The original opening chapter…
The odor of three decades of beer served and spilled in the bar mixed with the savory aroma of Bandeja Paisa, Trista’s favorite meal. One of her students, Natalia, placed a large plate of it in front of her covered with extra avocado, fried plantains, and white beans. After Trista thanked her, the fourteen-year-old shuffled back to the kitchen rubbing her eyes. Trista frowned. Natalia should be in bed, not serving her neighbors.
“You’re the most miserable person I’ve ever met.” Jenny yelled toward Trista over the noise of the crowded bar. “I have no idea why you’re my best friend.”
“Not miserable. More of a realist.” She sipped her beer as Jenny’s words snaked through her stomach. Miserable meant unhappy. Trista wasn’t unhappy, merely prepared for the horrors of life to walk through the door and wreck havoc on everything around her.
“You need to dance through life with a wiggle and a smile.” From her seat, Jenny shook her shoulders with the finesse of a pole dancer and lifted her bottle as several men called out friendly cheers.
Trista did smile at the applause rising around them. Jenny’s energetic and entertaining approach to life produced laughter and joy throughout the small dim bar and boosted Trista’s morale. Her smile, however, faded after a few minutes.
Pure happiness scared her.
The few times she’d dared to be happy, to truly live in harmony with her surroundings and her life, someone had destroyed her peace through abandonment or betrayal.
Trista tipped the rim of her beer toward Jenny. “We’re best friends because we’re stuck here together for another six months.”
Stuck in a small apartment, three thousand feet above sea level in a Columbian village of four hundred people.
At first, the villagers wore their distrust for her and Jenny, the American infiltrators, in their reserved expressions and guarded actions. Over the next few months, however, they opened their hearts to the two women teaching their children and invited them to share the joys and sorrows of life within the community.
Jenny’s cheerful demeanor and limitless patience with even the most difficult of students set her up as the village favorite. Trista, on the other hand, tended to remain by herself most days after teaching. Solitary pursuits suited her better than constant interaction with people. Jenny had arrived here for her life vocation; Trista, however, needed a respite from the grim task of deciding what to do with the rest of her life.
Her friend’s fingers tapped together in front of her chin. With her eyes sparkling and her short hair shooting golden strands in every direction, she nodded as though she had a plan. “It’s not just our location that’s brought us together. It’s destiny. And to show how much I like you, I’ve decided that in addition to teaching the children to read, I’m going to teach you how to beam rainbows and sunshine to everyone you meet.”
“Good luck with that.”
Jenny wouldn’t succeed. Trista’s family taught her to never expect happiness in life, especially from others. Thanksgiving had come and gone three days before with no word from either her mother’s family of pretentious Long Islanders or her father’s family of country club brats. The sole remnant of an ill-fated first marriage, she was never accepted into her parents’ second families. If she died in the jungle, they’d all be relieved to no longer have to acknowledge her existence.
The door to the bar opened, and two rebel fighters entered. Their worn out gray uniforms placed them as part of the Red Hawks, a small Socialist group more interested in making money than causing government reform. Once or twice a month, a few men from the group descended from their mountain perch to buy supplies. These two were barely out of their teenage years, gawky, but brimming with the confidence supplied by their uniforms and guns.
Fear swirled through the air and created a light energy buzzing across the room. Older, larger men from the village moved aside to give them access to the bar. One of the rebels brushed his hand over Natalia’s shoulder. The barkeeper’s daughter flinched and stepped back, but the rebel wouldn’t let her go.
Trista had warned the barkeeper Andres to keep Natalia upstairs in the apartment during the most boisterous and crowded hours of the bar. He refused to listen. His wife had died a year before, and he needed his daughter to serve patrons and keep the place clean.
The sounds of the crowd evaporated until only the low rumblings of the band Intrudia on the stereo punctuated the hushed tones. Everyone waited for the men to be served.
“Free drinks, comrades. Anything you want,” Andres told the fighters in low, halting Spanish. His hands shook as he poured beer into glass mugs.
Despite his refusal to keep her segregated from the patrons, Andres lived for his daughter. He’d saved money for years to send Natalia down to Bogota to finish her education. She dreamed of becoming a nurse. Yet, he didn’t say a word while one of the men pawed her.
“I want something warm to sleep with tonight, Pedro.” The fighter pulled the girl even closer despite her whimpers and tears.
Trista’s pulse elevated and a latent fury rose in her chest, but she remained seated hoping the fighters would leave without incident. Pedro rested his hand on the handgun hanging from his belt and took a swig of his beer. Trista watched their confidence grow at the realization that the villagers were cowards. Every last one of them.
Jenny slipped backwards into the crowd to hide. Most of the other women had done the same. Men shifted in front of them, shielding them from view. Trista remained seated at the table by the door. She should move back behind the men with Jenny and the others, but her instincts told her to stay put and watch the rebels drink their free beer.
