepped forward to whisper in his ear. Juan shook his head ever so slightly, the inch long measure of ash dropping away to the floor.
“Thanks for the advice, but come back with three hundred. Go get permission then return with the hundred now, for security. We’ll share some bread and wine before you leave for the rest of the money. The agent is worth only a hundred but what he has told us is worth much more. I will share that information with you over wine. You will understand my position then.”

There was nothing more to be said. Patton got up, shook Juan’s hand again and promised to be back in a few minutes. Once back down the mountain and through the gate he walked to the far side of the van. Jelisco was sleeping in the driver’s seat, his upper body draped over the wheel. Ben was impressed. The driver had seen the FARC sign and watched the team’s preparations. He was either a tough man or a fearful one. Men slept before combat if they were frightened or hardened, sleep being an elixir for future action or sometimes as an escape.

Johnson appeared, as if by magic from the brush.
“What’s the situation?” he asked.

“Our man spilled his guts. They want another three hundred thou. I need to call it in and then go back up there and take what we got.” Ben talked while he was extricating his satellite phone, pausing for a second to pull the canvas sack with the banded twenties in it from the van.

“Why go back?” Johnson asked. “Why don’t we just leave and come back with the additional money?”

“Morrison blabbed something that grabbed these guy’s attention. Juan up there is going to talk to me about it over wine. I don’t know what our man was involved with or what he’s told these clowns but it would be helpful to have it for our report.”

“I guess that’s why you’re leadin’ this show,” Johnson replied.

Arch was beginning to like the way the man thought. He distanced himself from the van by walking over to the brush Johnson had come out of. He hit the auto dialer for his control at Langley. It took only minutes to lay out the entire situation to the man.

“Your team will remain where it is, a quarter mile distant from the target, until you receive further orders. We’ll call you back in less than fifteen minutes. This operation has to move to a higher authority.”

Arch ended the call. The orders were clear. He relayed them to Johnson, and then crouched in the bushes to be close to the other members of the team. After a few seconds he couldn’t see them anymore but knew they were nearby. Something bothered him right at the edge of his mind. He replayed his discussion with Langley from memory. The word ‘objective,’ his control had used was out of place.

Patton peered up from the brush to study the log building in the distance. He’d just decided that he’d proceed back up at a much slower pace than he’d covered the ground the first time when he saw the missile. It came in extremely fast, almost as fast as a bullet, but it was so large it was visible for a mere instant. There was no time to duck. The flash was tremendous, the sound felt more than heard. He was thrown backward into the base of a tree. Johnson was beside him. Both men pressed their hands against the sides of their heads. The compression wave effect was unbelievably painful.

Arch stood up after a few moments, finally able to drop his hands from the sides of his head. He stared at the curl of smoke coming from the ruins of the building. There weren’t really any ruins, he realized. There was just a hole with smoke coming up out of it and debris strewn almost all the way down to the fence.

The van lay on its side, a splintered log sticking out of its side. It was a surreal scene. Ben snapped out of shock, and then knelt to help Johnson to his feet. The other two men came through what was left of the battered brush.

“What the hell?” Johnson said.

Ben only vaguely heard him, his ears ringing and still in pain.

“A bomb?” one of the men asked.

“End of mission,” Arch said, “let’s see if we can salvage the vehicle.” He knew what had happened. Whatever information Wilbur had blabbed was no longer available for negotiation. The Agency did not kill its own, at least not openly. Which meant that Johnson was going to become a ‘person of interest’ when they reached the embassy, and likely be taken into custody. He possessed the fail-safe pickle device. It would be determined that the switch was thrown and button pushed. Johnson didn’t have a clue.

“Gimme the pickle device,” Ben commanded Johnson. The man looked at him with a great question mark on his forehead but handed over the device. Selecting a place at the base of the largest tree near the fallen fence, Ben piled brush over it.

“That’s how they knew we were a quarter mile from the target. Got to be a GPS transponder in that thing,” he said, by way of explanation, a plan beginning to form in his mind.

Jelisco was standing next to his van when they approached. Ben was relieved to see the man uninjured.
“My truck is destroyed,” he said, his tone one of agony.

“Don’t think so,” Johnson replied. The three Knuckledragger’s got on one side of the vehicle and then slowly lifted the top up to shoulder level. It was an amazing feat of raw strength. From there the van bounced onto its wheels, and then sat rocking for a few seconds. “Give a try,” Johnson said, wiping his hands on his pants.

