Chapters 1-4

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Panamanian Tundra 

by

Michael  Pinchot

 

To my lovely wife

Diana Kay Bouchard-Pinchot

  

Disclaimer

The following is a work of prose comprised of both fact and fiction superimposed upon a historic timeline. Much of what you are about to read has been experienced firsthand by the author. However, for the avoidance of self-incrimination, it is left to the reader to ascertain, or perhaps merely speculate, between the composer’s notional fabrication and criminal perpetration.

The resemblance of any and all fictional characters, names, and places to that of the real world is merely coincidental.   

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an

amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes

a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just

as you are about to reconcile to your servitude,

you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.”

Winston Churchill

Prologue

Cause and effect…

       As the effects of the Reagan Administration’s ‘Just Say No!’ drug prevention program reverberate throughout the Americas, the masterminds of foreign contraband pipelines become creative.

       With his CIA-shared drug profits plummeting to a personal threatening low, Panama’s

General Manual Noriega becomes desperately cunning.

        The diminutive General covertly launches “Operation Tundra”, a plan to develop a northern drug trafficking route, exclusive of the CIA, enabling continued critical monetary support of his iron-fisted dictatorship.

October 1987:

       The jasmine scented, mid-afternoon equatorial breeze wafted through the open lounge of Panama’s exclusive La Paloma Resort Hotel, a stark contrast to where it all began.

       Six weeks earlier, fate had drawn together Dennis Chambers, an early-retired British Petroleum engineer turned free-lance adventurer, and Carlos Ayala, a Panamanian intelligence agent, over cheap draft beer within a dimly lit girly dive. There within the shadow of Thacker Bridge, spanning the Pacific portal of the Panama Canal, Dennis is drawn into Operation Tundra.

       Now, within the La Paloma lounge, the same two men sat opposite one another over cocktails, clean-shaven and well dressed, in a deceptive aura of respectability. Carlos, a wiry, chisel featured Panamanian Agent, placed his powerful manicured hand upon Mike Major’s Intelligence file, that lay on the table between he and his Yankee collaborator, Dennis. The agent’s eyes scanned the sparsely occupied lounge before dropping his voice to the blond, blue-eyed American opportunist.

      “Well, my friend, you’re extremely lucky…your ol’ friend Mr. Majors has been personally blessed by Noriega himself.”

       Dennis shifted in his high-backed wicker chair and responded in his usual cock-sure manner. “Lucky? Not even.”

       Carlos, in hushed anger, “It’s far too early to be cocky, my friend.”

       Dennis chuckled, “Fuck off, Carlos. You, and your band of clever assholes, have yet to entrap Mr. Majors.”

       “Don’t worry, Yank, our Eva will be more than effective on your highly touted friend.”

       “I would hope so, being a former Miss Panama…”

June 1988:

       Mike Majors lay deathly still and panic stricken, concealed beneath the raised computer floor in the control room of the massive Utility Module, three stories high and as large as an auditorium. The heat within the newly fabricated module, sea-barged and in transit, was stifling.  He perspired in equatorial proportions, struggling desperately to control his breathing. He tried in vain to throttle back his adrenaline charged heart that all but beat itself free from his heaving chest.

       Surely the Panamanian agents standing motionless on the floor above could hear, if not sense, his presence.

       The agents resumed their searching movement and stiletto paced Spanish dialogue.

       Mike whispered deep within his soul, “Twenty-twenty hindsight…horse shit! Legally blind hindsight is more the case.”

       As the agents stopped again, directly above where he lay, Mike choked off his breathing. Within moments, he felt dizzy from loss of oxygen. The agents suddenly resumed their motion…toward the control room exit. He fought back a sigh of relief as the sounds of their steps moved off the computer floor and into the hallway.

       Mike resumed breathing, in desperate gulps before continuing his internal monologue. “Then there’s retrospect; I should have accepted the imagineering consulting assignment with Disneyland…in my Anaheim back yard.”

 

 

One 

January 1988: 

As the affluent masses slumbered peacefully in much coveted, bankruptcy boundOrangeCounty, Mike Majors tiptoed from his tri-level Anaheim Hills home. Silently, he closed and locked the front door behind him. He closed the double garage door by remote control as his truck idled quietly, without the aid of headlights, down the long, tree-lined driveway.    Illumination from garden fixtures knifed through the landscaping and cast jagged silhouettes along his path.

Mike shifted in his seat as he began the solo drive from Southern California toNew Iberia, the heart ofLouisiana’s Cajun country. There, he would begin a freelance-consulting contract, unaware of ominous plans made some three thousand miles to the southeast—plans that would threaten his life, and that of his entire family.

Within moments he slipped his truck into over-drive, with theImperial Highwayon-ramp behind him. Before him lay dark Interstate 91 and the ebony silhouette of theSan Bernardino Mountainswhich dominated the clear, moonlit horizon.

Within the warm confines of the truck cab, and the outside temperature supporting an early January frost, he reached for his time-scarred  Stanley Thermos and poured a first cup of  black, chicory-laced coffee.

As he began to savor the black plasma and settle in for the long day’s drive, a call was being placed toPanamafrom the nearby Anaheim Hills Embassy Suites.  The call was patched through to theAnchorage,Alaskaregistered two-masted schooner “Tahitian Queen”, slipped atPanama’s exclusive Balboa Yacht Club near the Pacific portal of thePanama Canal.

The call was short and cryptic.

“Panama?”

“Yeah!”

“Operation?”

“Yeah!”

“Tundra?”

A moments pause, “Yes!”

“Our Yankee collaborator has left his nest.”

“Great!” Pause. “His ETA?”

“Traveling alone…reports to work Monday…assume late Saturday, or mid Sunday. I’ll keep you informed.”

“Good! I’ll report to the man.”

