SHE LOOKED OVER her shoulder before getting into the car to be sure no one was following her. It was 7:05 in the evening in Bogota. It had been dark for an hour, the Parque Nacional was not well lit, and the silhouettes of leafless trees against a sad, overcast sky seemed ghostly, but nothing appeared to be threatening. Despite her position, Maruja sat behind the driver because she always thought it was the most comfortable seat. Beatriz climbed in through the other door and sat to her right. They were almost an hour behind in their daily schedule, and both women looked tired after a soporific afternoon of three executive meetings--Maruja in particular, who had given a party the night before and had slept for only three hours. She stretched out her tired legs, closed her eyes as she leaned her head against the back of the seat, and gave the usual order: "Please take us home."
As they did every day, they sometimes took one route, sometimes another, as much for reasons of security as because of traffic jams. The Renault 21 was new and comfortable, and the chauffeur drove with caution and skill. The best alternative that night was Avenida Circunvalar heading north. They had three green lights, and evening traffic was lighter than usual. Even on the worst days it took only half an hour to drive from the office to Maruja's house, at No. 84A-42 Transversal Tercera, and then the driver would take Beatriz to her house, some seven blocks away.
Maruja came from a family of well-known intellectuals that included several generations of reporters. She herself was an award-winning journalist. For the past two months she had been the director of FOCINE, the state-run enterprise for the promotion of the film industry. Beatriz, Maruja's sister-in-law and personal assistant, had been a physical therapist for many years but had decided on a change of pace for a while. Her major responsibility at FOCINE was attending to everything related to the press. Neither woman had any specific reason to be afraid, but since August, when the drug traffickers began an unpredictable series of abductions of journalists, Maruja had acquired the almost unconscious habit of looking over her shoulder.
Her suspicion was on target. Though the Parque Nacional had seemed deserted when she looked behind her before getting into the car, eight men were following her. One was at the wheel of a dark blue Mercedes 190 that had phony Bogota plates and was parked across the street. Another was in the driver's seat of a stolen yellow cab. Four of them were wearing jeans, sneakers, and leather jackets and strolling in the shadows of the park. The seventh, tall and well-dressed in a light-weight suit, carried a briefcase, which completed the picture of a young executive. From a small corner cafe half a block away, the eighth man, the one responsible for the operation, observed the first real performance of an action whose intensive, meticulous rehearsals had begun twenty-one days earlier.
The cab and the Mercedes followed Maruja's automobile, keeping a close distance just as they had been doing since the previous Monday to determine her usual routes. After about twenty minutes the three cars turned right onto Calle 82, less than two hundred meters from the unfaced brick building where Maruja lived with her husband and one of her children. They had just begun to drive up the steep slope of the street, when the yellow cab passed Maruja's car, hemmed it in along the left-hand curb, and forced the driver to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. At almost the same time, the Mercedes stopped behind the Renault, making it impossible to back up.
Three men got out of the cab and with resolute strides approached Maruja's car. The tall, well-dressed one carried a strange weapon that looked to Maruja like a sawed-off shotgun with a barrel as long and thick as a telescope. It was, in fact, a 9mm Mini-Uzi equipped with a silencer and capable of firing either single shots or fifteen rounds per second. The other two were armed with submachine guns and pistols. What Maruja and Beatriz could not see were the three men getting out of the Mercedes that had pulled in behind them.
They acted with so much coordination and speed that Maruja and Beatriz could remember only isolated fragments of the scant two minutes of the assault. With professional skill, five men surrounded the car and at the same time dealt with its three occupants. The sixth watched the street, holding his submachine gun at the ready. Maruja's fears had been realized.
"Drive, Angel," she shouted to the driver. "Go up on the sidewalk, whatever, but drive."
Angel was paralyzed, though with the cab in front of him and the Mercedes behind, he had no room to get away in any case. Fearing the men would begin shooting, Maruja clutched at her handbag as if it were a life preserver, crouched down behind the driver's seat, and shouted to Beatriz: "Get down on the floor!"
"The hell with that," Beatriz whispered. "On the floor they'll kill us."
She was trembling but determined. Certain it was only a holdup, she pulled the two rings off her right hand and tossed them out the window, thinking: "Let them earn it." But she did not have time to take off the two on her left hand. Maruja, curled into a ball behind the seat, did not even remember that she was wearing a diamond and emerald ring and a pair of matching earrings.
Two men opened Maruja's door and another two opened Beatriz's. The fifth shot the driver in the head through the glass, and the silencer made it sound no louder than a sigh. Then he opened the door, pulled him out, and shot him three more times as he lay on the ground. It was another man's destiny: Angel Maria Roa had been Maruja's driver for only three days, and for the first time he was displaying his new dignity with the dark suit, starched shirt, and black tie worn by the chauffeurs who drove government ministers. His predecessor, who had retired the week before, had been FOCINE's regular driver for ten years.
Maruja did not learn of the assault on the chauffeur until much later. From her hiding place she heard only the sudden noise of breaking glass and then a peremptory shout just above her head: "You're the one we want, Senora. Get out!" An iron hand grasped her arm and dragged her out of the car. She resisted as much as she could, fell, scraped her leg, but the two men picked her up and carried her bodily to the car behind the Renault. They did not notice that Maruja was still clutching her handbag.
Beatriz, who had long, hard nails and good military training, confronted the boy who tried to pull her from the car. "Don't touch me!" she screamed. He gave a start, and Beatriz realized he was just as nervous as she, and capable of anything. She changed her tone.
"I'll get out by myself," she said. "Just tell me what to do."
The boy pointed to the cab.
