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Managua, Nicaragua, July 10, 1:25 a.m.
Manny Ortega awoke from a dead sleep. Fully alert. All senses vibrating with awareness.
The sharp crack of breaking wood splintered the night silence like a gunshot. A blinding light pierced his eyes like a needle and glinted off the barrel of a Simonov carbine locked dead center on his chest.
Four Sandinista soldiers towered over his rumpled bed. Their faces were hard. Their weapons, ranging from the SKS to an AK-47 and a pair of Tokarev pistols, were drawn. The emblems on their uniforms identified them as members of Gen. Jorge Poveda's death squad.
Trouble didn't get any deeper than this.
Yet Manny's first thought was to protect his lover. He reached for her, but Lily was gone. He was alone in the bed that smelled of sleep and sex and the scent of her. The tangled sheets beside him and under his palm were as cool as the night breeze drifting in through the open window. Relief that Lily was safe registered peripherally as a hard boot hit him midthigh.
"Levántate, perro traicionero, o te matamos ahí mis-mo." Get up, traitorous dog, or we will kill you where you lie.
Manny shifted from shock to self-preservation mode. He raised his hands, smiled, and did what he did best: lied through his teeth.
"¿Traidor? Amigos, tienen al hombre equivocado. Soy uno de ustedes." Traitor? Friends, you've got the wrong man. I'm one of you.
He nodded toward their uniforms—the same uniform he wore, although his reasons for wearing it were much different from theirs. "Soy Manolo Ortega. El teniente Ortega." I am Manolo Ortega. Lieutenant Ortega.
"Sabemos quién eres, marrano contra. Y también lo sabe el general. Porque su puta americana, ella también abrió las piernas para tu placer, ¿eh? Y tú le dices todo." We know who you are, Contra pig. So does the general. Because his American whore, she spread her legs for you, too, eh? And you tell her everything.
Pain exploded through his head as the butt of the SKS slammed into his temple. He fought both dizzying nausea and the blinding effect of the blow as they dragged him from the bed, then ordered him to pull on his pants. Blood ran down his face and into his eyes as they shoved him, barefoot and shirtless, at gunpoint from his sister's third-floor apartment, where he'd spent the last week with Lily.
His American whore . . . you tell her everything . . .
The soldier's words hit Manny full in the face as he stumbled down the stairs.
Poveda's whore? Lily?
Manny didn't want to believe it. But they could only be talking of Lily Campora of the diamond black eyes and beautiful smile.
No torture the tyrannical general could inflict now that he knew Manny was a spy for the freedom fighters could be as painful as thinking Lily might have betrayed him.
He didn't want to believe it. And yet . . . she was gone. As if she had known Poveda's men were coming for him.
He had been betrayed.
He'd been a fool.
And now he was a dead man.
His eyes burned from the blood and the sting of anger. He could not bear to think that the woman he loved could have turned him in. But why else—how else—would Poveda have found a reason to send his thugs and brand Manny a traitor? The things he had told Lily in the dark of night, naked and spent, he had told no one else. So what other explanation could there be?
He could not think of that now. If he wanted to live, he could not think of her now. He had to figure out how to get out of this. Then he would deal with Lily Campora.
Anger rolled over his heartbreak. Resolve kicked him into survival mode. Talking himself free was not an option. Poveda's soldiers did not want to hear anything he had to say. He was on his way to prison—if he made it that far.
The Managua streets were midnight dark and as deserted as a ghost town when they hauled him roughly to an open military jeep, then took off down the pocked and cracked pavement.
The rope cut into his wrists where they'd tied his hands behind his back. Already he could feel the loss of circulation in his fingers. The business end of the SKS was still aimed at his heart.
And he was running out of time.
He glanced at the soldier riding shotgun in the front seat. Recognized him, though he'd never met him. Garcia. Poveda's hatchet man. Specialized, it was said, in using a stiletto. Garcia also had a penchant for employing electricity to make his victims talk. He particularly enjoyed using it on freedom fighters.
Manny didn't recognize the driver or, in the seat at Manny's side, the young corporal with the SKS. He watched Manny like a hawk, his eyes narrowed and intent on Manny's face.
