Excerpt from “Operation Angelica”

February 1, 2008

Elizabeth Ashton stepped down the stairs of the plane and onto the tarmac in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She squinted in sensory overload. The Central American sun blasted through scattered clouds, illuminating the neon green mountains on the horizon. Tropical smells mingled with the jet fuel odor of the airport. Traffic hummed beyond the concrete wall bordering the runway.

She followed the other passengers into the terminal, being careful to act relaxed. The line crawled through customs, many tourists trying not to look nervous, while the returning citizens simply seemed annoyed.

A grumpy looking agent stamped her passport and gave her a half smile. Elizabeth returned the gesture and made her way through the narrow corridors of the terminal to the baggage claim area. Her old brown bag slid down early, and she grabbed it only to be startled by the lightness. No gun. No equipment—just a few tropical outfits and shoes. She was naked and alone. There would be no back-up, no rescue, and no support of any kind.

A row of little red truck taxis sat on the street. They looked like they belonged in an amusement park. Each driver stood outside his cab, waiting for a passenger. The closest one was young and on a cell phone. He might be connected, but not trustworthy. The next driver was slightly older and caught her gaze. He leered at her and opened his door, as if she would choose him. She was used to leering men, but this guy was a creep. She wasn’t getting in that vehicle without a gun. After a few more rejects, she settled on the oldest driver in the line, a plump man with a long mustache. He seemed perplexed she was alone and kept looking behind her.  But she got in the back of the car and politely asked to go the address she had been given. He sighed and said, “Sí, señorita.”

He pulled into traffic and the red taxi crawled across the sprawling city. As the truck crested a hill, Elizabeth sat up straight to get a better look. Thousands of tiny rectangles dotted the hills, a mixture of houses and businesses stacked up like building blocks. There was no pattern to the roads or any sign of urban planning. The sprawl covered the hillsides like a beautiful mismatched blanket.

Tegucigalpa was like nothing Elizabeth had ever seen. But she shook away any temptation to sightsee. She was here to find Hector Vega. She was here for Brian. She took a deep breath and began the script she had practiced silently to herself on the trip from D.C. to Miami and Miami to here.

“I was wondering if you could help me with something?”

Si, señorita?” he yelled back while turning down the radio.

“Well, you see, I’m here doing my doctoral research in sociology, and I need to be able to walk around the city by myself.”

“No, señorita, you can’t do that. You know why, right?”

 “But if I had to, if it was the only way I could do my research properly? What would be the best way to do it?”

“Miss, it’s not a good idea.”

“But, if I had to, could I?”

“You would need to protect yourself. Be very careful. Even then, it’s not safe.”

“But what if I could protect myself; you know, like with a weapon or something?”

The driver shrugged. “You know how to use a gun?”

“I’ve shot a few times, yes.”

“If a person who knew how to use a gun needed one, I guess such a person could find something helpful from a friend,” he said.

“Yes, that would be helpful.” She sat back and smiled to herself. He’d taken the bait.

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