Mike yawned, took a second hit of coffee, savoring its rich flavor. He had spent the night lying half awake in anticipation, knowing his wife, Diana, was doing the same, worrying over him. It didn’t matter how often he accepted out-of-state or foreign assignments, until she received word of his safe arrival she would not rest easy. This always left him feeling somewhat guilty, for even though she understood how much he enjoyed his work, Diana insisted he go wherever challenges lured him, and he loved her all the more for her understanding.

As the first trace of dawn appeared, he felt the usual rush of anticipating a challenge in a faraway place, and was anxious to begin his assignment as an engineering consultant with British Petroleum.

Mike pushed his usual solo-driving limit to five hundred miles a day, in order to arrive inHoustonthe following evening, Saturday, January fourth.  This would leave ample time the following day for the final leg of the journey into Cajun country.

It was out of character to be pressed for time, but he had delayed his departure to celebrate his only son’s twentieth New Year’s Day birthday. He would, of course, have gladly done the same for his older or younger daughter.

The shortest leg of the journey was a five-hour run fromHoustontoNew Iberia. Two days of steady pushing would afford him the luxury of a Sunday morning lay-in and a leisurely breakfast over the Houston Tribune.

*          *          *

Aboard hisAnchorage,Alaskamoored schooner, “Tahitian Queen”, Dennis Chambers was in his worst possible state—alone with the self-destructive mix of alcohol and guilt. While the intoxicant was a lifelong acquired addiction, his guilt was recent and self-inflicted. He had become involved with an international drug trafficking operation, but that was not the source of his guilt, for his entire life had been spent living on one edge or another. Now, however, he was responsible for involving his long-time friend and professional associate, Mike Majors, in a wretched drug operation.

Dennis and Mike were electrical engineers specializing in the Petro-Chemical field. They had met in the early seventies while engineering the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Eventually, they followed the world famous project through construction and start-up. They’d worked hand-in-hand throughoutAlaska, from the massive oil gathering fields of Prudhoe Bay, down through the twelve pumping station and into the line’s super-tanker terminus at the ice-free port ofValdez.

      Dennis’ two-fisted drinking reputation was legendary throughout the nation’s last frontier. Beneath his fun-loving surface, however, lay a remarkable engineer. In addition, he possessed the innate skill of managing people and making friends. Over the years, in spite of their opposite personal and professional styles, he and Mike had become strong friends.

In spite of all that, the two had lost contact with one another since Dennis’ abrupt, somewhat secretive early retirement in the summer of ’85. Bidding farewell at a wild retirement party at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Dennis and his wife sailed their “Tahitian Queen” into the sunset—seemingly, off the flat earth.

To ease the pangs of culpability, Dennis sucked the dregs of his Scotch through ice wracked by the oppressive equatorial heat.  With the sun well above the yardarm, and a spent highball glass in hand, he struggled to his feet and staggered towards the galley portal. He slurred to his decade-old caged parrot while flicking the nearly depleted cubes of ice intoBalboaBay.

“Well, Sparky, there’s no turning back for our Mr. Majors, since Noriega personally blessed his intelligence jacket…folder…report…or whatever the fuck Panamanians call it.”

Dennis negotiated his way to the below-deck bar and re-packed his glass with fresh, brittle ice-cubes, filled the tumbler’s remaining void with Cutty, and continued whipping himself aloud.

“God damn, Sparky, we’ve really crossed the fucking line on this one; even if all goes well with ‘Tundra’ we’ll have lost a friend in the process. Shit, no matter how born-again Mike claims to be, he’ll never find it in his heart to forgive us, Spark.”

He paused, sucked a double hit through the fresh ice and continued topside.

“Mud in yer eye.” Sparky squawked. “Mud in yer eye.”

Dennis stopped, slopped scotch on the teakwood deck, dipped his fingers in his drink and flicked Cutty in the direction of his caged friend. “Shut your beak, Spark, before you find your feathery ass hanging from the yardarm.”

He plopped himself into his deck chair and continued with his feathered ally. “What the fuck, Spark. If the truth be known, ol’ Mister Majors is the only man who can actually make the operation happen.”

With a half-depleted Cutty-rocks within his grip, Dennis temporarily stemmed his nagging guilt as he passed-out in his captain’s deck chair.

*          *          *

Since Interstate 10 nearPalm Springs, Mike arrived at his first real change in direction. The juncture was Interstate 90 atLafayette,Louisiana, twenty miles short ofNew Iberia.

A history and cultural buff, Mike’s senses heightened as he entered Acadia Parish, at the northwestern edge of Cajun country–the French Triangle.

His initial contact with Cajun history began quite literally where his truck tires met the road, Interstate Highway 90. The stretch of highway betweenLafayetteandMorgan City, sixty miles to the south, was called “Evangeline Thoroughfare”.

Mike recalled his high school exposure to the famous hexametric poem “Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This heart-wrenching masterpiece being a tribute to the plight of the French Cajuns, expelled by the British from their homeland of Acadia, which was renamedNova Scotia(New Scotland) by the first British Governor—a Scot.

To the south of Lafayettelay its MunicipalAirport, the departure point for Mike’s contractually scheduled home-leaves. The airport was also the jumping-off point to the LouisianaOil Patch industry. However, the drastic fall in crude oil prices had the local related industries battered against the economic ropes, with the referee thinking TKO.

The airport’s primary traffic source consisted of commuter airline carriers from Dallas-Fort Worth,Houston,ShreveportandNew Orleans. The secondary traffic source being a handful of independent and oil company helicopter shuttlecraft, servicing the multitude of regional offshore oil platforms. The platforms, a good percentage of them temporarily mothballed, formed an unorthodox skeletal skyline across the Gulf of Mexico, between Grand Isle and theSabinePass.

There was a stark difference between the airport’s two basic kinds of air passengers. The project engineers and managers who assumed hands-off positions while pushing paper, whereas the hands-on field engineers, blue-collar craftsmen and technicians actually made things happen.

Mike, through years of working both sides of the fence, belonged to an elite and revered group of Commissioning-Startup Engineers. With nearly thirty years of diverse experience under his belt, and gravitating towards his element, he was indeed a happy man.

