Part IV: So Builds An Absolute Trust
By Flora and Gallagater
Jack O’Neill and Frank Cromwell run into some trouble on a top secret mission to Nicaragua when Frank is wounded and Jack is captured by government forces. And that’s just the beginning of their problems…
There is no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.
— Shakespeare, Macbeth
Several heads turned at the unexpected exclamation as Jack O’Neill flung his pack into the back of the battered old truck, ignoring a dour look from the CIA agent overseeing this departure.
Frank Cromwell hid an amused smile, fanning himself with his cap. The rest of the men, most of whom spoke no English, continued loading crates into the back of the truck, apparently dismissing this latest outburst and Jack’s enthusiasm as typical American idiocy. They’d only been in Honduras two days, Frank reflected, and already the Nicaraguan contra rebels at this training camp had taken to calling his best friend “el Americano loco.”
Jack’s sense of humor didn’t always translate well into Spanish.
Hell, lots of times Jack’s jokes were incomprehensible in English, he thought, as the truck’s engine started with a reluctant growl. And he’d had years to get used to it.
He patted his jacket pocket for the third time this morning, where his fake identity papers were carefully hidden. Not that he thought anybody inside Nicaragua would believe two gringos carrying MP-5s were really Bob and Joe Valentine, clueless American businessmen who really thought they were going to make a fortune in a country in the middle of a civil war. It was hardly a secret anymore that the CIA was involved in helping the contras, although the extent of that help wasn’t public knowledge — yet. They both knew if the government authorities found out they were around, they were royally screwed, no matter how authentic their IDs looked.
All the same, Frank was as happy to finally be heading for action as Jack was. Even if he wasn’t quite as obvious about saying so.
“That’s it, then,” Jack told the CIA guy, whose name was Mark. Or at least, that was the only name he ever gave anybody at the base, but everyone knew it was a code name. Jack had wasted no time in telling anybody who’d listen that it was a damn unoriginal one. And had from then on referred to the man as “the Great and Powerful Oz”, claiming it was just as likely to be correct and a hell of a lot more fun to say.
‘Mark’ was not amused.
“We’re off,” Jack went on, opening the door to the truck cab.
“…to see the Wizard!” Frank finished with him, whacking the back of Jack’s head with his cap.
The expression on their commander’s face wasn’t exactly a strong vote of confidence in their ability to handle weeks undercover behind enemy lines. Sure, they had five years’ service in Special Ops and a Purple Heart each, but they’d also developed a certain reputation while training for their temporary duty in Nicaragua. Cromwell’s pretty much a straight arrow, their instructors at the Farm would say, but O’Neill… he’s a loose cannon, all right, you gotta watch him.
This was their first assignment with the CIA’s Special Operations Group, and none of the paramilitary types at this camp or back at the Farm had ever seen them in action. If it weren’t for the glowing recommendations they’d both gotten from former Air Force team leaders, they probably never would’ve been given this duty at all. But Frank knew, like their former COs all knew, that when the chips were down Jack O’Neill was a damn fine operator, for all his outrageous pranks in training. And sometimes in the field, when it all hit the proverbial fan, creative interpretations of the regs weren’t always a bad thing.
He watched as Jack threw a sloppy salute in Mark’s direction, before they both climbed into the truck. The spooks might be fooled by Jack’s casual attitude and never-ending quest to get on his superiors’ nerves. But Frank knew there was a hell of a lot more to Jack O’Neill than met the eye. And there was no one he’d rather have watching his six on a mission like this.
Frank lit a cigarette, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and trying to relax. Not an easy task, in a truck that had probably crossed the desert with Moses and the Israelites, bouncing up and down along a rutted dirt road that was rapidly turning to mud.
They’d crossed the border about an hour ago, and now they were winding their way south through a dense forest. So far the rain was only a misty drizzle, and through the gray veils that shrouded the countryside they could see dark green slopes rising to either side. Here in the northern highlands it was cooler than he’d expected it to be, and right about now he was wishing he’d brought something heavier than a light poncho to keep out the rain. The truck would only take them so far, for security reasons, and then they’d have to hike the rest of the way to the village to meet their contact.
There were six of them in the truck-the driver, Frank, and Jack in the front seat, and three Nicaraguans in the back. The oldest of the three looked around thirty, and the other two couldn’t have been older than sixteen.
Jack had snagged the window seat, and he’d been suspiciously silent for most of the ride in. The fingers of one hand drummed absently against the door, as he stared out into the rain. In his other hand he was holding a few pieces of folded paper.
A very different Jack O’Neill from the one who sat diligently by a campfire late last night, his knife in one hand and a green coconut he’d found lying around under the trees in the other. Frank hid a smile, remembering how his friend had looked up as he approached the fire, holding out the thing for his inspection. Like there was absolutely nothing strange about a hardened Special Forces operator sitting for hours carving a face on a coconut.
Not like there was much else to do here, after daily exercises were over. Jack had just laughed at Frank’s bemused look. He’d given the coconut a wide grin, bushy eyebrows, and a neat mustache. Then they’d gone around showing it to the rest of the contra recruits. It had been a great morale booster, really. The guys all smiled as Jack introduced his new friend, giving the two Americans a thumbs up… and then as they moved on to the next campfire, the Nicaraguan exiles would shake their heads. All of them probably thinking the same thing, out loud or silently.
Americans. Yeah, they’re helping us a lot. They give us guns, and training, and money… and they can be damn funny sometimes, too.
And they’re crazy. All of them, they’re absolutely crazy.
They’d named the object after their CIA contact. Which hadn’t heightened Mark’s opinion of their sanity — or reliability — either.
Frank elbowed his friend sharply, knowing damn well Jack was never silent for this long, unless he was either depressed or up to no good. Or both. “Hey, you awake over there?”
Jack’s look was distracted, but for once he didn’t have a smartass comeback. Instead he unfolded the papers without looking at them. “Got a letter last week.”
So that’s what this was about. Frank tugged the papers away from him, recognizing Sara’s rounded handwriting. “How is she?”
“Oh, she’s fine. Says to tell you to stay out of trouble.” Frank snorted at that. “So what do you think? A month? Two?”
That serious expression looked totally out of place on Jack’s face. “Two at most,” Frank said confidently. “When’s the baby due?”
“Two months.” Now Jack was playing with his cap, folding the bill with great concentration. “You really think we’re gonna whip these guys into shape that fast? Teach ‘em how to do enough serious damage on their own?”
“Oh, sure.” Frank took a long drag on his cigarette, watching as the view through the windshield shifted from dark to lighter green. That was pretty much all he could see, as the road came out of the forest, cutting through rolling farm country. The windshield wipers on this vehicle didn’t do much besides spread whatever mud sprayed up from under the wheels evenly over the already dirty glass. It was a wonder the driver could see anything through it…
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jack’s fist thump the dash in frustration. “For cryin’ out loud, Frank, they’re kids.” Glancing back at their three fellow passengers, he knew Jack was right. Of the men they’d seen training in Honduras, not one of them, except for the higher ranking officers, looked older than thirty-five. There’d been many, too many, who didn’t look old enough to shave.
And he and Jack were going to meet up with a newly formed contra group, to stay with them, fight with them, and teach them, until they had a few good missions completed and no longer needed any American advisors. Until they’d turned thirty or so farmers and school boys right out of the CIA’s improvised boot camp into a solid guerrilla unit. So far, the commander of the group was the only one who’d ever seen combat.
“We’ll get back in time,” he said quietly. Knowing it was probably a lie, and that there was a good chance Jack wouldn’t be there for the birth of his first child. He couldn’t help thinking he was somehow responsible. Him, and Jack’s damnable sense of duty. Jack could’ve refused this assignment, with a pregnant wife at home. But there was no way he’d skip out of this one if Frank was going.
He knew why, and he knew he would have done the same damn thing in the same situation. It was part of their friendship, part of who they were. Part of “no one gets left behind.” There was no way either one would let the other take on a mission behind enemy lines alone. Still, Frank felt responsible.
“We’ll be there,” he said firmly, and gave Jack a sharp look when he would have said something. After five years in Special Ops, he knew there were some things you just had to believe. No matter how impossible they seemed. More than once in the past that kind of belief against all odds had saved their lives, kept them going when any rational person would’ve known they were going to die. “Have you picked out a name?”
Jack shook his head, waving his hand at the papers Frank was still holding. Looking through them, he saw that Sara’s letter wasn’t here — it wouldn’t have been a smart idea when under cover, to carry anything with his real name on it — but she had made copies of several pages of a book, listing names, their origins and meanings. Some she’d circled in red ink, while she’d written some other suggestions at the top of the first page.
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“Nope.” Jack shook his head, running a hand through his hair, which was getting shaggy even by Special Ops standards. “We want it to be a surprise.” He was staring out the window again, in spite of the fact that there wasn’t too much to see. It was raining harder, a rattling sound on the metal roof of the truck, making it difficult to see in front of them.
“Michael,” Frank read off the list. “After her dad, I assume?” Jack nodded, looking distracted. “Jack Jr., okay, that’s boring.” He hid a smirk as Jack whacked his shoulder with his cap, before looking back at the list. “Oh, come on, you want to name your kid after me?”
There was an amused-sounding snort from Jack’s direction. “Hey, those are Sara’s ideas, not mine.”
Frank looked back at the first page, which seemed to have been taken out of the E section. “Emily?”
“As in ‘Auntie Em! Auntie Em!’” Jack grinned, as the truck hit a rut and bounced them all a few inches off their seats. “What’s it mean?”
“’Industrious.’ Hardly a name that fits anyone related to you.” He ducked this time, so Jack’s cap hit the driver instead. The driver wasn’t amused.
“I want something different, something unusual.”
Frank rolled his eyes. “What, you gonna call your first kid ‘the Great and Powerful Oz,’ too?”
“There’s an idea!”
The driver was starting to look distinctly nervous, darting glances left and right, like he expected to see a Sandinista patrol materialize out of the rain any minute.
Frank didn’t let on he’d noticed, but all the same he sat up a little straighter, squinting into the rain. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
He was thinking that if there were any bad guys out there, it would be damn hard to see them in this rain, especially if they were in camouflage. Dammit, the spooks back at the camp had said they weren’t likely to run into government forces if they took this road…
Jack kept his tone light, but Frank saw his hands reach for his gun, long fingers playing with the safety catch. “I’m thinkin’ our buddy here knows something we don’t, and it ain’t good news.”
“I’m thinkin’ we’re gonna crash into a tree if he doesn’t start lookin’ at the road,” Frank said, then switched to Spanish, turning to the driver. “Why did we stop back there?”
It was a couple minutes before he got an answer. The truck lurched, swerving to the side as the driver hit the brakes. “State Security police passed through that village yesterday,” he told them flatly. The two Americans looked at each other, alarmed. “You will get out. Now.”
Jack’s eyebrows shot up. “Ah… excuse me?” The man just looked at him. “You’re supposed to take us within five miles of the contact point. Or you don’t get paid. Remember?”
The three guys in the back were glancing at each other nervously, as the driver growled, “Get out.”
Jack and Frank looked at each other, and Jack gave an imperceptible shrug. They’d be less visible off the road and on foot, anyway. Even if they did get soaked through. “Have it your way, amigo.”
And so they grabbed their packs out of the back, wrapped themselves in their rather pathetically thin ponchos, and slipped silently off the road and into the forest.
“Well this was a smart idea!” Jack shouted over the noise of the rain.
Frank shook his head. “What, you mean walking the rest of the way?” Hell, he thought, by the time we get to the town we’ll be so covered with mud nobody’ll see we’re Americans. “Not like we have a hell of a lot of choice. Or did you mean coming to this wonderful little vacation spot in the first place?”
“I thought this was supposed to be the dry season!”
“I don’t think I want to see the rainy season,” Frank said unnecessarily. They walked on for a while in silence, concentrating on moving forward and avoiding the various trees, vines, and wet tangled undergrowth. Both of them were shivering by now, heads bowed against the rain, wondering how many miles they had to go to get to the next town.
After a moment Jack looked up. “Ethelred,” he announced, just loud enough for Frank to hear him.
“What do you think?”
It took Frank’s tired brain a couple seconds to recognize the conversation they’d abandoned hours ago. “Somehow I don’t think that’s the kind of name Sara has in mind.”
Jack grabbed his arm, pulling him out of the way of a swaying tree branch. “No, what do you think it means?”
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud.” He squinted ahead of them into the misty gray trees, recognizing Jack’s attempt to keep them both focused on something besides how soaked and muddy and exhausted they were, and tried to think of something reasonably creative. “Maybe it doesn’t have a meaning. Maybe somebody made it up and thought it sounded pretty.”
Jack sounded disappointed. “Aww, come on, it has to mean something.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Frank retorted, putting out a hand to lean against a convenient tree for a two second breather. “I think it means ‘son of the village idiot.’”
“Oh, very funny.”
“Hey, I try.” The sky through the trees seemed to be getting darker, whether from the clouds or approaching nightfall he couldn’t tell. “Am I seein’ things, or are we getting close to the end of these trees?”
“We’d better be,” was Jack’s only response. Then, a few minutes later, in a perfectly innocent tone, “You think there’s a name that means ‘my dad’s best friend is a loser’?”
“Guess we better settle in for the night.” Jack said it like he was hoping Frank would argue the point.
Letting out a sigh which was no doubt lost in the rain, Frank nodded. “Yeah, doesn’t look like we’re going to get much further tonight.”
They looked at each other, knowing without saying that they were in for a long miserable night. The rain had at last let up, but the saturated state of the forest floor left no doubt that they would not even have the comfort of a dry place to sit, much less lie while they garnered a little sack time.
“No fire,” Jack said, stating the obvious.
“Too risky,” Frank nodded, “even if we could find something dry to burn.”
“Ah shit,” Jack grumbled under his breath. “Next assignment, let’s ask for Hawaii. Sand and surf. Now that’s my kind of mission. Get some rest. I’ll take first watch.”
Frank gave a soft snort, “Right, wonder what Sara would say if she caught one of the island beauties giving you a lei?”
His muted laugh was cut off abruptly as a soggy cap hit him directly in the face from the thickening darkness.
“Shut the fuck up, you idiot, and get some shuteye,” Jack snapped as he stalked over and retrieved his cap. Pulling it down over his wet hair he hoped it would provide some sort of protection. Fat chance of that, he thought morosely. Settling into the deepest of the shadows, he rifled through his backpack for a granola bar, and began to munch silently.
“Wake me in two,” Frank’s voice broke through the dark.
Jack didn’t answer. There was no need. He knew Frank would be awake before it was time for his turn on watch. He listened as Frank shifted trying to find a comfortable position. A Hawaiian lei, hell, he’d stepped into that one with both feet. They both knew the innuendo itself was a load of crap. Frank was just jerking his chain with that locker room macho bullshit. He had never been unfaithful to Sara in any way, shape, or form, any more than Frank had his wife. Not that they hadn’t had plenty of opportunities in their travels. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Picking up the thread of their earlier conversation to help pass the time, Jack leaned back and attempted in vain to search out the stars while he thought of Sara and the baby. The thick canopy easily thwarted his effort. With a sigh he leaned against a tree ready to sell his soul for a cup of coffee, but settling for a drink of lukewarm water from his canteen.
‘I wonder what the heck Ethelred does mean?’ he thought.
In a wild strip tease that had Frank gasping with laughter, Jack soon stood bare-chested, whipping his tee-shirt back and forth, unable to convince himself that the huge roach had been on a solitary mission. His over stimulated imagination was strengthened by Frank’s sadistic help.
“There’s one, Jack. No, sorry buddy, it’s just a shadow. Thought it was a damn big bug crawling up your neck. God, I hope that thing didn’t lay eggs in your hair or anything.”
When Jack stopped his wild impromptu dance, he glared at his partner and muttered, “God, I hate bugs. And of course I get sent to a country with ten thousand bugs on steroids. This mission just gets better and better. Monsoons, dumped in the middle of the damn jungle, and now freakin’ giant bugs. Shit, what next?”
They found the answer to that question a few miles up the road.
Slogging through the tangled overgrowth, Jack suddenly stopped, signaling Frank with a quick gesture. The men immediately dropped to a squat, Frank edging his way silently forward to crouch next to Jack. An abandoned truck sat a few hundred feet ahead. It appeared to have run head-on into a tree. There was no sign of the driver or any passengers.
“Ours?” Frank’s whisper was barely audible above the breeze moving through the leaves.
His eyes steely, Jack simply nodded.
“Damn, I guess we better go check then.”
Again Jack nodded. Mouthing the words, “Cover me,” he slipped the safety off his gun and moved stealthily forward, still crouched close to the ground. He didn’t even glance back. He knew without looking that Frank was prepped and ready, watching his every movement.
Reaching the truck, he cautiously stood to look in the cab of the ancient vehicle.
Ah shit, he thought with
disgust.The driver who had so callously ordered them from his truck stared sightlessly at him, a bullet hole in his forehead, blood pooling on the ripped ancient seat. Fat black flies crawled on the man’s face. Judging that the man had been dead for some time, Jack realized that in all probability the Sandinista soldiers had moved on. Deciding it was relatively safe, Jack stepped clear of the truck and gave a sharp whistle.
Waiting for Frank to join him, Jack walked around the truck and stopped.
Frank found him there standing silently, staring at the bullet riddled corpses of the two teenage boys they’d been traveling with only yesterday. Fear was frozen on the young faces and sealed forever in death.
Walking up beside his friend, Frank laid a firm hand on his shoulder, purposely ignoring the way Jack flinched at his touch.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered looking at the grisly scene.
Swallowing the bile that threatened to make a sudden appearance, Jack nodded. “They were just kids,” he said quietly.
“Yeah,” Frank finally agreed. “But they were kids with guns. Remember that, Jack.” His voice was sad. “Let’s get it done.”
They searched the area hoping to find a survivor. Frank found the final passenger of the truck lying in the thick mud near the road. The man had obviously tried to escape into the safety of the jungle. A machine gun blast had nearly cut him in two as he fled.
They had no way of burying the victims. At best, all they could have done was to cover the bodies with leaf litter. But as frustrating as it was in the end, practicality won out over a humanitarian gesture and they left the bodies untouched rather than reveal the presence of contra supporters in the area should the Santanista return to the carnage.
Their grim task of searching the area complete, they headed back into the jungle even more alert to the dangers, having had a graphic reminder of their fate should they relax their guard. Each hoping their trek would soon be behind them.
They hiked on, Jack uncharacteristically quiet, until Frank broke the silence. “When do you figure it happened?”
“Had to be within a few hours after he threw us out,” Jack answered. “We didn’t hear the gunfire, so it didn’t happen immediately after we got out and it probably didn’t happen this morning or we would have heard something. I’m guessing within a couple hours after they left us yesterday.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much what I figured, too,” Frank agreed. “Hell of a waste.”
Jack’s only answer was to walk quicker towards their goal.
It was a medium size town, quaint and picturesque if you ignored the armed soldiers lounging around the tiled fountain which decorated the main square. The dirt streets were filled with villagers all bearing the look of wanton poverty. The civil war was obviously being felt by the civilian population as hunger-filled eyes followed them as they made their way through the streets. It was difficult to maintain an air of indifference to the resentful glances that were thrown at the two well-fed Americans.
As Jack and Frank walked slowly down the street they saw a young woman, her breast bare, nursing an infant, as she sat on the stoop outside her home talking to an elderly neighbor. Young children ran back and forth in the universally popular game of tag. One of the children, dressed in little more than a pair of ragged shorts, ran up to the pair of strangers and begged for a few pennies. Frank glared at the child and harshly told him to leave, using a few well-chosen words of Spanish.
Jack’s lips narrowed as he gritted his teeth, knowing Frank was absolutely right to have chased the child away. If he had laid aside his common sense and given the child the coins, he knew within minutes they would have been surrounded by a crowd of begging children. So much for remaining incognito. It would have been a quick trip to the local jail, if not to the nearest mortuary to dispose of what sorry bits of their remains were left. Oh yeah, Frank had called that one right. Giving in to compassion would only get you killed on this kind of mission.
Moving quickly and confidently along the street, they soon spotted their target, a small cantina several blocks from the square. The CIA intel had thus far paid off if you ignored the colossal screw-up of choosing a truck driver. Mark’s directions had been perfect
.They would meet their contact at the cantina. Then they’d be taken to join the contra unit somewhere in the jungles near here, where they’d pass on the information they’d painstakingly memorized. After that they would begin the daunting task of training them to fight, and defend their country against Ortega’s Communist government and his Sandinista soldiers.
As the two men casually strolled into the dim interior of the cantina, they found it crowded with local villagers enjoying a drink and the companionship of friends after the day’s labor. All eyes turned and conversation ceased as the two Americans entered the building. As Frank worked his way over to an empty table, Jack moved nonchalantly up to the bar. Holding up two fingers, he threw a few coins on the counter and spoke to the bartender, ignoring the silent men who watched him curiously and with mild hostility in their dark eyes.
“Dos cervesa, por favor.”
The bartender picked up the coins and handed Jack two bottles of beer which much to his surprise actually felt cold.
The locals opened a path before him as he made his way carefully over to the scarred table where Frank sat waiting, Jack handed him one of the bottles before taking a long drink of his own. They sat quietly ignoring the locals, giving the impression of having simply stopped in to quench their thirst. Although the conversations around them gradually reconvened, the air was thick with tension. They ignored the uneasy glances tossed their way.
Waiting was always the hardest part of the mission for Jack, though he was careful to hide his impatience. Sitting ate at him. He wanted, he needed action. His long fingers danced along the neck of the bottle, channeling his desire for movement.
They were nursing their beers a half an hour later when Jack nudged Frank’s foot gently. Placing three fingers around his beer he informed Frank of the new arrivals.
Frank nodded surreptitiously, took a final drag from his cigarette and ground it into the floor.
Cautiously the three newcomers approached the table and stood in a semi-circle looking down suspiciously at the Americans. “Welcome to our village, señors. You are Americano?”
Frank eyed the leader and answered with the prearranged information.
“Sí, señor. The names are Bob and Joe Valentine. We’re interested in talking to someone about purchasing coffee beans to export back to the States. You wouldn’t know who we might meet with to discuss this business venture in private, would you?”
Slowly the leader gave a grim tight smile and nodded.
“Si, señors, if you will follow me, I will take you to whom you seek.”
Jack and Frank rose slowly, preparing to follow their new guide just as a sharp whistle sounded near the front door.
“Sandinistas!” their guide hissed between clenched teeth as a group of soldiers walked purposefully into the room.
The soldiers’ eyes locked immediately on the two Americans standing in the middle of the room. They moved towards them. Throwing Frank a quick glance and receiving a nod of understanding the already volatile atmosphere of the cantina erupted as Jack kicked over the small table they had been sitting at and in the same motion threw a hard punch at a nearby farmer’s jaw, knocking the man into a group of men who had been standing at the bar. In a smooth motion Frank followed the his lead and shoved another man into another group of locals.
In a flash, the match they had lit exploded the gunpowder situation. Tempers discharged and within seconds a full-fledged bar fight had ensued.
The Sandinistas were swept up into the flood of fists. Dodging bodies, Jack saw Frank make use of the chaos to move back towards him. In the distance he could hear the shouts which had to be the local policía coming to break up the fight. They needed to use the diversion and get the hell out of here quick.
Their Contra contacts were moving towards the back door, likewise using the fight as cover to escape. He signaled Jack to follow.
Nodding, Jack sought out Frank before he moved towards the escape. He had to make sure Frank was in the clear and knew of the plan before he fought his own way out. The squad of police burst through the door, leaded clubs flailing, just as he made eye contact with Frank.
Frank was on his feet and using his fists to clear a path towards Jack. At Jack’s pantomimed directions he nodded that he understood. Shoving a skinny peasant farmer aside, he moved towards the door.
Jack had reached the back door and stood there watching Frank’s progress ready to lend a hand if he needed it. The local civilian population posed no real threat to the well-trained Special Forces soldiers and Frank moved towards Jack’s position rapidly.
Suddenly however, he saw Frank jerk to a stop. Ignoring the battle still raging around him, he was staring at his side, a look of shock written on his face. Blood poured from a deep stab wound. His eyes sought out Jack as he clasped his hand over the pulsating wound, just as he was shoved viciously from behind.
Immediately, Jack launched himself towards his friend. Frank was down, swallowed under the fighting sea of brawling humanity. Jack’s eyes were locked on the place he had last seen Frank. Distracted by his search, Jack failed to see the policeman swing his heavy club until it was too late. The club struck him hard behind the ear and he sunk beneath the waves of unconsciousness before he hit the floor.
“Jack?” It came out a whisper. There was no answer, no “it’s okay, I’m here, you can go back to sleep now.” Crap. Reluctantly, he dragged his eyes open, looking around an unfamiliar room. It was getting dark outside, judging by the faint light visible through the window. There was a fireplace on the other side of the room, and a table near it where a woman stood with her back to him. Her feet were bare, and her straight black hair was pulled back in a braid that fell past her waist.
Memory flooded back to him abruptly. Nicaragua. The mission. The bar fight. His own unforgivable lack of caution, assuming a crowd of drunken villagers could pose no threat, and the sudden shock as the knife went in, blood pouring warm and sticky through his fingers. There was nothing after that, nothing but a jumbled noise of shouting.
He remembered just in time that he couldn’t use his friend’s real name here, sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the cot.
A nauseating flash of pain shot through his whole right side, doubling him over as he pressed one hand against the wound, like that would help. Gray spots flickered about the edges of his vision, and through it all he felt a warm hand on his arm, and a soft voice speaking.
The words were Spanish, and it was a couple seconds before his brain could focus enough to start translating.
“ …rest, señor, lie still. You are not well.”
Ya think? Jack’s sarcastic voice echoed in his mind. “My friend.” He sat up slowly, his hand still held against his side, looking into a dark, lined face. He had to think to remember the code name. “Bob. Where is he? Is he all right?”
In this light her eyes looked almost black. “You were alone when they brought you here. If your companion was hurt, he would be brought to a different house. If he is well he is speaking to the comandante.”
His last memory was of Jack’s voice, shouting his name as he went down. “Where? How long have I been here? I have to find out… ”
“Be still,” she commanded, a hand on his shoulder pushing him back when he would have tried to stand. “You were brought here only a few minutes ago. The comandante will be here once it is fully dark, to speak with you. But first I must stitch your wound. You have been very fortunate.”
It was a couple seconds before the significance of her words struck him. “You know who we are.”
