Part One: The Assault
According to the news reports that came out a couple days later, a team of desperadoes penetrated the jungle in all-terrain vehicles, entered the estate via the front gate and, before nightfall, invaded the house. Paving the way, one pair struck first, through an opening upstairs. This happened to be my bedroom window. I was in the bathroom at the time, preparing for the grand banquet Señora Castillo had arranged. Having yet to put on my high heels, I was standing in front of the mirror in nylons and an evening gown about to apply lipstick when a tall, darkly clad figure in a black mask appeared in the glass. Was this a prank? More curious than scared, I turned to identify the intruder when he plunged in behind me, seizing me around the arms and covering my mouth with a gloved hand.
"Don't make a sound," he whispered.
My Spanish was pretty good but I didn't need it to get the message.
Keeping his hand over my mouth, he pressed the back of my head against his chest as a second intruder, similarly masked and clad, swung a leg over the window ledge. Unlike the first, this one was short and stocky. Gripping the sides of the window, he hoisted himself into the room and, with the agility of a chimpanzee, scrambled to the door to take up a sentry's position. Was this a terrorist attack?
I was hauled out of the bathroom, my assailant's hand still clamped over my mouth as we crossed the plush, gold, wall-to-wall carpet like a pair of deranged tango dancers. In the center of the room stood a four-poster bed, baroque style, its mahogany headboard against the wall. He steered me toward the foot of the bed and, lifting his hand from my mouth, pinned me against one of the bedposts.
"Wha…what's going on?" I gasped, heart pounding. A wad of cloth was crammed in between my teeth. Jerking this way and that, I tried to scream as he shoved the wad in deeper.
"For God's sake!" he pressed me hard against the post, hand over my mouth again. "Can't you be quiet?" He sounded more pleading than threatening.
"Nobody'll get hurt so long as you cooperate. Entiende?" His eyes seemed to bulge out at me through the eyeholes. "Understand?"
I nodded. He lightened the pressure. The hand came away, unclamping my cheeks.
"Hands behind your back. And remember: no noise."
With my mouth stuffed like a chipmunk's packed with acorns, I slipped my hands behind the bedpost and he proceeded to tie my wrists. He tied them heel-to-heel with a white cotton cord-clothesline I guessed-cinching the bond to make a snug grip, then he looped the cord several times around my waist, deftly fastening me to the post. Dropping to his knees, he pulled another length of the same kind of cord out of a black canvas pack strapped to his back. With this he fastened my ankles together, attaching them to the base of the post. He stood up and, with the same, demonic swiftness, tied my legs together above the knees, securing them to the post above the footboard.
Meanwhile, his partner had come away from the door and was pressing successive strips of duct tape over my lips, plastering my lower face, sealing the wad of cloth inside. Whoever these guys were, they were taking no chances. Additional cord was wrapped around my upper body, securing me to the post at the level of my chest, and still more was wrapped around my arms before a knot was tied somewhere behind my neck, on the other side of the post.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, a bandana-like cloth was tied firmly over my eyes and knotted behind my head. Thus bound, gagged and blindfolded, I stood fastened to the bedpost, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, and feeling nothing except the slow, deep, bass-drum beat of my own heart thumping beneath my breast.
How much time went by? The cops were to ask me later. I had no precise recollection and I have none now. At least ten, perhaps twenty minutes elapsed before I heard the bedroom door open, reconnecting me to the outside world. At first, this came as a relief.
A merry din laced with kitchen aromas wafted up from downstairs. Someone in the living room was serenading the company with a violin. I pictured distinguished gentlemen in suits and ties along with ladies in evening gowns, pearl necklaces and glittering bracelets. They'd be admiring the wall paintings, I thought, or chatting over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. I imagined them clustered under the chandelier, by the fireplace, around the elegant coffee table, and in front of the full-length lavender sofa with plush, velvet cushions-items Señora Castillo had pointed out during the house tour she'd given me a week earlier.
The door closed, blotting out the sounds from downstairs, and images of merrymaking yielded to dreadful premonitions. I pictured the intruders stealing down the second-floor hallway, armed, dangerous and undetected. What were they after? They must be two very bold robbers to strike at this hour, what with the house so full of people. (I had no idea they were about to let in a squad of confederates.) Could they be kidnappers?
Mexico was plagued with kidnappings. Although Mérida was not supposed to be especially dangerous, could anywhere be perfectly safe? The problem had spilled over even into the United States, where the smuggling of illegal drugs and immigrants was on the rise. I thought of my hostess, Señora Castillo. A fairly well-known professional singer as well as the wife of a prominent businessman, she'd be a prime candidate for kidnapping.