BetweenLafayetteandNew Iberia, a Louisiana Historic Landmark signpost noted the highway exit to Saint Martinville, location of the historic “Evangeline Oak”. Saint Martinville was a French-rooted town of ten thousand, predominately Cajun, who were either shrimpers, sugarcane farmers or in related industries. The “Oak” was a massive, two-century old, Spanish moss draped tree adjacent the town square on the banks of the Bayou Teche. The tree further symbolized the French-Cajun banishment from their northeastern home.

With the winter sun low on the flat, sea level horizon, Mike caught his second wind as a road sign announced, ‘New Iberia, 2 miles’.

Within the ever-shrinking truck cab, he began a systematic stretching routine, culminating a speed-run, which taxed his very nature—vacillating between active and hyperactive. In fact, his daily routine was a five to ten kilometer run, a rigorous Canadian Air Force exercise routine and a brisk post-dinner walk. Additionally, he maintained a disciplined, well-balanced diet. He was, without question, well fit for a man in his late forties, not big,  but a solid 5-10, with a 32-inch waist and 16 plus shirt size.

Mike’s appearance was deceptive, for he appeared a trim, middle aged executive unless shirtless, when his demeanor was one which would fit, with authority, in a dark alley. He held  a third degree Black Belt in Karate, with street savvy to compliment his physical attributes.

Now, just short ofNew Iberia, he was clueless about how his refined primal attributes would serve him in the very near future.

 

Two

At journey’s end, Mike breathed a deep sigh of relief, geared down, and swung east under Evangeline Thoroughfare ontoNew Iberia’sCenter Street. Spotting his Best Western Motel ahead on the left, he made a quick assessment of the remaining daylight and accelerated, opting for a quick city tour before checking in. Franz, his new boss and old friend, was due in on the seven-fifteen flight.

He continued onCenter Street, the main east-west road through the town of thirty thousand flirting with zero population growth. NewIberiahad clearly defined limits, delineated by expansive sugarcane fields and virgin countryside, and was diagonally divided by the Bayou Teche. The bayou snaked its way over a hundred miles from theAtchafalayaBasinthrough toVermilionBayandGulf of Mexico.

He continued down aged tree-linedCenter Streetthrough the first signal. On one corner stood a circa thirties gas station with an awkward mini-mart appendage. On the opposite corner, in stark contrast, stood an international fast-food restaurant with bland cookie-cutter architecture. Beyond, lay several blocks of old wood-framed houses in various stages of decomposition, with a spattering of those professing pride of ownership. WithNew Iberia’s sea-level topography, its history of hurricanes and monsoon-like rains, many of its structures were stilted or earthen-raised.

At Center and Mainstreets stood a beautifully restored, stark white antebellum mansion with a historic attraction sign boasting, ‘Shadows On The Teche, a 1778 plantation’. The architectural ghost of southern past sat well back from a tall, wrought iron fence, with its sprawling grounds studded with majestic, Spanish moss draped oak trees.

Turning upMain Street, he passed a half-mile of small elbow-to-elbow businesses, a good number closed or boarded up. Randomly, there were honky-tonk bars and an antiquated motor hotel composed of neglected cracker box cottages, a cramped parking lot half filled with old pickups sporting weather beaten bible-belt license plates, and a vacancy sign gasping on its last bit of Neon Gas.

He stumbled ontoOldTown, bordered to the east by the Bayou Teche. Narrow two- story brick buildings lined the street. Whether viewed through the eyes of a tourist or a proud member of the Chamber of Commerce, the historic structures were in varying degrees of restoration or decay. However, the district appeared neat, clean and tourist friendly. A conspicuous number of commercial establishments bore For Lease signs, with their second and third stories serving as shop-owner living quarters or apartments. The district was clearly competing with an unseen suburbanized shopping mall.

Secured to its loading dock was the paddle wheel boat Teche Queen. The craft wasMississippi Riverclass, down-scaled to bayou proportions. The dockside parking lot was vacant, defying the craft’s posted tour schedule.

Mike swung down a dimly lit narrow side street and quickly encountered a flashing light barrier blocking his access to a narrow bayou bridge. The entire center span of the antiquated structure lifted vertically.

From around an upstream bend appeared a low riding barge, with lethargic pulsing running lights breaking the bayou’s dusk darkness. As it glided by, Mike guessed its uniformly piled cargo to be processed sugar-cane mash. The rust jacketed barge slipped lazily in the direction of the Teche Queen as the bridge creaked and groaned to its normal state.

Mike crossed the bridge’s grated steel surface and encountered a late 19th century, ivy covered brick building with sprawling tree-studded grounds, bordered on its long side by the bayou. Creeping by the two-story edifice, he lapsed into a nostalgic flashback sparked by a calligraphed sign on the gate pilaster, ‘Mount Carmel Convent and Girls Academy’. The structure’s entire presence reminded him of a bygone childhood.

As if in a time warp, Mike slipped back four decades to Saint Boniface parochial grammar school. His knoll top childhood school mirrored the convent, flanked on one side by theMissouri, and situated in the largely Catholic, blue-collar and farm town ofSioux City,Iowa.

He cringed as he recalled the pious, religiously condemning voices of elderly Catholic nuns. Mike winced and, once again, felt the crack of the stiff leather strap across the back of his hands, punishment for violation of petty rules…rules which changed at the frustrated whim of the aged ladies of the cloth. With time-healing forgiveness, he recalled one such infraction, which he committed prior to morning recess. To increase his level of penance, a loving nun administered his strapping after a snow flurried outdoor recess, with his hands icy cold.

Suddenly, back in the present, he found the thought provoking girl’s school nowhere in sight. He slapped the top of the steering wheel and grumbled beneath his breath. “Oh yeah, I survived parochial school all right.”