“I know you are CIA. That is all I need to know.” With one hand, she beckoned to someone he couldn’t see, and he heard the door creak open. “It is all right, Juan is a friend,” she said, as he tried to turn to see who was here. “My husband was killed fighting for the contras. My son is with them now.” She said it calmly, as she tugged his hand gently away from the wound, unbuttoning his shirt and discarding it on the floor. “I will not betray you.”
“Señora?” A soft voice spoke from near the door.
“Go outside, amigo, and pull a few hairs from the old mule’s tail behind the house.” Frank’s eyebrows shot up at these words, as she picked up a needle that looked very large and very painful. God, this was not going to be fun. Looking down at his hand, he could see it was covered in blood. He didn’t want to look at the stab wound itself.
He knew enough about first aid to know the woman was right. He’d been extremely lucky. If that knife had struck anything vital he would be in a hell of a lot worse shape than he was. All the same, it hurt like hell, and he knew he couldn’t afford to take it easy and let himself heal. Not for a while, anyway.
“How old is your son?” he asked quietly, to make conversation, and to distract himself from what was coming.
“He could be around your age, now,” she said. “I have not seen him in two years.” There was a sort of sad patience in her face, as the door opened again and Juan came in, this time with another unfamiliar man. “You are all so very young.”
The faces of the boys on the truck rushed back to him then, the image so clear for a second, their mouths frozen open in shock, rifles still clutched in their hands. Compared to them he was not so young at all.
He wondered what she saw when she looked at him, watching as she threaded one long hair through the needle. Her hands were steady and sure. She was on their side, a contra supporter, but she hadn’t sounded particularly enthusiastic about him. Did she see a young man wounded and scared, the same age as her own son? Or did she see the representative of the CIA, bringing a future for her country that had been decided by faceless men in Washington, one of those who had trained her husband and her son and sent them to fight?
It was hard for him to imagine how she saw this war, for all he’d been on combat missions many times in the last five years. Those wars were different. Far away, always someone else’s land and future at stake. Sure, it was all part of containing Communism and safeguarding the security of the United States. But these wars never came home. These wars he fought would never touch his own country, his own family, and whatever scars they left on his soul were his secrets. No American towns would be burned, no Sandinista security police would come at night to round up his friends and neighbors. He was here, he supposed, to make sure it stayed that way. To stop these threats before they spread far enough to reach his homeland.
But it was hard, seeing her patient eyes, hearing the calm in her voice as she spoke of her life, not to feel guilty for having so much that she did not.
She laid down the needle, picked up what looked like a battered military-issue canteen and held it to his lips. Whatever it contained, it certainly wasn’t water. Smelled like some kind of potent local moonshine. He pushed her hand away gently. “Drink,” she insisted, looking perplexed. “You will need it.”
Oh, I’m sure I will, he thought, shaking his head emphatically as he lay back on the cot. The comandante was going to be here tonight, and if anything had happened to Jack he’d have to be sharp and ready to go.
Or as sharp and ready to go as you can be, when you’ve just had a knife stuck into you, he amended silently. He watched as the guerrilla behind her took the canteen, taking a swig from it and passing it to his friend. They were both shaking their heads in the young American’s direction.
Oh, this was so not gonna be fun.
He thought of his wife, of Sara and her unborn child. Which led him back to thinking about Jack, and wondering where he was, and wanting to go out right now and find out.
Just let him be alive, he thought, gritting his teeth. He has to be alive. He has to be.
The door creaked again, and the two men left. Frank closed his eyes, leaning back against the thin pillow and trying to breathe slowly. Trying to tell himself this wasn’t going to hurt, no, not half as bad as some of the shit he’d been through, it was only a tiny little needle, how bad could it be, oh God, oh fuck —
“Be still,” she said, softly but firmly, and in response he taught her a few brand new English words you probably wouldn’t find in Webster’s Dictionary. Her hand was pressing down on the wound, fingers holding the ragged edges of flesh together, and the pressure sent sickening waves of pain through his lower right side, throbbing steadily with every beat of his heart.
Surprising, the thought flickered through his mind, how something so small could hurt so damn much. His head had that funny, dizzy feeling that meant he was about to either pass out or throw up. She pulled the thread tight with a jerk that seemed to vibrate along frayed nerve endings, and he clutched handfuls of the blanket in both fists, holding on tight with what little strength he had left. He wanted to tell her to slow down, exhaling through gritted teeth as the needle went in again, and he had to fight to stay still, not to twist away from her.
Breathe, he told himself sternly. Just breathe… He kept his eyes closed, but he could imagine her hands with every sharp jab, calm and methodical, like she was mending an old shirt of her husband’s. Except she didn’t have a husband, of course. Shit. Don’t think about that now. He wondered if she had to do this often.
He could almost hear the voice of his old drill sergeant. Suck it up, airman. No matter how bad it hurts, at least you know you’re not dead yet. There was a heavy silence inside the little hut, save for the ragged sound of his breathing.
It seemed like forever, and there was no light coming through the single window by the time she finished. When he opened his eyes she was standing up, wiping hands slick with his blood on her apron. “You done?” he grunted, not realizing until she turned away without an answer that he’d spoken in English.
Sitting beside him again, she dabbed at the wound with a wet cloth. He took one look at the neat row of knots along the still-oozing slash, and looked away again quickly. Some things you really don’t need to know what they look like.
After she’d finished bandaging him to her satisfaction, she got up and went to the window, peering outside for a moment before drawing the curtain. “The comandante will be here soon,” she said, pulling her chair close to the cot. “Until then, try to sleep, señor.”
He let his eyes close, all his survival instincts telling him to snatch what time he could to sleep. All the same, he knew there was no way in hell he’d be able to sleep right now, not when his whole right side felt like it was on fire, and he was worried out of his mind for his partner. After a moment he felt a cool hand on his forehead, long fingers stroking his hair gently, like one might soothe a child. She was humming softly now, a tune that was hauntingly familiar, even though he was sure he’d never heard it before.
Cracking his eyes open a fraction, he saw a faraway look on her face, like she was seeing someone else entirely. And for the first time, he thought he saw tears in her eyes.
He remembered just in time to sit up slowly, barely keeping the pain out of his face as he looked up.
El comandante had arrived.
The man standing by the cot looked about his age, dressed in a mud-stained cotton shirt and pants, with an M-16 in one hand and a cartridge belt slung across his chest. A fierce face, a bushy mustache and piercing dark eyes that had obviously seen more than their share of bloodshed. He’d fought with the Sandinistas in the last war, and defected afterwards, according to their intel.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Frank said. “And you would be?”
“I am Joaquin,” the guerrilla said simply, in English, to Frank’s surprise. There was another young man standing behind him-a boy, really. Giving him a second glance, Frank could see he was even younger than most of the kids they’d seen here. Fourteen, or barely fifteen, holding his gun in both hands like he wasn’t quite used to it. His face was expressionless, half hidden by dark hair flopping into his eyes. “You have information for me.”
“Where’s my partner?” Frank asked bluntly
.Joaquin gave him a look of controlled suspicion. “Your message first.”
“I don’t fucking think so.” Do not fuck with me right now, Frank’s glare said, I’m having a really bad day.
Joaquin raised one eyebrow, but when he got nothing else he finally said, “He is at the police station. He was arrested this afternoon, for starting the fight.”
The contra leader’s voice held a barely controlled scorn. Frank exhaled slowly, struggling to keep the reaction out of his face. Jack was alive. Alive. But certainly in deep shit, by every definition of the words. “And what are we doing about it?”
“For enough American dollars, we can free him,” he said, biting the words off impatiently. “I hope you have brought money with you. We will have to move quickly, if we are going to get both of you away from here before state security finds out you are here.”
Frank nodded, ignoring the tone and the look on the other’s face. He knew what Joaquin was thinking. Damn Yanks are more trouble than they’re worth. Any other time he might’ve been pissed, but right now he didn’t have the energy. They had money, all right, stashed with their weapons and their packs at the edge of town. Thank God for corrupt government officials.
He glanced at the boy standing by the table, and the woman, watching from the other side of the room, silent as a statue. Seeing this, Joaquin said, “You may speak. These can be trusted.”
So he did, reciting wearily the list of information ‘Mark’ had made him memorize, stopping only once when the woman came over to offer him a drink of water from a wooden bowl. He accepted gratefully, realizing for the first time just how thirsty he was, before passing the bowl to the boy. Their eyes met as he did so, the boy’s dark and guarded, before he turned back to Joaquin to finish.
“Give me your money,” Joaquin ordered him when he had finished, “and I will send someone to free your partner. I will return by this hour tomorrow.”
“I’m goin’ with you.” The other three looked at him with varying degrees of curiosity and disbelief as he stood up, gritting his teeth and putting one hand against the wall until he was sure he could stand on his own. “It’s with the rest of my gear, in the woods. Get me out of town and I can find it, and then I’ll bribe the local cops myself.”
Joaquin’s expression was calculating, a commander trying to assess the strength of a subordinate. The woman’s eyes held a guarded concern. “Our camp is at least two miles from here. Can you walk that far?”
Shit. But he replied stubbornly, “If I have to.” He straightened, concentrating on breathing with minimum agony, looking around for his shirt. It wasn’t here, probably ruined anyway, and the woman handed him another without a word. Pulling it on over his head, he wondered who it had once belonged to. “Gracias, señora.”
He wanted to say something else. He had a feeling like he should apologize to her, but he wasn’t sure what for. “Buenos noches, señor,” she said. “God go with you.”
They left quietly, walking single file, Joaquin in front, Frank in the middle, and the boy taking the six. The house was near the outskirts of the town, and it wasn’t too long before they were moving across open fields, following the sound of Joaquin’s footsteps in the dark.
It wasn’t until the faint lights from the town had faded completely that Frank realized she had never told him her name.
All in all not the most pleasant atmosphere to wake up to. Particularly when you awoke with a pounding headache, a lump the size of the Great Lakes, your cheek pressed against damp, broken ceramic tile, and feeling like you were the prize exhibit of the side show.
Peachy, just peachy.
It took long minutes of contemplating and even longer minutes of actual aborted attempts before Jack was able to roll onto his back and partially open his eyes. Even the gloom of the room was a painful reminder that he had encountered something harder, a lot harder, than his head. No doubt Frank, as well as several of his former commanders, and the odd drill sergeant, would have taken exception to that assumption. But the fact remained that whatever the hell had made up close and personal contact with his skull had left a nasty calling card.
Jack lay there on the dirty floor, staring up at the 40 watt light bulb hanging from the low ceiling on a frayed cord.
He lay there hoping that his scrambled thoughts would somehow quit doing their Humpty Dumpty routine and fall back into place, but knowing that there was a strong possibility that his egg-head was well and truly fried, boiled, and probably gonna be served sunny-side up on toast.
More time passed before a cognizant thought ran the gauntlet pain had erected throughout the trenches of his mind. It was cold laying on these smelly, damp floor tiles. Bare skin on locker-room floor chilly. And suddenly a piece of missing puzzle fell into place.
Oh hell, somebody had stolen his shirt and boots and left him lying in God only knew what kind of moisture after trying to bash in the back of his skull.
With a groan, Jack pushed himself upright.
The scenery hadn’t vastly improved from his new vantage point. He found that he was sitting in the middle of a small cinderblock room with rough cut wooden bunks along two walls and thick bars covering the front. A dozen or so local men eyed him with considerable hostility, communicating across the language barrier that what ever the hell mess they were all in it was the fault of the tall, half-naked gringo lying in the muck at their feet.
Since none of his new roommates seemed inclined to offer him a hand, their seat, or the time of day, Jack wormed his way over to the back wall of the cell and sat down with a groan, while doing his best to ignore the 4th of July fireworks display that was trying to escape through his skull. The rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that his carcass was still there.
God, that’s warped, Jack, even by your substandards.
The silent hostility in the room was deafening. Obviously los locals were not too impressed with sharing a cell with the Americano who was responsible for starting the fight that had gotten them tossed in the hoosegow. Everyone was looking a little worse for the wear and toting a load of attitude.
Jack hoped that the guys would just be content to maintain the pissed off looks and not decide to crank the hostilities up a notch by stomping his sorry ass into the ground. The way he was feeling he didn’t think he’d stand much chance in a dozen-against-one fight, even if they were just farmers and villagers. Nope, he was definitely out numbered, out dressed, and out of luck. It was better to pull a chameleon act right now. Just blend in to the background and maintain a low profile.
Yasureyabetcha, just me and a reeking bucket of pee leaning up against this wall.
And suddenly another thought blazed through the fireworks in his head, driving out all thoughts of subterfuge.
Where the hell was Frank?
He should have been here with him in this damn jail cell. They had been together in that cantina waiting for their contacts. They’d been together in the bar fight. He’d waited for Frank to follow him out the back door.
And another piece clicked into place.
Oh shit. Frank … the knife … the blood … the look on Frank’s face … and then he was gone.
Jack remembered starting towards Frank.
And then there was nothing.
Nothing, except a sudden overwhelming flash of pain before darkness had claimed him.
So where was Frank? It made sense that the authorities would have kept the two Americans together.
It was obvious that Frank had needed immediate medical attention. Glancing around the less than sterile conditions he found in his current location, he knew Frank was in trouble if he was stuck in another cell like this stinking armpit.
He could bleed to death, before help arrived. Infection was a given. And if his roommates were as friendly as this bunch, there would be no way Frank could defend himself.
And then a thought occurred to Jack that made the previous options look like drawing a royal flush.
What if Frank was already dead?
What if that was the reason he was stuck in this cell without him?
Oh God, what if the authorities had taken Frank’s body to the mortuary or what ever passed for one in this flea-bitten town? What if they had already buried him in some shallow unmarked grave? Shit.
What would he do? He couldn’t have let Frank down that badly. He just couldn’t. That wasn’t how he and Frank worked. They were partners… best friends… practically brothers. They didn’t fail each other … not now, not ever. How in the hell could he live with himself if he’d let Frank down?
How could he make the call and tell his wife?
That couldn’t be the reason for Frank’s absence.
Please God, don’t let it be true.
Suddenly shuffling and murmurings breached Jack’s inner turmoil. Opening his eyes which he had clenched tightly against the mental pain thoughts of Frank’s death had wrought, he saw that the locals were gathering their hats and standing by the cell door obviously anticipating their release. No one spared him a glance as he fought to stand up, trying to ignore the waves of vertigo which swept over him.
He made his way over to the group just as the cell door swung open and his partners in crime shuffled out under the cold gaze of two guards.
Deciding instantly it was better to stick with his amigos, albeit reluctant amigos, Jack squeezed in between two stooped-shouldered down-trodden laborers. Ignoring the half-hearted glares tossed his direction, he adopted the slumped shuffling posture of his neighbors, a continent apart from his normally confident military bearing. Despite his earnest attempt to blend in, Jack discovered that there was a very good reason he had joined the Air Force rather than become an actor when one of the guards shoved the barrel of a gun against his ribcage and gestured for him to return to the cell.
Holding his hands out in the universal gesture of surrender, Jack backed away from the group and with a weary sigh of resignation watched the cell door slam shut.
“My brother, Joe Valentine, is he here too?” he asked one of the jailers as they escorted the group out.
Jack felt like he had been gut-punched when the guard turned and with a sneer on his swarthy face he answered in broken English, “Do not worry about your friend, gringo, you will join him soon enough.”
The implied threat was obvious. ‘He’s dead, asshole, and you’re gonna be dead soon, too.’
Jack backed away from the bars and sank down on one of the benches.
It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. Frank, don’t be dead. You can’t do this to me. You can’t leave me here alone. That’s not how we operate. We’re in this together. You can’t be dead. You haven’t even helped me think of a name for the baby to send Sara. We have to get home in time for the baby. Sara will kill me otherwise. The kid would never believe me if I just told him about his Uncle Frank. Not in a million years. You gotta show him yourself what an idiot of an uncle he’s stuck with.
How else is he ever gonna know just what a great guy you are?
Long before the evening shadows brought some relief, O’Neill found himself nearly panting as sweat poured down his face and off his chest and upper body. The heated atmosphere had provided unpleasant results with the community privy resting in the corner of the cell and before long Jack was taking short shallow breaths of air from his mouth as the entire room began to reek like an unkempt outhouse.
Finally, determining that there would be no room service any time soon, Jack ignored his body’s demands for food and water and stretched out on the hard wooden bench hoping to sleep away some of the miserable hours.
He awakened some time later, his head feeling slightly better for the rest, when one of the guards shoved a couple of small bowls into the cell and shut the door without a word.
Jack could barely force himself to wait until the guard walked away before he reached for the water. Ordering himself take small sips, when his body was demanding the entire contents, took all of his willpower. Finally, his thirst slightly mollified, he picked up the food. It was a mixture of beans and rice, a staple of the civilian population, he knew. Since the guard had neglected to leave utensils, he used his fingers and began to eat, trying his best to focus on the food and not on the massive amount of trouble he was in.
Right now the local law enforcement had him in custody, but he knew that the Sandinistas had the local police in their back pocket. It would be just a matter of time before the government got wind of the suspicious American who had been seen talking to Contra members. There would be no rescue from the CIA. The United States wouldn’t even acknowledge that they were in Nicaragua, much less providing aid to the Contras. He and Frank were on their own. They had known that before they had left base camp. ‘Mark’ had made it very clear. If captured, there would be no acknowledgement. So it was up to him and Frank to get out of this mess on their own. That is if Frank wasn’t already…
No dammit, that was so not an option. Frank was alive and they would get out of here together.
Stretching out again Jack let himself doze off. He had a bad feeling he was going to need all the rest he could get.
He awoke with a start as something brushed against his hand which was dangling off the narrow bunk and resting on the floor. In the dim light Jack could see a large dark shape nosing in the discarded bowl. Jerking his hand off the floor, Jack watched as the rat nibbled at a grain of rice.
With a shout, Jack clapped his hands. The hairy creature gave the human a beady-eyed look of contempt and then scurried through the bars and into the shadows. Jack couldn’t suppress the shudder of revulsion that rushed through him as he rubbed his hand back and forth on his pants leg hoping to eliminate the feeling of the rat’s whiskers as it had investigated his sleeping form.
Fearful that Mickey would return and perhaps bring his entire clan for a visit, Jack decided that sleep was not in his best interest at the moment. Drawing his long legs up off the floor, Jack wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his head against the wall of his prison.
It was difficult to come up with Plan A, B or C, when your options at the moment added up to zero.
“Hail, hail the gang’s all here,” Jack quipped as he noted that every officer on the force appeared to be crowded into the room and none of them wore enduring smiles which said, ‘Sorry this has been a huge mistake and you’re free to go now.’
Nope. These faces wore looks that said, ‘Jack, you are in shit so deep, your eyes couldn’t get any browner.’
One of the guards gestured for Jack to sit in a wooden chair in the middle of the room.
With a shrug of complete indifference, Jack walked nonchalantly over to comply. Happens every day. No big deal. Just out for a stroll in a room full of hostile armed men in a third world country. Half dressed, barefoot, unarmed. Could whistle, ‘GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG’ if you want, but you probably wouldn’t appreciate it. Just passing some time.
Apparently, the nonchalant routine didn’t work with these guys, Jack decided when one of the guards gave him a hard shove into the chair and another bound his arms tightly behind his back.
“I bet you’re all wondering why I called you here this morning,” Jack said.
One of the men, the leader if the amount of braiding on his uniform was any indication, stepped forward and delivered a stinging backhand across Jack’s face which snapped his head to the side.
“You will be silent until you are told otherwise, Americano,” he ordered in broken English. “You will learn what happens to spies in this country. What happens to those who interfere where they have no business.”
If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Jack might have been tempted to laugh at the entire clichéd mess, but the image of the boys he and Frank had found on the road was far too fresh in his mind not to take this threat seriously.
Ignoring his stinging jaw, Jack looked the man in the eye and lied through his teeth. Thank God for cover stories.
“Spy? Are you kidding, amigo? You’ve got the wrong guy. My name’s Bob Valentine. My brother Joe and I hail from Pequot Lakes, Minnesota. That’s the town of Pequot Lakes in Sibley township, Crow Wing County, not the lake. It’s a great place to fish. The best. It even has a water tower painted to look like a fishing bobber if that tells you anything. We were in the greeting card business until recently when the bottom fell out of the card industry. So Joe, says to me why don’t we get into coffee beans. Importing, that’s the way to go these days. Importing. So we start looking into beans of the coffee variety and you’ll never guess what we found out. Go ahead, guess. No? Well I’ll tell you then. Nicaragua grows coffee beans! Some of the best damn coffee in the western hemisphere. So Joe and me, we came down here to get the ball rolling, or the pot perking, so to speak. And that’s how we ended up in your charming little town.”
The dumbfounded look on the captain’s face almost convinced Jack that he had muddied the water enough that he might be able to slide out of this mess.
Before another stinging slap told him the entire performance had been for naught.
“You will be silent,” the man said, punctuating his order with a third hard strike which made Jack’s eyes water and his nose bleed. “Lies, and nonsense! You are trying to confuse us with your words.”
Maybe el capitán wasn’t as stupid as he looked. He’d nailed that little diversion on the head.
The blood dripping from his nose, down his chin and onto his chest was distracting. But thoughts of that evaporated like water off a hot tin roof when one of the other guards walked over to Jack and without warning delivered a powerful punch to his unprotected mid-section. The chair rocked before Jack was able to balance his weight enough to keep from crashing to the floor. Unable to bend over, he sat painfully trying to suck in needed air.
“Hey you son of a bitch,” he finally gasped, “you’re wearing my boots.”
In hindsight it probably wasn’t the time nor place to bring up that fact, but Jack was pissed and he was worried and these yahoos were standing between him and the answers he needed.
He was unprepared as the man favored him with a calculating grin and said, “You are right, señor. Here, I will return them to you.”
With no other warning he raised a booted foot and stomped savagely down on Jack’s bare toes.
Jack couldn’t stifle the yelp of pain that escaped as the heavy boot ground the crushed nails into the sensitive bleeding quick.
Oh yeah, that hurt.
“That is for the brother I lost because of you and your interfering country, señor,” the guard spat. “He died at the hands of the stinking Contras which you are protecting.”
The hatred raging in the man’s eyes was duplicated five-fold in the faces of the others standing around the room. Faces that told of pain and suffering, of loss of loved ones. Faces that could have been reflections of a thousand, a hundred thousand others in this land of civil war. Faces that wore resentment toward a country like the United States, for interfering and prolonging the suffering, whatever their good intentions might be. Faces that told Jack he was a convenient scapegoat for the bitterness, pain, and loss in their lives.
And suddenly Jack felt dirty deep down in his soul.
When Jack awoke, he found that he was back in his familiar cell, lying in the ever-so-comfortable muck, smelling all those wondrous odors he had come to associate with his home-away-from-home.
And he hurt.
After Imelda Marcos, with the boot fetish, had done his number on his feet and toes, the situation had gone south rapidly. All the boys in the band had decided to get into the act and before it was over Jack was beginning to feel like the side of beef in Rocky, that movie he and Sara had watched at the drive-in a few years ago. Sara’d had a fit about the violence and said Rocky’s face, after the fight with Apollo Creed, gave her bad dreams. She sure as hell would’ve had fucking nightmares if she could see his face now.
Not that he’d ever allow that to happen. As long as he had breath in his body he’d protect Sara from the shit that he dealt with in his career.
Through swollen eyes, Jack watched roaches, millipedes, and a garden host of other insect life skitter about the ceiling and dirty walls of the cell. He thought about Mickey the Rat and the probability that he would return with his friends. He thought about the guard who had looked at him with such hurt and hatred when he told him of the bloody death of his son at the hands of the rebels using a gun provided by the U.S. Jack almost felt that he deserved it when the man pistol whipped him to unconsciousness.
He knew that if any one of them were to decide to crawl, chew, or beat on him, that there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop them. All he could do was lie there stunned and numb and hope and pray that Frank was okay.
Frank, please don’t be dead, buddy. I could really use a hand now.
It was pitch black once they left the open fields, and he was concentrating too hard just to keep up with the comandante to be paying much attention to the direction they were traveling. He would have a hard time finding his way back to town on his own.
There were maybe thirteen men in the unit, all of them between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, except for the one boy who came to the house with Joaquin. Most of those who were awake looked nervous, or sleepy, and it was clear none of them had seen action before.
They greeted the wounded American with mixed reactions. Some were exuberant, apparently thinking that he was just the first of many Americans who would be coming to sweep the Sandinistas out within the month. Some were concerned, offering him the most comfortable place to sleep and a swig of whiskey to dull the pain, which he had to refuse. And some were suspicious, and had no desire to associate with him at all.
Joaquin introduced them all quickly, and Frank knew the names they gave him were no more close to being accurate than the one he’d given them. Some went by Pablo or Pedro or Juan, while others chose more colorful pseudonyms like the Snake or the Eagle or the Hawk. And a few picked American names-there was a Mike, and a Bob, and the youngest boy went by Charlie.
They all went to sleep after that, except for one man who was leaning against a tree on watch. Frank couldn’t sleep, though, so he lay on the ground and stared at the leaves overhead until Joaquin woke up just before dawn.
Charlie was picked to lead Frank back to the town. The kid wasn’t very happy about this assignment, and he wasn’t speaking to Frank much except to warn him of rough spots or sudden turns in the trail, which were hard to see in the predawn gloom.
“Look, don’t you think maybe you should send somebody a little older?” Joaquin had just raised an eyebrow at this suggestion. “He’s what, fourteen? He’s a child, for God’s sake. What the hell’s he doing here, anyway?”
He hadn’t meant for the kid to overhear him.
Joaquin’s terse answer echoed in his mind, as he struggled to keep up with his guide. “He is an orphan. Both his parents were killed in the war, almost a year ago.” For once his face had lost that usual barely concealed scorn, and his tone was bleak. “Where else can he go?”
There wasn’t time to think about that now. He had enough to think about, trying to keep up with the kid when it felt like someone was twisting a knife in his side with every breath he took. With three thousand American dollars, the whole of his and Jack’s emergency cash, in his back pocket and a 9mm shoved into the waistband of his pants, he was going to get his friend out of that jail. Somehow.
Maybe the cops will be sensible, and just take the money and let us go quietly, he thought. Knowing it was unlikely. With the kind of luck he and Jack usually had…
Think positive, Cromwell.
Charlie’s footsteps were practically silent, as the boy moved quickly ahead of him like a slender shadow. Every now and then he’d glance back, and wait a few seconds for the American to catch up. It was nearly an hour before they reached the edge of the jungle, and by this time the sun had risen.
