The soft scraping of stiff straws across the floor alerted Jack to Alvaro’s presence even before he raised his head to watch the young man’s slow progress in front of the cell.
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.