The hollow whistling sound of bamboo wind chimes wakes me. I am slow to stir, blinking my heavy eyelids open. My eyes feel sore, and my vision is blurred. A musty, dusty smell hangs in the air from the dry, woven palms used for the roof of this stilt house.
The last two weeks of my life are a blur. Flickering in my mind like a black and white cine film. I am running. Travelling at night under the cloak of darkness. Slithering out of the United States, escaping from the injustice thrust upon me.
We arrived here at dusk, after an exhausting trek through the jungle with the unfamiliar and often unnerving sounds of the wildlife that lives here. The incessant hiss of the cicadas rings in my ears and the stench of decaying rainforest, on which new plant life thrives, is the source of constant nausea.
I was so tired, sleep quickly overwhelmed me. I am naked, covered only by a sheet. My eyes scan the small, dimly lit room with no apertures to the outside world, searching for my clothes. I remember taking off my filthy clothing and leaving them in a pile at the foot of the bed – a mattress, perched on a slightly raised wooden pallet. My clothes, ingrained with sweat and dirt have gone and have been replaced with clean, neatly folded clothes, within arm’s reach. They are not my own, but neither is my life anymore. I slide my arm out from under the mosquito net and grab the unfamiliar shorts and oversized t-shirt and put them on.
I have no memory of setting up the mosquito net. I couldn’t see the point. I was covered in bites anyway, so why bother? Luna must have done it while I slept.
I squeeze my eyes together, trying to recall what time I might have gone to sleep. The battery on my watch died somewhere between Seattle and Lima, so I have no idea what time it is, let alone what day of the week it is.
I wipe the sweat from my face and neck, wondering if I will ever get used to the oppressive heat. The humidity is constant, unrelenting, but a small price to pay for making myself invisible to the world.
I run the fingers of both hands through my hair and feel the grime of the last two weeks. I haven’t washed it since I left the hotel in Seattle; there has been no time to indulge in life’s little luxuries. Am I expected to bathe in the river? My first impression of the mighty Amazon, albeit with tired eyes, was that it looked polluted and goodness knows what lurks beneath its surface. I lie down again because there is nothing to get up for.
Luna comes into the room through the door-less portal holding something in her right hand, and I smell coffee.
‘Buenas tardes…’ She says rolling the r of her native tongue. She puts a tin cup full of steaming black coffee on the wooden floor beside my mattress before hooking the mosquito net back. I sit up, resting my back against the bamboo-woven wall. My body aches and my mind is struggling to control the jumble within. There are so many what now and what-ifs we need to discuss.
‘You have slept for twenty-four hours, give or take.’ Her lips crack open into a smile, framing two rows of perfect white teeth, her seamless brown skin beaded with small drops of perspiration.
‘It was time. You badly needed to rest.’ Luna is a woman I barely know, and yet I owe her my life and my freedom. I pick up the cup, holding it in both hands.
‘De nada. There is plenty more in the pot. You come and get it when you are ready. Right now, I am cooking fish for us to eat. You are way too skinny, we need to fatten you up.’
Not much chance of that I think. The local flora and fauna have already had an explosive effect on my gut. What I need is to wake up from this nightmare, but this is no bad dream, this is my life.
It seems like an eternity ago I flew from Los Angeles to Seattle to spend a few days exploring the city, as well as some of the islands in the Puget Sound. I had decided to hire a car, so I could take a leisurely drive back to the condo in Newport Beach where I was based for my six-month sabbatical in the United States. The apartment is owned by a company run by an acquaintance of mine in the UK. He had been happy for me to use it for as long as I needed.
I returned to my hotel room number 217 on the third floor at around 7p.m. My intention was to have an early night, so I could start the drive south at dawn the following morning. My bed was littered with maps as I planned my route and identified places to stay. I remember feeling irritated because, if had left the day before, I could have seen Pink in concert at Portland’s Moda Centre. I consoled myself with the thought that, as I still had four months of my extended break left, there would be other opportunities. I was very wrong because minutes later Tamara Siegel shot her fiancé and his lover.