She’d seen this passive response each time someone arrived from outside the village. Although rebels tended to steal only food and livestock, this time, the stakes had grown. The crime potentially more serious. And yet, the local men refused to stop them. A recent massacre and the burning of a nearby village haunted their collective memory. Would they sacrifice a fourteen-year-old girl for the greater good?
When the rebels turned to leave, the one holding Natalia kissed her on the lips, an in your face gesture to the crowd. They each grabbed her by an arm and dragged her toward the door. Andres ran to the door carrying a baseball bat to stop them. The rest of the men in the bar remained passive. Pedro, the taller of the rebels, pulled out his gun and fired straight into the heart of a father trying to rescue his only child. His body crumpled, and Natalia screamed in an anguish that dug deep into Trista’s soul. The child had lost her world and was about to be tortured even further.
The rebels shoved her through the door, despite her sobs. No one else moved. Not questioning whether she had a death wish or a stupid gene or a hero complex, Trista rose and stalked after the rebels.
They stood in the parking lot forcing a crying Natalia into their Jeep. Trista reached them and placed her hand on Natalia’s shoulder, drawing the ire of the two men.
“You don’t want a little girl. She’s going to cry and complain all night long. You want a woman, with experience.” Trista spoke in fluent Spanish, lower and louder than normal to keep the men from noticing the tremors in her voice. “Leave her. I’m a better choice.”
The men, still holding Natalia, paused, their brains turning over, but not yet starting up. The mental punch of killing someone finally hitting home.
She didn’t wait for them to respond, “The little girl will hurt you both. She’ll fight and cry and scream. You may lose an eye or have your balls flattened by a wayward kick. Not the amorous event you envision.”
One of them let his gaze drift over Trista and then the girl. At thirty, Trista had all the curves a man could want and acted as though she had the experience they’d want as well. Natalia was skinny and timid and hysterical. He released the girl, making the decision for the other. When Natalia was free of them, Trista sent her scurrying back into the bar.
The men turned their attention to Trista and nodded to each other as though she was prime horseflesh, no longer a filly needing to be broken in. Pedro’s hand stroked her ass as the other moron brushed his fingers against her breast. Despite the rock in her gut and the spark of self-preservation trying to ignite, she directed her mind to saving Natalia. The young girl had enough trauma for the night, she didn’t need her spirit broken further. Trista’s life had already been pretty lousy, so this further degradation wouldn’t matter.
Pedro forced her onto his lap in the passenger seat and the Jeep drove off into the jungle.
During the drive away from the village, the consequences of her actions crystalized. If she gave herself to these men, which she absolutely didn’t want to do, the rebels could return later to the village. With friends. And every woman in the vicinity would be at risk. If she didn’t, she’d be hurt and abandoned, maybe even killed. A lose-lose situation. She ignored the stone lodged in her gut, pressing down her confidence, and focused on finding a way back to the village.
They drove for miles up into the mountains, past forest and fields and zero civilization. Pedro kept his arm around her. His hand rested over her breast with an intimate touch, and yet he never looked at her face.
The sun had faded into oblivion during the drive, leaving dark shadows and chilled air around them. They arrived at a rundown hut on the edge of a jungle-like area where blackness lurked between tall trees and vines with no beginnings or ends. Splintering wooden walls supported a partially collapsed corrugated steel roof to create the essence of a shelter.
Pedro and the younger one, who Pedro had called Mateo, climbed out of the Jeep. Trista moved with easy, confident steps in complete defiance to her gut instinct telling her to run like hell. If she slowed down and hesitated, they might think she planned to escape and would be more wary of her freedom. One of the men entered the building first, and she and Pedro followed. The hut had been recently used. It contained a dirty cot with a brown striped wool blanket and a small square pillow. A small wooden table and a few chairs stood near a sink and a dented stove. Large stains in various colors and from substances she didn’t care to speculate about decorated a narrow couch by the table. Cigarette butts lay interspersed with clumps of dirt and dead leaves across the floor. She absorbed every detail in case something could help her.
The men glanced between each other. Pedro, his adolescent mind, ruled by hormones and not brains, started to fail him. Trista had never killed anyone, but watching Andres’ life being ripped away from him altered something inside of her. What was it doing to Pedro? Perhaps he’d want to lose himself in alcohol, a physical fight, or sex. And she was the only female in the vicinity.
She straightened to her full height of five feet four inches and called on her courage and her inner tart. “Okay boys, take your pants off and sit on the couch.” Her gaze flitted between their crotches.
Mateo’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he took a gulp and waited to see what Pedro would do. Perspiration soaked Pedro’s shirt and matted down his hair. His right hand clenched her tight at the waist. He stroked Trista’s shoulder and caressed her cheek before nodding toward his partner.
Trista ignored the vile sensation lingering across her skin from Pedro’s rough fingers and ground her hip between his legs. He groaned. Her brushed her cheek against his face and then sidestepped him, letting her hands linger on his midriff to keep him off guard.
