A few hours before the sun rose on this particularly unpleasant day, Frank was sitting against a wide tree, smoking a cigarette and feeling more helpless than he ever had in his life.
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.