It was raining.
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!”