Instead of feeling disgust, she focused on their weapons. If she could grab them and run, she might have a chance. She unfastened the top button of her khaki shirt and then another button, pausing with her middle finger resting between her breasts. The men both reached for their belts. Guns and radios dropped on the table. Walther P-99s. Some of her fear lightened, and she took a deep, calming breath. She knew the brand and how to handle it, thanks to her father and a myriad of gun crazy boyfriends.
Both men lowered themselves onto the couch. They dropped their pants to their ankles and looked at her as though she was in charge. Only then did Trista strip off her shirt to reveal a beige tank top. Her fingers released the shirt and it floated to the floor, the opening of her striptease. She’d never been much of a flirt, but tonight, if it would give her a fighting chance, she’d become Dita Von Teese.
“You both are magnificent. Amazing.” Her Spanish lilted off her tongue. The words, combined with the slow sway of her hips, mesmerized her audience.
Her steps carried her closer to the couch, and then her movements shifted to the left.
She sprinted two steps toward the table and grabbed hold of the guns. The boys broke out of their hypnotized state and struggled to their feet, hindered by their pants acting as shackles around their ankles. One lunged toward her with a two-footed broad jump across the damp, dirt floor. He grabbed her leg and pulled her down with him.
With the guns clasped in her hands, she braced herself for impact with her elbows to slow the rest of her body’s drop to the dirt. Strong hands gripped one of her ankles and dragged her backwards in rough jerky movements. She lifted her head back to avoid scraping her face across the ground.
Struggling for freedom, she kicked her legs with every ounce of energy left. When her captor clasped her waist and squeezed, she twisted and struck him with the barrel of one of the guns. A solid hit near the man’s eye. He let go long enough for her second attempt to escape.
She sped to the door and kicked it open as she linked her finger into the trigger, slid the safety, and prayed they wouldn’t reach her. She twisted partway around to confirm the location of her attackers. Pedro, his face raging red and furious, extended his hand and grabbed at her arm. Mateo followed, one step behind. She backed away, not wanting to fire weapons at living souls. Her shoulder hit the doorframe and slowed her paced. Pedro reached out to subdue her. She pulled the trigger twice to stop their attack.
Two perfect shots. Two instant deaths. Two black marks on her soul.
How long did she stand there, numb, watching blood pour from one man’s chest and another’s head? This wasn’t supposed to happen. She’d wanted to help Natalia, but not by murdering anyone. Her stomach rebelled when the stench of the blood reached her nostrils. The tangy, metallic scent slammed into the back of her mouth. She grabbed her shirt and one of the radios and then ran from the hut, trying to expunge all the evil she’d seen and done that afternoon. She stood on the edge of the road. Deep breaths filled her lungs with the mossy rich scent. Her legs lacked strength and direction. Where would she go?
The dark closed in around the area, yet she had no plan. Would she be safe in the village? Maybe it would be best if she fled the country. The distant rumble of an approaching vehicle stopped her. If they were colleagues of the dead men, they’d try her, torture her, and maybe kill her within minutes of finding two bloody carcasses and a lone woman with their guns. Her moment of panic, where the thought of falling on the ground and giving up seemed the next logical thing to do, disappeared as she saw a backpack in the rear of the Jeep. She could do this. She could survive.
Four high school summers as a camper and four college summers as a counselor in the wilderness of Costa Rica for an outdoor adventure camp prepared her for this one scenario. She removed the backpack containing a jug of water in a side pocket. She added one gun and the radio to the main pouch and tucked the other gun in the front of her jeans before heading into the jungle. Entering the wild overgrown areas of this region would be preferable in the daylight, but in this case, she had no choice. At least her footprints would be partially hidden in the dark. Once the people approaching found the men, searched the area, and left, she could walk down the mountain and find a way to travel out of Columbia. It may take a few days, but she had nothing but time.
She stepped under the canopy of trees, water leeching over the rubber soles and through the canvas of her sneakers. The cool air across her cheeks turned sticky and her hand reached up to slap away the spider web she’d stepped through. She spit out whatever was in her mouth and rubbed both hands over her hair and face. Without light, she could be walking into something poisonous. The truck rumbled up to the shack only a few hundred feet away. A few male voices called out to each other. She needed to move. With one hand out in front to guide her way and catch her if she fell, and a stick in her other hand to wave away the spider webs connecting adjacent trees and bushes, she continued with soft footsteps and a growing dread. Soon, the dense umbrella of leaves and vines blotted out even the faint glow of the crescent moon in the horizon.
She managed to find a suitable size cashew tree and pulled herself into the branches. The tree was mature enough to provide a possibility of nuts in the morning. Raw green cashews lacked taste and could cause some digestive issues, but held a significant amount of nutrition when no other food was available. She had nothing to lose by eating them. She tied herself to the trunk with her shirt, closed her eyes, and listened to the rebels’ movements over the radio. Sleep never arrived, scared away by the images of bloodshed, bullet holes, and bodies.