Fog lay heavy on the open fields between them and the town, clinging to their clothes with a chill dampness, but Frank knew that once the sun was a little higher it was going to be a hot and sticky day. He was already sweating just from the fairly slow walk through the forest, and he hoped like hell this little business transaction would go smoothly and let him and Jack be on the trail back to Honduras by nightfall.
Charlie looked at him, his face clearly visible now in the sunlight, his eyes carefully blank, and Frank nodded. I’m all right, he thought, but he didn’t have the breath to spare to say it. Hang on, Jack. He stared ahead at the fog-shrouded outlines of the houses. We’re comin’. We’re gonna get you out of there. Don’t you worry.
Frank glanced at Charlie, but the boy stood silently beside him. Only his eyes betrayed his fear, darting back and forth between the captain and the guards.
“Buenos días, capitán,” Frank said pleasantly, ignoring the hostile looks they were getting from their hosts. “Joe Valentine is my name. I believe there has been a slight… misunderstanding, concerning my brother, Bob. I am very sorry for any trouble we’ve caused you…”
“There are no Americans here.” The captain cut him off with a sharp wave of his hand, the words in heavily accented English. “You have come to the wrong place, señor. You should never have come to our country.” He took a long drag on his cigarette, leaning forward with a cold stare. “You should go back to where you came from.”
Frank took a deep breath, clasping his hands behind his back so no one would see how they were shaking from the effort of standing up straight. “Yeah, I kinda figured that out,” he agreed. “And believe me, I’d like nothing better than to get back to the States, back home to my wife. But I’m not about to leave without my brother.” An edge of steel crept into his voice with the last words. “So if you have any information about where I might go to find him, I’d be really grateful.” The look the captain gave him reminded him of one you’d give a fly you were about to swat. “I am… a businessman,” he continued, “and if you can help me I’d be more than willing to… compensate you, for your trouble.”
As he said this, another officer entered the little room. This man was tall and lanky, with a theatrical-looking mustache and enough gold braid to suggest he was the 2IC of this outfit. “Rios.” The captain didn’t take his eyes from Frank. “Is the American criminal in this jail?”
Rios stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “Sí, capitán,” he said. Frank’s shoulders sagged a little from relief. “He is a most difficult prisoner. Very dangerous.”
“Dangerous? My little brother?” Frank tried to sound disbelieving. “Oh, come on, he can be an idiot sometimes, but he never means to hurt anybody. I told him it was a dumb idea to come here, but does he listen to me?”
“How much is he worth to you?” the captain demanded.
Enough chit-chat, Frank thought, dropping the friendly attitude and fixing the man with a sharp look. “I want to see him first.” He folded his arms. “Then we’ll talk about it.”
The captain’s shrug was almost imperceptible, then he nodded at his subordinate, standing up and straightening his uniform. Rios gave Frank a look, something between a warning and a challenge, suppressed anger smoldering behind his dark eyes, and then he led the way down a long hallway.
The air in here was close and stifling, and the stench of stale piss and sweat was almost overpowering. The bars lining the sides of the hallway were rusting, and the floor and the walls were covered in grime. Here and there, he could see a rat scurrying between the bars and across the hallway, and somewhere in one of the cells someone was moaning in pain, muttering barely audible Spanish curses.
The two officers led him to the last in the long row of cells, where a man sat on a bench against the wall, his knees drawn up to his chest and his head pillowed on his arms. A sharp clang echoed in the little room as the captain’s pistol whacked against the bars, and the prisoner looked up wearily.
“Well, well, you guys miss me already?” The voice was rough and tired, but the irreverent lilt of humor was unmistakably Jack. “Now don’t think I don’t appreciate — ” He stopped abruptly, standing up slowly, his eyes locking with Frank’s.
His face was pale, except for the purple bruises blossoming around his left eye and along his cheekbone, and there was blood matted in his hair and dried along his forehead. He was limping as he crossed the filthy tiled floor, and his feet were bare and bruised, more dried blood crusted around his toenails. The depth of relief in his eyes was more than words could hope to express.
If it weren’t for the bars between them, they would’ve been hugging each other like schoolkids. As it was, Frank pushed past the two officers to stand at the doorway, wrapping one hand around an iron bar and resting his forehead against the barrier, so their faces were barely inches apart. “Hey,” he whispered.
From the look on Jack’s face, he knew his friend had been as close to despair as he’d ever been, and right now he wasn’t even trying to hide it. “Hey yourself.” Jack’s light tone belied the fierce concern in the look he gave Frank, his eyes searching his friend’s face and not liking what he saw. “You look like shit.”
“Look who’s talkin’.” Frank didn’t much like what he saw, either. But as much as he wanted to teach these assholes a lesson about the Geneva Convention &mdash: preferably with a club — now was not the time. He turned toward the two officers, who had watched this reunion with closed, calculated expressions. Pulling out a wad of ten hundred dollar bills, he counted them carefully, faking a casual attitude as he finished. “I got a thousand American dollars here, boys. You interested?”
Oh yeah, they were interested, all right. Frank leaned against the bars, trying to look casual when really he was having a hard time standing up straight. The gash in his side was a constant, sharp ache, and he could feel sweat trickling down his back as the two officers looked at each other. “One thousand dollars. Is that all you bring down here, to start your little enterprise?”
Frank’s hand wrapped around the doorknob, and he hoped nobody would notice how he was holding onto it for support. “Not quite,” he admitted, feeling Jack’s worried eyes on him. “I suppose I could make it fifteen hundred, if we have to.”
They looked at each other again, but before anyone could answer there were footsteps flying down the hall, and suddenly Charlie was running at him, his eyes wild. The boy gasped something in Spanish, too fast for Frank to translate it, but he was willing to bet their remaining cash it wasn’t good news.
Right behind him was one of the younger cops, looking no less scared. “Capitán! State security trucks are on the south road, coming this way!”
Whatever fragile rapport he’d built with the two officers was gone, just like that, their faces cold and hostile once more. Before Frank could grab for his pistol, he found himself staring down the barrel of an AK-47. “If I were you, señor, I would disappear. Now.”
Rios’ voice was ice. Frank hastily pulled the rest of the money out of his pocket and thrust it at him. “We will,” he assured them quickly. “We were never here.”
Charlie was practically hopping up and down next to him, glancing from Frank to Jack to the officers and back again, looking terrified. “*You* were never here, Señor Joe,” Rios said. Frank’s eyes widened. “Your brother will be in Managua by the end of this week. I am sorry, señor. Now go, before state security gets here.”
“I don’t fucking think so!” He held out the money again, trying a more conciliatory tone. “Look, guys, I got three thousand dollars here. It’s all yours. We’ll be gone, disappear, nobody’ll ever know we were here. Swear to God, scout’s honor. We’re not gonna get you guys in trouble…”
“You will go!” the captain snapped, snatching the money from his hand before he had a chance to react. In his harsh tone Frank thought he heard more than a little fear. “Or you will join your brother in jail. Which will it be?”
For a second he wondered what kind of chance he’d have, if he could go for his pistol before the guy with the AK-47 got him. It didn’t look good. Still he hesitated, turning back to Jack.
“Now, gringo!” the guard snapped, shoving the muzzle of the rifle viciously against his right side.
The breath left his lungs in a rush, gray fog drifting over his eyes as agony exploded through his gut. His knees buckled, and he would have fallen if Jack hadn’t reached through the bars, grasping his arms, offering support. “Get out of here,” Jack was saying, when the ringing in his ears faded enough for him to hear again. “Go on, get help, this ain’t gonna work.”
“I’ll be back.” He couldn’t manage anything more than a harsh whisper. Hell, he couldn’t even stand up straight, the pain was so bad, but he put all the reassurance he could into the look he gave Jack.
Jack shook his head sharply. “You’ll get the hell out of here, tell our buddies everything you know, and promise ‘em whatever it takes to get ‘em to spring me. Then you’ll get your sorry ass out of this country and get to a hospital. You hear me?”
“Like hell.” There were more footsteps along the corridor now, and shouts. “I’m not… leaving without you. I’ll be back… promise…” It was agony to breathe, but he forced himself to stand straight, biting down hard on his lower lip.
Jack’s voice was strained. “I love you, buddy, but you ain’t worth dogshit in a firefight right now.” There was fear in his eyes now, for Frank as much as for himself. Then he turned, looking at Charlie. “Get him out of here,” he barked in Spanish, in his best drill sergeant tone.
The boy jumped, responding automatically to the voice of authority and looking vastly relieved to be finally leaving enemy territory. Wrapping Frank’s arm around his thin shoulders as Jack pulled away, he steered Frank as fast he could toward the side door Rios opened.
Frank could hear the purring of a truck’s engine in the distance, as they stumbled out the door into blessedly fresh air. “You get your ass out of this country, you got me?” Jack shouted after him, sounding angry and scared and resigned at the same time. He knew Frank well enough to know his friend wouldn’t listen. “I don’t want to see you again until — ” And then the heavy door slammed shut between them.
“Like hell,” Frank whispered again. Charlie was saying something, but his brain wasn’t in any mood to translate it, being too occupied with convincing his body that now was not a good time to collapse by the side of the road. The boy’s tone was only too clear, though.
Frank had no idea where they were going or how they were going to get there, or where the bad guys were or if they were being followed. It took all the concentration he had to keep on putting one foot in front of the other, even leaning heavily on Charlie’s shoulder, and trust that the kid knew where he was going and how to keep them out of sight of the road. They were moving at a fast walk, and he was hardly aware of anything but Charlie’s arm around his shoulders and the fiercely burning pain in his side. His shirt was soaked with sweat, and he couldn’t seem to get enough air even though he was practically panting in the midmorning heat.
They didn’t stop until they were maybe a hundred yards past the edge of town. Charlie stopped abruptly, lowering Frank to lie down in the tall grass while he crouched beside him. Frank just lay there, dragging in huge gulps of air, one hand pressed against his side, each breath sounding more like a sob.
The grass was tall enough to cover him, and he lay there for what seemed like a long while, watching the dry yellow blades waving in the faint breeze, and the little clouds drifting across the azure sky. State security. Your brother will be in Managua by the end of this week. You ain’t worth dogshit in a firefight…
Jack sure called that one, he thought, pounding one fist against the ground in frustration. This was bad. Very bad. That was the most coherent analysis of the situation he was really capable of at this point, but it was enough to bring the acrid taste of fear to his mouth.
With a last, excruciatingly painful effort he managed to roll over onto his left side. Bright colored fireworks exploded behind his eyes, and for a minute he thought he was going to pass out. When he could see again Charlie was kneeling in the grass, peering back the way they’d come.
His head was sticking up above the grass, and Frank grabbed at his arm. “Get down!” he snapped, pulling the boy none too gently under the cover of the grass. Then he twisted his head around, trying to look back to see if they were being followed.
The sound of the trucks was gone. Either they were too far away, or the engines had stopped and the newcomers were busy at the prison. He swallowed hard, bile rising in his throat at the thought of what — or who — was keeping them busy this very minute.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he ordered roughly.
Charlie started, looking over at him, and in that moment Frank realized two things. First, that he’d spoken in English. And second, that the kid was absolutely petrified.
He hadn’t made a sound since they left the police station, but his eyes were wide and round and white around the edges, and his thin shoulders were shaking. And who could blame him? He was all of what, fourteen, fifteen? Frank felt like an asshole, his expression softening. “Hey, you all right?” he asked gently, switching to Spanish now. Charlie stared at him for a while, before nodding quickly. “Sorry I yelled at you,” he said. “I’m just worried, you know? Nothin’ personal.” He’d never actually been in charge of troops in combat, and most of the guys he’d fought with were as or more experienced than he was. Rallying green soldiers wasn’t exactly his strong point, especially not soldiers who were only fourteen years old.
Hell, fourteen-year-olds had no damn business carrying guns. Not here, not anywhere.
“Listen, I, ahh, I owe you one,” he went on, watching as Charlie seemed to relax a fraction. He was still nervous, but at least he was listening. “Thanks for everything. You probably saved my life. You were very brave back there.”
Charlie swallowed hard, nodding again. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, licking his lips quickly without saying anything. Frank took a deep breath, holding out his hand. “I don’t think we were properly introduced. My name’s Joe.”
He didn’t smile, but there was something different behind his eyes when he answered. “No, it’s not.” He was young, Frank realized, but he wasn’t stupid. His hand clasped Frank’s, tentative at first, still shaking, then squeezing tighter, taking reassurance from the human contact. “You can call me Charlie.”
It was “moment before the guillotine drops” silence… “calm before the trapdoor springs” silence… “seconds before the predator attacks” silence…
Jack drew in a ragged breath, leaned his head against the rust-encrusted bars, and closed his eyes. Silence… that was a good thing. Right? No shots were fired. He would have heard shots even in here. No shouts. Nothing. That meant Frank and the kid had gotten clear. That meant there was still a chance to get out of this mess. Please God get them out of this mess.
Frank’s pale pain-etched face haunted him in the gloom. Frank always had been a lousy actor and they’d been together way too long for that ‘casual routine’ bullshit to fool him. He was so pig-headed stubborn there was no way he’d bail out and go get the medical attention he needed while Jack was still locked up. No way… the loyal idiot. The agony Frank had been unable to hide when that bastard with the moustache hit him was obvious, too obvious. Frank was in trouble with a capital ‘T’.
That was two he owed that sorry son of a bitch guard. Jack stared down at his battered feet. He’d be lucky if he didn’t lose most of the nails. They’d stopped bleeding, but the pain was keeping a steady beat with his racing pulse. Here and there through the ruined nails a thick yellow purulence beaded and spilled over in putrid rivulets, adding his own contribution to the stinking filth on the tiled floor.
Damn, it was going to make it hard to hike out of here when rescue came if he couldn’t wear his boots. So maybe he’d start a new fashion statement, he thought morosely. Combat sandals. Frank would love it. So if anything good came out of this whole entire mess…
Limping painfully over to the bench, Jack shifted around, trying to find a small bit of comfort and finally settling on the position of least discomfort. His head ached abominably and he would have cheerfully sold his soul to the devil for a couple of aspirin. But he doubted even the devil had much use for him at this moment.
The sound of a sturdy door ricocheting on its hinges against the wall as if it had been kicked, shattered the silence Jack had insulated himself in. Heavy footsteps marched purposefully down the hall alerting Jack that he had company.
The captain was barely recognizable as the same arrogant man who had callously stood by and watched as his men sought vengeance on a helpless bound man only hours before. Now Jack could read nervousness and fear in the man’s eyes. The persistent licking of his lips and the myriad of movements as he shifted his weight back and forth were the very picture of agitation.
He pointed a finger towards Jack. “Here is the Americano, coronel. Just as I told you. We have captured a very suspicious hombre, sí? My men and I, we were right to call you, were we not?”
“Silencio, fool!” the man standing next to him ordered.
He was a trim man of medium height sporting a heavy moustache laced freely with gray, which while not as impressive as Rios’ would never have passed muster back home. The silver hair did nothing to soften the hard demeanor of the man. There was a steely aura about him which could mean only military.
The man stood eyeing Jack, through the bars, his arms locked easily behind him. He gave the impression of a man enjoying an afternoon at the zoo while he watched a rare and favored breed of animal.
It was his eyes which caught Jack unaware and sent a shudder throughout his entire frame. In the dim lighting they appeared coal black. Sinister eyes, devoid of all human warmth or compassion for the man he was scrutinizing. Eyes that suddenly reminded O’Neill of the rat staring at him before scampering through the bars.
The stiff stance of the two heavily armed guards standing behind the man gave testimony to strict military discipline, something Jack had failed to see up to now during this entire mission. Combined with the reaction of the local police, Jack wasn’t entirely sure this was a good thing. Come to think of it, he rather missed the laid-back attitude he had observed thus far. The local bully boys may have attacked him, but it was out of anger and frustration over the war ravaging their country. In a way, Jack could almost understand what they had done. Condone it, no, but certainly understand it.
This man was different. Every precise movement, the self-assurance oozing from his very pores, spelled professional soldier. This man was dangerous. This man represented everything Jack had been taught that Ortega’s Sandinista army stood for. Not children fighting a man’s war because it existed in their backyard, as they became the toy soldiers they should have been playing with. This man and others like him used those children, manipulating them like the arms and legs on a GI Joe, to further their own cause and that of their leader. This man represented why Jack and Frank had been sent down here in the first place.
Lighting a cigarette, the man took a deep drag, exhaling a cloud of smoke which slowly drifted towards Jack. “Cigarette, Americano?”
Jack shook his head. “Not my brand.”
The man cocked his head and gave an amused smile that was light years from his eyes. “Very humorous for an American spy. That is very good. I enjoy a laugh now and then.”
“Yeah, I bet you’re a riot at parties.” Jack really wished he would keep his mouth shut sometimes. Like now would have been a good time to start. But it was too late.
The man’s face lost the amused look of tolerance in an angry flush. “You would do well to be more respectful to coronel Vicente, Americano. You will not be making such disrespectful remarks, I can promise you.” His eyes narrowed and pierced Jack with their intensity. “Because if you do, I will have your tongue removed before sundown.”
As Vicente spun and marched purposefully down the hall, Jack didn’t doubt the validity of his threat for one second.
From that day, Alvaro quietly went about his job, sweeping the jail, emptying the slop buckets, and running errands for el capitán and the others, to earn enough dinero for him and his two sisters to live. His twisted foot, the result of a badly broken ankle which had not healed properly when he was a young child, assured that this servile job was the best that he could hope to find.
Alvaro slowly worked his way down the long hall with his straw broom. When he reached the end cell he stopped momentarily and looked curiously at the American prisoner who had the entire jail in an uproar. The man was watching him. In his dark eyes Alvaro could read sympathy, but no pity. There was none of the mockery he was so accustomed to seeing in the eyes of others.
Alvaro was so engrossed in reading the man’s eyes that the voice startled him. “Hey, kid, any chance you could empty this bucket for me. It’s slopping over and Channel Number 5 it ain’t, if you get my drift.”
He didn’t. But he did understand enough to be able to reply. “I am sorry, señor, but el capitán has forbidden me to enter your cell as long as you are in it. He said you are very tricky and dangerous.”
“Oh yeah, Butch Cassidy and Jesse James all rolled into one. I’m one desperate outlaw.”
“I am sorry señor, I do not understand.” Alvaro heard the emphasis the man put on the word ‘desperate.’ He understood that there was another meaning, another message this man was telling him, but he did not understand. He suddenly wished he could decipher the double meaning of the words. But instead he said, “Señor, I overheard coronel Vicente say he will soon bring you out of your cell. Then I will go in and clean the bucket for you, sí?”
There was grim determination battling with worry, and fear on the man’s face as he answered quietly, “Sí, muchos gracias, amigo.”
Forced into a chair and held in place by strong vice-like hands that clamped down tightly on his shoulders, Jack swallowed the bile of fear that rose in his throat. He knew how to handle this. They had taught him in Ops training. Been very specific how to act and what you could or could not say when being questioned by the enemy. He and Frank had joked that there was a better chance for them to behave correctly if captured than they would if the General’s wife invited them to a tea party.
It wasn’t so funny now. Now that he was actually putting theory into practice for the first time. Please God, let this be the last time he ever had to go through something like this. Because dammit, it had seemed a lot simpler when he wasn’t sitting half naked in front of a man with the eyes of a shark, who was looking at him like he was going to be the guy’s next meal.
“You are a child killer.”
The statement caught Jack off guard, though he should have expected it or some other surprise attack, an attempt to confuse the prisoner into blurting out information.
Recovering his balance, Jack answered as confidently as he could muster, “Nope, you got the wrong guy. I’m a greeting card salesman. I was hoping to get into coffee beans, but I kinda figure that’s a wash, so I may as well go back to cards.”
“You see coronel, it is just as I told you,” the captain blurted out. “He is a liar.” He froze and shrank against the wall as Vicente turned his icy eyes towards him.
With no warning the coronel turned and brought a heavy boot down on Jack’s unprotected toes.
Jack let out a choked gasp of pain. The hands on his shoulders tightened their grip as he strained to escape.
Ignoring the eyes brimming with pain, Vicente ground down harder as if crushing the discarded butt of a cigarette. “Now Americano, will you cease your foolish chatter and tell me the truth? Who are you and what are you doing here?”
His teeth gritted in an effort not to scream, Jack looked the man in the eye. His voice was ragged with pain. “My name’s Bob Valentine. I came to start a new business.” It took all his will not to cry out as Vicente took a step back and then once again stomped down with crippling force on the other foot. Sweat beaded on Jack’s forehead and he swallowed again and again trying desperately to get enough saliva down his parched throat to keep himself from gagging.
“You are a liar, Americano. And a poor one at that. You come down here from the United States to cause trouble for my country. The CIA sent you to provide guns and supplies to the Contra rebels. You and your people kill our children with your interference.”
Jack shook his head, “No, you got it wrong.”
Vicente stepped back and gave Jack one of his glacial smiles. “We shall see, Americano, we shall see.”
Walking over to the desk, Vicente picked up a manila folder. Slowly tapping the folder with one finger he turned and walked back to Jack. “Would you like to see what your interference has wrought, Señor… Valentine?”Thrusting the folder towards Jack he ordered, “Look and see what you are responsible for!”
Trying desperately to regain some control of the situation, Jack focused on calming his breathing. “You know, that could be a problem, coronel, I seem to have misplaced my reading glasses.”
Vicente’s face grew hard. “I have warned you once what will happen if you choose to defy me. For your own good, you would be wise not to continue to toy with me.”
His attempt to shrug was easily thwarted by the pair of guards book ending him. Picking up the file, Jack slowly began to leaf through the pictures.
The pictures were graphic… sickening. Dead and dying women, young and old, and children lying in the streets, gutters, and fields. There were children crying over the bodies of their mothers and mothers clutching dead children to their breasts. Some of the bodies had been mutilated. In no picture was there a soldier dying a soldier’s death, only the weak and innocent.
When he had finished viewing every shot, Jack looked up at Vicente who had been leaning against the desk observing his reaction. “In my country we call this propaganda, and not even very good propaganda at that. I’m truly sorry these people died. But truthfully, they could just as easily have been Contra supporters killed by your own forces. So I’m sorry, coronel, but these don’t prove anything other than war sucks.”
Snatching the file from Jack’s hands, Vicente turned and flung it at the desk scattering pictures across the floor. “It is time I teach you some manners, Americano.” He picked up a large knife, played with it, testing its balance and weight, and stood staring at his prisoner, a leer of anticipation lighting his dark features.
“Perhaps we will begin by teaching you Americanos not to stick your noses where they do not belong.” One of the guards caught hold of Jack’s head, stretching it back painfully until he could not move. Vicente allowed minutes to pass, as he enjoyed the near panic in his prisoner’s eyes. When he deemed enough time had passed to heighten the fear through anticipation, he slowly pressed the knife next to Jack’s nose and allowed the blade to kiss the skin.
Sweat stung Jack’s eyes and he could taste the fear building up in his chest until it consumed his senses.
Enough pressure was slowly added to the knife until the blade sliced through the skin and Jack could feel a trickle of blood flowing down his face.
“Where is the location of the rebel camp?” Vicente’s eyes sought to bore past the line of defense Jack was fighting desperately to build.
Unable to even shake his head, Jack closed his eyes and whispered, “I don’t know.”
He was caught off guard when the knife was removed and the agonizing pressure on his head was released. But before he could feel any sense of relief, Jack was dragged over to the desk and forced on his knees in front of it. His arm was laid on the hard wood and held in a vice-like grip. The barrel of the machine gun pressed against the back of his head assured he would not move.
He could sense Vicente’s presence, but couldn’t locate his exact position with his head pressed against the hard wood of the desk.
“I think you are a soldier, Mr. Valentine. A very good soldier.”
Jack could hear the tap… tap… tap of the knife against the desk top. Sweat was running down his back now, stinging the cuts and abrasions from the earlier beating. But el capitan’s little bash was beginning to seem like a picnic compared to the shit this guy was dealing out. He had a really bad feeling about what was coming down the tarmac.
So Jack concentrated on the things he could control, like breathing. Breathing was good. Swallowing, that was a good one, too. It was harder to accomplish with his mouth desert dry, but it was something to work towards. What else? Thinking, yeah, that bastard couldn’t stop him from thinking about Sara and the baby.
Jack found out rapidly how wrong he was when the heavy steel blade of the knife was scraped slowly across the back of his hand and up the exposed flesh of his arm. Its caress mocked the man who was desperately trying to cling to thoughts of his wife’s touch.
Vicente’s voice purred like the tiger ready to devour its prey. “Will your army still want you if you are missing your fingers, or will you become useless to them? Perhaps it would be enough to remove only your trigger finger to keep you from murdering more of my people. What do you say now, Americano? Shall I put just a little pressure on the knife and slice off the finger you so foolishly pointed in the direction of the Sandinistas?”
Jack felt the blade bite into his skin. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and clenched his teeth to keep from screaming out as the knife sliced a fraction deeper. ‘Oh God. No. Don’t let this maniac do this. Please.’
Whether from divine intervention, or more likely part of Vicente’s plan to break his prisoner, Jack nearly sagged with relief as he realized the knife had stopped cutting. The machine gun was removed and as his hand was released, Jack clutched his bleeding fingers to his chest, more shaken by the experience than he could admit.
Finally, Jack dared to look up at the coronel just the man casually lit a cigarette and stared at him with mild amusement. “You are beginning to learn, are you not? Are you beginning to understand the peril of your position? You will provide the answers to my questions. You have no choice.”
Beyond bone weary, Jack pulled together what shreds of dignity he could to drape over his slumped shoulders. His voice was soft and lacked his normal confident irreverent tone. “I can’t answer what I don’t know.”
Vicente’s moustache twitched as he favored O’Neill with a benevolent smile. “Ah, but I believe you do know, my friend, and you simply require the right persuasion to be willing to share what you know. And you see, that is my job, to find the right persuasion. And I am very good at my job.”
“I’m sure you are, coronel. So am I.” Jack’s head slumped back and hit the desk with a soft thud. His voice became stronger. “I was the best damn greeting card salesman in the entire fucking township and I’d like to get back home to my wife and pick up where I left off.” At least the last part was God’s truth.
Jack couldn’t help draw a shuddering breath as Vicente picked up the knife and drove it with force into the top of the cheap wooden desk, leaving the quivering handle standing straight in the aftermath of his attack.
Responding to an unspoken order the guards quickly and efficiently bound Jack’s hands behind his back They dragged him over to a large wooden tub filled with water, out of place in the police station, but apparently drafted into a new and more sinister occupation.
It was the kind of tub he had seen the women using to scrub their clothes in as he and Frank had walked through the town. Was it only a couple of days ago?