I was aware of a young couple arguing in the room next door and remember thinking, ‘life’s too short’ when the sound of four gunshots rang out. During the ominous silence that followed all I could hear was my beating heart. A high-pitched, blood-curdling woman’s scream and a single gunshot brought me back to reality.
I should have stayed put, locked my door and called 911. Instead, I rushed out into the corridor just as Tamara Siegle was fleeing the blood-spattered room. She was stepping over a woman lying face down in the doorway, blood oozing through her white linen blouse. Tamara’s face betrayed feelings of relief when she saw me, as, in that split second, I became her get of jail free card. Her gloved hands thrust the gun into mine. I reacted as if she had passed me a handful of hot coals, juggling the weapon in my hands before letting it fall to the floor. She smiled at me as she removed her gloves, stuffing them into her pocket as she ran towards the lifts screaming,
‘Help! Help me, please! Call 911! My fiancé’s been shot.’
Through the open door of room 218, I could see the man was inert, lying in a reservoir of blood oozing from the holes Tamara had drilled in and around his heart. The woman was lying on her side unconscious, but still breathing. A single bullet wound to her chest, which was bleeding out. I gently turned her on to her back, straightened her legs and ripped open her shirt. Grabbing a handful of towels from a nearby laundry caddie, I began to stem the flow. Her blood pumped through the first makeshift dressing, and I applied another one on top.
A few hotel guests were peering out from behind the doors of their rooms, reluctant to help.
‘Somebody call 911!’ I yelled, reinforcing pressure on the woman’s chest with my knee. ‘The shooter’s a woman, and she’s still in the building.’
‘The emergency services are on their way.’ A female voice responded, her voice cracking with emotion as she ran up the corridor ahead of a posse of the hotel staff. A distraught Tamara Siegel.
‘Yes, the shooter is a woman, and it’s her!’ She screamed, pointing at me. ‘She killed my fiancé!’
I looked up at her in disbelief then back to the woman whose blood was covering my hands. Her life was draining away with each agonizing second, and I was being pulled to my feet by two security guards.
‘If you don’t let me help her, she will die!’ I shouted, in vain, as I was hauled away.
I was made aware very early on that Tamara’s father was not only the owner of the hotel, but he also held a position of power within the US Government. I was questioned in the hotel but didn’t realise until after I had been subjected to brutal interrogation, that my inquisitors were Seigel’s henchmen and not the police. I kept telling them that all they had to do was look at the hotel CCTV footage to see that I was innocent. In hindsight, it was no surprise that the tape had been spirited away. The Siegel family were working their plan to nail me for the murders Tamara had committed.
‘But… what about the gun?’ I pleaded with them. ‘I would have no idea where to get a gun.’
But this was the Siegels I was dealing with. Falsifying any paperwork to ensure I was convicted for this crime was no big deal to them.
After they had beaten me to an emotional pulp, I was waiting to be taken into police custody. I felt broken. My face must have betrayed the feelings of hopelessness I felt within because no-one thought it necessary to accompany me to the ladies room. A security guard walked me down the corridor but waited outside.
My thought process was so shrouded in brain fog, the thought of escaping hadn’t occurred to me until I heard the sounds of indistinct chatter and traffic coming from the street. A small window above a row of washbasins was open. It was a split-second decision as I washed the blood from my hands. Digging deep, I managed to summon the inner strength to fight back and squeezed through the vent, disappearing into the night.
The word lowlife came to mind when I stole a pair of jeans and a jacket from a washing line. I felt less corrupt when I completed my disguise after picking up an abandoned Seattle Mariners cap left on a park bench.
I speak fluent Spanish and used it to my advantage when hitching my way back to the condo. I made out my English was muy mal, very bad, which in most cases spared me from being drawn into a conversation.
My mother’s jewellery was in the safe at the condo, along with $1000 in cash. I can’t remember why I decided to take all her jewellery with me to the US. I think because it was so soon after her death, taking it with me provided me with some sort of emotional comfort. I didn’t need a key to get into the condo; it was a digital door lock and, by the time the police worked out my connection to Newport Beach, I was long gone. Dressed in black leggings and a hoodie, with my mother’s jewellery and $1000 stashed in my rucksack, I lost myself on the streets of Los Angeles while I worked out what to do.