He re-approached the Best Western from the opposite direction and noticed its Cajun Wharf Lounge, with a marquee boasting, ‘Ladies Night…Every Wed. and Sat…Free Champaign For The Ladies’. He chuckled, because with the responsibility that lay ahead, he would have no time for such frivolities.

Jacketless, Mike shivered as he stepped towards the motel lobby, anticipating the full bottle of Presidente’ brandy stashed safely within his bags. He welcomed the warmth of the vaulted ceiling lobby as he approached the deserted desk and reached for the service bell. Out of nowhere, appeared an attractive olive-complexioned woman flashing a smile that demonstrated fortunate genes or skilled orthodontia. She welcomed him with a sensuous Cajun accent, “Good evening, sir. Can I help you?”

Taken off guard by her sudden appearance and stunning looks, he hesitated. “Ah, well, yeah, I’m checking in….”

She smiled, “I love your accent.”

“Accent? Oh, I see…it’s a matter of perspective.”

She cocked her head as he continued.

“The name’s Majors…Mike Majors.” Pause. “I have reservations.”

She turned towards the computer. “Here we go, an open ended single.”  Hanging on the word single.

As she slipped a registration form across the counter, an eavesdropping, well-dressed, pencil-thin mustached Panamanian agent sat with his back to the desk. The agent smirked as he pondered his subject’s intelligence file that he had all but committed to memory.

Mike queried as he pushed the completed registration form across the desk. “Would you be so kind as to check to see if Franz Morlaix has arrived?”

She responded cheerfully while returning to the computer. “I just came on duty, let me check. He’s one of the British Petroleum regulars—been in and out of here for the past several weeks. Hmm…no, he has yet to arrive.”

“When Mr. Morlaix checks in, tell him I’ve arrived and for him to give me a call?”

“I sure will.” Pause. “Now then, how long will you be with us?”

“Long enough to get settled into an apartment.”

“With our declining economy there shouldn’t be a problem.”

She offered the room key. “As requested, second floor, non-smoking, located on the quieter back-side of the complex.”

“Thanks!”

“Help with your bags?”

Lying. “I travel light.”

“Wake up call?”

“I pack my own.”

“Very well, Mr. Majors.” She flashed her award-winning smile and returned to her sensuous tone. “If you need anything, Michael, call me personally.”

“Ah, yeah, sure…good night.”

Mike grabbed a complimentary copy of the DAILY IBERIAN and glanced at the headline touting a near record sugar-cane harvest.

The unloading of his truck went smoothly except for the large aluminum footlocker, which he pulled and slid up the outside stairway and into his room. He shivered, rubbed his hands together, locked the door and stepped directly to the Samsonite that contained the brandy.

He opted for FM over television, and, by searching and tweaking, found aNew Orleansjazz station. With reverence, he poured three fingers of red-eye into a plastic cup. Sitting at the coffee table, he propped his feet on a second chair and breathed a long sigh of relief. Clasping both hands around the makeshift snifter, he inhaled the volatile vapors deeply, warming him from the inside out. He raised his drink.

“Here’s to working with the ol’ gang.”

Savoring the brandy, he closed his eyes and, resting his head on the back of the cushioned arm chair, thought how nice it would be to join forces with his long-time associates. Working with Franz on earlier Alaskan projects had been a pleasure.

Mike attributed he and Franz’s compatibility to the fact that they were near complete opposites. Franz was an intense workaholic and want-to-be perfectionist who, while out of town, worked from six in the morning to eight at night, seven days a week, breaking on Sundays long enough to attend Mass. Unfortunately, he could be just as productive by simply working more efficiently. His devotion lay with his job, family, and Catholic faith…period.  Outside of work, Franz admitted, at least to Mike, to being socially inept and, consequently, a loner.

On the other hand, Mike possessed the ability to perform his job in an efficient, do it right the first time manner, which afforded him time to socialize and pursue varied outside interests. Whereas Franz found it painfully difficult to be friendly with subordinates beyond a veneer of professionalism, Mike had the innate capacity to get along with everyone…be it stranger, subordinate, craftsman or management. To Mike, who or what you were was of no consequence; he looked at all people, including himself, as equal and imperfect.

Feeling the anesthetic effects of the brandy, he opened his eyes and forced himself into an upright position. He took the last sip of Presidente’, glanced at his watch and felt a sense of urgency.

Having not shaved in well over twelve hours, he glanced approvingly in the mirror, for with sandy blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin, he was blessed with a forgiving beard.

The phone interrupted a sequence of Stan Kenton classics.

“Hello, Mike?”

“Yeah, boss!”

“When did you arrive…and how the hell are you?”

“I’m fine, Franz, thanks. I arrived a little before dark. However, you know me, I had to survey the lay of the land before checking in…just in case there’s a sudden need to steal away.”

Franz laughed, “Same ol’ Mike…looking ahead like a chess master.” Pause. “I’m starved, and you? “

“Makes a pair.”

“Having been here a while, I know of a few non-tourist haunts. Let’s say we meet in the lobby in ten minutes.”

“Sounds good, boss.”

“Try Franz.”

“Okay, Mr. Franz.”

“Oh God, he’s back.”

Mike grabbed a jacket and stripped the classifieds from the newspaper. He flicked on the television, turned it toward the sheer drapes, left the lights on and double-checked the locked door behind him. He displayed the Do-Not-Disturb sign and panned the surrounding area as he stepped along the second floor outside walkway.

With the temperature dropping toward a sure frost, he retired his Anaheim Angels windbreaker for a Green Bay Packer down-lined jacket. He welcomed the enveloping warm dry air of the lobby. The front desk was vacant, with the hushed silence maintained by a pair of elderly gentlemen coddling dog-eared paperbacks.

Skimming the classifieds, he was pleased by the number of available apartments, most offering move-in inducements, probable evidence of a slumping oil economy. It lent credence to the first-glance madness of British Petroleum electing to fabricate their Alaska-bound modules in New Iberiaand transport them through the Panama Canal, as opposed to the previous site of Anacortes, Washington. With GulfCoastunemployment the highest in the nation, their whatever the market will bear non-union philosophy, along with contractor productivity guarantees, made the decision look doable…at least on paper.