Jack’s heart was pounding so hard that he barely registered when the door opened and Alvaro stuck his head in and casting a quick glance at the kneeling man, spoke a few softly stuttered words to el capitán. The captain immediately threw a frightened glance to see if Vicente would resent the interruption before snapping an answer to the young man and stammering an abject apology to the coronel.
Forced on his knees, the tub of water looming before him, Jack wanted to remind the coronel he had forgotten the apples for the bobbing for apples game. He wanted to tell him that he preferred to bathe with a bit more privacy and besides he really preferred a shower to a tub bath anyway. He wanted to explain that he wasn’t thirsty right now, but unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for once words failed him and Jack remained silent.
His mouth was so dry that all he could taste was desperate fear. Fear that this time he would break. This time he wouldn’t be able to hold out. Fear that if he did manage to hold on Vicente would take it too far and kill him and he’d never see Sara again. Never get to hold his child. Never make sure Frank was okay and had gotten home safe to get the medical attention he needed.
Dammit to hell, why was this happening? He and Frank were supposed to be the good guys. They were following orders and doing exactly what they had been trained to do. They were helping to make the world a better place. Weren’t they? So why the hell was he beat up, cut up, tied up and on his knees in front of a tub of water that he doubted seriously they had brought in to baptize his sorry soul?
He fought to find something on to which his mind could latch, just as he had been trained. A person, a thought, a place, but his thoughts were swept along the rapids heading towards the falls.
Finally, his weary mind snagged onto a submerged log just before he was pulled over the edge of the cataract. Pain … pain was good. It helped him to focus. It became his lifejacket. He dug his ravaged toes into the rough flooring and battled the threatening current of events.
Jack barely registered the highly polished black boots that stepped next to him. He barely heard the voice slick with confidence ask him for the name of his rebel contact. He had retreated to a place where pain ruled and blocked out all else.
And it worked until the guards forced his head under the water’s surface and held his struggling form there with practiced ease. Held him there until his lungs depleted the scant supply of oxygen he had to offer them and blackness began filling his vision that had nothing to do with his tightly closed eyes. And in the end he only had one choice which in reality wasn’t a choice at all. He had to open his mouth and breath and curse the day he had not been born with gills.
And they pulled him up.
Coughing… sputtering… dripping…
But alive, he thought. He had to be alive. Dead couldn’t feel this bad or else the Grim Reaper would have had a hell of a tough time as a door to door salesman.
Vicente was asking him something, but water filled in his ears and all he could hear was his own pounding heart.
Shaking his head to try to clear his ears, Jack was surprised that temporarily it seemed he wasn’t the catch of the day. Everyone’s attention appeared to be focused on the door to the hall where a stream of inventive and colorful swearing was being manufactured. Before anyone had time to investigate what was happening, there was a muffled thud and someone yelled, “Madre de Dios, esta uno granda rata!”
And then the room took on the over-whelming redolence of a dirty outhouse as a wide pool of stagnant urine seeped under the door and into the small room. Jack suddenly found he had competition in the gasping-for-air event as everyone began breathing from their mouths. Even the ultra-confident composure of Vicente was taking a beating as the coronel gave a wonderful impersonation of a big-mouthed bass complete with watering eyes and gaping maw.
With all streaming eyes on it, the door flew open and Alvaro stepped in carefully avoiding the stinking incoming tide of piss slowing making its way further onto the beach of Vicente Island, his hat in his hands, his eyes down cast, the picture of abject misery. “Please forgive me señors, I was emptying the slop bucket when a rat ran in front of me. It was a big one and it startled me. I set the bucket down and was going to go find a stick to kill it when I accidentally knocked over the bucket. I am truly sorry.”
Looking like he would burst into tears any moment, Alvaro bowed his head in shame. “I will clean up the mess immediately, capitán.”
The captain looked at Vicente, who was beginning to lose his bass look, but as yet hadn’t regained his previous shark stature. “Take the American back to his cell. I will deal with him later. Get this stinking mess cleaned up. I’m going to go get some fresh air and a drink. I’ll expect this taken care of before I am ready to talk to the American again.”
“Sí, coronel,” the captain and Alvaro answered in unison.
Quickly, untying his hands, the guards half-dragged Jack down the hall towards his cell, every bit as eager to escape the odorous room as their commander and head for the cantina for a beer. Shoved hard with no warning, Jack had no hope of catching himself. He landed hard against the bench and let out a grunt as he felt something give in his ribcage.
His eyes squeezed tightly shut, kneeling at the side of his bunk, Jack could have been saying his prayers before bed. Could have, except for the kaleidoscope of curses he uttered in a colorful combination of languages.
“Thanks a fucking lot, you pair of trained monkey-piss drinking, slimy, weasel-faced bastards. You low-life scum suckers would have to evolve into a whole new species before you could climb off the bottom rung of the food chain.”
It was brash. It was foolish, but oh God it felt good to vent.
Running out of steam rapidly, Jack pulled himself up on the bench and lay on his side to accommodate his sore ribs. He failed to notice an empty bucket sitting in his cell against the wall.
To find that Joaquin was gone, off on a patrol, or so he was told. And wouldn’t be back until this evening. Sinking down to lean against the wide trunk of a tree, Frank closed his eyes, breathing in and out slowly and waiting for the pain in his side to ease. It didn’t, but after a while he fell into a restless doze, slumped against the tree in the sticky midday heat.
He didn’t know what woke him. That sixth sense, peculiar to combat soldiers, that always told him when he was being watched. It was late afternoon by now, and most of the contras were lounging on the ground or playing cards.
Charlie was sitting on a log a few feet away. He was leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, holding a cigarette loosely between two fingers. Looking in Frank’s direction, dark eyes solemn behind the hair flopping over his face.
He blinked, seeing the American was awake, but didn’t look away. A little disconcerted by this open scrutiny, Frank offered a half-hearted smile. The boy didn’t return it, but after a moment he reached into his pocket, holding out another cigarette.
Surprised, he took it, reaching into his pocket for a lighter. “Muchas gracias, amigo.” Charlie nodded fractionally, but didn’t say anything, looking on as he lit it, leaning his head back and inhaling gratefully.
In the ensuing silence, he looked around, hoping that maybe Joaquin had returned early, but there was no sign of the comandante. Swearing silently, he tried to sit up straighter. He couldn’t help the grimace of pain at the movement, wondering darkly how long he had before infection set in. Couldn’t be too long, in these conditions.
Jack was right, he thought. He wasn’t going to be much use to anyone in a firefight right now.
Needing to do something with his hands, anything to distract himself, he reached for his rifle lying next to him. Removed the magazine, laying it beside him, and methodically started taking the weapon apart. He didn’t want to think about Jack right now.
Didn’t want to think about the overwhelming relief in his eyes, or the fear he hadn’t been able to hide, before they left. Didn’t want to think about the bruises on his face, or way he’d limped across the dirty cell floor. And he especially didn’t want to think about what might be happening right now.
What was happening. No point in pretending otherwise. They’d both trained for this kind of shit, years ago when they’d first joined Special Ops, and then more recently at the Farm. They’d known before they left the States what the Sandinistas were capable of, if they got their hands on a suspected traitor—or an American spy.
There was no war, officially, between the US and Nicaragua. All the “rules of war” that were supposed to protect POWs didn’t mean shit here. They weren’t enemy soldiers here, and if the Sandinistas felt like executing Jack for espionage the US government wouldn’t lift a finger to stop it. The US government would never know.
His hands moved automatically, cleaning all the parts of the gun, the way he’d been trained. It wasn’t much of a distraction, really. Before he left basic almost eight years ago he could strip down and clean the damn thing in his sleep. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Charlie was still watching him, leaving his perch on top of the log to sit on the ground, a little closer to Frank.
Nobody was going to execute Jack, he knew. Not right away, at least. The information he had, the details “Mark” had made them both carefully memorize, line by line and word for word, was far too valuable.
Letting the cleaning rag fall to the ground, his hands flew, reassembling the parts as fast as he could, like that would block the images in his mind. The pictures he’d seen, back during training when it was all safe and far away, a dim possibility somewhere far in the future. Pictures of wounds deliberately inflicted on POWs in Vietnam and Korea, pictures that he could still see, if he closed his eyes.
And he knew that the blood and the bruises he’d seen on Jack’s face this morning were minor scratches compared to what was happening to his friend right now.
While he sat here. Leaning against the rough bark of a tree, staring at the leaves overhead, listening to the soft sounds of the jungle. Doing nothing, but watching, and waiting.
And one question raced through his mind, echoing savagely with every painful breath he took. Why is it him in there, and not me?
Jack had been clear. Why the hell hadn’t he left the bar when he had a chance? He snorted in frustration, ignoring the look of confusion that flashed across Charlie’s face.
Because he came back for you, you idiot. Jack’s not gonna leave you behind when he knows you’re hurt.
As he finished, slapping the magazine back into place, he looked up to see a look of curiosity on Charlie’s normally impassive face. He still didn’t say anything, taking a long drag on his cigarette.
Frank shrugged, letting the gun fall into his lap, resisting the urge to strike out at the tree with his fist. “It’s not that hard, really, kid,” he said. Thinking back to training days when getting his ass chewed by the drill sergeants was the worst he had to fear. “You’re gonna have to learn how to do that, too, in under two minutes, if you want to be a soldier when you — ”And stopped, abruptly, realizing what he’d been about to say. If you want to be a soldier when you grow up. The kind of friendly encouragement and challenge he might give to any fourteen-year-old kid, anywhere but here. ‘Cause training or no training, this kid already was a soldier, and he’d probably seen a hell of a lot more of war at fourteen than Frank had at twenty-one.
He kept his face carefully blank, knowing Charlie would probably take offense if he knew just how much the idea of children in a war went against everything he had ever believed in. This shit was his job. He went to war to protect the children. He’d never seen himself as any kind of superhero, but it had always been at the very core of who he saw himself to be, that he did the best job he could to protect the innocent.
That was why he was here, wasn’t it? That was why he was in Special Ops. Oh, sure, he’d joined up for the adventure, for the adrenaline rush, same as they all had. Since then, he’d seen the ugly face of war up close, too many times. It was all in the name of protecting the innocent, he’d always told himself. Trying to make a difference. Of course, he knew his first duty was to guard his own country and her interests, but he’d always held onto the belief that somehow what he was doing would help ordinary civilians all over the world. His parents were killed in the war, Joaquin had said. Where else can he go?
There was a part of him that had wanted to grab the other man by the shoulders and shake him, and scream that there must be somewhere!
Naïve, maybe. But all the same he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was wrong, as he held out a hand toward the boy sitting near him. “Give me your gun.”
As Charlie inched closer, a look of concentration on his young face, Frank could see the other contras turning to glance in their direction, drifting over in twos and threes, seeing the American advisor looking like he was getting ready to dispense some advice. And he thought, what the hell. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be here for?
“You have to clean your weapon regularly, or it won’t work when you need it.” He held up the rifle. “First you check and make sure the safety’s — ” And he stopped, biting off a curse, seeing the selector switch was set to full auto. “O-kay. Lesson one. Never, ever, leave your safety off unless you’re planning on shooting somebody in the next couple seconds.” Just what, exactly, did they teach you in Honduras? he thought, amazed. “Mark’ and I are gonna have words when we get back.
If we get back.
Charlie drew his knees up to his chest, in an unconsciously defensive move, the guarded look returning to his eyes at Frank’s tone. “No, I’m serious,” he insisted, suppressing a sigh. If he’d left an unsafe weapon lying around, the drill sergeant would’ve had him on the ground doing fifty pushups. It was one of the first things you learned. But he didn’t have that luxury here, so he’d have to find alternate methods of motivation for these guys. “You go carryin’ this thing around with the safety off, you’re gonna end up shooting yourself in the foot. Or worse.”
And so the lessons began. They were pretty far into the jungle, but still he didn’t think it would be a good idea to do any actual target practice. Who knew if any villagers or soldiers might have decided to take a walk in the woods today? He didn’t know if the sound of shots would carry all the way back to the town, but it wasn’t his decision to take that chance. And besides, they had limited supplies, and they couldn’t afford to waste ammo, no matter how much they needed the practice.
So he went through the routine of taking the rifles apart, and putting them back together, a dozen times until he was sure they all had it right. And went over all the various things that could go wrong with the weapon, and the best and quickest ways to fix it in the middle of a fight.
They watched his every move, some of them cheerful, laughing with their mates. See, I know how to do it! We learn fast, no? Do not worry, amigo, we will free your partner. We will go into the town, and we will show the Sandinistas that their time will soon be over. They will not even know what hit them.
He wished he could feel encouraged by their boisterous confidence.
He had them lying on the ground, sighting at X’s he carved into the trees with his knife. Forcing himself to stand, he watched as they zeroed the sights, carefully taking aim. Not all of them were so cheerful. Some muttered darkly to their neighbors, and not all the looks he got were friendly, or trusting. But they all obeyed his instructions.
“You’re aiming too high, point a little lower there,” he’d say, dropping to his knees beside a twenty-ish farmer who called himself the Snake. A less-fitting name could never have been chosen, for a man whose face was completely open and honest. The green recruits always aimed too high.
He couldn’t quite hide the pain as he stood up, his lips pressed tight together from the effort. Juan seemed to be getting the hang of things, he realized, crouching down beside him. “You’re doin’ good,” he said, clapping him on the shoulder, and Juan gave a small smile, swiping the safety catch to full auto and miming pulling the trigger.
Frank reached for the gun, looking around to get everyone’s attention. “Another thing,” he said, setting the safety on the middle setting. “Leave the switch like that, and you’ll only fire one round at a time. Unless the comandante tells you differently, of course. But you’ll save ammo this way.” He put the switch back on safe, and handed the gun back to Juan. “The Sandinistas can afford to hose these things around like they’re some kinda goddamn cowboys. You guys gotta be smart.”
Charlie was all the way at the end of the line, lying on his stomach and scowling at his rifle with a look of fierce concentration. “How ya doin’?” He just stopped himself before he called him “kid.” Watching as a hand pushed hair out of his face, squinting through the sight. The boy had listened closely to everything he’d said, and copied his actions better than a lot of his comrades.
Frank tried to tell himself he’d have a better chance of surviving, now. That he was helping the kid, really, by teaching him this stuff. Charlie didn’t say anything for a while, just dropped the gun, then picked it up again in a smooth movement, targeting the crude X once again, taking aim quickly. “Not bad,” he said, clasping the thin shoulder and resisting the urge to ruffle the kid’s hair. “Not bad.”
They were getting the hang of it, he thought. Yeah, they could hit the targets, if they had the ammo to spare to shoot at them. Of course, shooting at trees in the jungle was nothing at all like what they’d have to be doing soon, and there was no training that could simulate the exhilaration and terror of a first combat mission. And no way to know how they’d perform in a real mission. Charlie’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “How long have you been a soldier?”
He blinked. The question was quiet, curious, and his expression was half hidden behind the hair falling in his eyes. The kid really needed a haircut, he thought. “Almost five years.” He’d been in the military longer than that, but it was nearly five years ago, now, that he and Jack had had their own baptism of fire, alone behind enemy lines in the mountains of Afghanistan. Jack had carried him out of there, across the passes of the Hindu Kush, refused to let him give up when he could feel life slipping away with the blood seeping steadily into his lungs.
He didn’t want to think about that now.
“How long have you been here?” he asked, not sure he wanted to know. He had a feeling he didn’t want to know much about this boy’s history, how he’d come to be with the contras. The less he knew, the easier it would be to forget about him when he left this country.
“Almost four months.”
He waited for him to say something else, and when he didn’t, couldn’t help asking. “Why —?” Why are you here? he wanted to ask, in spite of himself. Why not leave the country, get a job in Honduras, or even try to get into the States? But instead, he asked, “What do you want to do, when the war is over?”
His shoulders stiffened, and he looked away, the guarded attitude returning. Frank eased himself down to sit on the ground, with a breathless grunt, swearing at himself. Wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. Charlie’s voice was sad, almost lost. He sounded like he’d never thought about it before. “I don’t know.”
At that moment there was a rustling in the undergrowth behind them, and Frank whirled around, raising his rifle, to see Joaquin and two other men walk into the clearing.
The rest of the contras got up, coming to cluster informally around their leader. “State security trucks are in town,” he snapped, ignoring the men, fierce dark eyes searching out the wounded gringo as he pushed himself painfully to his feet.
“I know,” Frank returned, ignoring the hand Charlie offered to help him. “We saw them.”
“Did they see you?” the comandante demanded, and he shook his head. “I assume you did not free your partner?”
“No.” He let Joaquin take his arm, steering him toward the edge of the clearing where they could speak without being overheard. “He’s in pretty bad shape,” he said, drawing a sharp look. He went on to describe the entire trip, watching as Joaquin’s eyes narrowed, assessing the situation.
A look, and a motion of his hand was enough to summon Charlie, and he listened intently as the boy recounted his version of events. Frank ignored the look Joaquin shot him, when Charlie described how the guard had struck him. A fact he had conveniently left out of his own report. When he had finished, Joaquin was silent. “So what are we gonna do?” Frank demanded finally.
“There is no need to worry,” he said, waving Charlie to leave. “Everything will be taken care of tomorrow night.”
“How, exactly?” Frank folded his arms, the persistent stabbing sensation in his side reminding him just how little he was capable of contributing to the rescue mission. “Do you have a plan you want to let me in on?”
“We have a man inside the police station.” The words were clipped. “You should rest, Señor Valentine.”
I swear to God, he thought, if one more person tells me I should rest… At least that was some good news. He tried to remember the men he’d seen at the jail, tried to picture which one of them might be a spy. “Can he get us inside without alerting anybody? How’s this gonna work?”
“No one will be alerted until it is too late,” Joaquin said. “It will appear that the American killed himself. Our agent will not be compromised.”
He turned away, moving toward the rest of the guerrillas. Frank stared after him, a sudden, sick horror slamming into him. “Now wait just a damn minute!” he exploded, when he could breathe again. Joaquin stopped, and his eyes were blank now, cold and controlled. “You’re not — ” This was so not the way this was supposed to happen! “You’re not gonna kill him!”
“He knows everything you know,” Joaquin snapped. “I cannot allow this information to fall into the hands of the Sandinistas. It could endanger my men and many other contra units.”
Okay, this was not in the program. No way, no how. Shit, now what was he supposed to do? “It won’t. We can get him out of there. Your spy can let us in …”
“You have been training these men today?” A wave of his hand indicated the men who were now sitting down for an evening meal. “You think they can storm the jail and rescue your friend? None of them have seen any real fighting yet. Do you know how many soldiers are there?”
“No,” he admitted, feeling suddenly cold. “I don’t care. There has to be a way.” Joaquin just looked at him, and there was a hardness in those eyes that told him he wasn’t going to be convinced. “We’re not just gonna kill one of our own!”
We’re the good guys. This isn’t how we operate. Hell, this guy was supposed to be on their side! “We have no choice, señor,” Joaquin was saying. “I am sorry.”
For a second, he sounded sincere. And if he hadn’t been trying hard to keep from collapsing, Frank would’ve hit him. “I’m not gonna let you kill him.”
The other’s voice was cool. “You are hardly in a position to stop me.”
“I thought we were on the same side here!”
“For the moment, only because it is convenient for your president right now.” Joaquin’s snort was derisive. “You Americans, you think this war is some kind of game. And you are perfectly willing to play with our people’s lives, as long as none of your soldiers get hurt.” He wasn’t trying to hide the bitterness in his voice anymore. “This is no game for us, señor. And I will not risk my men’s lives for one man. Not even if he is an American. I am sorry.”
And he walked away toward the rest of his men, leaving Frank staring at him, his heart pounding with a cold dread. Oh, God, Jack. Please, God, don’t let this happen.
“What do you think?” Her voice was a perfect blend of concern and confidence he knew so well. “Dad helped with the painting and border, but I had to make some decisions so we could get it done before the baby gets here. I’m sorry I didn’t wait, but I wasn’t sure you’d make it back in time.” Her blue eyes searched his face anxiously, seeking an answer before she even asked the question. Only after she read the answer did she ask, “Do you really like it, Jack?”
He walked slowly into the guest room turned nursery, absorbing every detail. Soft clouds bordered the pale blue walls. Not many frills, simple and practical, yet radiating love and care. It mirrored Sara and he loved it, just as he loved her.
“If it’s a girl, I thought she’d forgive the blue when she finds out how much her daddy loves the sky.”
Wrapping his arms around his wife and pulling her tight, Jack was rewarded by a sharp kick that brought a smile to both of them. “It’s perfect, Sara. Just perfect.”
They walked towards the crib and looked down. The soft cotton sheets were perfect, just waiting for the arrival of the baby. Happiness welled inside Jack, until he thought he would burst. God, what had he ever done to merit this favor? A wife who loved him more than he ever deserved, a baby on the way, the best of friends, a great career… He had it all. He was the luckiest guy in the world.
Suddenly he noticed something out of place on the pristine purity of the crib, a dark irregular spot. Reaching down to brush it away, Jack was startled when it crawled quickly across the bedding and disappeared under a comical stuffed bear sitting in the corner of the bed. He jerked his hand back. Shit, what the hell was a roach doing in the baby’s crib?
Jack turned to look at Sara and noticed with alarm that her face was covered with a fine sheen of sweat and she had turned ghostly pale.
Fearing she might faint and hurt herself, or the baby, Jack reached for her hand, but she backed away from him, her eyes wide and frightened.
“Don’t let it upset you Sara. It’s just a stupid bug. I’ll kill it.”
Jack snatched up the grinning bear, searching for the elusive insect. He was completely unprepared when suddenly not one, but dozens … hundreds … an army of writhing masses of insects blackened the crib.
Horrified, Jack watched as the happy features of the bear were obscured and Teddy drowned beneath the undulating waves of carapace. And then they were dripping out of the crib, a few at first, like a slow leak in the faucet, but soon the leak ruptured and a flood of seething bodies began to crawl towards him, driving him away from the crib and towards the door.
“Sara, we’ve got to get the hell out of here!”
Jack grabbed his wife’s hand and ran for the door, away from the nightmare that had infiltrated and destroyed this perfect place. He threw open the door, thinking only of escape, before he and Sara were buried alive.
But there was no escape.
A man stood blocking his path. A dark man with black dead eyes that sent tremors of fear pounding through Jack’s soul. The man held a gleaming knife and as Jack tried desperately to push past him, to allow him and Sara to escape, the man smiled and brought the knife down on Jack’s hand, severing it at the wrist, even as Sara clung tightly to it. Sara’s scream silenced as the door slammed leaving Jack at the man’s mercy. And as he stood there trapped, mute, and helplessly holding the ruined stump of his hand, Jack could see there was no mercy in the man’s soul.
He stared at the bars of his cell, as his mind played for bits and pieces of the nightmare, refusing to let go of the images which haunted him.
Sara, oh God, Sara.
And suddenly he realized he had never felt so helpless in his entire life.
And desperation clawed at him, shredding his training and determination and leaving him as a tattered flag ready to be burned.
The uncertainty gnawed away what defenses he had erected and like an infinitesimal tear in a parachute, he knew the rent was only the beginning of the end. It had become a race in time between plummeting helplessly or reaching safety and God alone knew whether he was going to make it.
God alone knew whether or not he was going to survive the next round of questioning, the next round of torture, Vicente had planned.
Jack buried his weary head in his arms and tried to imagine a way out of this mess, but he could no more escape from his thoughts than he could from the dream.
The slumped shoulders, the eyes fixed on the grime of the floor, the limping gait, spoke volumes of the hard life this boy had been forced to endure.
“Hey, kid, thanks for the bucket.”
Jack watched as the boy started at his words, and then with a frightened glance down the hall he answered in a hushed voice, barely suppressing the underscore of panic.
“No señor, that was an accident. There was a rat.”
Wide dark eyes filled with fear begged Jack not to dispute the story.
“It’s okay kid, don’t sweat it.” Nodding towards the bucket sitting on the floor near the back wall, Jack gave the kid a tired smile. “I meant thanks for emptying the bucket in here. It helps make my little home away from home a bit more livable.”
Alvaro’s eyes spoke volumes that Jack was simply too tired to translate. But he did understand when the boy looked at him and offered his own weak smile. “Gracias, señor.”
“Yeah, you’re welcome and gracias backatcha, too, kid.”
The smile grew the tiniest bit, as shy eyes washed over him.
And as the boy turned and limped away for some reason Jack suddenly felt a little better.
His reprieve was short lived. Not long after Alvaro had strengthened his resolve with his tentative smile, Jack heard the tell-tale stride of booted feet heading towards his cell. It took all of his waning determination, but Jack met the guards on his own two feet, a sneer of complete contempt plastered firmly in place.
“Well, if it isn’t Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dumbass. Come to fetch me for more fun and games with that asshole you two shitheads work for?”
He wasn’t positive how much English they actually spoke, but it was clear from the satisfying flush of red that flashed across their faces that the men certainly caught his tone of voice. Apparently they downright took affront to it, Jack decided when the dynamic duo unlocked the door and strode purposefully over to him.
Twiddle Dee gave Jack a vicious shove, sending him wind-milling backwards against the back wall. He hit the block walls with a bruising grunt and collapsed in a heap, knocking over the wooden slop bucket.
As he lay there attempting to catch his breath, he sent a sincere thanks to the kid, once more for emptying the damn bucket and for the earlier interruption he had caused no matter how unintentional.
As the guards caught hold of him and with expert efficiency dragged him down the hall, Jack knew the chances of anything, or anyone interfering this time where somewhere between slim and none.
Within minutes, Jack found himself back in the familiar room. There was no sign of Vicente. El capitán and Rios where also conspicuously absent. They were probably down at the cantina trading lies with the other officers and drinking liquid courage to transform the lies into truths. Jack was under no illusions he would be so lucky with the coronel.
The room bore a faint whiff of its earlier perfume, but apparently Alvaro had taken the coronel at his word and had cleaned the floor as best he could. The wooden floor bore obvious signs of recent scrubbing. Jack wondered idly if the stench would ever completely leave the room or if it would always bear the stray whiff of a young man’s brave act. In a way, Jack hoped so. It was an ironic, but strangely fitting way to commemorate Alvaro’s deed.
Despite his determination to remain coolly in control, Jack could not stop his eyes from darting nervously around the room. The tub was gone, thank God, so was the knife, although the deep gouge in the desk was an all-too-grim reminder that it had been a player in the earlier games. In the center of the room a lone chair sat. It didn’t take a genius to piece together that this was his destination. Still one could always hope.
‘Always the eternal optimist, eh Jack.’
