It had been a fifteen-hour flight beginning in San Francisco International, with an hour layover in Miami where I was subjected to the same harried-looking woman and her screaming toddler everywhere I went, then about six hours of peace to La Paz, Bolivia, and then into the northern Bolivian town of Rurrenabaque.
I was investigating a case of strange seizures affecting residents in over two dozen cities across the Midwest and another half-dozen up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Victims were said to experience violent twitching in their eyelids, calves, feet, legs, and arms. One female victim in North Dakota experienced eyelid twitches followed by calf twitches and then severe arm flailing all while shopping at a local mall. The flailing took out six other women around her who ended up in the hospital with concussions.
Two days after the Dakota Episode, I had gotten a call from a man who identified himself only as La Rana who said he had vital information for me.
"I know about the sickness happening in the news in your country," he'd said. "You must come here. Ahora. Now. To Bolivia. Rurrenabaque. That is all I can say for now."
Then the line went dead.
I quickly called Jonesy at Plethora and told him about the Bolivian lead. He jumped on the story and said he'd make arrangements for me to fly out.
* * *
The plane, a nineteen-seater Fairchild Swearingen twin turboprop, touched down on the grassy runway of Rurrenabaque airport just before 7:00 am and the temperature was already climbing into the low 80s. I got off the plane into warm and humid air ripe with the smell of vegetation and was met by a tall, well-built, lantern-jawed man with close-cropped brown hair and ruggedly handsome features. He was dressed in khaki pants, a tan work shirt, battered brown leather jacket, and an equally-battered fedora canted at a rakish angle. He spotted me, raised a hand in greeting, and strode over.
"You must be Doctor Jericho," he said. "I'm Wyoming Knott."
"Nevermind," I said, then indicated his clothing. "That's very Indiana Jones," I said.
Knott made a face. "That damn Lucas."
"Yeah. Based that character on my grandfather who was an soldier of fortune in the twenties. Gramps wrote a book about his time in Egypt called Raiders of the Lost Arch. Never got any credit for it."
"I thought the character was something Lucas and Steven Spielberg came up with."
"Nope, that lying sack of warm cat vomit. Lucas stole a lot of the details from Gramps's book. The jacket. The fedora. The satchel."
I looked around us, cautious. "Best take care. Lucas is know to have long litigatory arms. He may have spies posted around here."
Knott grunted. "He can try to sue me. But he best beware. I have detailed files." He gestured toward a ten-year old gray, dirt-splattered Suzuki Grand Vitara parked nearby. "Anyway--come on. We're meeting folks at the docks. We'll talk more in the car."
* * *
On the way to downtown Rurre (as the locals called Rurrenabaque) Knott filled me on the details.
"My local contact, who calls himself La Rana, tells me there's one guy who's manufacturing the stuff," he said.
"La Rana," I said. "He's the one who called me about this."
"Apparently he's got the inside scoop on our guy."
"Who is our guy?"
He reached between the seats, pulled out a manila folder, and handed it to me. "Doctor Manuel Gilipollas de Madera. Went to Universidad Autónoma Juan Misael Saracho for a biochemistry degree. Then got his Masters in molecular biology from Universidad Mayor de San Simón."
I skimmed the file then found a photo of de Madera. He was a small man with thinning hair and droopy goldfish-bowl eyes.
"Biochem and molecular biology," I said, looking up from the file. "So he's making drugs?"
"Biological weapons," said Knott.
"How do you figure?"
"La Rana tell me de Madera has his people searching the jungle for a certain types of poson dart frog," said Knott.
"Poison dart frog," I said, considering. "So he's probably taking their skin secretions and manipulating them to create these drugs."
"Biotoxins," said Knott.
"Which are making people in the States go into seizures."
"Why? And how is he getting them out of the country?"
Knott shrugged and glanced at me. "Isn't that what you're here to find out?"
"It is," I said.
"You've got good shoes on, right?"
I lifted my foot and showed him my well-scuffed pair of black Corcoran jungle boots. "Why?" I asked.
"We'll be trekking into the jungle," he said. "Downriver on the River Beni, first. Then we take one of the forks. And then on foot into the jungle. Maybe a mile or so. There's a place there that used to be called Grano Verde. Abandoned village from the looks of things."
"You've been there?"
Knott nodded. "It's where the lab is at."
He nodded again. "And we'll need to be armed." He reached behind his seat, pulled out a plastic and paper-wrapped bundle, and handed it to me. "Take this and keep it close."
I opened the bundle and found myself staring a golden fish head the size of a basketball.
"Jove's hairy nutsac!" I said, nearly jumping out of my seat and dropping the head into the footwell. "What the hell is that?"
"Fish head," said Knott, chuckling. "Roly-poly."
"I can see it's a fish head. But I'm not going to eat it up. Why is it on my lap?"
"It's the head of a Golden Dorado," Knott said. "Aggressive critters. The locals call them River Tigers."
"Big damn fish," I said, looking it over and quickly extrapolating likely size of the body. I noticed a handle had been attached to the back of the head. I looked at Knott. "Why is there a handle on this fish head?"
"Grano Verde sits in the middle of Ahbeeg country."
"In Ahbeeg country?" I said. "Why walk? Why not take ATVs?"
"It's thick jungle. ATVs would just get stuck."
"And who or what are the Ahbeeg? Mysterious women who will chase us and burn down farmhouses?"
"Indigenous peoples. Fierce warriors. And cannibals."
Damnation. I hated cannibals. Fine, young, or otherwise. They drove me crazy. And gave me the heebie jeebies.
"So what--we give them the fish heads, they don't eat us?"
"They're icthyophobes. Scared of fish. Specifically dead fish. More specifically, dead Golden Dorados."
As we drove into what passed for downtown Rurre and I looked around at the dirt streets and single-story buildings, a thought struck.
This was Bolivia.
I said to Knott: "Butch and Sundance died here, you know."
"Not in Rurre," he said. "Further south. Or so the story goes. And I wouldn't worry too much about that."
"Why worry?" I said. "We're just about to hike into cannibal country armed only with fish heads."
"At least we're not wearing unlicensed nuclear accelerators on our backs."
"Good point," I said.
Come back next week for another entry of The Jericho Files!
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.