"Into that car and down on the floor," he said. "Move!" The doors were open, the motor running, the driver motionless in his seat. Beatriz lay down in the back. Her kidnapper covered her with his jacket and sat down, resting his feet on her. Two more men got in: one next to the driver, the other in back. The driver waited for the simultaneous thud of both doors, then sped away, heading north on Avenida Circunvalar. That was when Beatriz realized she had left her bag on the seat of the Renault, but it was too late. More than fear and discomfort, what she found intolerable was the ammonia stink of the jacket.
They had put Maruja into the Mercedes, which had driven off a minute earlier, following a different route. They had her sit in the middle of the back seat, with a man on either side. The one on the left forced Maruja's head against his knees, in a position so uncomfortable she had difficulty breathing. The man beside the driver communicated with the other car by means of an antiquated two-way radio. Maruja's consternation was heightened because she could not tell which vehicle she was in--she had not seen the Mercedes stop behind her car--but she did know it was comfortable and new, and perhaps bulletproof, since the street noises sounded muted, like the whisper of rain. She could not breathe, her heart pounded, and she began to feel as if she were suffocating. The man next to the driver, who seemed to be in charge, became aware of her agitation and tried to reassure her.
"Take it easy," he said, over his shoulder. "We only want you to deliver a message. You'll be home in a couple of hours. But if you move there'll be trouble, so just take it easy."
The one who held her head on his knees also tried to reassure her. Maruja took a deep breath, exhaled very slowly through her mouth, and began to regain her composure. After a few blocks the situation changed because the car ran into a traffic jam on a steep incline. The man on the two-way radio started to shout impossible orders that the driver of the other car could not carry out. Several ambulances were caught in traffic somewhere along the highway, and the din of sirens and earsplitting horns was maddening even for someone with steady nerves. And for the moment, at least, that did not describe the kidnappers. The driver was so agitated as he tried to make his way through traffic that he hit a taxi. It was no more than a tap, but the cab driver shouted something that made them even more nervous. The man with the two-way radio ordered him to move no matter what, and the car drove over sidewalks and through empty lots.
When they were free of traffic, they were still going uphill. Maruja had the impression they were heading toward La Calera, a hill that tended to be very crowded at that hour. Then she remembered some cardamom seeds, a natural tranquilizer, in her jacket pocket, and asked her captors to let her chew a few. The man on her right helped her look for them, and this was when he noticed she was still holding her handbag. They took it away but gave her the cardamom. Maruja tried to get a good look at the kidnappers, but the light was too dim. She dared to ask a question: "Who are you people?" The man with the two-way radio answered in a quiet voice: "We're from the M-19."
A nonsensical reply: The M-19, a former guerrilla group, was legal now and campaigning for seats in the Constituent Assembly.
"Seriously," said Maruja. "Are you dealers or guerrillas?"
"Guerrillas," said the man in front. "But don't worry, we just want you to take back a message. Seriously."
He stopped talking and told the others to push Maruja down on the floor because they were about to pass a police checkpoint. "Now if you move or say anything, we'll kill you." She felt the barrel of a revolver pressing against her ribs, and the man beside her completed the thought: "That's a gun pointing at you.
The next ten minutes were eternal. Maruja focused her energy, chewing the cardamom seeds that helped to revive her, but her position did not let her see or hear what was said at the checkpoint, if in fact anything was said. Maruja had the impression that they went through with no questions asked. The suspicion that they were going to La Calera became a certainty, and the knowledge brought her some relief. She did not try to sit up because she felt more comfortable on the floor than with her head on the man's knees. The car drove along a dirt road for about five minutes, then stopped. The man with the two-way radio said: "This is it."
No lights were visible. They covered Maruja's head with a jacket and made her look down when she got out, so that all she saw was her own feet walking, first across a courtyard and then through what may have been a kitchen with a tile floor. When they uncovered her head she found herself in a small room, about two by three meters, with a mattress on the floor and a bare red lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. A moment later two men came in, their faces concealed by a kind of balaclava that was in fact the leg of a pair of sweatpants with three holes cut for the eyes and mouth. From then on, during her entire captivity, she did not see her captors' faces again.
She knew that these two were not the same men who had abducted her. Their clothes were shabby and soiled, they were shorter than Maruja, who is five feet, six inches tall, and they had the voices and bodies of boys. One of them ordered Maruja to hand over her jewelry. "For security reasons," he said. "It'll be safe here." She gave him the emerald ring with the tiny diamonds, but not the earrings.
In the other car, Beatriz could draw no conclusion regarding their route. She lay on the floor the entire time and did not recall driving up any hill as steep as La Calera, or passing any checkpoints, though the cab might have had a special permit that allowed it through without being stopped. The atmosphere in the car was very tense because of the heavy traffic. The man at the wheel shouted into the two-way radio that he couldn't drive over the other cars and kept asking what to do, which made the men in the lead car so nervous they gave him different, and contradictory, instructions.
Beatriz was very uncomfortable, with one leg bent under her and the stink of the jacket making her dizzy. She tried to find a less painful position. Her guard thought she was struggling and attempted to reassure her: "Take it easy, sweetheart, nothing's going to happen to you. You just have to deliver a message." When he realized at last that the problem was her leg, he helped her straighten it and was less brusque with her. More than anything else, Beatriz could not bear the "sweetheart," a liberty that offended her almost more than the stench of the jacket. But the more he tried to reassure her, the more convinced she became that they were going to kill her. She estimated the trip as taking no more than forty minutes, so it must have been about a quarter to eight when they reached the house.
Excerpted from News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez Translated by Edith Grossman. Copyright © 2008 by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.