The moment that I stepped out of the plane at San Serif airport, the heat and humidity hit me like a slap on the face. By the time I had descended the stairs and walked the short distance across the tarmac to the arrival terminal, I felt like I had been walking through a sauna. It was with the greatest relief that I stepped into the air-conditioned lounge.
Poor old Mr. Rodriguez deserved an apology. I had thought that he was just being a dirty old man when he insisted that I should wear a short skirt, stockings and a thong for the visit to the small Central American republic of Serif. He assured me that the climate was far worse even than the Californian deserts that I knew well. Really, it was the most practical way to dress, given that I had to look as smart as possible so shorts and bare legs were not acceptable.
Our customer in Serif had always been Mr. Rodriguez's special preserve, as he had been the only auditor who spoke fluent Spanish. My ability in that language had been the main reason that I was taken on as his assistant. His failing health meant that he was increasingly reluctant to make the journey and had not been there for five years, so another visit was long overdue. The intention was that I would accompany him on this trip, to look after him and learn the ropes. His sudden death just days before our departure meant that I had to go alone. At 23, I was very junior to be carrying out a solo audit, but there was no alternative; my firm had previously tried and failed to recruit a more senior Spanish speaker.
In my hand luggage were his copious notes in his beautiful, slanting handwriting. I had studied them on the long journey on the plane from London to Mexico City, during my overnight stop there, and on the very uncomfortable journey in the elderly Serif Air flight south to San Serif. Our client had been a subsidiary of a British firm, which is why it had a British auditor. Three years ago, a majority stake had been sold to local management, but the original parent company was still getting a substantial slice of the profits. The buyers seemed to be running things well, as their own locally produced accounts seemed to show that the firm was thriving. But of course it was my job to verify that the accounts were true and that the remittances to the old parent company were correct. It was not exactly unknown for funny things to happen in this part of the world, and I would not be surprised to find that the accounts had been rigged in some way.
After passing through baggage collect and customs, I was met by two burly men. They were wearing suits and ties, and I wondered how they were coping in that heat. One seemed to be about 60, and his dark hair was sprinkled with grey. The other was about 30. "Senorita West, I am delighted, I am most charmed, to make the acquaintance of so attractive a young lady," said the older one in English, beaming all over his face and offering his hand. His grip on mine as he shook it was almost bone-crushing. "I am Juan Casals, the finance director. This is my colleague Pablo Garcia. He speaks no English, but I understand that you speak Spanish."
"I speak a bit," I replied in English. It had occurred to me on the way that it might be prudent to play down my knowledge of the language so that I might on some occasion catch them off guard. The culture in this part of the world often tended to be sexist, so men would automatically underestimate a woman, especially a young and pretty one. And they were very unlikely to realise that a blue-eyed blonde with an English name had been born and grew up in California in an almost totally Mexican area, so spoke the language perfectly. I shook Pablo's hand too. He seemed to have quite a soft, flabby grip compared to Juan's, but he was evidently strong enough, as he picked up and carried my heavy suitcases for me quite effortlessly. I accompanied them outside, to where an immaculate white Cadillac was waiting for us, parked right outside the door. The searing heat struck me again as I stepped out of the terminal, but it was only a few steps to the car, which was fairly cool inside.
Pablo put my cases in the boot. We all sat in the back, reclining on the soft leather upholstery, with Juan in the middle. Juan and I engaged in some small talk in English, while Pablo and the driver said nothing. Pablo passed the time by admiring my breasts and my thighs. However, it was soon obvious to me that he was following most of our conversation. Juan was lying when he said Pablo spoke no English; he was trying to play the same trick on me as I was on them.
Juan and Pablo had both joined the company shortly after the management take-over. Rodriguez had only sketchy information about Juan, and had not mentioned Pablo. Juan had originally been the deputy finance director, the old one having remained in post. However, six months later he had been found dead in his own car, apparently a suicide, and Juan had succeeded him.
We stopped outside my hotel. Pablo carried my suitcases in, and I registered. I left the porter to take my luggage up, then we went straight back out to the car to go to the office. While it would have been nice to relax and have a bath after my long and arduous journey, I was anxious to get started as soon as I could. I had no wish to remain in this sauna of a country for a day longer than necessary.