I have read enough crime thrillers to know that changing your identity is possible, but expensive. Once I had sold the jewellery, I could do it, if only I knew where I could sell it without any questions being asked. I would never have dreamt of selling it, but now I had no choice. The $1000 would not have lasted long, and my bank account would be frozen.
As I pounded the streets of LA, every TV screen in the city was displaying my passport photograph. I had been added to the FBI’s most-wanted list as the Siegels continued to build their erroneous case against me. I had been labelled as an irrational killer suffering from PTSD, my killing spree undoubtedly brought on by the very recent and very raw trauma in my life. The emotional anguish I had been escaping from when I found myself caught up in another.
In the early hours of that morning, I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels to help me decide. I found myself walking past a Hispanic church, the House of Forgiveness and, in the absence of anywhere else to go, I stumbled through the door.
I sat in a pew in front of the altar. I had drunk about half a bottle before I burst into tears. Uncontrolled, heart-wrenching sobs echoed through the church. Taking a deep breath to try to calm myself, I heard the shuffling of feet.
‘Qué te preocupa, Mi niña?’ A priest appeared from nowhere and was standing over me, asking what troubled me. He sat down, patiently waiting for me to respond. I have never been religious yet, at that moment, I felt an overwhelming need to confess, to open the floodgates and unburden my soul.
Three months previously, I had celebrated my twenty-seventh birthday. It had been quite a celebration because I had just qualified as a doctor after nine years of training. I had a post lined up as an F1 at Kings College Hospital in London. I remember thinking that things couldn’t get any better. How wrong I was, my exuberance and ambition for the future were short-lived.
My boyfriend and long-term love of my life, Raoul, and I decided to rent a cottage for a two-week holiday in Cornwall before I took up my new post. My parents were going to spend the second week with us. Unfortunately, my father had broken a toe and couldn’t drive. My mother hated driving any further than the village shop, so Raoul said he would pick them up.
Raoul anticipated he would be back at the cottage by 4p.m. He was always so reliable. If he ever thought he was going to be late, he would always call, but on that occasion, there was no call. 5p.m. came and went, as did 6 p.m., 7p.m., and 8p.m. I rang him countless times, but he never picked up his phone when he was driving. There was a knock on the door at 9 o’clock. By that time, I was expecting bad news, but not quite such catastrophic news that would blow my whole world apart.
There was no Internet, television or radio in the cottage. If there had been, I would have found out earlier that there had been a crash on the M4. The driver of a transit van had been texting while travelling at seventy miles an hour. He rammed into the vehicle in front, sending it careering off the road into the embankment, killing the driver and two passengers instantly.
I was inconsolable, bizarrely spaced out in a dream-like state. I was broken. Nothing could have prepared me for such an eventuality. To lose the three people I loved the most in one cataclysmic event.
I arranged one funeral for both my parents. I had never discussed with either of them, what type of service they would want at the end of their lives. They were both only in their late fifties and were looking forward to sharing so much more together, especially grandchildren. In my addled state, I welcomed help from my father’s business partner, who had known both my parents so well. He had been at school with my father, before sharing the highs and lows of their adult lives together. It had been hard for him too.
I had no help at all coping with any aspect of the fallout from Raoul’s death. He rarely saw his parents who live in Andalusia. They had been far from happy when Raoul had decided to stay in London after he finished university. They were even more unhappy when he told them he had fallen in love with una rosa inglesa. When the English rose arrived in Andalusia to break the news that their son had been killed in a horrific accident, they closed the door on me. He would still be alive if he hadn’t met me.
Raoul and I had our whole lives stretched out in front of us, discussing our eventual deaths had never occurred to us. I agonised about whether he would have wanted to be buried, perhaps in a wicker casket, or cremated. After many sleepless nights, I made a decision. Buoyed up by our friends, I watched the coffin of the charismatic young man I loved with all my heart disappear into eternity through a pair of velvet curtains.
I took his ashes to Sennen Cove in Cornwall, where we had spent so many wonderful days together and scattered him into the warm breeze at sunset. The day I realised that my life no longer had any purpose.