Franz entered the lobby and, with Mike’s nose buried in the classified ads, seized the opportunity. “Holy Christ, Mike, you’ve yet to report to work and you’re already looking for another job.” He laughed. “You consultants are a flaky lot.”

Mike jumped to his feet. “Hey, Franz, it’s good to see you. You’re looking great, you’ve taken off some weight.”

Mike guessed he had shed twenty some pounds. For someone pushing six-one, it made him appear fit. However, there was something in his face that gave Mike cause for concern, although he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what.

They clasped hands. “Yeah, I’ve dropped a few pounds, no real effort on my part. Man, are you a welcome sight. It’s great teaming up again.” Pause. “Talk about looking good, look at you, as fit as ever.”

“It’s my genes.”

“Bullshit! Fitness is your way of life.”

“Yeah, I suppose.” He changed the subject as he tucked the paper under his arm. “I hope you don’t mind driving. Three days in the life of a long-haul driver are more than enough for me. Of course, I’d really prefer to walk.”

“No problem.” Pause. “Say, as I recall, it was you who introduced me to the Cajun humor of Justin Wilson.” Mike nodded as Franz continued. “Well, I’ve watchedWilson’s cooking show and developed an interest in Cajun cuisine. Consequently, I’ve discovered a few haunts; let’s see if I can impress you.”

Franz continued as they stepped from the lobby. “You know me, Mike, the things I like to do best while out of town are eat, sleep and work…not necessarily in that order. Trust me, you’ll find Cajun dining a pleasant surprise.”

Settling into the rental car, Franz continued, as he struggled with unfamiliar controls. “We’ll eat at Patout’s…less than a mile up Center.”

“I assume that’s with a silent T.”

“Yeah.”

Mike clapped and rubbed his hands together. “I didn’t realize I was so hungry, until you started talking food. I’m overdue for a relaxing dinner, fine wine and good company. As Justin Wilson would say, in a Cajun accent, I gar-on-tee.”

They laughed heartily.

“There it is…on the left.”

Franz switched on the left turn signal, prompting the pencil-thin mustached Panamanian agent to chuckle and mumble cynically below the sound of Zydico Rock resonating from the Hertz radio. “Fucking laymen are so predictable.”

Three

Patout’s was a converted turn-of-the-century, two story, wood-frame house that appeared strangely more mid-western than southern. The restaurant sat back a good distance from its ill-defined entrance offCenter Street. Except for mature landscaping that surrounded the establishment, it sat on roughly thirty acres of open unattended land. Painted French Vanilla with brown trim, its manicured grounds were dotted with garden lights casting shifting shadows of trees against the time-tested structure.

Mike and Franz idled across the crushed oyster shell parking lot, the crunching sound interrupting their conversation. Mike continued as Franz set the brake.

“This place reminds me of my Grandma and Grandpa Severson’sIowafarm house.”

Franz chuckled, “Severson sounds more Scandinavian than French Cajun.”

“Ha! What the hell does a French-Haitian know about Scandinavians…or French Cajuns, for that matter.”

Franz retorts, “All I know is Cajun French has as much in common with Parisian or Quebec French as a claw-hammer does with poetry.”

Franz was of French-Haitian extraction. Born inHaiti, and, thanks to the Papa Doc regime, he became a Canadian as a child. He was naturalized aU.S.citizen shortly after graduating fromMontrealUniversity. Franz was trilingual, fluent in Spanish, French and English.

Mike and Franz laughed as they stepped from the car onto the crushed shells and into the spicy aroma of Cajun cuisine that permeated the area.

Four broad steps led to the deep, open, wrap-around porch. A large bay window overlooked the porch, offering a view into a sparsely occupied lounge. They stepped through leaded-glass doors into a high ceiling foyer. The lounge, to the left, had been a spacious parlor in bygone years, but was now filled with circular oak tables, high-back arm chairs and a brass railed bar. Behind the bar hung a huge beveled mirror above a long, bottle-lined oak cabinet.

Preoccupied with the décor of the lounge, Mike paid little attention to the pencil-thin mustached Panamanian who slipped into the lounge and sat at a corner table.

An attractive maitre d’ approached the receiving rostrum.

“Good evening, Mr. Morlaix, the usual?”

“Yes ma’am.” Franz gestured over his shoulder. “For once I’m with company, a good friend fromCalifornia.”

*      *      *

The meeting aboard the “Tahitian Queen”, between Dennis Chambers and two of Noriega’s intelligence personnel, was interrupted by a phone call placed from Patout’s pay phone.   Although anticipating the call, through the schooner’s clean, yet tapped, line, the group momentarily froze and stole a nervous glance at one another.

The large, field dressed, Panamanian Colonel made a surprisingly agile move across the congested stateroom. Pausing with hand on the receiver, he spoke through the side of his mouth as the phone continued to ring.  “I hope the hell this isChicoinstead of Noriega.”

He picked up the receiver and spoke in a hushed, yet commanding tone.

“Balboa?”

“Yes!”

“Bayou, here.”

“It’s about time. What’s the word?”

“Tundra.”

Satisfied, the Colonel continued. “I hope you have nothing but good news for us.”

“Who the hell is us?”

“Dennis, Eva and myself. Now, some news.”

Within the far corner of Patout’s foyer,Chicochecked his surroundings before continuing. “As the Yanks say, the news is good and bad. The good news is our highly touted Yankee has arrived and is currently dining with Frenchie. The bad news is, we may not be able to move fast enough to set our preferred trap as planned.”

The Colonel turned toward Eva and Dennis, gave the okay sign, and covered the receiver. “Dennis, your ol’ friend has arrived…however,Chicois raising a caution flag.”

With a frown, the Colonel returned his attention to the phone. “Okay, let’s hear the bad news.”