Twiddle Dumb and Dumber quickly made it a moot point as they forced him into the chair efficiently, binding his arms to the heavy wooden armrests using short wide leather straps. Jack bit his lip to keep from crying out when one of the guards struck his throbbing toes as his ankles were strapped to the legs of the chair. Finally a wide leather band was threaded around his chest and Jack gasped aloud as it was cinched tightly around his bruised rib cage and fastened, effectively disabling his ability to move.
Knowing it was useless, but unable to stop himself, Jack fought to pull free from the tight restraints. He could feel his already battered flesh bruising as he struggled to no avail.
Finally he ceased his pointless battle. Okay, it was official now. This day sucked.
Whether by design or one more ironic cruelty, Jack finally calmed enough to notice that the guards had immobilized his wrists and arms so that the palms of his hands were facing up. For some odd reason this greatly disturbed him on a gut level. He watched as the long fingers of his hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically almost as if they were a part of a different being entirely.
And suddenly he understood with complete clarity just what was nagging at him. In this position each time his hands opened and the fingers spread wide, it gave the impression of helpless pleading, begging for mercy. And that led easily to a still much too vivid nightmare.
If only his hands were facing down. It was such a simple thing, being allowed to make a fist. But not so simple when there was no choice. Such a simple thing, and yet it represented power and control he no longer had. And it wore on his exhausted mind, because dammit, no matter what happened he wasn’t going to seek mercy from that sadistic bastard and he resented like hell, his own body’s inadvertent capitulation into the enemy territory of anything that remotely smacked of begging.
Only please don’t let the mutiny spread from his traitorous hands and forge throughout his body until it reached his lips and tongue and he was forced to hear himself begging for release, or worse betraying the people and cause he had sworn his life to defend.
God forgive me Sara, but I’d rather be dead. I’d rather be dead than know I had betrayed my country, my mission, the people I swore I’d protect, Frank’s trust, and myself. I don’t think I could face you knowing I’d sunk that low.
I don’t think I could ever face myself.
The unpleasant thoughts were vanquished when one of the guards stepped up behind Jack and without warning brought a heavy black hood over his head and tied it tightly at his neck, effectively and completely cutting off Jack’s sight.
An enormous sense of anxiety filled Jack’s mouth. He strained to see through the inky blackness, but no speck of reassuring light braved the void. Panic rose up, but Jack fought that enemy down and forced himself to reassess the situation.
‘Get a grip O’Neill, you’re a Special Ops officer and you’re not doing a mental AWOL because someone turned off the fucking lights. You are not going to disgrace your uniform, so suck it up, Mister.’
The mental dressing down wasn’t even close to the same class as a few verbal ones he had received back in basic, but it was the best he could do and it did the trick, if only temporarily. Jack stemmed the panic and forced himself to use what other information he had available. And that equaled the proverbial goose egg. The hood not only effectively blinded him, but it also muffled his hearing to the point of being nearly useless. Add taste, touch, and smell to the mix and here he sat, Jack the vegetable, waiting to be dropped into the food blender and get minced, diced, cubed, or chopped.
Sitting immobile, deaf and blind. See no evil, hear no evil, do no evil, have no fun. Even in the darkness he could almost see Frank’s pained expression.
‘But ain’t it the truth, Frank? Ain’t it the truth?’
Deprived of his even basic stimuli, Jack quickly lost track of how long he sat, minutes… hours…, it all ran together in a pureed mixture of fragmented thoughts, feelings, and emotions. At first his body reacted by pumping massive amounts of adrenaline into his system as he anticipated actions that never came to fruition. It left him nervous, edgy, and unable to channel the energy in any satisfying means. It wasn’t long before he was battling the effects of the aftermath of adrenaline and fighting to keep himself alert. Time and time again his head jerked, awakening him enough to stand guard once again in the seemingly endless night.
It was hellishly hot under the heavy serge of the hood and the tightly woven fabric effectively cut off fresh air which might have proven an effective ally in the battle to remain awake. Sweat stung his eyes and Jack could taste the salt as he licked his lips until his mouth grew too dry to provide even that minute bit of release in distraction. His head began the all-to-familiar pounding as he was forced to breathe in the stale air.
And so he sat in darkness and tried not to think about how miserable he was. How bad he felt. How much he missed Sara. And especially where Frank was and what he was doing.
And he failed miserably on all counts.
Although he never heard the door open, Jack was aware that something was about to happen before he felt the touch of the knife slicing the tie that bound the hood. It was galling to be unable to remove the damn bag himself, but he forced himself to hold his head still despite the temptation to shake it until either the hood or his brains ended up on the floor. At this point he didn’t much care which one hit the ground first.
It was maddening to sit silently and wait patiently for the next step in this game to be played out. Patience had never been his strength, neither Frank’s nor his, but he was especially lacking in that particular department. And now he knew even the strengths he did possess where waning.
When the hood was finally removed Jack sat blinking painfully in the bright light. His eyes watered and unable to wipe his stinging eyes he felt streaks of moisture trickle down his cheeks before his eyes finally adjusted.
Vicente leaned comfortably against the edge of the desk, the very picture of contentment. He was clean, obviously well-fed, and wore a crisply pressed uniform. A large cup of fresh coffee he held in his hand sent out an invitation that Jack’s traitorous stomach responded to with a loud growl which brought an amused smile to the coronel’s lips and pissed O’Neill off royally.
The soldier continued to stare silently, appraisingly at his prisoner, sizing up his strengths and weaknesses with a practiced eye, as he sipped his coffee, just as another might read the daily paper.
Jack forced himself to stare back, never giving quarter to his enemy who had him so badly outgunned. For just a moment he thought he saw just a flicker of admiration in Vicente’s eyes before it was gone.
The shark was back.
Breaking the silence at last, Vicente spoke nonchalantly as he brushed at a non-existent piece of lint on his spotless uniform. “Well, Señor Valentine, have you had a pleasant day?”
Jack capitalized on the anger coursing through his veins. Just the sight of the smug, superior look on Vicente’s face was pissing him off.
And Jack saw a momentary crack in the impenetrable wall of confidence the coronel had erected as he puzzled over the answer. But before Jack could take advantage of the temporary fissure, it was gone, sealed solid and inescapable once again.
“Perhaps you have done some thinking about your involvement in this situation.”
“Perhaps not, coronel.” And Jack saw a brief flicker of anger in the dark eyes. ‘Gotcha asshole, score one for our side.’
Vicente quickly recovered his composure. Sitting his coffee mug down carefully on the edge of the desk, he walked slowly towards O’Neill, stopping just close enough that Jack was forced to bend his neck uncomfortably to look up in order to see his face.
Jack was momentarily caught off guard when Vicente’s oily voice remained calm and completely in control. “Are you married, Señor Valentine? Do you have a child, an el niño? I think perhaps you are anticipating the arrival of a baby.” He paused giving Jack a moment to ponder his words.
Jack’s face never changed. He was positive he was wearing a blank mask, but suddenly the safe mask behind which he was hiding began to crack as he watched Vicente slowly pull out the crumpled pages Sara had sent him.
Shit, when had the goons lifted it from his pocket? Why the hell hadn’t he thought to get rid of it? His thoughts spun wildly like a parachute jump suddenly gone bad, as he cursed himself for the worst kind of fool for handing the enemy ammunition.
“Michael… a good strong name, Señor Valentine. Frank… Emily… there was a long pause as he smiled at Jack… Jack, Jr. It is a good thing to name a child after a father he will never know. Is it not?”
Slowly Vicente tore the list into small pieces and dropped them onto the floor, deliberately taking a step closer to Jack, he stood on the discarded paper.
Jack’s eyes were fixed on the names Sara had sent him. He wanted to curse Vicente. He wanted to lash out, to loose his anger, but instead he sat frozen, staring like the prey caught in the beam of the hunter’s light.
Vicente’s voice was soft, haunting, almost hypnotic. “You will never see your wife again. You realize that, do you not? You will never watch your child grow up. You will never see him play baseball. Never hike through the woods. You are a dead man to your family. Your wife, she is beautiful? Do you think about her at night? Dream of being with her?”
“Soon it will be another man who takes her into his arms and comforts her. It will be another man who makes love to her, who caresses her arms, who strokes her soft hair, who nuzzles her neck and whispers words of love as he breathes in her sweet scent. It will be another who your child calls papá.”
“Let those thoughts be your last, Señor Valentine, dwell on them, because I have grown weary of your stubborn refusal to cooperate.”
Even as Jack fought to maintain a mask of indifference, he knew the pain Vicente’s words had wrought was plain in his eyes. Shit, he didn’t want to play into this asshole’s hands, but it was so hard not to think about the truth in them. He could only hope that the coronel wasn’t adept at reading him as was Frank, because he knew Frank would have spotted the deception he was trying to pass off immediately. Spotted it, and called him on it before the drill instructor could say drop and give me twenty.
One of the guards handed Vicente a 9mm. He held the gun in front of Jack, admiring the balance and brushing an imaginary fleck of dirt from the spotless barrel. “An American weapon. It is beautiful, is it not? Do you believe in poetic justice Señor Greeting Cards Salesman? You are going to die as a result of being shot by a weapon your own country has shipped to mine.” He laughed. “Does that not strike you as humorous, señor?”
“Yeah, that’s freakin’ hilarious all right.”
Vicente’s smile widened. “I knew you would be amused.”
And suddenly the temperature in the room seemed to drop as the coronel’s smile froze and his eyes shot sparks of ice crystals as he placed the muzzle of the gun on Jack’s temple.
Jack’s eyes darkened to ebony lakes as he searched Vicente’s face. There was no reprieve, no more chances. He had fallen through the ice of Vicente’s soul and was going down for the third time. And he knew every word Vicente had said would come to fruition. He would never see or hold his wife again. He would never have a chance to hold his newborn baby and watch him grow up. God, he had wanted to be a dad. More than he could ever admit, even to Sara. But it was true. And that hurt more than anything else.
‘God, Frank, I’m sorry that it is gonna have to be you who tells Sara I’m gone. Who has to make up some lie she won’t believe because you can’t tell her the truth. It’s gonna be hard on both of you, but I know I can trust you to take care of it, Frank. Take care of it and take care of Sara and the baby, just like you promised. You never broke your word to me, Frank, and I know you’ll do whatever you have to do to get home for Sara. Take care of yourself, buddy. I’m gonna miss you.’
Vicente’s eyes locked onto Jack’s. His finger was tight on the trigger. “Where are the locations of the rebel bases?”
If Vicente had expected a pause he was surprised when Jack answered immediately in a resigned voice of defeat. “I don’t know.”
Vicente pulled the trigger.
The click of the empty cylinder sounded loud in the silent room. Jack took a ragged breath when he realized it had been another hoax, just another one of the coronel’s head trips, a game to intimidate and weaken his resolve.
The smile was back and Jack knew Vicente had recognized and relished every ounce of his fear.
The coronel was leaning against the desk again. Completely relaxed and in total control. So completely opposite of how Jack felt at this moment. He had never felt so lost and alone in his entire life. Even his trade-mark smart-ass patent had abandoned him. He missed it. He missed home and Sara. He missed Frank more than he could ever admit.
“I begin to weary of your stubborn refusal to cooperate when I have given you so many opportunities. Do you not realize your situation? You think you are protected because you are an American? I have every right to order my men to put a bullet in your head and your government will never know. You think your president will send troops in to rescue you? You are a fool if you do. It will not happen. The American people do not know the extent of their country’s involvement in a war that does not concern them. Your president will be more concerned about incurring the displeasure of the people who will reelect him to risk the publicity of attempting a rescue of one man.”
Jack knew that every word Vicente spoke was true.
“Are you waiting for a rescue from your wounded partner?”
“Did you think I would not be told of him? Surely you are not that big of a fool?”
When Jack refused to speak, the coronel continued as if discussing the weather with an acquaintance. “Your partner, your brother, who ever he was, is dead. My men found his body in a field behind the jail.”
Jack felt the color drain from his face. “I don’t believe you,” he was finally able to choke out. “That’s a fucking lie.”
“Why would I lie to you, Señor Valentine? I have many other means of extracting the information I need. Many other means. In all probability the Rebels you sought to aid determined he was more of a liability than he was worth. It is common practice among the Contra. In the end he was worth the price of one bullet in the back of his head.”
Jack felt sick. He fought for control, fought to swallow the lump in his throat that was making words impossible. It couldn’t be true. The bastard had to be making it up. The captain or Rios could have told him about Frank coming to the jail. Hell, anyone in this fucking village could have told him that and a blind bank robber could have seen Frank was hurt. It had to be a hoax. The Contras were on their side. They wouldn’t have killed one of the Americans who had come to help them. Would they? They were on the same damn side.
Yet word would have gotten around that the American was carrying a lot of money. Shit, there were those desperate enough to kill for a fraction of what Frank was carrying.
Jack could feel Vicente’s eyes on him. Measuring the depth of the blow he had just inflicted.
“Tell me the information you were given for the rebels and I will spare you the same fate as your friend.”
Jack pushed aside the fear and doubts. He couldn’t think about Frank right now. He looked Vicente in the eye. “Go to hell you slimy lying bastard.”
Calmly, methodically, Vicente lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “It is time I show you a few of my methods I spoke of earlier.”
Walking slowly to stand in front of Jack he met his angry gaze with unveiled amusement. “We will see who wins our little contest, señor. But I must tell you, I never lose and in the end you will tell me everything you know.”
Without another word he brought the cigarette down on the unprotected flesh of Jack’s arm.
He fought, struggling to break free and escape the burning ember. But there was nowhere to go. Jack could only watch helplessly as the glowing ash touched his skin.
His eyes watched as the skin reddened, blistered, and began to burn away in neat little circles.
His nostrils flared as the sickening stench of burning flesh engulfed him.
For a few precious moments there was no pain, only numbed shock, as his brain fought to process the message his senses were sending.
But that small mercy was short-lived. Pain began to radiate from the point of origin and spread like the ripples in a pond. Slowly at first, and then with more intensity, up his arm and throughout his body, until it had laid claim to his entire being and all his thoughts, all he was, became burning, searing pain and there was room for nothing else. No other thoughts. Nothing.
Jack clenched his teeth to keep from screaming and watched as Vicente calmly lifted the cigarette to his lips for another drag, the tip glowing red, before once again touching his arm.
Jack watched as his fingers which had been tightly clenched against the agony assaulting him, slowly uncurled almost of their own accord and stretched outward. He ordered them to stop. Railed against what they were doing, furious with their betrayal. But slowly they opened, palms exposed in a mute gesture of pleading. Begging, beseeching Vicente to stop.
But he didn’t.
It was only the beginning.
As Vicente leaned back against the desk to enjoy his cigarette and coffee, the guards unbuckled the strap holding down Jack’s left wrist and arm and with a practiced twist separated the bones in his elbow.
Intense pain flared through his entire arm as Jack’s eyes rolled back and he let out a strangled cry. Within minutes the dislocated elbow had begun to swell and shake as the torn ligaments and muscles spasmed. Barely clinging to consciousness, Jack rode out the black waves of agony like a surfer hanging ten on a board. Only this time ten was the scale of pain and it was threatening to knock him from his precarious perch on the treacherous waves and drag him under forever.
And it had been just too damn easy. No one should ever know how to hurt another human being like that and make it look so simple. No one had the right to cause such pain.
But in this room rights didn’t matter any more. And he was alone with these men who had stripped those rights from him. They had taken away everything from him except his right to hurt and to be afraid and when they determined the appropriate time, his right to die.
As Jack watched through pain-dulled eyes, a guard handed Vicente an electric cattle prod.
And then Jack began to scream.
The camp was quiet. Everyone else was sleeping, wrapped in their blankets on the damp ground, oblivious to the myriad sounds of the nighttime jungle. Joaquin lay with his head pillowed on his pack, breathing evenly, looking curiously at peace in the faint moonlight that filtered down through the thick trees. The sign of a clear conscience, Frank thought darkly, or no conscience at all.
The man who was supposed to be on watch was snoring softly, leaning against another tree on the other side of the camp, his rifle lying beside him. He called himself the Hawk, and right now his knees were drawn up to his chest, his head pillowed on his arms.
Charlie was lying on his side, curled up against the fallen tree, and every now and then he would move as if to shrink back against the dead wood, like he was trying to burrow under the log. And then he would moan softly in his sleep. Frank tried not to wonder what he was dreaming.
His hands curled around the gun lying across his lap, the familiar feel of it giving him the illusion, at least, that he was somewhat in control of this situation. Yeah, he thought, there’s a laugh, Cromwell. He had barely enough control to stand on his own two feet, at this point.
The night seemed to last forever. Only the blinking numbers on his watch told him it would be dawn in a few hours. He hadn’t closed his eyes all night, staring into the darkness of the forest and listening to the unfamiliar noises all around. More than once the rustling of the trees had sounded like a truck’s engine in the distance, and the raucous calls of night birds and other unidentifiable animals sounded loud in the humid stillness.
It wasn’t the noises that kept him awake. It wasn’t the ache in his side, although that wasn’t helping. The pain never really went away, and the slightest movement felt like red-hot needles stabbing into him. For all his stubborn pride, he knew this time he was in bad shape. The wound wasn’t deep enough to be dangerous on its own, but infection had set in by now, and without a real hospital it was only going to get worse quickly.
In his years in Special Ops, he’d learned how to catch what sleep he could when the opportunity presented itself. And he knew he wasn’t helping himself by depriving himself of rest when he was already hurt. But he couldn’t shake the fear that gripped him every time he let his eyes drift closed-the memory of Joaquin’s last words to him. If he let himself sleep, he wouldn’t be able to watch the comandante. He might not be awake when the contra spy from the jail arrived, and he might not wake up until after Joaquin had given the man the order to kill his best friend.
You are hardly in a position to stop me. Joaquin’s voice echoed in his mind. The bastard’s right, he thought. Fucking useless, you are.
These thoughts, and others much darker had chased each other round and round in circles through his mind, all night long. It was still hard for him to accept, that these men they’d come to help, these men who were supposed to be on their side, would so callously turn on them. Even harder to accept was the reality of his own helplessness. And underneath the burning frustration and the impotent rage, it was just starting to hit him that he might lose his best friend.
No, dammit, stop thinking like that.
Everything will be taken care of tomorrow night, the comandante had said. And by this time tomorrow he might be on a truck back to Honduras. Back to the States. Alone.
Jack couldn’t die, dammit. It just wasn’t possible. He was too damn important, to too many people. What the hell was he going to do without Jack? How was he going to get off that plane at Langley alone, and go make that phone call to Sara? How was he going to explain to her that her baby would never see his father? That the dream of family they’d planned for together for so long would never be a reality?
Who was he going to go fishing with, next time leave came up? Who was going to annoy the shit out of him at the base, playing a million dumbass practical jokes? Who the hell was going to watch his six on their next mission… and the next, and the next?
He’d lost friends before, good friends, too many of them. But Jack… he and Jack had always been together, since that first mission five years ago. Hell, they’d been together before that, through the crucible of Special Ops training. Jack was the one constant in his life, and the thought of living the rest of his life without him was almost impossible to grasp.
It was impossible. It was wrong. It couldn’t happen. But it was going to happen, unless he found some way to stop it.
A sudden sharp rustle interrupted these thoughts. Quietly, he slipped the safety off his gun. The sound came again, from the same direction, and he raised the weapon, staring into the dark until he saw the faint outline of a man on the other side of the camp.
“That’s close enough,” he snapped in Spanish. The figure stopped, and Frank pushed himself to his feet, leaning against the tree for support until he thought he could walk without falling over. “Identify yourself.”
“I must speak with the comandante.” The voice was soft, a little hesitant, and as he limped painfully across the clearing Frank could see he was young, maybe eighteen. Dressed in the rough clothes of a farmer, he held a battered hat in his hands, twisting it nervously as the sentry woke up with a start, grabbing for his rifle. His face was thin, his eyes wide and wary, and the smell of the stinking jail cells lingered around him. As Frank came closer, he said, cautiously surprised, “You are the other American?”
“What gave it away?” Frank’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “So you’re the spy?” he went on bluntly, seeing how the young man flinched as the Hawk came to stand by them. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. One of the guards he’d seen before, maybe the bastard who’d hit him with the rifle. Not this skinny kid, who looked like he might bolt if startled.
He didn’t exactly look like a cold-blooded killer. “Alvaro.” The kid straightened, and Frank turned to see Joaquin standing up, coming to join them. He waved the Hawk to go back to his post, gave Frank a look that said he wasn’t exactly pleased to find him awake, and then turned back to the spy. “Report.”
“comandante.” Frank edged closer to a nearby tree, letting himself lean against it, taking out the last of the cigarettes Charlie had given him, as Alvaro swallowed nervously. “The American prisoner, coronel Vicente believes he is a spy.” Big surprise there, he thought.
Joaquin’s voice was sharp. “Has he confessed?”
Alvaro was shaking his head. “No, comandante, he says he is a — a — ” here he paused, and his next three words were in English “ — greeting card salesman?” Frank’s lips twisted bitterly, Jack’s voice echoing cheerfully in his memory as he lit the cigarette. And if they catch us, he’d said, back in Honduras when it was all a distant possibility, we’ll say we’re traveling salesmen. We can sell… and he pulled the suggestion out of thin air… greeting cards…
Frank’s raised eyebrows had said it all, and Jack had just laughed. Oh, come on, they’re not gonna believe us anyway. We might as well have an amusing story.
“Is he all right?” Frank ignored the glare Joaquin shot him, and Alvaro shuffled his feet, looking from one to the other, before answering.
“Coronel Vicente questioned him yesterday.” Joaquin’s eyes were sharp, and Frank felt sick as Alvaro went on. “He is not badly injured. The coronel was…” and he paused again, looking down at the ground like he was afraid to meet their eyes “… interrupted.”
Frank’s eyes widened as Alvaro told them how exactly he had interrupted the interrogator, worry for his friend mingling with surprised admiration at this young man’s quick thinking and courage. “And they told me clean it up, and the soldiers took the American back to his cell. They left him alone that night, and the coronel did not come back until an hour ago.”
Joaquin nodded, and Frank clapped Alvaro on the shoulder. “Good job!” Alvaro flinched, startled, as he went on, “Fuckin’ brilliant.” For a second he had to restrain himself from hugging the kid, settling instead for handing him the cigarette he’d just lit.
Alvaro stared at it for a moment like he didn’t quite know what to do with it. He looked at Frank, searching his face with a barely concealed disbelief, and something else in those wide dark eyes Frank couldn’t identify. Then he looked away, taking a long drag on the cigarette with a studied nonchalance, but Frank was stunned to see tears shining in the young man’s eyes.
“How many soldiers are there?”
The question was terse. “I think at least twenty,” Alvaro replied softly, and Frank saw his last hope fizzle and die in the flat black of Joaquin’s eyes. “No more than ten stay at the station at once. The rest will be asleep, or down at the cantina.”
Twenty trained soldiers, against thirteen untried farmers… Frank’s hands clenched at his sides, and something inside him turned cold at the next question. “Can you get into the American’s cell without being seen?”
Say no, he thought. Please, say no. “Sí, comandante.”
Joaquin held out what looked like a small flask, and Alvaro took it hesitantly. “Give him this first, and wait until he is asleep.” He reached into his pocket again, and the moonlight glinted dull silver on a small razor blade. With a swift movement he ran one finger along the edge, testing, then pressed it into Alvaro’s hand. “The prisoner was not searched well enough when he was first arrested, and he managed to conceal this in his cell. He chose death rather than betraying his country.”
Please, God, no. Alvaro blinked at him, his face clearly apprehensive as Joaquin took his hand, holding his fingers against the pulse in his wrist. “You must cut here, lengthwise, and make sure you find the vein. Then you will leave the blade in his hand — ”
“The hell he will!” Frank broke in finally, noticing the hopeful spark in Alvaro’s eyes at his interruption. “Kid, tell me, where do they post the soldiers during the — ”
“Silence!” Joaquin snapped, and Alvaro started. “You have your orders.”
For a long moment no one spoke. A soft rustling from across the clearing sounded loud in the sudden silence, and Frank noticed out of the corner of his eye that Charlie was awake now, sitting up and watching them. Frank’s mind was racing, but his options had narrowed to exactly zero.
“Comandante.” Alvaro’s voice was uncertain, and he was staring at his feet. “Is this… necessary?”
“Sí — ”
“No, it’s not!”
Frank got a blistering glare, before Joaquin turned back to Alvaro. “If you cannot do this, I will do it myself.” Forcing the young man to meet his gaze, his eyes were hard and searching. Evidently he found whatever he was looking for, and nodded once. “Do it tonight, after sundown. Wait for my signal.”
“Don’t do this.” He didn’t know where the words came from. His voice was tinged with a quiet desperation. Alvaro didn’t like this either, he could see, in the second before the young man averted his face. “Don’t do this, kid.”
“Go.” The order was harsh, and Alvaro turned once more to Frank, their eyes meeting for a brief second before he looked down again. He looked absolutely wretched.
“I am sorry, señor.” It was barely a whisper. And he turned, shuffling awkwardly into the night, disappearing among the thick trees.
Joaquin spun around, striding over to where the Hawk stood against another tree, clapping him on the shoulder with a few terse words. Then he knelt by one of the sleeping men, shaking him awake.
“You son of a bitch.” For all the reaction he got, Frank might have been a hole in the ground. He forced himself to take a deep breath, as the comandante beckoned his sleepy subordinate to follow him into the forest. Diplomacy had never been his strong suit, and the other man probably wasn’t going to appreciate a challenge to his authority. “Where the hell are you goin’?”
“I have contacts to see.” Joaquin’s voice was flat. “I will arrange to have a truck near here, within a day, maybe two, and a medic if any can be spared.” Then he was gone.
The Hawk avoided his eyes, as Frank let himself sink down to sit on the fallen log. It might have been his imagination, but he thought the sky, or what glimpses of it he could see through the trees, was getting lighter. He could feel Charlie watching him.
Yep, kid, you just heard your fearless leader order a man to commit cold-blooded murder. And I bet you thought you were fightin’ for the good guys, right?
Yeah, me too.
There was a question in Charlie’s face, hidden behind his long hair and the wary mask he always wore. Like for some reason, he thought Frank would be able to explain this to him.
They stared at each other for a while, then Frank stood stiffly, limping away to sit alone under a tree. Think, Cromwell, he ordered sternly. Sitting here worrying ain’t gonna help nobody. The man’s a soldier, for cryin’ out loud, and if you want him to change his mind you have to offer him some other options. Options that don’t involve high casualties for this unit.
