Carson waved from afar at Al Davy, an American without a known occupation and around who rumours of shady business, swindles and double-crosses hover. In any case, he seemed to be highly regarded at the port and was a regular there. He was talking with a blonde, grey-eyed stranger. He motioned Carson to approach.
- “James, let me introduce you to Thierry Scherer.”
- “My pleasure.”
Carson thought this Frenchman must have known what he was getting into, and who he was dealing with. Moreover, no one has ever been able to prove anything about the American.
Thierry Scherer was a born seducer. The youngest of a noble Alsatian family, he was educated in the École Normale Supérieure of Paris, and felt no attraction for neither the family’s vineyards nor the lavish offices of the capital. He settled in Tahiti and alternated between hiring out his services as a pilot and trading in pearls and coral.
Life is made up of a string of coincidences. Carson had decided to accept Doctor Henry’s invitation to go into business. With Colombia on the horizon, Thierry appears and with him, the possibility to travel quickly.
- “I need your aeroplane. We are going to Colombia,” Carson said.
- “Give me a couple of days, it’s a long trip,” replied Thierry, “and I have some matters to attend to first.”
- “That suits us fine.”
In the agreed time, the Laté 28-3 awaited them. Thierry’s men were finalising preparations and getting the aircraft ready, which shone under the oblique rays of breaking dawn. Juan de Mengibar, Escarrabelli and Carson made themselves comfortable inside, feeling a bit strange, like fish out of the water. For the first time in a long time, they were being taken instead of taking the helm. They kept quiet and were quite restless.
- “This is a sturdy and reliable aircraft. Make yourselves comfortable, it’s going to be a long ride. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” assured Thierry. “Bon voyage!” and he took his place in the pilot’s cabin.
He started the engines and the plane made its way down the packed earth runway a few hundred metres. As it lifted for takeoff, Escarrabelli pressed his back against his seat in a futile attempt to recover the sense of security he was enjoying just a few seconds earlier. He looked over at Carson and Juan de Mengibar, who had assumed the same tense posture. He could not help but smile.
- “My word! Your faces have turned absolutely green!”
The trip to Tahiti was uneventful and placid, the Pacific opened up before them like the broad back of a sleeping animal, tame under the clouds, sprinkled with islets. They made a stopover in Tahiti and the Frenchman led them to his house.
- “We set off day after tomorrow.”
After supper, Thierry let the contents of a black velvet pouch slide out. On the teal coloured tablecloth, 10 or 12 magnificent dark pearls gave off their hypnotic brilliance. Merchandise of the highest quality, easy to transport, and that any seasoned buyer would be prepared to pay for, knowing his investment would multiply.
- “The best black Tahitian pearls. I can get as many as you want. They’re a good passport if you intend to do business in Colombia.”
- “Pearls for coffee. Not bad,” Carson assented.
- “It’s always a pleasure to deal with those who know what they’re doing,” concluded Thierry, stretching out his hand to shake Carson’s.
A knock on the door broke the night’s tranquillity. It was way past midnight though Thierry did not seem startled in the least and excused himself to receive the nocturnal visitor. After a few minutes of conversation, he returned while placing a folded envelope in his shirt pocket.
Two days later, they proceeded on the second leg of their voyage. Below them they saw islands, then islets, then small rocks being diluted in a sea of pure blue calm, which grew darker as night set on.
- “Coming up, we should be seeing The Galapagos,” exclaimed Juan de Mengibar.
But they did not see them. They were concealed in a terrible storm that broke without warning and kept the Laté 28 tossing about for hours amidst the great wide ocean. The cargo bumped around violently and the thunder claps were deafening. The rain swept across the windows kept them more isolated, more alone, and more lost. Not one of the three men dared utter a word throughout the entire ordeal. Carson thought perhaps that night was a portent of an uncertain destiny in Colombia, a vague threat or on the contrary, a challenge that had to be faced to crown the success of the American adventure. Either way, he felt safe as long as he was accompanied by Escarrabelli and Juan. As the storm blew over, they could make out the coast. Never has solid ground seemed so precious to them. Another chance.
The Colombian department of Antioquia was dazzlingly beautiful; and Doctor Henry was an exceptional host and a conscientious cicerone. The mountains, deep gorges, waterfalls, vegetation… an overwhelming spectacle.
- “But do not be fooled, this beauty is full of danger.”
- “You mean jaguars?” Thierry enquired.
- “Jaguars, tigers, pumas, alligators, but I’m not just talking about wild beasts. There is fighting everywhere, in the cities and in the mountains. It is not advisable to be caught in the middle of the crossfire. The 1930 electoral defeat caught the conservatives unawares and the liberals made a call to civil disobedience. The deaths, score-settling, ambushes, and open confrontations were the order of the day. What else can I say? Word has it that this disastrous and sordid war is being fuelled from beyond our borders. I would not say it is altogether untrue,” tells Doctor Henry, and proceeds to keep his thoughts to himself.
Back at the hacienda, Doctor Henry approached Juan de Mengibar and Escarrabelli.
- “My friends, far be it from my intention to be a harbinger of ill omen, however, there is something dodgy about this Frenchman. I’ve ordered the foreman Don Gustavo, to have his men not lose sight of him. I could be wrong.”
- “What are you thinking, Doctor?” asked Escarrabelli.
- “He’s a strange bird. Don Gustavo tells me he knows the jungle well. He knows how to move about. He saw him check the compass and make notes. Doesn’t Carson suspect anything?”
- “The Frenchman showed up right when we needed him. Coincidence,” Juan retorted.
- “There’s no such thing as coincidence, Juan. Let’s leave things be for now. Let’s see what more Don Gustavo has to tell us.”
The clouds rolled over the hills. Dusk fell. There was nothing else to do but wait...