El capitán was leaning back in his chair, booted feet up on his desk and a cigarette in one hand. When the door to his tiny office banged open he sat up abruptly, the look on his square-jawed face anything but welcoming to the two visitors. He didn’t say a word, just turned fierce, inscrutable dark eyes on Frank, but at a lazy wave of his hand two younger policemen appeared in the doorway. Both of them were carrying automatic rifles.
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.”