Colombian Exchange Ch1

The Colombian Exchange

By Peter Edington


Cody interrupts her, "What is the Colombian Exchange?"
"You know," says Tanya, "the cultural interchanges of Post Colombian colonisation - the interaction between the Old World and the New."
Cody laughs. "You call that an exchange?"

Nicaragua, November 1974.

The Prisoner:

Desperate - a hostage incarcerated on the Moskito Coast of Nicaragua - marine archaeologist Tanya Mitchell is carrying the child of the man she believes she killed. She doesn't realise that her incarceration was triggered by her discovery of the missing treasure ship the Santa Margarita, or that the man she thinks of as her mentor is effectively her jailer.

The Priest:

Working in a Catholic mission in Managua while he awaits ordination, Bob Cody feels certain of his faith, but unsure of his Church's commitment to his work. When he's asked to go and see a prisoner in the remote village of San Blas, he finds he has to make a choice: Tanya Mitchell or the Church.

The Colombian:

Dr. Paul Robertson-Nash, whose English veneer belies a childhood spent in Colombia.

The Conspiracy: When Tanya Mitchell discovered the whereabouts of the Santa Margarita in the course of doing some research for him, Paul Robertson-Nash seized the opportunity. Here was his chance to have the fabulous jade of the Mayans, as well as the unanimous acclaim of his peers in the world of marine archaeology, and the lovely Tanya for good measure.

And he knew how to get them. His old friend Juan Lopez was desperately seeking cash to fuel the revolution against the American-imposed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, and so they cut a deal: In exchange for guaranteeing safe access to the ship, Lopez would get half the treasure.

But then things got in the way. First Tanya fell in love with another man - the expedition diver, Jimmy Haynes. Then Lopez insisted on taking charge of Tanya. Unable to let her go free till after his coup, he had her secured on the tropical Moskito Coast. And this is where Bob Cody finds her eight months later.

As he unravels the conspiracy about the Santa Margarita's treasure, Cody fears for Tanya's life. And now he is in danger, too, since they both know too much. He manages to engineer their escape, but life on the run in the jungles of the Moskito Coast, with a heavily pregnant woman, is hardly less dangerous - especially once the ruthless Paul Robertson-Nash joins in the manhunt.

Chapter One

The taxi swept away from the hotel and the doorman carried our bags into the cool of the foyer.

'Señor Robertson-Nash, so nice to see you here again.' The manager flicked his fingers as soon as he saw us, and a porter appeared from thin air. 'Take Señor Robertson-Nash's bags to 507' he said. The double-barrelled surname sounded really funny in Spanish. 'Señorita Mitchell,' he handed me a key. 'Welcome to Nicaragua. You are in room 506,' he said, in English.

The hotel was an odd mixture of Spanish Colonial and American Chromium. The lift was all glass and you could look down on people's heads as you went up, but the architecture was marble and columns. The room, when the porter opened the door, had a huge bunch of flowers on the table in the middle and the whole wall opposite was glass, with doors opening onto a veranda that looked out into a sunset over Lake Managua.

I gave the bellboy a tip and never even noticed him leave the room. I just stood there looking out across the lake at the sun. The clouds were on fire. It was so beautiful. I watched every drop of colour drain from the sky into the lake until the room was almost dark. I'd forgotten how quickly dusk falls out here.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door, the door that connected my room to his. When I opened it, he was standing there, struggling with a bow tie that didn't want to tie.

'Can you do one of these?' he asked.

We fought with it for a while before he got it about right. 'I've got a meeting with some people in an hour,' he said. 'Then we're going out to dinner. I'd love you to join us. Could you make it?'

I panicked. 'How long have I got?' and he smiled.

'Lots of time. The meeting's at eight, but we'll not be dining till about ten.' He shrugged into his dinner jacket. 'How do I look?'

'Great.' I straightened his collar. 'You'll have to tell me where to go.'

'I'll book you a taxi for nine-thirty. Speak to Alfonso, the manager, when you come down. He'll have it all under control.' He turned and kissed me. 'I'll look forward to you coming.'

The restaurant, when I got there, had tables round a polished dance floor. And great chandeliers. I remember the chandeliers and the music! Sambas, endless sambas from this six-piece band on a stage in one corner; all very subdued, but so carnal, so Latin, ticking away like clockwork, winding you up without you realising it.

The men at his table were very formal. There was much scraping of chairs when I arrived and they all stood up and made little bows as he introduced them to me. Of course, I don't remember any of their names, but they were all important men from the city – maybe one or two of them were in the government, or perhaps the army. Anyway, they were very charming and the dinner went on till well after midnight. He chose for me - lamb with artichokes. It was wonderful, with some incredibly expensive red wine and, at the end of it, the men all asked me if they might smoke. It was unreal, like something out of pre-war Hollywood.