I decided to take a minimum of six months out and go walkabout in the United States, with a view to, maybe, working there one day. With the Siegels ready to hammer nails into my own coffin, I wished I had gone somewhere closer to home.
I was rambling, pouring out the contents of my aching my heart out to a total stranger. The priest took my hand in his, and I snatched it away. I panicked, thinking I had said too much and felt the urge to run. After all, the Siegels were offering to pay a princely sum to anyone who turned me in, but the priest stopped me. He reassured me that everything would be okay because he could help. He introduced me to his niece, Luna. She knew where to sell the jewellery without any questions being asked. It was not a considerable sum, although the sentimental loss can never be quantified. It was enough for the proceeds to pay for a new name, a forged passport and safe passage to Mexico.
My hair doused with black dye, my skin ingrained with the grime of clandestine travel and my face etched with lines of someone who has reached the point of no return. All these things, together with my correctly pronounced collection of Spanish expletives, contributed to the ease with which we passed through the border checks at Tijuana.
After a six-hour flight from Mexico City to Jorge Chavez International Airport, Luna brought me here to a Peruvian village. It consists of around 20 homes, perched on the banks of the Amazon River. My new home is built on stilts, to keep it dry when the river floods every year and to keep out predators, like the Siegels.
A male voice calls Luna’s name, and I hear muffled tones of animated conversation in Spanish. Speaking fluent Spanish, thanks to Raoul, has contributed to saving my life, but I couldn’t have made it without Luna. I wonder why and how she has so many contacts, and not all of them are kosher. She seems to live a double life, suburban LA housewife and part-time spook. I don’t imagine that she will stay with me here for any length of time as she has a life and a family to go home to in Los Angeles. Her job is done, but I’m really not sure I can survive without her.
I get up and walk through the door-less portal into a room with no walls. Luna is looking at me, smiling.
‘Freya?’ She says, putting both hands firmly on my shoulders and looking me straight in the eyes. ‘Freya… I have wonderful news… it’s over.’
I stare back at her, I’ve never noticed before, but she has very dark brown eyes. What is she about to tell me that would make any difference to my life now? She gently squeezes my aching shoulders.
‘The lover… she didn’t die… she was out of it for many, many days but she survived, I think maybe, what you did for her at the scene saved her life. She has spoken to the police. She walked through the door of the hotel room just as Tamara Siegel shot her fiancé. Tamara hadn’t planned to shoot her too, but she arrived at the wrong time… both Tamara and her father have been arrested.’
I slump to the floor. It’s too late for me now I can’t come back from this nightmare. I have lost everything, including my name. I am no longer Dr Freya Michaels from London, I am Ana García, who lives in the Peruvian jungle and I am broken. But Luna persists, kneeling in front of me.
‘Freya… look at me… it will be OK. You will be okay. You have been through so much, but now you have your life back.’ Her dark brown eyes search my face as if she is wondering whether I am still capable of rational thought. I want to believe her, I want to be okay, but I feel like everything that has happened has sucked the life force out of me. But, do I really want my old life back anyway? There is nothing to go back for.
A baby cries and a voice calls up from below.
‘Por favor Doctor… mi bebé está muy enfermo. Por favor puedes ayuda.’
‘Freya?’ Luna extends her arms, encouraging me to get to my feet. ‘Please, listen to me. You need to get up.’ She says gently. ‘You are needed. This baby boy very sick and you can help him. You are Dr Freya Michaels, you were trained to heal the sick, and by helping to heal others, you will heal yourself… in time. Please, Freya, please help this child.’
She is nodding her head, willing me to show some trace of comprehension. I think she believes that the cry of this sick child is karma. Maybe she is right.
‘You can do this Freya.’ She is not giving up on me.
The baby’s unrelenting cries tear at my heart. My body instinctively responds, just like it had done in that hotel corridor in Seattle, once more, I muster the strength from within. I get to my feet, go down the ladder and take the baby from his mother’s arms and, holding him close to my chest, I whisper softly in Spanish.
“Don’t worry, little one, you will be OK, everything is going to be OK.’