Vomit, stale urine, and the faint scent of unwashed bodies…
All in all not the most pleasant atmosphere to wake up to, thought Jack. Particularly when you awoke with a pounding headache, a lump the size of the Great Lakes, your cheek pressed against damp, broken ceramic tile, and feeling like you were the prize exhibit of the side show.
Peachy, just peachy.
It took long minutes of contemplating and even longer minutes of actual aborted attempts before he was able to roll onto his back and partially open his eyes. Even the gloom of the room was a painful reminder that he had encountered something harder, a lot harder, than his head. No doubt Frank, as well as several of his former commanders, and the odd drill sergeant, would have taken exception to that assumption. But the fact remained that whatever the hell had made up close and personal contact with his skull had left a nasty calling card.
Jack lay there on the dirty floor, staring up at the 40 watt light bulb hanging from the low ceiling on a frayed cord.
He lay there hoping that his scrambled thoughts would somehow quit doing their Humpty Dumpty routine and fall back into place, but knowing that there was a strong possibility that his egg-head was well and truly fried, boiled, and probably gonna be served sunny-side up on toast.
More time passed before a cognizant thought ran the gauntlet pain had erected throughout the trenches of his mind. It was cold laying on these smelly, damp floor tiles. Bare skin on locker-room floor chilly. And suddenly a piece of missing puzzle fell into place.
Oh hell, somebody had stolen his shirt and boots and left him lying in God only knew what kind of moisture after trying to bash in the back of his skull.
With a groan, Jack pushed himself upright.
The scenery hadn’t vastly improved from his new vantage point. He found that he was sitting in the middle of a small cinderblock room with rough cut wooden bunks along two walls and thick bars covering the front. A dozen or so local men eyed him with considerable hostility, communicating across the language barrier that what ever the hell mess they were all in it was the fault of the tall, half-naked gringo lying in the muck at their feet.
Since none of his new roommates seemed inclined to offer him a hand, their seat, or the time of day, Jack wormed his way over to the back wall of the cell and sat down with a groan, while doing his best to ignore the 4th of July fireworks display that was trying to escape through his skull. The rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that his carcass was still there.
God, that’s warped, Jack, even by your substandards.
The silent hostility in the room was deafening. Obviously los locals were not too impressed with sharing a cell with the Americano who was responsible for starting the fight that had gotten them tossed in the hoosegow. Everyone was looking a little worse for the wear and toting a load of attitude.
Jack hoped that the guys would just be content to maintain the pissed off looks and not decide to crank the hostilities up a notch by stomping his sorry ass into the ground. The way he was feeling he didn’t think he’d stand much chance in a dozen-against-one fight, even if they were just farmers and villagers. Nope, he was definitely out numbered, out dressed, and out of luck. It was better to pull a chameleon act right now. Just blend in to the background and maintain a low profile.
Yasureyabetcha, just me and a reeking bucket of pee leaning up against this wall.
And suddenly another thought blazed through the fireworks in his head, driving out all thoughts of subterfuge.
Where the hell was Frank?
He should have been here with him in this damn jail cell. They had been together in that cantina waiting for their contacts. They’d been together in the bar fight. He’d waited for Frank to follow him out the back door.
And another piece clicked into place.
Oh shit. Frank … the knife … the blood … the look on Frank’s face … and then he was gone.
Jack remembered starting towards Frank.
And then there was nothing.
Nothing, except a sudden overwhelming flash of pain before darkness had claimed him.
So where was Frank? It made sense that the authorities would have kept the two Americans together.
It was obvious that Frank had needed immediate medical attention. Glancing around the less than sterile conditions he found in his current location, he knew Frank was in trouble if he was stuck in another cell like this stinking armpit.
He could bleed to death, before help arrived. Infection was a given. And if his roommates were as friendly as this bunch, there would be no way Frank could defend himself.
And then a thought occurred to Jack that made the previous options look like drawing a royal flush.
What if Frank was already dead?
What if that was the reason he was stuck in this cell without him?
Oh God, what if the authorities had taken Frank’s body to the mortuary or what ever passed for one in this flea-bitten town? What if they had already buried him in some shallow unmarked grave? Shit.
What would he do? He couldn’t have let Frank down that badly. He just couldn’t. That wasn’t how he and Frank worked. They were partners… best friends… practically brothers. They didn’t fail each other … not now, not ever. How in the hell could he live with himself if he’d let Frank down?
How could he make the call and tell his wife?
That couldn’t be the reason for Frank’s absence.
Please God, don’t let it be true.
Suddenly shuffling and murmurings breached Jack’s inner turmoil. Opening his eyes which he had clenched tightly against the mental pain thoughts of Frank’s death had wrought, he saw that the locals were gathering their hats and standing by the cell door obviously anticipating their release. No one spared him a glance as he fought to stand up, trying to ignore the waves of vertigo which swept over him.
He made his way over to the group just as the cell door swung open and his partners in crime shuffled out under the cold gaze of two guards.
Deciding instantly it was better to stick with his amigos, albeit reluctant amigos, Jack squeezed in between two stooped-shouldered down-trodden laborers. Ignoring the half-hearted glares tossed his direction, he adopted the slumped shuffling posture of his neighbors, a continent apart from his normally confident military bearing. Despite his earnest attempt to blend in, Jack discovered that there was a very good reason he had joined the Air Force rather than become an actor when one of the guards shoved the barrel of a gun against his ribcage and gestured for him to return to the cell.
Holding his hands out in the universal gesture of surrender, Jack backed away from the group and with a weary sigh of resignation watched the cell door slam shut.
“My brother, Joe Valentine, is he here too?” he asked one of the jailers as they escorted the group out.
Jack felt like he had been gut-punched when the guard turned and with a sneer on his swarthy face he answered in broken English, “Do not worry about your friend, gringo, you will join him soon enough.”
The implied threat was obvious. ‘He’s dead, asshole, and you’re gonna be dead soon, too.’
Jack backed away from the bars and sank down on one of the benches.
It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. Frank, don’t be dead. You can’t do this to me. You can’t leave me here alone. That’s not how we operate. We’re in this together. You can’t be dead. You haven’t even helped me think of a name for the baby to send Sara. We have to get home in time for the baby. Sara will kill me otherwise. The kid would never believe me if I just told him about his Uncle Frank. Not in a million years. You gotta show him yourself what an idiot of an uncle he’s stuck with.
How else is he ever gonna know just what a great guy you are?