Jelisco climbed in. The van started. The two other men worked on trying to pry the thick spear of wood from its side.

“Leave it,” Arch told them. “We’ll get in using the front door.”
Jelisco did not shut up about the damage to the van until Arch pulled two stacks of twenties from his sack and handed them over.
“Buy another van, but shut up about it,” he said brusquely to the shocked driver.

They took a different dirt road than the one they’d taken up, but it didn’t seem to matter. The kids were there in the open waiting for them, just like before. The same rope was strung across their path.

“Blow past them,” Johnson instructed the driver, “things have changed.”

“Stop. Now,” commanded Ben. The driver braked before the string, as before.
Ben stared at Johnson until the man looked away. He climbed out of the passenger door to confront Zorro.

“The “EP” on the back of your shirt, what does it mean?’ he asked, as the boy walked over.
“Ejercito del Pueblo,” the boy replied. “Army of the People,” he translated, turning to show the lettering.

Other boys began to come forth from the edge of the trees.
All carried AK-47’s almost as big as they were.

“Been a little tough to run through that string,” Ben murmured, glancing back at Johnson, who looked away.
“There was an explosion,” Zorro began, but Arch cut him off.

“Yeah, there was. It’s a mess up there. Some of your brothers got killed.

I’m sorry. Got a proposition for you.”

The boy stared up at the plume of smoke, which was visible all the way down where they were. He looked back into Ben’s eyes, but said nothing.

“Back up there,” Ben pointed up toward Cotopaxi Peak, “There’s a big tree just to the right of the beaten down fence near the rest stop, or what was the rest stop. Under the brush is a thing that looks sort of like this,” he pulled the satellite phone from his pocket, “ but a little better. I want you to find it, run it ten miles, or so, down the mountain through the forest along the backside, away from Cotopaxi, and then I want you to destroy it. Shoot it and dump the remains in a river.” Ben stopped to observe the boy.

“Why?” Zorro asked, after a moment.

Arch moved to the van, reached in, and then guardedly pulled three packs of twenties from the sack.
“Here’s thirty thousand U.S. dollars. For your Mom. For your education.” Patton put the money on the ground between them, so the other more distant children couldn’t see it.

The boy looked at the stacks of money near his feet, and then turned his face up to Ben.

“Why?’ he asked again.

Arch massaged his forehead with one hand, before coming to a decision. “For him,” Ben pointed at Johnson, sitting in the back seat of the van. “The mission went bad. Some of your people died. He’ll be blamed. It wasn’t his fault. That device by the tree would cause him to be sent to prison, at the very least. He’s a good man. A warrior like you, with a good heart, like you. Take the money for your Mom. You can always fight for the cause later, when you’re bigger, when your Mom is healthy and you’ve got an education.”

Zorro leaned down and scooped up the small thick bundles. He shoved them into the waistband of his pants, letting the “T” shirt hang over them.

“How to thank you,” the small boy began.

“By remembering,” Archn said. “Remember that most warriors are like us. Like you. Most people in the world aren’t like us. Do what you can to help those that are. You’re Mom will guide you.”

Patton turned and got back into the Bongo. Jelisco drove jerkily over the rope and headed the vehicle toward Quito.

“I heard that,” Johnson said from the back seat. “All of it. I didn’t think about what might happen. What about the fifty thousand that’s left?”

“Officially there’s no money left. It all blew up with the basecamp. Not our fault. The fifty grand may be the only retainer you have against having a life. Let’s go see how it plays out.”

They rode the rest of the way in silence, only the clattering of the diesel engine and the whirring caused by wind over the tree stump sticking out from the side of the van making any noise. Arch thought about what it was like to be a team leader for the Agency. About what a giant lie his report would have to be.

About what the other two Knuckledraggers might say when questioned. About whether Jelisco could keep his mouth shut, even to the tune of a twenty thousand dollar bonus. The only thing that finally brought a smile to his face was thinking about Zorro, and what he might grow up to be because of it all.

Arch Patton rode with the team all the way to Quito, thinking about what action he might have to take in order to balance the books within the Agency.

Someone had ordered the death of another agent. Someone had failed to inform the team leader that there was a terminal Plan B waiting in the wings. Someone would have to pay.