I didn't really know what their meeting had been about. They spoke too fast, except when they were talking directly to me, but they were spending so much money - in a city that was half in ruins. Just a mile from where we were eating, my taxi had driven round the edge of the earthquake zone, past fires - actual bonfires - outside shanty huts of wood and cardboard. The homeless were living in amongst the wreckage of office blocks while these people had everything. That's not how it's supposed to be, is it?

And as the daylight crept in over the lake, we had lain together in my bed at the hotel.

That was the first time he had made love to me, carefully to begin with, gently till I cried out and pulled him to me.

Later we watched the sun light up the crater of Mount Masaya and drank fruit juice and strong coffee and watched the new day.

I don't think he even went to bed after that. He just got dressed and went back out.


In the darkness, the girl feels the sharp prick on her face as another mosquito draws blood from her cheek. She slaps listlessly at it. The insects no longer anger her; they have become as much part of her life as the filth of the room she is imprisoned in. She does not consciously notice them, any more than she consciously notices the sweet stench of her own clothing or the reeking bucket in the corner of her cell.

But, despite the lethargy that drains her, she is angry; angry to find herself awake again, returned by consciousness to the squalor of this place.

She rolls onto her back on the hard, metal bed and stares at the invisible ceiling, listening. Something moves in the darkness, high up in the corner.

She relaxes. It is her friend, the only one of God's creatures that cares about her in this tropical nightmare. It is the tiny green-grey gecko that shares her prison. Every night it patrols the dripping walls, hunting for the mosquitoes that plague this coast of Nicaragua.

Another insect is moving over her sweating skin. It has crawled out of the bedding. The girl snarls and throws off the coarse woollen blanket. She rolls clumsily out of bed, her bare feet on the earth floor. The gecko is gone, frozen into silent immobility by her unexpected movement.

In only underwear and a khaki shirt that bulges over her pregnant belly, Tanya Mitchell scratches at herself in the darkness and listens for the sounds of the jungle outside, but all the creatures have fallen still, as though they too have been frightened by her sudden action.

In that moment, a piercing shaft of soundless lightning etches the bars of the high window and, for an instant, she sees the lizard dwarfed by its own huge flat shadow. Then it is gone.

The girl flinches in the total darkness as thunder explodes round her tiny prison, then incandescent light sears the air again and the storm arrives, starting with the staccato drumming of drops of rain on the corrugated iron roof. It grows to a violent crescendo and she drags the rickety chair up, under the high window. As she always does when a storm comes, she stands on the chair and presses her face against the bars, thrusting her arms out into the cleansing rain. She draws the wet hands across her face, drinking the clear water, scrubbing at the filth, running cool fingers through her dank hair, once bleached by the Caribbean sun, but now matted and dark with sweat.

Under the hammering of the rain, a waterfall gushes from the roof, cascading to the ground, turning the earth to mud. The girl drags off her soiled shirt and holds it in the torrent - gathering water. The cold, wet cloth caresses her face, her arms, her breasts, her naked body.

Suddenly her hands stop on the swell of her belly, distended with her unborn child. My baby will be born in this God-forsaken room! She touches her body, feeling the foetus move within her. I don't want this child! Oh God, I do not want this baby. Not here. Not like this.

The rain forgotten, she throws the shirt down on the earth floor and drops exhausted onto the rough bed.

Rage wells up inside her, overcoming fear, feeding defiance till she is on her feet again, staggering across the black room, groping for the invisible walls until she finds herself crashing bare hands against the hard wood of the door, shouting for someone to come. Anyone. Someone. For God's sake, is there nobody? Finally, she sinks to her knees on the hard ground, begging, pleading but there is nothing. Only emptiness.

Even the storm has become subdued, growling away across the forest, leaving only dripping trees and the returning black of night.

The gecko moves again across the room and slowly the girl fumbles in the blackness on her hands and knees, feeling blindly on the floor for her shirt. When she finds it, it is muddy with the foul earth. She pulls it over her bare shoulders.

In a moment of clarity, she knows exactly how long she has been in this prison. There is a record, scraped on the white-washed walls. She feels the scratches with her fingers. She cannot see them in the darkness, but she knows them off by heart. It would be nearly two hundred days, when the dawn light comes. She had not started carving the marks at first, when she had thought they would let her out - take her somewhere else - send her back to England. But now, when she remembers, she marks one every day, just after the wizened native woman brings the pitcher of stale water and bowl of peas and rice. If she is lucky, she sometimes finds some pieces of fish in amongst the rice. She bears the Indian no ill will. She is only doing what somebody pays her to do - bring food and empty the stinking bucket.

The girl lies down again on the hard bed.

There was a time, it must have been two weeks ago, when she hoped she might die. During the fever, she had not ticked off those days. They had passed in a shivering nightmare. The old Indian had nursed her, in her simple way, with wet cloths and a small gourd of bitter medicine. The girl had thought that the soldiers would move her then, but the moment had passed and they had done nothing.

Eventually the shaking had left her and she had waited to see if the baby would still move within her body. Then when it did, she started to eat the food again, to watch the sun moving across the wall, to scratch the marks in the white-wash. Nothing had changed.


Chapter 2