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, which I assume is from the dry, woven palms that have been used for the roof of this stilt house.
The last two weeks of my life are a blur. They appear in my mind like a flickering black and white cine film. I am running, travelling, mostly by night, under the cloak of darkness and slithering out of the United States and away from the injustice that has been 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 live 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 mosquito net. I have no recollection of setting it up, but I remember thinking I am covered in bites anyway, why bother? So Luna must have done it whilst 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.
My eyes scan the small, dimly lit room with no apertures to the outside world, searching for my clothes. I remember leaving a pile of filthy clothing at the foot of the bed – a mattress, perched on a slightly raised wooden pallet – but there are clean and neatly folded clothes at arm’s reach, which are not my own. I slide my arm out from under the mosquito net and grab the unfamiliar shorts and oversized t-shirt and put them on.
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 wash 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 and putting the cup down on the floor beside my mattress. I roll on to my side to face her, drawing my knees up into the foetal position and fold my arms across my chest. My body is aching, my mind struggling to control the jumble within. There are so many what nows and what-ifs that we need to discuss. A bizarre recall of Emilie Autumn’s lyrics flashes through my mind…
‘What if I’m an angel without wings to take me home. You don’t know me … I’m outside your picture frame. And the glass is breaking now.’
Luna hooks the mosquito net back and I sit up, with my back against the wall, constructed like everything else, from materials found in the jungle.
‘You have slept for twenty-four hours, give or take.’ she says her lips cracking open into a smile, her seamless brown skin framing two rows of perfect white teeth. ‘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 tin cup filled with warm black coffee and hold 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 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.
I had flown from Los Angeles to Seattle to spend a few days exploring the city, as well as some of the islands in the Puget Sound. Earlier that day 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 stay in the United States. The condo is owned by a company run by an acquaintance of mine in the UK, who was happy for me to use it for as long as I needed.
I returned to my hotel room with the intention of getting an early night, as my plan was to start my drive south at dawn the following morning. My bed was strewn with maps and brochures as I planned my route and identified places to stay. I remember being irritated. If I had left the day before, I could have seen Pink in concert at Portland’s Moda Centre, but consoled myself with the thought that 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 in the room next door.
I heard a man and a woman arguing, then the sound of four gunshots, followed by a woman screaming, silenced when a single shot was fired. I should have stayed put, rung 911 and locked my door. Instead, I went out into the corridor just as Tamara was fleeing the blood-spattered room, cautiously stepping over a woman lying face down in the doorway, blood oozing out of her back 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 as her gloved hands thrust the murder weapon into mine. I reacted like she had passed me a handful of hot coals, juggling the gun in my hands before letting it fall to the floor. She smiled at me, whilst removing her gloves, stuffing them into her pocket, before running through the hotel screaming.
‘Help, help me, please! Call 911! My fiancé’s been shot.’
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 still breathing, so I grabbed a handful of towels and did what I could to stem the flow of blood. The bullet had entered through her chest and exited from her back. I didn’t think there was any spinal damage and was more concerned that the bullet had pierced a lung. She stopped breathing and I had just started CPR when I was restrained by hotel security as the distraught Tamara identified me as the shooter. If you don’t let me help her she will die! I shouted, in vain, as I was manhandled away.
I was made aware very early on that Tamara’s father was not only the owner of the hotel I was staying in but that he held a position of power within the US Government. I didn’t realise until later that I was interrogated by Seigel 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, but the tape had been spirited away as the Siegel family worked their plan to nail me for the murders Tamara had committed. But what about the gun? I had pleaded with them. I would have no idea where to get a gun. But this was the Siegels I was dealing with, so falsifying any paperwork to ensure I went down for this crime, was no big deal to them.
After an emotionally draining cross-examination whilst still on the hotel premises, I was waiting to be taken into police custody. I felt broken and my face must have betrayed the feeling of hopelessness within, as no one had thought it necessary to accompany me to the ladies room. Whilst considering my options about how to escape the nightmare I found myself in, I heard sounds of indistinct chatter and traffic coming from outside and realised the windows were open on to the street. Digging deep, I managed to summon the inner strength to fight back and escaped through a vent, disappearing into the night.
The word lowlife came to mind as I stole a pair of jeans and a jacket from a washing line, but 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, which I used to my advantage when hitching my way back to the condo, making out that 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 a $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.
By the time the police worked out my connection to the condo, I was long gone. Dressed in black leggings and a hoodie, I lost myself on the streets of Los Angeles, whilst working 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. My bank account had been frozen and 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 trauma I had been trying to escape 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.
Sitting 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 and 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, but 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 a paediatric consultant for one of the London hospitals. I remember thinking that things couldn’t get much better. I was right, 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 but, because my father had recently broken a toe and my mother hated driving any further than the village shop, Raoul said he would pick them up.
He 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 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 off 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 was texting at seventy miles an hour and rammed the vehicle in front, sending it careering off the road and 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; losing 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 and who nobly delivered the eulogy. He had been at school with my father, before going on to share the highs and lows of their adult lives together. It had been difficult 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 he had decided to stay in London after he finished university and 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 tell them that he 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 and buoyed up by our friends, I watched in silence as the coffin of the charismatic young man I had loved with all my heart for nine years disappeared into eternity through a pair of velvet curtains.
I took him 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. The day 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. In hindsight, now the Siegels were ready to hammer nails into my 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. He 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 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 huge sum, although the sentimental loss can never be quantified, but enough for the proceeds to pay for a new name, a forged passport and safe passage to Mexico.
My hair is now dyed black, 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 perfectly pronounced collection of Spanish expletives, contributed to the ease with which we passed through the border checks at Tijuana with me at the wheel.
Luna has brought me here to a Peruvian village that consists of around 20 homes, perched on the banks of the Amazon River. My new home, built on stilts, to keep it dry when the river floods every year. The stilts also keep snakes and other wildlife out, including 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 kosha. She seems to live a double life, suburban LA housewife and part-time spook. I don’t image that she will stay with me here for any length of time as she has a life 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. 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 OK. 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 OK, but I feel like everything that has happened has sucked the life force out of me. And, 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.
As the baby’s unrelenting cries tear at my heart, my body instinctively responds, just like it had done in that hotel corridor in Seattle as once more I somehow 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.’