A mad hope welled up within me: what about sounding an alarm? Should I try it? If only I knew what was happening! I cocked my ears. Behind the blindfold the silence stretched out like an infinite tunnel with no light at the end. I seemed to be alone. Why not try it?
I knew the bedroom lay directly over the dining room, just across the hall from the living room. The butler, a maid, someone, probably more than one, had to be in there setting the table. I pictured them placing silverware down, just below my bound ankles. Maybe I could thump out an alarm with my feet.
Later, in counseling me after the event, some jackass psychologist suggested I didn't really want to sound an alarm, that I was too scared, paralyzed with fear, or something like that. Hogwash! I did try.
But I couldn't budge. With the soles of my feet planted on the carpet and the entire length of my body lashed to the bedpost, the only thing I could do was make the bed squeak a little-and even that was possible only by the most strenuous exertions.
Trying to work my hands free got me no further. How could it? The ropes around my upper arms limited my leverage, severely restricting the extent to which I could move my wrists. For another thing, the knot was out of reach, rendering my fingers useless. Finally, the bond, although comfortable so long as I remained still, bit back when I challenged it, gnawing at the delicate bones of my wrists.
"Don't hurt yourself, señorita." It was a man's voice.
Shocked, I froze. His lips were just an inch from my ear.
"Relax," he said. "This will be over shortly-and no one will get hurt."
It must be the other intruder, I thought-the short, stocky guy. He'd stayed behind. With an inward groan I resigned myself to the situation, withdrawing into the silent darkness in which I drifted, as if submerged in a dead lake. How much longer could this go on?
A cell phone rang, pricking me out of the depths. The intruder answered it, speaking quietly in some Mayan dialect. I couldn't make out the words. But immediately after the call I felt a tug at the back of my head. The cloth over my eyes was being undone. My blindfold was coming off…
As my pupils adjusted to the illumination of the bedside lamp, I saw the bedroom door open. Señora Castillo appeared in the doorway, her voluptuous figure wrapped in a blazing red tube skirt. Its artsy floral hem seemed to swirl around her knees like a ring of crimson foam. Smoky-brown nylons accentuated the elegant curves of her calves while the black patent leather of her high heels, even in my flawed vision, shone like polished chips of anthracite. Around her, like the limbs of a tarantula, were the arms of the man who had seized me.
"Sandy!" she gasped. "Are you all right, dear?"
I glimpsed myself in the bedroom mirror. Was I all right? In skin-toned nylons and a black evening gown that came down to my knees, I resembled a soldier at attention, white cotton cord gripping me around the ankles, above the knees, and around the waist, chest and shoulders. My face looked like the front of a boarded up house, what with all that silver duct tape plastering my mouth. Although my tongue and palate had grown somewhat used to it, the wad stuffed in between felt like somebody's foot in my mouth, dissuading me from even trying to make a sound.
"Brute!" she exclaimed, struggling to face the man who held her. I pictured her glaring at him, but I could only picture it. In fact, her face appeared as little more than a fuzzy cotton ball enwrapped in a shredded wisp of sable-the licorice-black hair framing her pale cheeks.
Let me be perfectly honest now. Beyond my gag, another, more lasting impediment afflicted me-near-sightedness. Primping in front of the bathroom mirror, I'd had no time to put my glasses on before falling into the clutches of the intruders.
Señora Castillo turned to me, struggling against the arms that held her back. "Sandy!" Her voice spiked up an octave. I imagined her eyes, enhanced by mascara and eye shadow, glistening with emotion. "Oh Sandy!" her bosom heaved. "What have they done to you?"
This was a bit histrionic even for me. Hoping she'd pipe down, I emitted a muffled moan intended to reassure her that I was okay. Strands of the lush locks of strawberry-blond hair, which I'd combed into shiny, smooth waves behind my back, now fell across my eyes, further limiting my vision. I felt something hard and sharp beneath my throat.
"Just do what you're told, señora," the man at my back spoke past me, to my hostess. "Do what you're told-or else!"
The mirror showed him pressing something shiny to my windpipe. I looked more closely. A dagger!
Okay, maybe I was imagining things. I suggested as much to the police investigator who questioned me later at the station. For all my eyes could tell, it might have been an ordinary steak knife. But whatever it was, it had a sharp edge. I could feel it. Lifting my chin, I tried to put some distance between it and the blade, but the blade followed, its keen edge kissing the tender flesh covering my voice box.
TO BE CONTINUED
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