Drawing his knife, he began tracing lines in the dirt, a crude map of the jail and the town.
Juan was looking curiously at the mess of squiggles in the dirt. “Are we going to attack the jail, free your partner?”
“Sí,” Frank said shortly, staring fiercely down at the ground like if he glared at it hard enough, the lines in the dirt might come together to form a coherent battle plan that might actually be successful.
“You should rest, señor.” Juan sounded concerned.
One swift jerk of his wrist, and he jammed the knife violently into the dirt, driving the point down several inches. “The next guy tells me I should rest, I swear to God I’ll strangle the son of a bitch.” He said that in English, but Juan apparently understood his tone and backed off.
He let his eyes close for a moment, breathing in slowly and trying to ignore the burning pain that seized him with even that slight movement. As the day grew hotter he was starting to feel a little light-headed, and he knew he was probably running a fever. More good news. His head throbbed dully in time with the beating of his heart.
When he opened his eyes, Charlie was kneeling in front of him.
The boy was holding out a piece of fruit. It looked like a mango, but all he could think of was that it was almost the same shape as the green coconut Jack had carved a face on back in Honduras. Was it only a week ago? He took it, surprising a small smile from Charlie as he bit into it and the juice ran down his chin. The taste was sweet, and he nodded once in thanks.
Charlie sat down a few feet away from him, tilting his head curiously at the drawings in the dirt. When he spoke, his voice was quiet but sincere. “I am sorry about your friend.”
Frank looked up sharply, and for the first time he could see the pain in his young face. For a moment he looked older than he was, empathy and loss clearly visible in his expression. And Frank swallowed hard, looking away and reaching again for his knife. “Quit talkin’ about him like he’s already dead!” Charlie drew back a little, and he sighed. “Sorry, kid,” he said finally. “Not your fault.”
The boy clasped his arms around his knees, watching him again with the old guarded look, but he didn’t get up and leave. And for some strange reason, Frank was glad. Not like he could do anything, or say anything, that would help them find a way out of this. But he was grateful for a sympathetic presence.
They had a man on the inside. Okay, so start with that, he told himself for the fiftieth time. If Alvaro could slip something into Jack’s food to knock him out, he could do the same to at least one or two of the guards. After that… it would be a risky proposition, depending on how bad Jack was injured and if they’d have to carry him, across the open field in back of the jail and out of town into the jungle. But they’d have at least a fighting chance, if they took the Sandinistas by surprise…
“Comandante!” At Juan’s voice, Frank stood up, letting himself lean on Charlie’s shoulder for a second this time as he looked around. Joaquin dropped his pack by a tree, giving Frank a look that was half resigned as he approached. He looked like he was trying to decide whether he should try to avoid the American or not. After a moment he beckoned sharply, waving Frank to follow him a little ways into the forest.
When they were out of earshot of the rest, he demanded bluntly, “You are a soldier for how long, señor?”
“Do you know a way we can save your friend, that will not kill many of my men?”
“I can’t guarantee success, comandante,” he admitted. This was his one chance, he realized with a shiver. Joaquin was giving him this one chance to plead his case, to offer other options. He wondered idly if it was out of some very well hidden compassion, or just ‘cause he was being so damn annoying. “But we’d have a good chance if we take them by surprise…”
“They know you are here, señor.” Joaquin folded his arms. “You think they will not be expecting a rescue?”
“They don’t know about Alvaro.”
“And they will find out about him, if we do as you would have us do,” he shot back. “I am a soldier, and these men — and Alvaro, as well — are my responsibility. You are asking me to risk fourteen lives for one man. And more than that—Alvaro has two young sisters. What do you think will happen to them if the soldiers learn of his involvement?” Suddenly he looked very tired. “My brother, he was a prisoner of the Sandinistas for five years, before he died. Believe me, I know what these men can do. Your friend is better off dead. I am truly sorry.”
“You’re sorry.” The words were flat, disbelieving. “You tell me you’re gonna murder my best friend, and you’re fucking sorry?”
He knew this wasn’t helping any. Think, dammit. Diplomacy, Cromwell, insulting the man’s not going to get you anywhere.
“This is war, Señor Valentine.” Joaquin wasn’t impressed. “How long have you been in this country? Three days? Four days? You Americans, you think you can come in here, look around for a week and then tell us how to win our war, how to ‘fix’ our country. You know nothing about my country.”
Considering he would’ve been hard put to find Nicaragua on a map only a few months before this mission, Frank wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. But the man was missing the point, he thought, opening his mouth to speak just before Joaquin rounded on him again. “The past six years, I have fought against the Sandinistas. I fought with them before that. These men—“ he waved a hand back toward the camp” — “they came to me three months ago. Before that I fought in many battles. Killed many men. Tried hard to survive, and to keep those under me alive. And every now and then, when they remember that we exist, and that we are slowly bleeding to death out here, the Americans decide to send us some food. A few new guns. An ‘advisor’ or two, to tell me how to run my own unit.” He spat the last words. “We are nothing to you, pawns in your little game with the Russians. Why should you mean anything more to us?”
“Because we’re on the same side, dammit!”
Joaquin was unmoved, turning away and walking back toward the camp. Because you’re supposed to be the good guys. Because he’s my best friend and I won’t leave this goddamn shithole of a country without him. Because his wife’s gonna have a baby in two months. Because nobody gets left behind.
“Where’d you get that gun you’re carrying?” Frank yelled after him, catching hold of a nearby branch, feeling suddenly dizzy. “Where did all your weapons come from?” The situation was sliding rapidly out of control, and all he could think was that he had failed. Failed his best friend, in the worst possible way. “Where the hell would you be without us?”
The look the comandante gave him was one of disbelieving scorn. “We will not speak of this again,” he snapped. “You are not in command here, señor. I am, and it will happen as I say.”
Frank closed his eyes. Seeing Jack’s bruised face again, hearing his voice as he’d yelled after him. It couldn’t end like this.
He remembered Charlie’s face in the dark, watching him after Alvaro had left. Looking for an explanation, something that would justify this. And in the back of his mind something fell together, and then dissolved in a white rage.
“You don’t know jack shit about command.” The words shot from his mouth almost before he was aware of them. Joaquin stopped, half turning, his face blank now. “You know what?” He closed the distance between them in two unsteady steps. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right.” Joaquin held up his rifle in a silent warning, as he made to grab him by the collar, stopping just as the muzzle brushed his chest. “Uncle Sam doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you people. If Mr. Reagan didn’t have to look tough against the Commies to win the next election, you can bet he wouldn’t send you an old shoe.” One dark eyebrow rose, impassive in the face of Frank’s fury. “You think your big shots back in Honduras care about you? Hell, as long as they can pocket half of what the CIA sends ‘em, they don’t give a shit about the grunts in the jungles, either.”
He waved a hand toward the camp. “And the only fucking reason your guys are still here is ‘cause they haven’t figured that out yet.” Striking one hand against a tree, he let out a shuddering breath, and prayed Joaquin couldn’t see how his hands were shaking. “What do you think is gonna keep them here, once they realize this war ain’t gonna be over in a month?”
“They will learn discipline.” Slowly Joaquin lowered the rifle, ignoring Frank’s skeptical look. “They are not soldiers yet, but they will be.”
“For cryin’ out loud! They’re farmers. What are you gonna do, point that gun at them, tell ‘em you’ll shoot ‘em if they don’t fight?” Joaquin made a sharp, angry gesture with one hand, jerking his head toward the camp, and he lowered his voice. The next words were softer, but no less intense. “They’ll be gone the instant you turn your back, if you try to run this unit like that. Hell, if you scare ‘em bad enough, they just might slip a knife in your back before they go. But if you want to lead these men—if you want ‘em to follow you even when you’ve got no allies and the CIA fucks you over like you know they will—then you better make damn sure they know they can trust you.” He folded his arms, meeting the other’s icy stare. “’Cause they sure as hell can’t trust anybody else. You said it yourself.”
“I will do what I must to protect my own men,” Joaquin said. “This is why I cannot allow your partner’s information to fall into enemy hands. And I will not risk their lives in a hopeless attempt to save him. Or do you think that I enjoy killing my allies?”
You’ve got the right idea, pal, but you’re runnin’ in the wrong direction with it. “You know, these guys think we’re goin’ on a rescue mission tomorrow,” he said finally. Remembering Charlie’s eyes, and the silent question there. “You go ahead with what you’re planning, and you’re gonna tell ‘em two things. First, you think they’re incompetent, and you don’t trust them to be able to handle themselves in combat. And second, that you’re the kinda guy who’ll stab your own man in the back as soon as he becomes a liability.” Frank let his hands fall to his sides, a note of scorn creeping into his voice. “They’re gonna believe you’d do the same thing to them, if it was one of them in prison right now. You won’t get their trust or their loyalty this way. Only way they’re gonna put their lives on the line, willingly, at your orders-is if they know you’ll take care of them, and you’ll risk everything for them.”
He swung around, then looked back for a moment. “I’m not sayin’ nobody’s gonna get hurt. This is war.” There was a calculating look on Joaquin’s face, and he tried not to hope. Maybe he’d given the bastard something to think about, at least. “They came out here to fight, comandante,” he said. “Why don’t you let ‘em?”
Stumbling away toward the clearing, he thought he heard Joaquin say something, but he wasn’t listening anymore. He barely registered the curious looks on the faces of the other men as he leaned heavily against a tree. There was nothing left for him to do, he realized. Nothing but hope, and pray that somehow he’d managed to sway the comandante to see his point of view.
The wrenching ache in his side made breathing itself painful, and his head was pounding. He’d never been much of a diplomat, and words had never been the weapons he preferred to use. He was a soldier, and he was used to having his orders obeyed. He wasn’t used to having to justify them.
He leaned his head back, feeling light-headed once again, gray sparkles dancing at the edges of his sight. Pull yourself together, dammit.
It was a couple seconds before he realized the others weren’t looking at him, before he heard the sound of rustling bushes stop abruptly. And when his vision cleared he saw that all the contras were slowly lowering their guns.
Joaquin was shouting. “What has happened? What are you doing here?” What the hell’s going on? Then he saw Alvaro, standing near the edge of the clearing, his hat clutched in his shaking hands.
And it was like all the air had been sucked out of his lungs, leaving him cold and barely breathing. God, no. Please, no…
“Comandante, forgive me,” Alvaro was saying. “I overheard el capitán, he ordered two guards to get a truck ready. Tomorrow morning Coronel Vicente is taking the American prisoner away from here. They will take him to Managua.”
“And you came here in broad daylight to tell me this?” Joaquin was furious, Frank could tell, walking over to join them as quickly as he could. “Do you know what will happen if you were seen —?”
“I am sorry, but I wanted you to know right away.” Alvaro looked right at Frank then. “They will drive out of town along the south road just after dawn tomorrow.”
“Do you know the route they’re taking?” Frank asked, before Joaquin could say anything. Alvaro nodded, his hands clenching tighter around the hat, looking terrified and excited at the same time. “The south road, that goes through the jungle, right? For a little ways at least… enough for an ambush?” The kid was nodding quickly. All right, it’s about time something worked out in our favor here, Frank was thinking, glancing at Joaquin. The comandante wasn’t looking happy, but he hadn’t interrupted yet. “How long will it take them to get into the trees?”
“Noon, maybe an hour before.” The rest of the contras were clustering around them now, curious.
“That is more than twenty-four hours from now.” Joaquin folded his arms, giving Frank a piercing look.
“We can do this, comandante.” He knew he sounded desperate, but he didn’t care. “We’ll have perfect cover. If we can hit ‘em on the road-“
“Twenty-four hours,” Joaquin interrupted him, coldly. “If your friend betrays us between now and then, we are all dead.”
“He won’t.” One eyebrow went up at the swift reply, his eyes holding Frank’s. He didn’t like it, that was obvious. But he hadn’t said no, not yet. There was no way Frank could explain it, the kind of faith that ran deeper than the marrow of his bones, that would never be questioned. Jack would not betray them. He could only hold Joaquin’s eyes, refusing to look away. He said quietly, “He won’t break.”
Joaquin spun away, beckoning Frank and Alvaro sharply after him. “You are supposed to be an advisor,” he said curtly, pulling a wrinkled map out of his pack. “So advise me. If — if — I were to agree to this — this insane idea — how would we plan an ambush?”
Locked in a cell was better, better than the alternative.
Better than being strapped to a chair with a hood over your head. And you sit there knowing that somewhere beyond the darkness there is something waiting for you. Waiting for you to let down your guard so it can pounce, destroy, and devour you. No matter how hard you struggle, how hard you fight, it is going to win. And your screams only add to its excitement and lust for power as it eats you alive.
Better than being unable to move as a gun is held to your head and the trigger is pulled. Knowing that you will never see your wife or baby again. Knowing that you have failed everyone who counted on you. Knowing that you leave behind a legacy of secrets and lies that will forever cloak the truth about what you did and who you were.
Better than smelling your own flesh as it burns and blackens, and knowing that you are failing to hide the agony from those seeking to hurt you. And that fact hurts as much as the physical pain, maybe more, because you can see the glee in their eyes that they are breaking through your defenses. They are winning and you both know it.
Better than sitting helplessly as your arm is twisted and the joints rent with all the thought of a cruel child pulling the wings off of a fly. You watch as your joints swell and the muscles twist and twitch in a macabre dance of pain which needs no partner. And you wonder briefly if you will ever use that arm again. And then you decide it probably won’t matter because you won’t need it in Hell and it will piss Satan off that you can only shovel coal with one arm. But then you remember Satan is in the room with you now and it’s not so funny anymore.
Better than feeling your own innards cook from the electricity raging through your body. Feeling your defenses crumble and allow the enemy to siege the fortress in which you have retreated to hide. Watch as they storm the bastion you had relied upon and take you captive. And for the first time you know you are a prisoner because they have defeated you and stripped you bare and there is no where else to run or hide. And you scream, begging for mercy, begging for sanctuary, but all doors are barred and you must face the enemy alone.
Better than death.
Jack knew it was over. Vicente had emerged victorious just as he had predicted. It was just a matter of the coronel laying claim to his trophy now. Just a matter of time until he broke completely and told Vicente everything he was seeking. It was only a cruel twist of the fates that had stopped him. One jolt of electricity too much, that was all it took, and the coronel had over-played his hand.
And Jack had regained consciousness back in his cell, knowing the reprieve was only temporary.
Oh God, he was so ashamed. Ashamed that he had caved. Ashamed of the screams that had ripped from his throat. Ashamed that he had found some sense of release in allowing himself to verbalize, even gutturally, the emotions that were shredding his soul.
It was never supposed to be this way. When he and Frank sat in class and listened to the instructors explain in graphic details just what extent the enemy was capable of, it was fiction, a fairy tale to frighten the children, the boogie man, fantasy. When did it become real life… fact? They sat in class, looked at the pictures and heard the stories, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were tough enough to stand up to anything the enemy threw at them. That they would never be the ones to crumble and break no matter what happened.
Was he the only one who had lied to himself?
Was he going to be the one who died a failure, a traitor, because he hadn’t been tough enough?
If Vicente was lying and Frank was still alive, please God let him be alive, what was he going to think of his best friend who would betrayed his mission, his country, and the innocent people who would die? As hard as Frank would take it, Jack knew they both would have preferred that he had taken a bullet in the head and died in battle. At least that way he couldn’t have reached this place he was in now. A place of fear, and failure, and unforgiveness.
The end was in sight. Jack could see the finish line, but this time he was wearing the uncomfortable shoes of the loser. And no matter how many times the shoes might cause him to stumble and fall, no matter how many times he might balk and attempt to change direction, no matter how badly he fought to drop the baton, from the moment the starting gun was shot, the outcome of this race had been predetermined.
He heard Alvaro walking softly down the hall and somewhere in a dim corner of his mind he knew the kid wanted to talk to him, but it no longer mattered. Nothing mattered. And so he remained on his bunk facing the wall because he could no longer face himself.
“Señor … Señor Valentine. Are you awake?”
Alvaro’s voice was a mere whisper above his own ragged breaths. Jack closed his eyes against the sound. Praying the kid would get the message and leave him the hell alone.
But apparently Alvaro could not, or chose not to translate the American’s body language. “I have a message for you. Señor Joe, he wants you to know not to give up. He is going to find a way out.”
Before Jack could turn over, Alvaro was gone, but in his wake he had left a precious gift. He had left a tiny seed of hope.
Alvaro had wanted to stay, to help them make plans, but Joaquin had been adamant that he return before he was missed. Then he and Frank had spent the next few hours poring over a wrinkled map of the region.
The best place for an ambush was several miles from the camp, where the main road to the capital passed through a thick forest. According to the comandante there was a stretch of road halfway through the trees that was falling into disrepair, with the kind of ruts and potholes that would make it difficult for a truck to make a fast getaway. Once he was committed to an operation, Frank admitted to himself, he had a good grasp of strategy and tactics. Along with a much greater knowledge of the terrain and the nature of the opposition. It didn’t take the two of them long to hammer out a basic plan of attack.
After which Joaquin informed Frank, in a tone that reminded him of some of his old drill instructors, that he was going to get a few hours sleep before the op or he wasn’t going along.
Knowing when not to push his luck, he hadn’t argued. He’d tried to sleep, honestly he’d tried. Drifting in and out of a light doze all afternoon, he’d been dreaming of his wife when the sound of footsteps nearby woke him.
It was almost sundown. Lying on the ground with his pack as a makeshift pillow, he eased his eyes open a fraction, trying to ignore the pounding in his head. The pain in his side wasn’t nearly so easy to push aside, radiating fiercely out from the wound, burning with every breath he took. He’d looked at it a few hours before, and found that the area around the wound was red and swollen, fluid leaking between the stitches. Hot needles stabbed into him when he’d tried to sit up, and he’d quickly pulled his shirt back down and hoped Joaquin hadn’t seen. The comandante, he was sure, was already this close to ordering him to stay behind on this mission.
No way in hell was that going to happen.
His head had that fuzzy feeling, like he had cotton stuffed in his ears, that told him he was definitely running a fever. All in all he felt like shit, but there was no way he was going to let that keep him from joining this mission. He was going to personally see that Jack got out of that jail to someplace safe if he had to damn well crawl all the way there and crawl back dragging Jack with him.
Okay, he thought. So I’m a little paranoid. But after the last twenty-four hours, he wasn’t exactly inclined to trust his only allies here out of his sight anywhere near his friend.
He quickly closed his eyes when he saw Joaquin glance in his direction, opening them again cautiously after a minute or so when a soft voice spoke.
“We are going to fight tomorrow.” It was Charlie. The kid was sitting next to him, rifle cradled across his lap. He looked more comfortable with it now than he had a few days ago, holding the weapon more like he was used to carrying it. Frank wasn’t sure he liked that thought.
“Sí.” Opening his canteen, he swallowed a few mouthfuls of warm water, tilting his head to look at Charlie. His face was half hidden behind the hair falling in his eyes, but his expression was apprehensive. And Frank wondered why he was coming to him for reassurance. The kid wasn’t the demonstrative sort, and while he seemed to be accepted and generally liked by the older men he’d never seemed particularly friendly with anyone. He was shy, and he didn’t like to talk much, especially not about himself. Which, from the little Frank knew about his past, wasn’t much of a surprise.
The baffling part was why Charlie seemed to trust him, as much as or more than anyone else he’d seen the kid interact with. So much that on the eve of his very first combat engagement, he sought out the American outsider.
Frank supposed maybe that had something to do with it. They were both outsiders, in a way. Charlie was the youngest in the unit, and the only one, as far as he knew, who had no living family waiting for him to come safely home after the war was over. That in itself set him apart from the rest of the contras, most of whom had relatives they spoke of frequently. Some had family in other parts of the country, and worried constantly if they were near any fighting. Some had relatives living in Honduras, struggling to survive until the war was over or until they could get visas to the States. Charlie sat aloof from these conversations, and most of the time it was hard to tell what he was thinking.
Whatever the reason, he was watching Frank now like he was hoping for some kind of reassurance. Asking for some words that would help calm his fears, or maybe just permission to sit with him, and know he wasn’t alone.
“You’ll do fine, kid.” He hoped it was the company the kid was looking for, ‘cause he’d never been very good with words. “Remember, aim low. And keep your head down.” Charlie nodded, his hair falling over his face again as he looked away, toward where Joaquin was watching them.
He wasn’t going to be able to see to aim properly, with his hair like that, Frank thought. Taking a cautious breath, he pushed himself into a sitting position, squeezing his eyes tight shut for a moment as a fresh wave of agony slowly faded to the usual dull pain. “Look at me.” His voice sounded breathless, and when Charlie turned he looked worried. “I’m all right,” he said impatiently, pulling his knife and testing the edge with one finger. “Listen, you’re not gonna be able to see with your hair in your eyes like that.” If he’d expected a protest, he didn’t get one. Charlie only looked at him curiously, pushing his bangs behind one ear, where they stayed for a moment until he turned his head. Frank sighed heavily. “Come here.”
He was no barber, and he didn’t even have a pair of scissors, but Charlie didn’t even flinch when he took a handful of dark hair in his hand and started sawing at it with his knife. He had no idea what he was doing, but he wasn’t trying to make the kid look like a friggin’ supermodel, for cryin’ out loud. It was a simple fact that your odds of survival in a firefight are much better if you can see what you’re shooting at, so he made do with what he had.
When he was done, Charlie reached up with one hand, touching the ragged ends of his hair. Frank wasn’t sure he liked the result at all.
And it wasn’t because of what the kid’s hair looked like. He was sure Jack would have a sarcastic metaphor for what it looked like, but all he could think was that it looked like he’d let a badly wounded soldier hack at it with a knife.
Looking him straight in the eye, Frank couldn’t help feeling like he’d destroyed something he couldn’t replace. Without his long hair half screening his face, Charlie looked somehow older and more vulnerable at the same time. But he just nodded, as Frank sheathed his knife, and said simply, “Gracias.”
Cut the sentimental crap, Cromwell, he told himself firmly. Now is so not the time.
At first Jack had fed on Alvaro’s whispered words like a gluttonous tick satiating itself on the life-blood of hope. But as the hours passed the words lost their potency, as his first pangs of hunger were alleviated.
Now he found himself sitting at a smorgasbord where worry was served as the main course, followed by side dishes filled to over-flowing with anxiety and disquiet. A heaping serving of pragmatic dessert completed the meal. Help yourself, Jack, there’s plenty more where that came from.
So many things could go wrong and if the events thus far on this mission foreshadowed a rescue attempt, disaster was not only a probability, but a given.
He lay on his bunk, his body refusing to join his mind on the endless treadmill upon which it was running. Unfortunately, it was an exercise in futility and like the treadmill, his thought process was working hard, but getting him nowhere.
Over and over Jack struggled past his pounding headache to develop a plan of attack when Frank signaled. He may have failed miserably to get himself out of this mess, but he’d be damned if he’d be a liability.
Normally he was a hell of strategist and could have figured out exactly what Frank had in mind. They’d worked together for so long and knew each other so well that one didn’t move without the other knowing which direction they were going before they took the first step. It was a natural as breathing to know what Frank was thinking. How he was going to react. How he was going to handle a situation. But there wasn’t anything normal about this and it had left him feeling like he was lucky to draw even one lungful of air much less breath normally.
There were just too many unknown variables to calculate. It wasn’t even a matter of shooting blind. He was shooting without the fucking gun.
His arm was a useless lump of pain, radiating spears of agony with each breath. He couldn’t even hope to bend the elbow. He knew he was feverish which was only aggravated by the effects of dehydration.
Infection from any number of abused areas was sapping his strength and making it hard to think clearly. The open wounds were a welcome center to a plethora of bacteria, parasites, and any other creepy-crawlies that inhabited the cell with him.
Overall he figured he looked like dog shit on the sole of the boots he no longer owned. He felt like it too. And probably had the smell down pat, as well.
Yeah, that about covered it.
And so he lay there and waited for a rescue that didn’t come and as the hours passed the treadmill sped faster until his exhausted thoughts were forced to endure a race in which there seem to be no finishing line.
Frank would come. There was simply some small problem. Some insignificant, miniscule, no-friggin-way-it-was-gonna-stop-him problem.
Frank would come. The kid said so. And even if he hadn’t, Jack knew there was no fucking way, as long as he had breath in his body, that Frank would leave him in this hell hole a minute longer than he had to, no matter what it cost him. No way in hell. It was just a matter of time and he’d be so out of here.
Just a matter of time.
He had some vague feeling that it was near dawn, but he had long ago lost any true sense of time. He assumed it must be dawn, however. Wasn’t that the cliché of when the guards always came to take the condemned prisoner to his just rewards? The irony of it was so blatant Jack wanted to laugh out loud. He wanted to, but he was afraid if he started he wouldn’t stop until all the other bottled emotions he was trying desperately to hold back burst loose from their fragile bindings. It was better not to laugh and leave a fissure he might not be able to seal. In the end he found he couldn’t even smile.
Up until that moment Jack hadn’t been sure there were more than the two guards who Vicente had used during the interrogation sessions. He didn’t bother to count, but it seemed there had to be close to a dozen outside his cell, all armed to the teeth.
Can we spell overkill? Who where these guys trying to kid? The two guards had handled things quite well before, thanks all the same.
And then suddenly a thought hit him broadside. Maybe there had been a failed rescue attempt and he had been unaware of it. Maybe that was the reason for the sudden over-abundance of soldiers. It made sense, too damn much sense.
Farmers and laborers attacking a secure jail filled with trained heavily-armed soldiers. Talk about David and Goliath. Frank had to be out of his fucking mind to try something that ludicrous and yet Jack knew there was no doubt he would do just that.
It was the Alamo all over again, except he’d bet a month’s pay this stupid war didn’t have any cool slogans to cling to and rally the troops.
‘Remember the Alamo.’
‘Sandinista Soldiers Suck.’
It had possibilities. It had a nice ring to it. He’d have to share it with ‘Mark’ when they got back. ‘Mark’ would appreciate it.
‘Yeah right, Jack.’ The chances of ever seeing ‘Mark’ again were making the 40 watt bulb look bright.
He lay silently watching on his hard bunk, the prey lying in frozen desperation, hoping that through immobility somehow the predator will over-look him just this once.
Please God let it happen just this once.
But of course it didn’t. And as two of the soldiers unlocked the door and jerked Jack to his feet, ignoring the gasp of pain he couldn’t hide, he knew there would be no rescue, divine or otherwise.
Heavy handcuffs were locked tightly around his wrists, sending fire shooting through his damaged elbow and arm. Jack was forced to roll his shoulder forward awkwardly as he tried to alleviate some of the pressure on the limb. It helped some, but not nearly enough.