“As you’re aware, Intelligence reports our Yank to be all-American, soft spoken and personable. Well, in what I’ve seen of the locals, our Eva appears to have competition. We’ll have to move fast if we intend to implement our preferred plan.”

With a perplexed look, the Colonel responded in military fashion. “Chico, stick to our Yank and do whatever necessary to repress any threat to the operation. However, don’t in any way show our hand and cripple our chances of switching to an alternate plan. Remember, we can’t afford to raise local eyebrows this early in the operation.”

“I understand.”

“Don’t simply understand…be cautious as well.”

Chico’s anger flares. “Yeah, yeah, okay!”

“Don’t get your fucking Latin up with me, boy.  Mr. Majors is the key to the entire god damned operation. If you forget that, our esteemed dictator will have your private parts.”

“While giving orders, get Eva off her sweet ass. The sooner our Black Widow arrives the sooner we’ll have our jerk-off friend trapped in her web. After that, you can hold your breath for my return to the Canal.”

“Enough bullshit! I want you to call me as scheduled…like clockwork. Do you understand?”

“As you wish, mother superior.”

Big on paybacks, the Colonel seethed as he ignored the private citizen’s lack of military respect.

*      *      *

Patout’s maitre d’ was an attractive, middle-aged woman, slight, yet well proportioned, with long dark hair and an intriguing smile. She spoke with a warm Cajun accent. “You’re lucky this evening, Franz…” grabbing a pair of menus, “Your table just became available.”

She led them through double French doors into a large, high ceiling, dining room. Once an expansive living room, it was decorated in warm earth tones, the tables separated by acid etched glass partitions. They were seated at a table alongside a large bay window with a stunning view of a well-manicured garden, lawn, gazebo and stately oak trees.

“Good view, eh Mike?”

“You’ve got that right. One can bet there’s noCaliforniaplastic on these premises.”

“Working fourteen hour days, this place is my therapy.” He raised his hand to silence Mike’s thoughts. “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but save it for a much younger dog.”

As if to close the issue, Franz hid behind his menu.

Mike followed suit, and studied an impressive menu of Cajun dishes, many foreign to his restaurant French. He placed the menu aside and reached for the wine list. “I’ll tell you what, Franz, you old dog, I’ll select the wine and go with your dinner recommendations.”

“I’ll ignore part of that remark.” Pause. “I’ve tried most everything on the menu, it’s all excellent. Rene’ Patout, the owner, is a roving chef between here and his place in the New Orleans French Quarters; his reputation is statewide.”

“A point of interest to you, as a Southern Californian, is that Patout is in the process of opening a place in the shadow of your ol’ UCLA Alma mater.”

“UCLA? Franz, I can’t believe you would say something so unforgivable.” Frowning. “May Tommy-Trojan and his white stallion, Traveler, romp through your mother’s prize flower garden…You know damn well, I’m USC to the marrow.”

“Oops, sorry Mike, I should have known better. After all, I did hire a first-rate engineer.  Us Canucks know little of your college rivalries, other than the eleventh commandment to support Notre Dame.”

“Now that you’ve left this USC alumni on the horns of a dilemma, what do you recommend we consume for penance?”

They both laughed.

“I suggest a bowl of fish gumbo, Crawfish Etoufe’e, and a hot spinach salad. Of course, the meal comes with fresh homemade bread and pecan pie. I’ll take you up on your wine offer. However, the entire evening is complements of my BP per diem. Remember, Mr. Majors, what’s said about free meals and paybacks.”

“Being a masochist, I’ll drink to that.”

An attractive auburn haired, college-aged girl with a Texan accent took their order and slipped away.

The conversation turned to business.

“Franz, this region smacks of negative oil economy. Surely BP must have calculated a break-even crude oil price for the project.”

“Yeah, they did, fifteen dollars a barrel, which we’ve been flirting with the past several days.  It’s a coincidence that you bring it up because while you were in transit, management made an announcement.  The project has reached the point of financial no return and must be completed on oil futures.”

Mike smiled. “During my three day cross country trek, I wondered if I would be gainfully employed upon arrival, or simply sent home with an expense check in hand.”

“I know how you feel, Mike. There’s a lot of us direct hires who are very concerned about our future with BP.” Franz hesitated, as if in afterthought. “With the local unemployment rate as it is, us outsiders must be very careful what we say. We are, after all, well paid intruders in their troubled oil-patch.”

Mike smiled at the maitre d’ serving as wine steward. “Nice place you have here.”

Franz gave a hasty nod of approval to the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon as the steward responded.

“Thanks, our family takes great pride in what we serve.”

“That’s refreshing. Franz tells me you’re opening a place on the left-coast, across town from my alma mater.”

“UCLA?”

Franz laughed, bringing a perplexed look to Ms. Patout’s face.

“My friend’s a USC Trojan.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, no one’s perfect.”

The waitress appeared with a loaded serving tray.

Everything was delicious. The single drawback was the incredible speed at which Franz ate. He approached eating as he did everything, as a task…one to be accomplished in an no nonsense manner. In spite of it, Franz was neither offensive nor sloppy.

Mike was half finished with his dinner when Franz pushed his empty plate aside, replacing it with an ashtray. He reached for his cigarettes, pausing momentarily to seek token approval, with Mike nodding reluctantly between bites. Franz took a deep, hungry drag and held the toxins biologically captive for several moments before exhaling away from the table.

“As you can attest, Mike, tonight I’ve done a month of socializing, which means it’s time for a little shop-talk.”

Mike flashed a crooked smile. “I knew damned well I was living on borrowed time.”

Unfazed, Franz exhaled and continued. “Well, our construction contractor is currently in the ‘critical path mode’ of our cast-in-concrete schedule. As always, Electrical and Control Systems are the biggest offenders.”

“Sounds like the usual entrance cue for us consultants.”

“I’m not so much interested in your historical observations as I am in the here-and-now of my project. I’m counting on you to turn things around for both the electrical and control-systems. With mechanical completion staring us in the face, we’ve got no choice but to address the project’s commissioning and start-up phase.”