The office was an imposing stone building quite near the hotel. A uniformed doorman opened the door for us and saluted as we entered. The reception area's walls were lined with marble and the floor was covered by a very soft, luxurious white carpet. I wondered how they kept it so spotlessly clean. The area was extremely well air-conditioned; I actually felt cold. Juan escorted me to a well-appointed office reserved for my use, with a pile of folders on the desk. "Please call on me whenever you need me, Senorita, and of course if you need any help translating Spanish." With a gracious bow, he left me to start my work.
I had a look round the room. It had a thick carpet and expensive-looking furniture. My desk had an inlaid leather top, and the chair was covered in matching leather. The view over the city from the window was fairly mundane. No doubt it would be better from the top floor, but I was not going to waste any time sightseeing.
I spent about three hours going through the records and making notes, and then I decided to go back to my hotel for supper. I could make sense of the notes as easily in my room as here, and I really needed to relax for a bit. I insisted on walking back on my own, despite Juan's offer of a car or an escort. The hotel was right opposite the Post Office, I noted. After a quick and very needed shower, I had an excellent supper in the hotel, savouring the sort of food I had enjoyed in my childhood. I had never eaten anywhere with such attractive waitresses, all wearing very short, tight skirts and tight blouses. Their feet must be killing them, I thought, spending all the time walking around in such toweringly high stilettos.
Back in my room, I took off my own blouse and skirt, and lolled on the bed. I glimpsed myself in the mirror, in my matching lacy bra, thong and suspenders, with my blonde hair tumbling around my shoulders. Didn't I look like a model!
One of the documents I read made me frown. There seemed to be a lot of vaguely described goods coming in from Colombia and being shipped out to other countries. I couldn't imagine a legitimate reason for that. Wasn't Colombia where they had all the drug barons? I made a note to probe that a bit further. Equally odd were large sums of money going to the Cayman Islands and from Switzerland. Presumably the money went from the Cayman Islands to Switzerland then back to Serif. The flows were exactly equal, allowing for about two weeks for the money to make the journey. Obviously, this was money laundering. Drug money? Juan must know about it. Had his predecessor known, and been murdered? Should I send an e-mail to London, or would they think I was being nuts? I was getting very tired, and the satin sheets in my bed were very inviting. I decided to double check in the morning before sending anything.
I stripped off naked and slipped into bed, delighted by the feel of the sheets on my bare skin. Soon I was asleep, but had uneasy dreams.
Getting to the office as early as I could, I took photocopies of the suspicious documents. I then went out, pretending that I had forgotten something and needed to go back to the hotel. Going to the Post Office, I bought a packet of envelopes and posted the copies to myself at the London office. If they proved innocuous, there was no harm done. I discarded the rest of the envelopes. Why give Juan any clues? After lunch, I took the papers into his office and, in my best innocent little girl mode, asked him what a couple of things meant. He looked at them and frowned deeply. "I ... well ... these are technical terms, Senorita and I must admit ... I am not exactly sure what they might be in English. Leave them with me and I shall make enquiries and get back to you as soon as I can."
That was rubbish, of course; they were perfectly ordinary words. My suspicions seemed to be confirmed. I decided to send an e-mail to London. Returning to my desk, I tried to access Hotmail. I seemed to have lost my Internet connection. Were they on to me so quickly? Worried, I decided to return to the hotel and send an e-mail from there. However, as I stood up to leave I saw Juan standing in the doorway with three security guards.
"Senorita," he said, "I am very sorry to tell you that you have just been diagnosed with a rare and highly infectious tropical illness. I have made urgent arrangements to have you put into quarantine immediately."
I stood there, bewildered. Two of the guards grabbed me, and before I knew what had happened, my hands were handcuffed behind my back. I opened my mouth to yell, and the third guard started stuffing something into it. I tried to stop him, but the other guards held me firmly. One of them suddenly grabbed my hair, and pulled it back hard. My mouth opened wider, and whatever it was went right in, completely filling my mouth. A strap went around my head and was pulled tight, stopping me from spitting out the gag.
Struggling but quite unable to resist, I was forced down the back stairs and though the fire escape. A van stood outside with its rear doors open and the engine running. I was pushed into the back, two of the men got in with me, the doors were slammed shut behind us and we drove off.
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