by Heather LT
A fast paced race around South America takes one pair off course.
N.B. This is not really a chapter as I haven't any in this story. It is only double paragraphed to make it easier to read on screen. Written in British English. Trying to think up a better title.
The following day, the alarm clock buzzes relentlessly at eight-o-clock. They both woke up covering their ears and then quickly guffawed at each other.
To Ellie, they didn't feel like strangers anymore. Something about his friendly exterior put her at ease, and he was extremely easy to get on with. Regardless of her lack of faith, she sent a silent prayer to the Big Guy above the clouds and thanked Him for small favours.
They showered, dressed, and packed the remainder of their belongings into their suitcases before heading down to the lobby.
"Your cab is waiting," the receptionist told Toby with a flirtatious smile of someone who knew him all too well. "The doorman will get your luggage."
With their luggage packed, their seatbelts clipped securely into place, the cab driver transporting them to the Dragoman Challenge headquarters, there really was no turning back for Ellie.
The butterflies in her stomach fluttered like crazy; that and her shallow breathing forced her to control her fear. She wasn’t ashamed to admit to herself that she was scared. Her mind kept wandering back to her family and friends in England. To safety. Then those thoughts would get interrupted by unwanted pictures of McKenna's taunting face. He had forced her to be here.
She wished she could blame McKenna entirely for this, but she knew she couldn't. It was her own stubbornness that had gotten her into this situation, her own arrogance. Was it really necessary to prove that she wasn’t afraid of him?
"Don’t look so worried, Ellie," Toby said out of the blue. He remembered she’d said earlier that this was her first experience participating in the race. "I won't let anything happen to you – trust me, I’m a doctor," he winked.
I’m about to partake in a month-long race around the South American continent and you’re telling me not to worry, thought Ellie as she exited the cab.
They were ushered like a herd of cattle into a dark warehouse full of large boxes marked with big red letters and a handful of plastic chairs scattered around.
Toby offered her a chair, for which her shaky legs were grateful. He stood behind her with his hands braced on the back of her chair. He was talking to DeLuca, who had patted her on her back in a gesture to say hello. It outweighed that of others who came up to them and blanked her but greeted Toby.
She noticed a pair of women dressed in army combats. Were they part of a military? Have they ever won the race before? They must have a good knowledge base to help them, training, and experience. She found herself fretting about her lack of experience. Would she hold Toby back? Would she somehow screw things up? Would he think her stupid for not knowing how to do the easiest of tasks, like set up a campfire or erect the tent?
She had been too preoccupied to notice that McKenna had walked into the warehouse and nonchalantly sauntered over to them.
"Whose gotten lumbered with the princess then?" he mocked, rubbing his hands gleefully excited to find out.
Toby admitted to being partnered with Ellie. He even said he was looking forward to the journey, which Ellie was grateful to hear.
It was followed by DeLuca telling him that they were going to win the challenge.
Ellie remained silently wary. Her body wound up so tight that she would spring to her feet and slap the smug grin from McKenna’s face without a second thought if he so much as threw her a dirty look. Princess, she scoffed, would a princess allow herself to be involved with such a man?
"Surely you're not seriously thinking about winning the challenge, Chalky?"
Ellie resisted the urge to roll her eyes at his tone. She had heard over dinner that - with dirty tactics - the winner of the Dragoman Challenge for the past three years had always been McKenna.
"You know what they say about a new woman on the road..." It was an old adage supposed to mean good luck.
McKenna snorted at the idea.
He crouched down to see Ellie's face. "Oh, Ellie, the naive doctor thinks he can keep you safe in the big bad jungle."
At this point there was a scuffle. DeLuca pushed McKenna out of Ellie's personal space.
A large black man bounded towards the scuffling pair, splitting them up and muttering what Ellie imagined to be obscenities in Spanish, before an older gentleman appeared by his side. The gentleman, who Ellie recognised as Graham Dragoman from a photo on a leaflet she read earlier, gave a speech about how friendly competitiveness was acceptable but violent competitiveness wasn't tolerated. He then warned both McKenna and DeLuca to keep their distance from each, until finally he turned to Ellie, who was still seated, and welcomed her to the Dragoman Challenge. “We always like to see new faces here,” he said before walking away.
When all was said and done, the crowd of people who had formed around them during the chaos dispersed into their pairs again.
One of the women dressed in army combats came over to them, embracing Toby with a bear hug and laughing loudly at DeLuca causing trouble again.
Quick introductions were made for Ellie’s benefit. “This is Ellie,” grinned Toby, “she’s new to the race.”
The woman nodded at Ellie in acknowledgement. "You're in good hands with Chalky."
Looking between the pair, detecting the inflection and suspicious of their in-joke, she smiled out of politeness. Her jumpy nerves wouldn’t let her do anything else.
“I’m Natasha Baronoff,” her Russian accent sounded much stronger as she pronounced her name. “That’s Nadia,” she now nodded towards the woman Ellie had seen her with.
The meeting was called to order by the older gentleman who’d kept the peace earlier. “Welcome, adventurers,” he clasped his hands together and began pacing in front of a huge continental map that was being projected onto the wall behind him.