As if he hadn’t felt his loss of control enough, the handcuffs punctuated the fact that Jack’s life was no longer his own.
Panic shot through him, and yet years of training and sheer iron-will held him tight, just as the chains that bound his wrists.
Before he was even able to begin to fight back the pain, the guards had fastened cuffs around his bare ankles and pulled him from the cell where he was immediately surrounded by the mob of soldiers.
The hub of a tire.
The hole of a donut.
The bull’s-eye of a target.
Jack found it nearly impossible to move. His shuffling gait, already impeded by his battered toes, was now completely devastated by the short length of chain binding his ankles.
When had the hall gotten so long?
Jack was sure he’d been on shorter hikes during basic.
But he had no choice, so Jack reached down somewhere deep inside the wellspring of who he was and found a seed of pride that Vicente had somehow overlooked. And there, battered and bruised, tattered and torn, surrounded by the enemy, Jack O’Neill somehow moved forward.
He didn’t know his destination. Perhaps to face Vicente and allow him to complete what he had started. Perhaps to face a firing squad. If Frank had failed it didn’t really matter. If Frank had failed then he was dead one way or the other. And so he moved down the hall a few inches at a time to face a future that would destroy him, and further away from a past in which he had everything to live for.
Jack was mildly surprised, relieved and yet apprehensive when the guards led him past the room in which he and Vicente had spent so many memorable hours. They continued through the office until they were, wonder of wonders, outside on the street in front of the policía estación, where an older model military truck sat with the engine running.
Despite the implications that boded ill for his chances at freedom, Jack lost himself temporarily in the glorious experience of breathing fresh unsoiled air and absorbing the clean early morning sky rather than the sights and smells he had been forced to endure over the past days. He allowed his deprived senses to revel in the reprieve, no matter how short-lived. To hear the chatter and song of the morning birds was sweeter than the most beautiful aria he had >ever heard. It was a treasure he would never forget.
But as the guards parted and Jack saw Vicente standing near the passenger side of the truck, wearing his controlled smile, as if he knew everything Jack was thinking, O’Neill knew the temporary pardon was over.
“Buenos días, Señor Valentine. I trust that you slept well.”
When Jack failed to respond to the obvious bait, Vicente continued pushing a bit harder. “I thought perhaps you would enjoy a tour of our beautiful country, since you are so keen on becoming involved in the concerns of the people here.” Gesturing towards the back of the covered vehicle he continued. “Unfortunately, accommodations were severely limited and I fear you won’t have the best of views. I suppose you will have to take my word on the beauty of the area you will miss.”
Jack mustered a weak glare. “So when did you become a travel agent, Coronel? Because I got to tell ya, so far your accommodations suck!”
Vicente laughed. “Maintain that fighting spirit for as long as you can, Americano. It makes my job so much more interesting. I will greatly enjoy your arrival in Managua. There, it will no longer be necessary to use such primitive fare when we have our little discussions. We will have plenty of time to become better acquainted. Years, if need be.” He paused, letting the implications of his words sink in, and as he slowly raked his eyes over Jack’s battered body he added with a smile, “But I don’t think it will take nearly that long.”
With a nod towards his men, Vicente turned and climbed gracefully into the cab of the big truck.
The solders lost no time in dragging Jack to the rear of the truck. Losing patience with his painfully slow progress, the guards tossed him unceremoniously into the back of the truck bed. Unable to break his fall, he landed hard on the unforgiving surface. Despite his best attempt to protect his injured arm, there was little he could do as the swollen immobile elbow was pinned between the weight of his body and the floor. There was not even time to cry out before a solid wall of blackness blanketed the early morning blue of the sky and Jack escaped gratefully into unconsciousness.
Obviously he was wrong.
A couple of years ago, he had convinced Frank to stand next to a burro and get his picture taken when they had a few hours off down time in Greece. The crotchety little creature had proven to have keen timing and a wicked temper and Frank had ended up with a matching set of hoof-shaped bruises on his ass. He’d bitched about it for days.
Right now Jack could completely sympathize with just how Frank had felt as his head sent another surge of pain pounding behind his temple and eyes. That little jackass could have learned a thing or two from these truck shocks.
It took every ounce of determination he had to fight to sit up.
Taking in his new viewpoint Jack could barely stifle a groan. ‘And that was so not worth the effort.’
He found himself sitting uncomfortably on the floor of the truck surrounded by polished boots and starched military uniforms. Well, at least the pants part of the uniform. He had to look up to take in the entire military ensemble complete with hostile faces and stylish accessorized weapons.
‘So not worth the effort.’
He was still sporting the latest in Marquis de Sade designer wear on his wrists, although thankfully the manacles had been removed from his ankles. What all the well dressed captives were wearing this season. But now he found that a short chain had been attached from the handcuffs to a heavy metal ring bolted to the bed of the truck forcing him to either kneel painfully with his weight pressing his infected toes into the rough wood of the floorboard, or lie on his side which brought new levels of agony to his swollen elbow. Talk about the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Shit, Vicente wasn’t taking any chances that he was going to escape. Like he was going anywhere anyway with a squad of trained soldiers surrounding him and looking like he was some sort of vermin they would take perverse delight in grinding into the dirt.
God, he hated being watched, his every move being scrutinized as if he were back in basic under the critical eye of the drill sergeant who was just looking for an excuse to bellow, ‘Drop and give me fifty, O’Neill.’ The drop part wouldn’t be a problem right at the moment, but as for the fifty…
Not a snowball’s chance in hell or Nicaragua which at the moment seemed to be running neck and neck with the real thing.
As the truck drove on, the driver apparently hitting every pothole in the pitiful excuse for a road, Jack found it prudent to clench his jaw before the bouncing truck caused him to chew off his tongue.
Not that he wasn’t already clenching his teeth against the pain in his elbow, wrists, and well, his entire body. Whether by chance or cruel design on Vicente’s part the handcuffs chafed against the open, oozing burns around his wrists.
Jack quickly discovered that the chain leashing him to the floor was a perfect conductor for surging pain, transferring every bump, every jolt, from the road, up his arm, and radiating throughout his body. No matter how he tried to brace himself, the result was the same, the Jack O’Neill impersonation of a runaway golf ball. Except he wasn’t holding his breath on the running away part. And right at the moment he just didn’t have the strength to yell ‘fore’ as he was sliced and bounced helplessly along the green and out of bounds.
What hurt even worse than the physical pain was the fact that he knew he was providing entertainment for the bored troops on the monotonous, long journey. He did his best to keep the moans at bay, but he knew he was doing a rotten job at concealing just how bad it hurt to have the dislocated joints repeatedly jerked as the undercarriage of the truck clambered awkwardly over the ruts.
He did his best to ignore the laughter directed at him every time the truck hit a particularly deep rut and he was bounced wildly, the chain tethering him to the floor the only thing keeping him grounded.
During a relatively smooth stretch of road the gravity of his situation and the few options he had available seeped unbidden into his thoughts, eroding any chance he had to relax, no matter how briefly. There was little comfort in either. ‘Great place to find yourself in, Jack. Classic Catch 22. Wishing the trip was over, but knowing that’s when it is the real fun and games will start.’
‘Your best bet would be to piss off one of these guys and hope he’d do you a favor and put a bullet right between your eyes.’
‘But I guess that makes you the worse kind of a quitter, O’Neill. Frank’d be majorly pissed if he found out you took the easy way out. He’d kick your sorry ass all over base, not that you wouldn’t deserve it.’
‘But Frank, buddy, I know it’d be easier on you if you knew I was dead. You’d go nuts knowing I was locked up in some fucking political prison. You’d scuttle your own career trying to salvage an impossible situation and probably get yourself killed in the process. You know it, but you’re just too damn stubborn to ever admit it. I bet your tearing yourself up because you couldn’t spring me from that damn jail. There just wasn’t anything you could do. Farmers against soldiers is suicide. There never was a chance. But I know it’s eating you alive.’
Jack’s eyes closed as a sudden thought made his eyes sting with unshed tears. ‘I would be the same way if the positions were reversed, buddy, and it was you. I’d do anything to make sure you didn’t get stuck in a place like that. Guess that’s what it means to be best friends. At least it does between us, huh Frank.’
Jack suddenly became aware that several of the guards were elbowing their neighbors, laughing at his unconcealed emotions and grief playing across his face.
Pride slammed the door to the emotions he had unwittingly allowed to show. Now Jack’s face hardened as he hid all his thoughts and feelings behind an unreadable mask. He’d be damned if he’d give these bastards a reason to laugh at him. He may be on his way out, but for now he was still a Special Ops officer in the United States Air Force and until they put him in the ground he’d make sure they remembered it.
Even if he couldn’t officially ever admit it.
Jack was having difficulty focusing as his thoughts drifted. ‘The Slinky Mission.’ That’s what he was going to call this trip when he and Frank got home and he was writing his report. It had a nice ring to it.
God, he had loved that Slinky his grandpa had given him when he was a kid. Grandpa figured it might keep him entertained and out of trouble when it was raining and they couldn’t go fishing. At first it was enough just to watch the coiled spring rock back and forth in perfect rhythm, the unique sound, the balance, all working in a basic principle of physics. He had no interest in understanding why it worked, he just loved that it did what it was created to do.
Before long he was searching for new uses for the toy. Walking the Slinky down the stairs proved to be the catalyst for the opportunity to push the toy to its limits as he created new obstacles and scenarios.
And suddenly without warning the inevitable happened and Jack found his toy twisted and tangled into an impossible knot. It was never the same and try as he might he could never achieve the perfection it had before.
It was the perfect picture of this entire mission. He and Frank working together with perfect timing and understanding until suddenly everything had twisted and coiled around them and now he found his emotions as hopelessly tangled as his reality.
Would things ever be right again?
Jack’s confused musings were cut off as the truck suddenly lurched to a stop. The soldiers spoke softly among themselves and Jack gathered from what they were saying that it was much too soon to have stopped.
Four of the guards climbed out of the truck and Jack caught a glimpse of heavy jungle surrounding them before the cover was dropped back in place.
For a brief moment there was absolute silence, which seemed odd considering the normally noisy birds that inhabited the area. But before Jack’s exhausted brain could process the implications, the silence was broken by the unmistakable sound of gunfire.
Shouts were heard outside and an occasional sharp plink sounded as a stray bullet hit the exterior of the truck. The captain of the guards began issuing rapid orders and the soldiers quickly began to file out the back of the truck to find shelter in order to return fire. Jack caught an occasional harried word in the muddled chaos of orders.
“Contra Rebels …ambush … gas tank … explode …”
As Jack knelt there, trying to force his brain to sort out what was happening a bullet pierced the canvas barely missing his head. A young Sandinista soldier wasn’t so lucky and his body fell heavily next to Jack, a look of shocked innocence irradiating the fierce hard expression he had been schooled to wear.
Just as the last of the soldiers piled out into the battle another bullet penetrated the interior near the place he was trapped. Survival won out over pain as Jack threw himself to the floor.
He lay there listening to the sounds of the battle as it raged around him and prayed that by some chance a miracle would occur and he would survive. Beyond that he could only hope that it was Frank out there in the battle. Because if he was then they both had a fighting chance. And if he wasn’t, then the last card had just been dealt and the royal flush he had been holding tightly to since Alvaro’s whispered message had just carried him right down the toilet.
They’d scavenged all the old rusty nails they had lying around, and any sharp bits of scrap metal they could find. Pounding them through a thin strip of wood, a few inches apart, was the work of half an hour, and then under cover of night they’d set their trap, and disguised it as well as they could with palm fronds.
And it worked. Oh, it worked beautifully. After five hours of lying in the undergrowth, sights trained on that one patch of road, the faraway buzz of the truck’s engine first broke the humid stillness.
Frank was sweating already, just lying there, and he was having trouble focusing past the burning pain in his side and the haze clouding his mind. In training he’d done this countless times, lying in ambush, perfectly still for hours on end. Maintaining perfect concentration for endless stretches of inactivity, knowing that at any second he could be under attack. It wasn’t something that came naturally to him, and it was hard as hell to keep that level of alertness for so long when nothing was happening. With a rising fever and less than three hours’ sleep in the past two days, it was damn near impossible.
He found his mind drifting, the same images replaying over and over and over. His last words with Jack. Any of a million things he might have done differently that morning, any options he might not have considered, that might’ve gotten his friend out of there before all this.
Where was Jack right now? Had they put him in the truck yet? How had he spent the last few days? Had Alvaro been able to get his message through? He prayed Jack had gotten the message, and that he knew they were coming for him. He tried not to think that their chances against a truck filled with trained soldiers didn’t look very good.
They would get out of here. Both of them. They had to. He wasn’t leaving this piece of shit country without his best friend, not if he had to follow those sorry sons of bitches on his hands and knees all the way to fucking Managua …
Stop thinking like that, dammit. It’ll work. It has to.
The rumbling growl grew louder as the truck appeared around a bend in the road. He could hear Charlie’s breathing next to him, quick and fearful, but the kid made no sound beyond a whispered, “Madre de Dios!” Then there was a sharp pop! as the tires hit sharp metal, and the hiss of air escaping as the truck came to a halt.
Surprise, that was the key element of this plan, the only shred of an advantage they had. They had to hit hard and fast, and be gone, before the Sandinistas realized that all they were facing were barely trained farmers …
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Charlie glance in his direction. He didn’t return the look, glancing instead at Joaquin, a single nod. And they both locked their sights on the back of the truck as the tailgate went down.
Four men climbed out. They were close enough that Frank could see a young face and a dark mustache as he aimed the gun. He followed the man up to the ruptured front tires, letting out a long breath before he squeezed the trigger.
A surge of adrenaline gave him the focus he needed, and his man was down. The man next to him, too, crumpling on top of his comrade. Joaquin fired a second time, with the calm of a trained sharpshooter. So far, so good. The fourth man barely had time to register their presence before Frank’s second shot caught him in the chest.
And then …
… all hell broke loose.
The contras opened up as soon as the next soldiers appeared, pouring from the back of the truck, moving quickly to take cover under the truck and behind the tires to return fire. Two of them fell in the dust, but Frank’s rough count said there were about a dozen left. And no sign of Jack.
He didn’t stop to think. Reaching out to either side, he clapped Charlie and Juan on the shoulders, snapped “Cover me!” and ran out into the road.
For a single fierce moment the pain was gone, adrenaline burning through him as the bullets whirred past, slamming into the dust around his feet. He was aware of the little things with an aching clarity. The faces of the enemy half-hidden behind mud-streaked tires. The shapes of the holes in the side of the truck where the contra bullets hit, the sharp sound when they struck the metal. A ragged yell, almost a scream, tearing through the morning air. It was a few seconds before he realized the voice was his own.
He threw his rifle into the bed of the truck, grabbed onto the side with both hands and pulled, jumping up with the last of his strength and collapsing against the wooden slats. Landing on his right side, sensation returning in a blaze of agony, he curled into a ball, biting down savagely on his lower lip and struggling to breathe. Seconds ticked by, and there was only pain, punctuated by the faint sound of more bullets pinging against the truck, and voices shouting in Spanish. And an acrid smell, one that had all his instincts screaming an incoherent warning, though his brain as yet refused to process what it might be.
Next thing he was aware of, Charlie was shaking his shoulder, his eyes round. “Señor,” he was whispering, urgently. “Señor Joe!”
Shaking his head to clear it, trying to ignore the steady pounding behind his eyes, he pushed himself up, crouching so his head was below the sides of the truck bed, gritting his teeth. You can collapse later, Cromwell. Now is not the time. He waved Charlie’s concern aside, noticing for the first time that Juan had also followed him, and was now kneeling by the end of the truck bed to shoot anyone who tried to climb in after them.
Two other men lay prone on the wooden slats beside him. One dressed in rumpled camouflage, a surprised expression frozen on his face and a neat hole through his forehead. And the other …
Jack’s lips moved as their eyes met, forming his name, but no sound came out.
His eyes held a dazed disbelief that Frank didn’t like. One eye was almost swollen shut, and dried blood mingled with the dirt and bruises on his face as he struggled just to lift his head. Even that movement made him squeeze his eyes shut in obvious pain, and Frank reached out automatically to grip his shoulder, checking him quickly for any immediately dangerous wounds.
He didn’t like the way Jack was staring at him. Like he couldn’t quite believe it, like he was half convinced the man leaning over him was no more than a hallucination, the hand on his shoulder a wish out of a fever dream.
But now was not the time to grab his hand, and hold on tight for as long as he had to, until Jack could accept that this was real, that he was safe. Now was not the time to start talking to him, telling him it was over, just talking about anything and nothing and letting the familiar sound of his voice reach his friend, and comfort him with his presence. Now was certainly not the time to imagine what Jack had gone through, to decipher the cruel story those cuts and those bruises and those burn marks on his chest might tell. Jack’s safety was the first priority now. They had to get out of here.
His friend’s feelings — and his own — he would deal with later.
Sliding one arm under Jack’s shoulders, he shoved aside the sick rage building inside him, grabbing his rifle with one hand and pulling him toward the back of the truck bed.
Only to stop at Jack’s strangled gasp, as he met resistance. Noticing for the first time Jack’s arms stretched above his head, manacled to the wooden floor, and one elbow swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
His arm was twisted at an angle that looked wrong, and there were tears of pain shining in his eyes. “Shit!” Frank drew his knife, prying desperately at the keyhole on the handcuffs. “Oh shit, Jack, I’m sorry… ” He didn’t think Jack even heard him, squeezing his eyes shut again now. Dislocated, absolutely. Maybe broken. Fuck, Cromwell, next time look more closely before you try to drag him off somewhere…
The lock was not coming open. And his knife wasn’t having much luck chewing through the wood where the handcuffs were anchored into the floor, either. A stream of curses in several different languages running through his mind, he pushed past Juan and poked his head up over the side of the truck to assess their situation.
A few more dead Sandinistas than there had been a couple minutes ago, but there was still a lively exchange of lead going on between the truck and the treeline. And then he saw it.
That smell he’d noticed before, sharp, bitter, growing stronger now.
Smoke. Billowing out from under the hood of the truck, a black plume rising straight up in the still air.
It seemed to happen all of a sudden. A bullet splintered the glass of the cab window, and there was a great whooshing sound. And then there were flames shooting from the inside of the cab, pouring from the broken window.
Shouts, and then the remaining Sandinistas abandoned the cover of the burning truck, soldierly order flung aside as they fled for the trees on the other side of the road.
“We are so fucked.” He shoved the knife back into its sheath, looking around for Charlie and waving a hand at Jack’s bound wrists. For the life of him he couldn’t remember the Spanish word for keys.
Of all the idiotic things to forget at a time like this… but Charlie seemed to get the picture, scrambling down out of the truck bed. Frank lowered Jack as gently as he could, dragging himself to sit beside Juan as they both fired steadily into the trees where the enemy had taken cover. The contra rifles on the other side of the road had fallen suspiciously silent, and he prayed they were holding their fire so they didn’t accidentally hit Charlie, and not because they’d already exhausted their limited supplies of ammo.
The boy was kneeling beside a young guard who’d had his whole face blown off, hesitating, his back to the truck. “Come on, kid, come on,” Frank whispered, willing him to put aside the shock long enough to find those keys before the fire reached the gas tank and they were all dead.
Now Charlie’s hands were moving, waving toward the contras in the trees, some kind of signal? Then going to the guard’s belt, and Frank was suddenly glad he couldn’t see the kid’s face. Searching the pockets of his pants, and then his jacket, finding nothing. A few shots rang out from the enemy side, and Frank squeezed off an answering burst in that direction. Fuck it, he should be the one down there exposed, in the open. But he knew damn well he couldn’t move fast enough like this, and if the truck blew up it wouldn’t matter. None of them would be far enough away to survive.
Charlie moved quickly away to the next corpse, and Frank slapped a new magazine into his rifle, firing blindly into the trees. It wasn’t like he could see any targets, but at least if he and Juan kept shooting, the Sandinistas would keep their heads down.
A light breeze stirred the air, blowing the smoke into the back of the truck. The reek of burning diesel fuel was overpowering, and he couldn’t stop coughing, couldn’t see through the tears stinging his eyes. He kept shooting, his gun pointed in the direction of the other side of the road, ignoring the surge of agony through his right side. Sweat was pouring down his face now, and he could feel the heat of the flames a few yards away.
When the breeze died down and he could see again, Charlie was sitting beside him, holding up a ring of keys. His eyes were ringed with white, his face smeared with soot, and the keys jangled as his hand shook. Frank pulled him down toward the floor, squeezing his arm briefly before dragging himself back toward Jack.
The third key opened the lock, after much frantic twisting and swearing. Breathing a silent prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening that he seemed to be unconscious, Frank helped Charlie and Juan drag Jack toward the end of the truck bed. Somehow by that time Joaquin was there, looking impatient, along with the Snake.
Joaquin grabbed Jack’s shoulders, and Frank took his ankles, jumping down from the truck, swaying a little. A rattling volley rocked the truck as Juan and Charlie jumped down, and then they were running for the trees. Gunfire behind them, but no shots came close. Before they reached safety two more contras, he didn’t bother to look at their faces, relieved them of their burden.
He was hardly aware of Joaquin’s hand on his shoulder, shoving him down to lie in the dirt as the men carrying Jack disappeared into the jungle. His head was spinning dizzily, and his eyes still burned from the smoke.
Then he saw Charlie.
Crouching behind the back tire of the truck, still firing resolutely at the enemy. Two dead guards lay behind him, and against the front wheel to his right a man sat slumped, his head bowed, blood staining the silver colonel’s insignia on his collar.
Joaquin was shouting at him. Beckoning sharply, get your ass back here, dammit! Frank was stunned. What the fuck did the kid think he was doing? They’d won the fight, they’d got Jack out safely, and here Charlie wanted to keep going, kill some more of the bastards, so much that he’d sit next to a burning truck to do it? For a moment he wondered if something inside him had suddenly snapped, if this was some kind of delayed reaction to his family’s death, a need for revenge or simply an attempt at suicide, who could say?
“Come on!” he yelled, yanking an empty magazine out of his rifle and loading his last full one. He could see the Sandinistas moving at the edge of the road. He could hear the stutter of machine gun fire again, see the bullets hitting the trees, spraying splinters behind them. They were regrouping. Counterattacking. Time’s up, we gotta get the hell out. “It’s over, let’s go! Let’s go!”
The kid glanced back then, and Frank knew.
Charlie could see the soldiers moving in the trees, too. And he was afraid. Afraid to leave the cover of the truck, to cross the few yards of open road between that shelter and the trees. Somehow he’d convinced himself that he’d be safe as long as he had the solid bulk of the truck between him and the enemy’s rifles.
And when the flames reached that gas tank, he’d be right next to a fireball.
Glancing once back toward the woods where Jack had disappeared, he looked at Joaquin and Juan. “Cover me.”
He crawled forward on his elbows, dragging himself painfully through the dust, focusing on his objective and ignoring the bullets plowing the road beside him. There was a burst of fire from behind him, and then silence, and he imagined the enemy drawing back a bit.
“Charlie.” He repeated it again, louder, and the boy turned. Staring at him, cradling his gun against his chest now, paralyzed. And no sign at all of the trust he had shown Frank a few hours before.
“Come on.” Frank felt a sudden tightness in his chest, a surge of pity and horror and shame, looking into those round eyes. “Come on, kid, it’s over,” he said, quietly. “Let’s go.”
He shouldn’t be here. No fourteen-year-old should have to go through this. After this he’ll never be the same again. No wonder he doesn’t trust you …
Even if he could get to him in time, he doubted he had the strength to drag the kid back to the trees.
But, dammit, he was not about to leave him out here.
Slowly, he stretched out his hand. “We have to get to the trees,” he said, trying to sound normal and reassuring. Meeting his eyes, Frank wasn’t even sure Charlie recognized him. He jerked his head back toward Joaquin and Juan, lying with their rifles ready to fire. “We got you covered. It’s not that far.”
Joaquin yelled something, and Charlie started, seeming to actually focus on Frank’s face for the first time. “Hey.” Frank tried a faint smile, and a shadow of recognition flickered in the kid’s face. “It’s me.” Charlie’s eyes fastened on his, like he was trying to draw strength from him, and he felt an inexplicable lump in his throat as the kid began to crawl toward him.
“That’s it.” He tried to sound reassuring, raising himself onto his hands and knees, holding out his hand. The air above the truck was shimmering, wavering in the heat. They had only seconds, a minute at most. “It’s okay, you’re gonna be okay …”
Their hands clasped, Charlie’s trembling fingers locking around his, and he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Starting to crawl backwards, he stopped when the kid froze, staring back at the truck.
Joaquin’s gun fired again. “Charlie, we don’t have time for — ”
“Señor Joe!” It was a sharp cry, and Frank turned to look just in time to see the man he’d noticed before. Slumped against the front wheel of the truck, staring in their direction, not dead after all. Not yet… and struggling to raise a pistol in his shaking hands.
Frank had a brief impression of silver hair, a lined face with blood trickling from his mouth. It was the eyes, though, that would stay with him. Eyes like a shark’s, even as he spat blood onto the ground.
He would never know who the man had been aiming at, or if he’d been aiming at all. He tried to raise his rifle, heard a sharp crack, and felt Charlie’s hand go limp in his. For a moment he was too stunned to react, staring into the shark’s eyes. Then there was a deep, concussive boom that shook the air, a wave of heat slamming into him, lifting him off the ground.
Agony exploded through his side as he hit the road again. Somewhere in the fuzzy gray world of pain he felt hands grasping his shoulders, and he knew he had to get up. Blinking, he saw Juan’s face above him. The gunshots had stopped. There was smoke everywhere, and he was coughing.
Turning his head, Frank could see him lying a few feet away. Moving weakly, trying to lift his head, one hand pressed over a gaping hole in his stomach. Even as Juan was pulling him away, he could see the blood staining the boy’s shirt, covering his fingers.
“Charlie!” It was a breathless sound, all he could manage right now, and he was shaking his head, trying to twist away from Juan, but he had no strength left. “Stop!” he choked out, but Juan didn’t hear him, or ignored him. “We can’t leave… ”
It was Joaquin who ran past him, discarding his empty rifle and firing a pistol toward the other side of the road. Hunched over, completely in the open, he slid to a halt on his knees. He didn’t glance once at the Sandinistas, moving toward the road again, recovering from the shock of the explosion. He only knelt beside Charlie, pistol dangling at his side, gently moving Charlie’s bloody hand away from the wound.