“Now that you’ve piqued my interest, just how much of a hole have you allowed the general contractor to dig for himself?”

“Let’s put it this way, in order to meet the critical barge departure date, I’m going to need the best in the business.” He gestured toward Mike. “Enter the ‘A’ Team consultants.”

“I appreciate your vote of confidence, Franz. I’ll begin addressing the project’s dilemma tomorrow at daybreak. By mid-week I’ll have a detailed recovery-plan enabling us to meet the critical barge departure date.”

They both rose from the table. Franz stretched in relief. “I feel a lot better. I’ve worried myself sick over the situation…and the heat BP San Francisco has been putting on me.” He patted his full stomach, “Yeah, it’s great having the ‘A’ team back together.”

They encountered Ms. Patout in the foyer. “Thank you for joining us this evening. I hope all was to your satisfaction.”

Mike rubbed his hands together. “Everything was great, including your warm southern hospitality.”

She gently placed her hand on Mike’s shoulder and momentarily detained him as Franz continued towards the door. She slipped him her personal business card.

“I noted ourCalifornialocation  on the back.” She offered him her hand. “In the midst of everything, we were never formally introduced. The name is Ginger Patout.”

“Majors…Mike Majors. It’s a pleasure, Ginger.”

“Likewise, Michael.”

From across the room, the agent’s pencil-thin mustache crooked as he frowned over Ginger’s actions.

It was Franz who broke the silence as he pulled from the parking lot ontoCenter Street.

“I hope you don’t mind my going straight to bed. You know me, I’ll be at my desk by five in the morning.”

“Of course not, I’m right behind you, that is, after I call Di and have a brandy nightcap over the network news.” He changes to sarcasm, “Just make damn sure there’s fresh brewed coffee when I blow in at seven a.m.”

“Holy shit! I thought I hired an engineer, not a banker.” He chuckled, “Anyway, I’ll see you in the morning, partner.”

“You bet, boss.”

The Panamanian agent reached for Patout’s house-phone and dialed a number committed to memory.

Chapter Four  

      Mike saw the glow of the TV screen through the sheer drapes, entered, and within moments found all to be in order. He shook his head and wondered, while pouring a nightcap, what the hell made him so cautious while on the road alone, for he had been that way as far back as he could remember.

He switched on the news, took a sip of brandy and reached for the phone. With the time difference he was assured of catching Diana.

In a neighboring room,Chicoresponded to the hushed beep emitted by the phone tap unit. He opened a cold bottle of San Miguel, lit a cigarette and slipped on a pair of headphones.

Mike had all but given up when Di answered, short of breath.

“Hi, it’s me. You’ve been jogging in the rain?”

“No, but it’s clear you’ve been eyeing the weather report. Our drought has come to a sloshing halt.”

“While it’s dry and clear in Cajun country.”

“I’m glad you’ve arrived safely.”

He queried her oxygen deficit.

“Oh, I just pulled into the garage and had to run to the phone. Georgeann and I went to dinner. Other than that, all is quiet on the home front. I’m alone, Laurie’s at work, Stacy’s out and about, and Jeff’s at his USC digs. It’s a good thing Georgeann and I went toLaguna Beachyesterday, the weather was gorgeous. Anyway, enough of that…How’sNew Iberia, and have you met up with Franz?”

“Franz and I just finished our reunion over Cajun cuisine. He’s the same three-dimensional Franz…work, work, and more work. Seriously though, he’s lost well over twenty pounds. He claims the loss is unexplainable, yet he’s not the least bit concerned. However, there’s something funny, or strange, about the way he looks.”

Diana sighed, “God…for his sake I hope you’re wrong, because when it comes to perceptions, you seldom are.”

“Maybe it’s because the last time we worked together was inPrudhoe Bay. InNorth Slopecamp quarters, one could easily overdose in four-star food.”

“You mean most people, you never gained a pound.” She chuckled, “Tell me about your new home.”

Mike laughed, “New Iberia? Well, if you replace the rows of sugar cane with corn, you’re left with the flatlands ofIowa; a home away from home for thisIowafarm boy. You native Californians may as well be on Mars. If you were here, you would be wrangling me intoNew Orleansevery weekend.”

Laughing, “Like when we lived in theU.K.countryside, and I insisted we spend as much time as possible inLondon.”

“Yeah, and there’s a similarity between this area andEngland.”

She wrinkled her nose. “How’s that?”

“They have a comparable language barrier, in that they speak English and they don’t.”

Diana laughed as Mike continued. “Seriously though, you’ve got to start making travel arrangements for a visit.”

Chicoscowled and mumbled beneath his breath. “Fuck me, that’s all we need is for his wife to get in Eva’s way.”

Mike continued, “Set aside one of the last two weekends in May, for the New Orleans Jazz   Festival. You can fly intoLafayetteand spend a couple days nosing around theNew Iberiaarea. On Friday, we’ll take a leisurely drive toNew Orleansand still have time to make the French Quarter.”

Excitedly. “How fun!”

“Stay with me. The balance of the weekend will be jazz festival by day and French Quarter by night. Late Sunday afternoon we’ll part company at theNew Orleansairport. I’ll drive back toNew Iberiawhile you’re in flight toOrangeCounty.”

“Sounds great, I’ll start with the arrangements first thing tomorrow. Compared with Mardi Gras season, this should be a snap.”

“Yeah.”

“The only drawback is, you know how much I hate traveling alone.”

“Not a problem, bring Georgeann, I’m sure she’d love to come.”

Diana gasped, “Are you serious?”

“You bet!”

“Oh my god, she’ll be so excited. There’s a wrinkle though, I can’t get my Travel Agent discount on her hotel room, which could impact where we stay.”

“Not to fret, simply get a suite for the three of us to share…after all, she’s your best friend, and she may as well be my sister. Besides, there’s a good chance I’ll be unable to spend much time with you inNew Iberia. Hell, the two of you will manage nicely on your own.”