Ellie studied the map. It outlined a rough example of a route around South America representing a trail. It went through familiar cities like Lima and Rio and Santiago, as well as less familiar cities with names Ellie probably couldn’t pronounce. It showed they had to cut through jungle, cross rivers, and drive up mountains; she wondered briefly about the effects their vehicles would have on the environment.
A gaggle of laughter erupted and her attention drifted back to the presentation. He was now disclosing the lax rules: no deliberate sabotaging and that they must check in as regularly as possible via the satellite phone. Ellie's nervousness heightened at the thought of deliberate sabotage. Nobody noticed the shudder that coursed through her body.
“As stipulated in the terms of condition upon entering, the nature of the race means that we are unable to monitor progress and further than the location beacon embedded in your vehicles allows,” he took a breath, “so we trust that you will all remain obliging f the rules.” The way his eyes glared above the heads of contestants to land pointedly on a few faces wasn’t unnoticed by Ellie.
When the formalities were covered, the pairs were called out one-by-one where they collected their boxed supplies and left for the starting point of the race: a city called Medellin.
For the one hundred thirty-eight mile journey to Medellin from Cartagena, they travelled on something resembling a truck and a coach mashed together that was given the name 'Dragoman'. "It's perfectly fit for travel," Toby told her. "It's got a fully stocked medical kit, a drinking water tank, spare wheels, seatbelts..." he grinned at her. "The seats are even forward facing so you won’t get travel sick."
He watched her peer inside the vehicle and knew instantly that she was impressed.
By dinnertime, five pairs had boarded the Dragoman, and others chose to fly the hundred plus miles instead of enduring the cheaper coach travel. Five pairs made walking around inside the Dragoman easy and they could all sit where they wanted without feeling crowded or claustrophobic. Despite the spacious seating, Toby chose to sit next to Ellie for the duration of the journey to make her feel included. DeLuca and his partner in the race, a man named Jon Franco, sat opposite them and discussed tactics with Toby.
Ellie found the conversation gripping. She couldn't believe that she was about to trek through a jungle! But as much as she wanted to listen in on the chatter, the steady rhythm of the coach lulled her into a snooze.
It wasn’t until the coach jerked to a stop two hours later that she woke up and discovered her head had been on Toby's shoulder the whole time. She shot him an apologetic look before her eyes diverted to a black man wearing military clothing, his face shiny from sweat. He was boarding the coach. The air seemed to thicken as the thud of heavy boots sounded as he walked up and down the aisle glimpsing all of their faces.
He shouted for everyone to evacuate the bus. Everyone obeyed, wary of this man with a rifle strapped on his shoulder. The atmosphere was intense.
Her heart thudded as Toby helped her out of her seat and followed her down the small aisle of the bus. She stood between DeLuca and Toby on ferns that had already been trampled by the people who had stopped them. It was her first real experience of inhabited land and she was struck by not only the humid hit that felt like a blanket around her shoulders but the vast greenness of the scenery around her.
Fortunately, it was only a routine drug stop as local Colombian police searched for narcotics. The search was swift. They were able to board the coach promptly afterwards.
They arrived late afternoon in the smoggy bubble of air that was the city of Madellin. The Dragoman dropped everyone off at their desired destinations around the city with Toby and Ellie exiting at a guarded storage lock up.
Scepticism made Ellie disbelieving when McKenna told her that he’d arrange everything for her, and all she had to do was turn up. Now, as her eyes roamed over a storage unit brimming with supplies, including his jeep, she was able relinquished her worry. Toby must have been in the country for a while to be as prepared as he was. She flipped a look towards him, her eyes roaming over a face that was appreciating his own jeep. A feeling of assurance washed over her.
Bright red in colour except for the shock of black that was the tires and the windscreen wipers, the modified jeep stood imposingly in the garage.
"It's the latest on-road-and-off-road vehicle. It has everything we need: global tracking, weather monitor, satellite phone, air conditioning, spotlights, fire extinguisher, and chains and winch because we will get into some trouble."
It was clearly a vehicle to be proud of.
The interior was surprisingly cushy with soft leather seats and foot rests. It was spacious too, despite the backseats being occupied by rolled up sleeping bags, quilts and blankets, and pillows.
She made herself comfortable in the passenger seat, wondering what it was like to camp, Toby drove them to a local hotel where the contestants could stay until it was time to leave for the race.
They had three hours until they were required to show up at the starting line, enough time for a shower and a good meal.
During dinner, Toby gave Ellie a brief history about the city they were in now. He explained that Cartagena, the second largest city in Colombia, was in the Aburra Valley part of the Andes.
She listened intently, finding it quite interesting.
"Come here," he nodded towards a window in the hotel room. "Take a look at the view at this time of night."
It was truly an amazing view, thought Ellie as she took in the sight of an uneven stretch of land that was glowing with orange and white lights. She couldn’t stop the smile spreading across her face. Not a polite smile, but one that was genuine and designed to thank Toby for showing her the view.