As Jack was led into the room it was very apparent who was now in charge of this case. The captain and Rios were plastered against the back wall, giving a fair impression of oil-based paint. Their eyes darted nervously back and forth between the state soldiers and the door as if measuring their chances to escape. Jack would have bet last month’s pay check that if they hadn’t been ordered to stay, they would have been with the rest of the force at the local cantina calming their nerves with a little rum.
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.