Frank couldn’t see his face clearly, as Juan dragged him away. All he saw was the movement of his hand, coming to rest against the side of Charlie’s face with a sort of tenderness he’d never thought to see from this man. Just before he set the pistol’s muzzle against Charlie’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.
The report echoed through the jungle, as Frank was swallowed by green, dragged off the road and into the shelter of the trees. The Sandinistas opened up seconds later, a deafening volley, but he could still hear that one shot louder than all of them. Reverberating endlessly past the pounding in his head, past the hurried footsteps ahead of them and the ragged sound of his breathing.
Joaquin came running at them, blood streaming from his arm, shoving the pistol in the waistband of his pants. Reaching down, he grabbed Frank’s arm without a word and hauled him to his feet, pulling his left arm over his shoulders as Juan supported him on his right side. Not a word was spoken as they set off at a stumbling run, heading deeper into the thick jungle.
They didn’t head back toward their old camp. The contras evidently knew these jungles and their twisting pathways well enough to vanish into them, to places where these soldiers from the city couldn’t find them. To Frank, the trip was a blur. He hardly knew what direction they were going in. It was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other, half dragged and half supported by the two contras.
He barely noticed the branches whipping his face, the roots and rocks under his feet, the twists and turns of the faint trail they followed. Each jolting step sent excruciating waves of pain radiating out from his side, growing steadily more intense as they continued. He could hardly see, gray blurring into green at the edges of his vision. He was practically sobbing with every breath, struggling to lift his feet, hearing nothing but a steady ringing in his ears and the echo of a gunshot.
Half an hour later they stopped, in a little clearing by a stream. Frank collapsed to his knees as the others stepped away, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain and the flood of images crowding his mind. Charlie’s eyes, paralyzed with fear, and the shadow of trust reemerging as he crawled toward him. Eyes like a shark, in a face like Death himself. And Joaquin’s hand holding the pistol, as neat an execution as he’d ever seen. Calm, quick, one shot to the head and they’d left him behind.
Fourteen years old. Oh God, they’d left him behind… He felt bile rising in his throat, choking him as he hunched over, retching, dry heaves racking him long after his stomach was empty. When he finally raised his head Juan had gone, and only Joaquin stood against a tree, watching him.
The comandante had one hand clasped against his arm, blood seeping through his fingers, and in his face there was something almost like concern. Letting go of the wound, he held out his hand.
Frank recoiled, pushing himself to his feet, swaying drunkenly as he stared at the other man’s bloody hand. “You… ” he said thickly, unable to form any more coherent thoughts. Joaquin simply looked at him, dark eyes calm and a little sad, as his hand fell to his side. “You… ” Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he struggled to find words for what he had seen. “You shot him.”
“He would not have survived to reach a hospital.” Joaquin folded his arms, his eyes never leaving Frank’s. “He might have lasted until tomorrow morning, if he was strong enough. And he would have been in terrible pain. Is that what you want?”
Frank shook his head, anger mixing with horrified disbelief. “He was a child,” he finally managed, throwing the words out like they might change what was already done. “He was only fucking fourteen years old! What the fuck was he doing here at all?” He was shouting now, not caring who heard him. “We could’ve brought him back! You could have tried—“
“I did what had to be done.” Joaquin’s voice was firm, but not angry. “If you are a soldier long enough, you will learn that sometimes you cannot save them all.” He shook his head slowly, and when he spoke again it was almost to himself. “I pray that day is far off… ”
“Fuck you.” Frank’s voice was flat. “Where’s Jack?”
Joaquin pointed, his expression unchanging. On the other side of the clearing, five of the men were clustered around a sixth, lying on the ground. Turning away, staggering toward them, Frank saw two of them fussing over Jack’s arm, gingerly trying to move it as he let out a strangled moan.
“Get away from him!” he yelled, sinking to the ground beside his friend just in time to see Jack’s eyes close and his head loll to one side. The contras, apparently startled by his anger, retreated.
He glared after them, feeling his hands start to shake as the realization crashed over him that these men could have killed his best friend. That it had almost been Jack who was the liability, to be neatly executed and left behind. That he’d almost been too late.
There was concern in the faces watching them, now at a respectful distance. And it occurred to him, briefly, that they’d only been trying to help. That these men, these farmers, had just put their own lives on the line to save two strangers. Even so, there were no words to explain the sheer terror that gripped him, at the thought of letting Jack out of his sight around any one of them.
Looking down at Jack’s bruised face, he forced himself to breathe evenly, his relief at his friend’s presence struggling with horror at his appearance. What did they do to you? he demanded silently, clenching his fists in a futile effort to stop his hands from shaking. When that didn’t work, he probed gently at Jack’s swollen elbow, forcing himself to concentrate on that and only that. Only dislocated, he thought. But it’s not going to just pop back in. God, it looks like that was done deliberately…
Jack moaned softly as he carefully straightened the arm as best he could. God, buddy, I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re out for this part, you’d hate me otherwise, I know. A nearby stick worked to splint it, and he ripped a few strips of cloth from the hem of his shirt to tie it in place. After that there wasn’t much else anyone could do for him.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he whispered, knowing Jack couldn’t hear him. “I’m not gonna let anybody hurt you. No way in hell. We don’t leave our people behind, right? I said I wasn’t leaving the country without you, and I’m not.” Ripping another piece from his shirt, he opened his canteen and soaked the cloth with water. “No way in hell.”
Reaching across, he took Jack’s other hand, looking at the swollen, grimy fingers. There was a deep cut across the base of his index finger, dirt and dried blood and pus caked inside. Gently, he rubbed the wet cloth over the gash, working carefully to clean it out. He needed to be doing something, helping Jack somehow. Even if it was only cleaning up the relatively minor cuts.
Anything not to feel helpless anymore.
The canvas was flung back and a dark form scrambled in muttering hot curses only to end up in an ungainly heap beside him. Even before he could begin to put the pieces together two more shapes clambered into the truck.
Grappling to make sense of what was happening, Jack could only stare as Frank struggled to his knees.
Had Frank really come to get him or was it just a figment of his overwrought imagination? Had Vicente used drugs on him? He had to be sure. He couldn’t fail now and let them use his own mind against him. Use his own faith in Frank to break him.
Oh God, anything but that.
There was so much he wanted to say, so much he couldn’t say until he was sure one way or the other whether it was really Frank. But he found that words were beyond him and he could only stare.
Stare and pray that this was not the ultimate cruelty propagated by Vicente’s warped mind to make him believe escape was at hand.
The man was kneeling beside him, crooning soothing words as he ran his hands over his body searching for wounds. Jack couldn’t help but flinch even under the gentle touch as he anticipated the pain that was sure to overwhelm him if he let down his guard even for a second.
And he was so right. Pain hit him like a fire bomb. Ripping pain that spread like wildfire through his arm, searing straight into his brain with the accuracy of a branding iron. Overwhelming, engulfing, terrifying in its intensity.
One strangled cry escaped from the void of his heart, one lone soldier alerting the camp of an attack, one single cry in the midst of battle.
But it was enough.
Frank heard the cry and stopped.
Jack looked deeply into his friend’s eyes and found the assurance he had desperately sought. And he gave himself over to the darkness that was pulling him down, knowing he could trust Frank to get him out.
With a strangled cry he fought to protect himself, flailing out weakly with his good arm. But there were too many of them and his feeble protests rapidly changed to a muffled screaming curse as one of the men began to pull ineptly at his arm. One ragged breath was all he had time for before blackness painted the blue sky beyond the sea of faces…
Someone was washing his face with a damp cloth. Carefully, soothingly, gently. Not words which he would have readily used to describe his life these past few days. But that didn’t stop him from silently thanking whoever had seen fit to send this small respite.
Slowly he forced his eyes open, praying that this wasn’t all a dream and he would awake only to find himself back in his cell sweet cell, or worse, in that damn truck on his way to Managua.
Worried brown eyes met his as he looked into Frank’s haggard face.
The ragged whisper surprised even him, but from the look of relief that flooded Frank’s face it was apparent that his friend was grateful even for that pitiful excuse for conversation.
He was surprised when Frank’s eyes grew glassy with unshed tears.
Frank’s voice was nearly as choked as his own. “God, Jack, I didn’t think you’d ever wake up.”
Jack searched his friend’s face and finally found the answers to the questions he could not yet verbalize.
“For real?” His voice broke as his eyes begged Frank to understand what he couldn’t say.
Frank reached out a trembling hand and grasped Jack’s shoulder. “Yeah, buddy, it’s real. We got you out.”
Jack’s eyes closed as he fought down the barrage of emotions that hit him. The sense of relief was so over-whelming it temporarily numbed the pain from his wounds. When he was finally able to gain enough control to open his eyes again, Frank was holding out a canteen.
Grateful that Frank was steering the conversation onto less emotionally shaky grounds, Jack nodded. “Help me sit up, will ya?”
He bit back a groan as Frank wrapped an arm around his waist and helped him slide back to lean against a nearby palm. His groan was cut off when he realized that Frank’s own groan was playing hand in hand with his own as he knelt beside him.Glancing sharply at Frank’s strained face he saw the sickly pallor and lines of stress that hadn’t been there at the beginning of this mission. Dark circles beneath bloodshot eyes were accentuated by the pale skin tone and sweat beaded on his forehead as his jaw clenched against the pain he couldn’t hide.
Reaching out with his good arm, Jack grasped Frank’s bicep. “Shit, Frank, I’ve scraped things off my boots that looked better than you do right now.”
Their eyes locked as they tried to crawl beyond the shadows that blocked their souls. Shadows that refused admittance even to best friends.
Gaining some control, Frank snorted. “Hey buddy, right now you wouldn’t have any trouble getting a job as fertilizer on a mushroom farm.”
Jack couldn’t help the half-smile that formed unbidden. “Shut the fuck up, you idiot, and sit down before you fall down.”
He watched as Frank collapsed slowly against the tree and leaned his head gratefully against its rough bark.
Jack sighed deeply and leaned his own head back. He could feel the heat of Frank’s body radiating through the course material of the stained shirt he was wearing. But despite the fact that Frank was obviously in bad need of some serious medical attention, not to mention a shower and a shave, he had never looked so good.
They sat silently, shoulders touching, eyes closed, content for the moment to let down their guard and relax. The gentle breeze teased, giving the impression that all was well. And then angry words broke through the illusion causing them both to jump.
The argument between two of the contras was over in seconds and Jack didn’t even try to translate the shouted words. He just didn’t care.
Frank rolled his head towards Jack and cracked a weary eye. “You gonna make it?”
Jack stared across the clearing refusing to make eye contact. “Yeah. You?”
“Hell, yeah. No other choice.”
That got a tired smile. “Damn straight.”
He watched as Frank reached into his pocket, digging out a dirty bent cigarette. Fumbling for his lighter he lit it and inhaled gratefully. As he exhaled, the smoke drifted gently towards Jack.
Jack was unprepared for the sudden flash of panic that hit him with the smell of the smoke wafting around him. It took all his self-control to relax his taut muscles. The memory of Vicente’s eyes haunted him as the coronel brought the cigarette down against his skin.
He let out a shaky breath as he felt Frank grasp his arm and gently turn it over to expose the festering round burns.
“Shit, oh shit, Jack, I’m sorry.” Frank’s voice was shaking.
Jack wanted to throw his friend a cocky shrug of indifference. Wanted to… tried… and failed miserably.
Silently he tried to deny what Frank’s face was telling him. But his own reaction had told Frank the truth even if he could have found the words to lie. Miserably he glanced into Frank’s eyes, confirming what his friend had already knew.
“Son of a bitch!”
A few of the contras threw startled looks at the venom in Frank’s voice. Then apparently deciding quickly that it was safer to ignore the loco Americanos they returned to their compadres.
Jack closed his eyes, weary beyond words, and leaned back as Frank’s tirade quickly ran out of steam. What was there to say? Frank wasn’t stupid. He couldn’t deny what had happened to him.
Not to Frank.
“It was bad.” His voice was a bare whisper above the breeze rattling through the palm fronds above their heads.
Frank didn’t say a word, but Jack could feel his eyes on him, supporting him, willing him to go on.
“The first couple of days weren’t too bad. Just the locals roughing me up. Cakewalk stuff.” Ignoring Frank’s snort of disbelief he plowed on before he lost his nerve. “Then that bastard Vicente showed up and it got pretty ugly after that.” He felt Frank shift his weight towards him in unconscious support. “It got… real ugly after that.”
His voice dropped even lower as he choked out, “God Frank, I almost broke. The bastard had me and he knew it. It was just a game to him to see how far he could push me until I cracked. He’d won.”
Braving a quick glance into Frank’s eyes he saw none of the condemnation he felt for himself. He read only the same acceptance that he had grown used to over the years. That and understanding that shit happens and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to change that fact of life. It gave Jack the courage to add, “I was so fucking scared that I’d never get out of there, that I’d sell out before they killed me.”
Frank didn’t offer empty platitudes. He simply tightened his grip on Jack’s shoulder in unspoken support.
For long minutes they sat in that silent support as Jack slowly regained a fragile control on his ragged emotions. Finally, taking a deep breath, he dared to look over at Frank only to find his friend’s eyes tightly shut, his face an unveiled mask of his own raw emotions. He could feel Frank’s hand trembling as it rested on his shoulder.
Stifling a deep groan, Jack shifted towards his friend.
“Frank, buddy, you okay? What the hell is it?”
He half expected Frank to ignore him, but as he sat there silently offering what comfort he could, Frank’s eyes slowly opened, locking onto his. And he was surprised by the unconcealed pain plain in their depths.
It was several minutes before he could speak. Leaning back, his voice quivered with emotions being held tightly in check. “There was this kid, Charlie. For some reason he took a liking to me. Started hanging around.”
Jack watched as Frank picked up a green coconut lying beside him and began tossing it back and forth nervously in his hands. It reminded him way too much of the coconut he had carved at the base camp a lifetime ago. Closing his eyes to the pain that flared at everything that had happened since they had left a few short days ago, Jack’s thoughts were dragged back by the anguish in Frank’s voice.
“ …only fourteen fucking years old.”
Jack was surprised by the intensity of Frank’s pain. It wasn’t like his friend to get so involved in the life of a kid he’d never have seen again after this mission was over. Frank was always the cool-headed one on missions, when it came to keeping an emotional distance from anyone but his team. It was what they’d both been trained to do, but it had always been harder for Jack. Kids were his Achilles’ heel.
But something had obviously happened to put a crack in Frank’s armor.
“So what happened?”
Jack half expected Frank to ignore the question and clam up. What he didn’t expect was for Frank to suddenly fling the coconut as hard as he could and snarl, “That sorry son of a bitch killed him! He put a damn gun to his head and blew his brains out.”
Jack could see tears in his friend’s eyes as he fought for control. “The kid saved my ass. He shouldn’t even have been here. A kid in a gun fight. I tried to show him how to use the gun right. I tried, but I couldn’t teach him enough. God, Jack, I tried, but there just wasn’t time.” A single tear escaped and as Frank wiped it away angrily he added softly, “What the hell was a kid doing with a gun? Tell me that, Jack. Can you?”
Jack’s voice shook as he tried to come up with an answer that would alleviate some of Frank’s guilt. Some of his pain.
There was nothing. Nothing that would help. “I don’t know Frank, I don’t have an answer. All I can tell you is no kid of mine will ever touch a gun.”
Frank let out a long, shuddering breath, but he didn’t say anything else. There was nothing else to say. And so they sat in silence and fought their own demons. For minutes… for hours… it didn’t matter. Some things can’t be changed.
Footsteps caused them both to look up. Jack was startled to hear the ill-concealed hatred and anger in Frank’s voice. “What do you want, Joaquin?”
The man ignored Frank’s hostile tone and spoke in a calm voice of authority. “Señors, I have contacted the base camp. They are sending transportation to take you out of my country and back to Honduras.”
“Run out of bullets, comandante?”
Jack’s tired brain struggled to make sense of Frank’s bitter words. He saw a shadow of sadness pass over the man’s face.
“I am sorry how things turned out, señors.”
Without another word he turned and walked away.
“Sorry.” Frank didn’t try to hide the bitterness in his voice. “He’s fucking sorry.”
He could feel Jack’s eyes still on him, confusion and concern mixed in his friend’s face. Jack knew there was more to the story than what he’d already said. He might be barely conscious and hurting everywhere, but he could still read Frank like a book.
But he didn’t have the energy to go on, not right now. Someday, he knew, he’d tell Jack the whole story. Someday soon, when Charlie’s wide eyes had woken him too many times in the middle of the night, and he couldn’t face his wife anymore and tell her nothing was wrong. Then he and Jack would retreat to some run-down bar outside the Springs, and over the course of the night after they’d both had a few too many drinks, the stories would come out. Bit by bit, a few agonized words at a time, when the haze of alcohol was strong enough that they could say the words without remembering so clearly the horrific events they described.
But not today. Today all he wanted to do was forget.
Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.
The world was spinning slowly round and round, as he stared at the trees on the other side of the clearing. He could hear a loud ringing in his ears, and each careful shallow breath he took felt like a red-hot knife was twisting in his side.
Joaquin had said there was a truck coming. They were going back to Honduras. He tried to focus his mind on that. They were going back to Honduras. An American base, and a real hospital. As much as he’d always hated hospitals, the idea of lying on a real soft bed with a real pillow and not having to do anything for a few days sounded pretty nice right now.
He wasn’t looking forward to reporting to their CIA contact, and telling Mark that yes, they’d managed to deliver the information they were sent with, but they’d ended up being fairly useless to the contras. Stay with them for a month or two, teach them how to be a solid guerrilla unit on their own. Yeah, and instead they’d managed to get themselves injured the second day they were in-country, and had to turn for aid to the people they were supposed to be assisting. Mark was not going to be pleased.
Well, dammit, he had some questions for Mark, too. Like why in the hell was the CIA going around training a bunch of fucking kids to fight their war for them. Explain that to me, Mr. Secret Agent. Tell me when the United States decided to give guns to children. And for God’s sake, tell me why. Can you explain that to me?
We are nothing to you. Joaquin’s voice echoed in his memory. Pawns, in your little game with the Russians. Why should you mean anything more to us?
He slammed his fist into the ground, wincing at the movement and pretending he didn’t notice Jack’s worried glance. He didn’t want to think about Joaquin, now, either.
A day on the truck, a week or so in the hospital in Honduras, and then they’d be on their way home.
For days he’d thought he’d never see home again. He hadn’t allowed himself to think of after, when the mission was over. There had been only the here and now, the struggle, minute by minute, to stay alert, to stay on his feet and not let down his guard for an instant, when it felt like everyone in the entire goddamn country was against them.
And now, it was just beginning to hit him that soon he would be going home. They would both be going home. They’d made it. They were safe.
He wanted to see his wife, wanted to hold her so bad it was like a physical ache somewhere deep inside. She’d cried when he left, he remembered. She knew their mission would be a long one, and he wouldn’t see her again maybe for months.
But at the same time, a cold dread settled in the pit of his stomach at the thought of facing her now. Of looking into her trusting eyes, and imagining what she would think of him if she knew what they’d done here. She wasn’t stupid, he knew, and she knew he’d done some damn distasteful things in the service of his country. Even if he couldn’t tell her about them.
But she would never in a million years imagine that the man she loved had trained a fourteen-year-old child to kill. And led him to his death.
He didn’t know how he would face her. How he would speak to her, how he would touch her, with such a wall of lies between them. The wall had always been there, since they were first married, and it had never been easy for them to live with … but they’d managed somehow. This time was different. This time he wasn’t sure he could reach around it, or over it, enough to reach her.
Turning his head, he could see Jack was watching him still. Probably guessing everything that was going through his mind. Even with everything he’d been through, everything those bastards had done … he was worried about Frank.
Leaning his head back and letting his eyes close, Frank could still feel the warmth of his friend’s shoulder touching his. Jack was alive, and he was here. The physical reminder of Jack’s presence was a reassurance, through all the dark and confusing emotions he could no longer suppress. Even now he struggled to focus his mind, to stay aware of what was going on around him, unable to believe that they were truly safe yet.
But he was too tired, and the pain and the fever ate away at his concentration, so that he found it difficult to open his eyes.
He didn’t know how long they sat like that, listening to the buzz of insects and the quiet conversations all around. The sun was beginning to go down when footsteps roused him from a feverish daze.
“Señors.” Joaquin and the Snake were holding some kind of makeshift stretcher made from blankets and branches. “It is time to go.”
Frank would have helped them lift Jack onto the stretcher. The ground suddenly seemed to tilt under him as he pushed himself to his feet, and the world was spinning faster now, seeming to flicker in and out of a haze of colorful sparkles. Dimly he thought he could hear Jack’s voice saying his name.
And then Joaquin’s face was very close, fierce dark eyes looking uncharacteristically disturbed, and after a moment he realized the comandante was supporting him, lowering him to lie flat on the grass. The sky wheeled dizzily overhead, and he thought he could hear overlapping worried voices fading in and out like a bad record, mostly in Spanish. Jack was saying something, he couldn’t make out what, but he didn’t sound happy…
He tried to get up, couldn’t, and after a minute realized that Joaquin and the Snake were kneeling on either side of him, hands on his shoulders holding him down. The Snake was saying something in Spanish that his brain flatly refused to attempt to translate.
“Will you please lie still? You are not well, and you have not been for some time.” Joaquin spoke in English, and he sounded exasperated. “Do you think you can stand, truly? I would advise you not to try it.” And then, over his shoulder, “He will be all right, señor.” He was vaguely aware of hands pushing up his shirt, searing pain that took his breath away, as fingers probed the red, swollen flesh around the wound. His own strangled gasp was barely audible through the roaring in his ears, but above it he could faintly hear Jack’s voice in a stream of curses. Then something cool was laid against his side, a wet cloth, a temporary bit of relief that shocked him. “He is ill, and exhausted, but he will recover, in time.”
He could still hear Jack’s voice, but he couldn’t see him. Couldn’t even lift his head, despite the sudden wave of panic that struck him, realizing his own helplessness. He was falling into fog, he couldn’t see anything, but he couldn’t feel the pain, before darkness claimed him.
The sky overhead was fading to gray, as two unfamiliar men got out of the truck. Frank watched them lift Jack’s stretcher, turning his head with an effort as they laid him in the bed of a vehicle not unlike the one he’d left only a few hours before. Then it was his turn, and as he sank into the straw covering the wooden slats he saw the faces of the contras clustered above him. “Adios, señor,” they said, and other Spanish words he couldn’t translate. Some of them clasped his hand, some touched his shoulder, and he wished he could say something, anything to them. But he couldn’t find the words, even in English, so he only murmured “Gracias, gracias amigos,” over and over again. Until they disappeared, leaving only one man standing over them.
“I misjudged you,” Joaquin said simply, holding his eyes for a brief moment. There was something different in those eyes, something behind the fierce, watchful look he always had. Concern, and more than a little regret, both carefully hidden. And something else. Frank might have seen a glimmer of respect in the comandante’s face, if he’d cared to look for it.
Frank only stared at him, all the words he wanted to say tripping over each other in his mind, and tangling in a snarled knot of confusion and guilt, betrayal and the memory of fear. This man had come so close to killing his best friend. Without his help neither he nor Jack would ever have left this country alive.
But looking at him now, Frank could only see him as he’d looked kneeling beside Charlie, the image burned into his mind. Blood had dried, dark rust brown, on his sleeve, and the same pistol hung on his belt. There was regret in his eyes, surely, but also the sure knowledge that he had done what he saw as his duty.
If you are a soldier long enough, you will learn that sometimes you cannot save them all.
Joaquin didn’t say anything else, but Frank heard the words even so. And if he’d had the strength he would’ve hit him.
It’s your job to save them all, dammit! That’s what being in command means. Nobody gets left behind. You don’t just decide somebody’s a liability and shoot him like an animal and leave his body in the road to rot.
You son of a bitch. He was only a child.
Joaquin didn’t offer his hand. Maybe he knew Frank wouldn’t take it. He only held Frank’s eyes a moment longer, accepting his naked pain and fury, not trying anymore to explain what couldn’t be explained. At last he said, “Goodbye.”
The canvas was flung over the top of the truck bed, and they were plunged in darkness. Frank could hear doors slamming, the pitch of the truck’s engine changing as the floor vibrated under them.
Jack’s hand brushed his arm, fingers curling briefly around his wrist, trembling a little. In the tiny space he could hear his friend’s breathing, faster than normal, rasping. He had to be in a lot of pain, and being trapped in a small dark place would only bring back memories that were too close to the surface. Was it only this morning that he was back in that cell, believing he was going to die there?
“You okay?” It was only a whisper, but it was enough. Jack squeezed his wrist once and then relaxed.
“I should be askin’ you that.” There was a worried edge in Jack’s voice. “You scared the shit out of me back there.”
Frank let out a soft sigh, turning to a pained grunt as the truck hit a bump. I’m all right, he thought, but he didn’t have the will to say it. It was a lie, and Jack knew it was a lie, and he could probably hear Frank thinking it anyway.
He tried to brace himself against the wooden floor as the truck bounced over a rut in the road, but couldn’t help sliding over to slam not at all gently into the side of the truck bed. Pain blazing through his gut told him this was not going to be a fun trip…
“At least… ” He had to stop to catch his breath. “We’ll be home for the baby.”
Was it less than a week ago, that they’d been thinking of the baby and whether they’d be home in time? “Sara’s gonna kill us,” Jack said finally, with a note of longing in his voice that only Frank would have heard. “We haven’t thought of a name yet.”
Frank’s lips twisted, thinking of a time when their biggest problem was trying to come up with a name for the baby. “We had… other things on our minds.”
There was a long silence. Then, in a breathless whisper, “I still don’t get what’s so bad about ‘the Great and Powerful Oz’… ”
Frank rolled his eyes. It still hurt too badly to laugh. The air under the canvas was still and stifling, and no light penetrated into the back of the truck. At this point, he knew, there was nothing more for him to do but lie there, and when the truck stopped there would be American soldiers there to carry them to a hospital. He could feel his head starting to spin, couldn’t guess if it was really as dark as it looked or if he was going to pass out again.
Reaching out, he managed a faint whisper. “Jack?”
“Yeah?” The response was worried. He didn’t know what else to say, hadn’t really any energy left to talk. He only wanted to hear Jack’s voice. One final reassurance that his friend was here, and they were safe.
Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes, unspeakably grateful just for Jack’s presence. Knowing that in spite of everything, they would be all right. How, he didn’t know yet.
“Go to sleep, Jack.”
On to All That We Leave Behind by Ana Kaye Lake