Diana warms, “That’s so like you to suggest that, in fact, it’s one of the things I most like about you.”

Mike laughed, “I said the same room, not the same bed.”

“Shame on you, I was referring to your thoughtfulness.”

“Yeah, I know. Anyway, sounds like all plans are a go.”

“Naturally, with you involved, what else.”

“Well, with the time difference, it’s way past my bedtime. Unlike direct-hires, we consultants are expected to hit the ground running.”

“I understand. Call me at the agency tomorrow afternoon. I’ll have spoken to Georgeann and will have booking information.”

“You bet. Bye, love you.”

“Love you too. I’m so excited I think I’ll call Georgeann right now.”

“Okay, catch you tomorrow.”

Chicoslipped off the headphones and mumbles angrily. “God damn, first it’s the local broads, now it’s his damn wife. Good luck, Eva.”

Mike replenished his Presidente’ and thought how lucky he was to have Diana as his wife. He realized how difficult he had made her life over the past twenty-five plus years. His adventuresome, free-spirited, wanderlust lifestyle had been difficult. The only real change over time was that the children had all but left the nest.

Another aspect of their relationship was that they were diametrically opposed in their travel philosophies. As a travel agent, she was the stereotypical tourist, preferring four-star hotels, restaurants and canned tours. He preferred to spend extended periods of time abroad, live among the locals and experience their culture.

In the past, the family relocated with him when practical however, as their eldest entered high school, family relocations ceased. This limited Mike to domestic assignments with reasonable home-leave policies. Despite the mutual arrangement, he realized he was acting irresponsibly.

He tried to compensate for time away by using home-leave as high quality family time. TheLouisianaassignment had an R&R schedule of three workweeks on, followed by seven full days at home. He was also thankful that Diana was outgoing, independent and had countless friends. Conveniently, his two brothers, Ron and Gary, assumed the role of handymen in urgent matters in his absence.

Mike took the last sip of brandy and within moments slipped between the cool, fresh smelling sheets. He groaned and lay his head on the feather pillow, only then realizing how tired he was. The brandy, dinner and wine had taken an anesthetizing toll on his weary body. As he lay on the threshold of repose, he thought of what a mysterious paradox he and Diana’s relationship must appear to family and friends…all of whom being nine-to-five, single county boomers, striving for the ever more elusive gold watch. With that thought, he drifted into a comatose state.

      In the adjacent room,Chicoplaced an unscheduled call. The unexpected ring froze the trio within the “Tahitian Queen” stateroom. Dennis, Eva and Colonel Carlos exchanged perplexed looks as the phone begged for attention, with the Colonel grumbling while moving to the phone.

“Shit, this time it’s got to be Pineapple Puss.”

Eva maintained a sober look as Dennis waved off the Colonel’s comment and sucked down the balance of his scotch-rocks.

Satisfied withChico’s phone protocol, the Colonel barked. “Your fucking call is off schedule, so give it to me straight.”

Chicobit his Latin tongue. “It’s more of the same.”

“I said to give it to me straight.”

“Now it’s Mrs. Yankee.”

“What!”

“Yeah, our friend’s wife is coming for a visit.”

The Colonel scowled and nodded towards Eva.

“We’re not making the Black Widow’s job any easier.”

Eva moved forward in her chair as Carlos continued. “When is she coming, and for how long?”

Chico, took delight in the stressful tone of the Colonel’s voice, lied. “The Mrs. didn’t say, however, it seems eminent, and perhaps lengthy.”

“Shit! Just make goddamned sure you keep me informed.”

Chicobites his tongue. “Keep you informed? Of course I will. For openers, how about shipping our comrade’s cute little ass up here…like yesterday.”

Carlos retorts in anger, “Listen, boy, you better do something with your fucking attitude.”

Chicoflinched at the word boy, “Like I said, I’ll keep you informed.” With that,Chico abruptly hung up.

      The career military man stared in disbelief at the dead receiver, before slamming it down in contempt. “That son-of-a-bitch’n civilian’s lack of respect is going to cost him.”

Eva chuckled mischievously and displayed her Miss Panama smile. “Trust me, I know the bastard well, he’ll ring your bell at every opportunity.” Carlos angered further, “Listen, Eva, it was my defending you that pushed our conversation over the line.” Eva leaped to her feet, “Defend me…from that asshole?” “Eva, believe me, with the bad blood between you two, I understand how you feel.” Dennis joined in the fray. “I’m convinced the downfall of Tundra will be the fucking Latin temperament.” Dennis raised his drink-free hand in a halting gesture. “Let’s just focus on our latest wrinkle, so we’ll be prepared for tomorrow’s meeting with Noriega. Besides, this fucking meeting has drug on long enough.” Eva and Carlos exchanged looks of contempt for their Yankee comrade before Carlos continued soberly with Eva. “You’ll have additional competition down in Cajun country, Mrs. Majors will be arriving shortly.” Eva frowned. “Shit! I don’t like the sound of that. Looks like I’m out of here on the first flight after tomorrow’s meeting.” “That a girl.” Carlos added. Dennis barked. “As I said, this goddamned meeting has drug on long enough. My wife has been cooped up in our cabin far too long.” Dennis stood abruptly, half lost his balance and continued with a slur. “Drink up! The bar is closed and the fucking meeting is adjourned.” The Colonel, unaccustomed to taking orders, especially from a Yankee civilian, responded indignantly as he stood. “Whatever you say. However, I don’t recall anyone asking for my vote.” Unruffled, Dennis chuckled and responded cynically. “Right! Your fucking boss is a self appointed dictator for life, and you talk about voting.” He dismissed them with a wave of his hand. “I’ll see the two of you tomorrow at the compound. Good night!” Eva and Carlos made a chilled hasty exit. As their angry footsteps on the wooden planked dock broke the marina’s late night silence, Carlos grumbled to his longtime friend as they joined arms. “Goddamned pushy Yank!”

 

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