Well trained, Manny thought. Always watch a man's eyes. They are telegraphs to his thoughts. For that reason, Manny kept his eyes as blank as white paper.
The jeep rumbled past the airport on the outskirts of the city, then turned off Carrtera Norte and onto a back road; he didn't let on that he'd figured out where they were taking him. He'd heard of the torture camps deep in the jungles. And he knew of no one who survived them—which was why he could not let the soldiers take him that far.
Miles and maybe an hour went by. The city grew distant. Up ahead he saw the glimmer of moonlight bouncing off water and realized they were approaching the Rio Tipitapa Bridge.
He didn't so much as glance ahead or to the side.
He sat. He waited. Hunched over as if still dazed from the blow to his head and resigned to his fate. They would soon find out he was far from it.
The city lights were a memory as the jeep hit a slight incline leading to the narrow stone bridge he had known was coming up. Manny counted to five, then made his move.
With a sharp kick at his guard's chest, Manny dislodged the SKS long enough to sway the barrel up and away from him. The rifle discharged wildly into the air; the fire flash shot from the end of the barrel like mini volcanic eruptions as he stood and leaped from the moving vehicle.
He landed on the pavement with a bone-jarring jolt, then rolled like a square wooden wheel. His shoulder and hip screamed in pain, but he forced himself to his feet to the serrated screech of squealing brakes and guttural shouts.
He didn't wait to see if the soldiers had drawn on him. Off balance with his hands tied, he vaulted to the stone rail of the bridge. Without a backward glance and swallowing back his fear of heights, he launched himself toward the muddy Tipitapa, flowing fifteen feet below.
The night exploded in a hail of gunfire just before he hit the surface of the rapidly running river. The current sucked him under. He shot toward the riverbed like a bullet, found the silty bottom with his feet, and, praying he had the lung power, pushed off.
His lungs burned. His throat ached. But finally, he surfaced. On a gasping breath, he shook the water from his eyes. Then for the first time since Poveda's men had shattered his sleep and his illusions about Lily, he found something to smile about. The swift-running current had already carried him fifty yards downriver. This far from the bridge, there was no way the soldiers could spot him in the inky black night.
It was the rainy season, gracias a Dios, or he'd more than likely have broken both ankles landing in two feet of water instead of fifteen. His smile was short-lived. The current sucked him down again in a vortex of speed and suffocating darkness. Without the use of his arms, the river rolled him like a deadhead—a waterlogged stump—spinning him out of control. The harder he fought, the deeper the river took him.
Holding his breath, battling unconsciousness, he forced himself to relax, to sink to the bottom again, then pushed off with a prayer. For the second time, he broke the surface with a gasp, coughing mud-clogged water and sucking air. He was a good hundred yards downriver now. The jungle had thickened like a gray-green fog, closing in on the meandering path that years of spring and summer floods had cut into the bank as the Tipitapa flowed toward Lago de Nicaragua a hundred miles downstream.
It wasn't until his third trip down that he figured out what to do. The only way to fight the current and gravity was to go with it. When he surfaced the next time, he spread his legs and, using them as rudders, rode the river.
With concentrated effort, he let himself be a log instead of fighting the fact that he was one. Logs float. So he floated. Coughing and spitting and gasping for air. Sometimes on his back. Sometimes on his belly. However the river wanted him. But always with an eye toward the shore, searching for an opportunity to beach himself. But the night was dark; it was difficult to see, and staying afloat took most of his concentration.
He didn't know how long he drifted that way. Long enough that his strength had faded. And he suspected he knew the reason why.
Besides the bump and gash on his head from the rifle blow, one of the soldiers had gotten lucky. As Manny was free-falling off the bridge, he'd felt the round connect with his shoulder. Felt the slice, felt the burn.
And now he felt the effect of the blood loss.
Light-headedness. Fatigue. And for the first time, disorientation.
A wave of darkness hit him and he sank under again. He battled the urge to struggle. Slowly let himself drift to the surface and grabbed the breath he desperately needed. He fought for his life. Fought the chills that overtook him in the depths of this hot summer night. Made himself stay relaxed so he wouldn't sink like a stone again.
And then he was combating something that snagged at his legs. Grabbed at his feet.
Panic hit before understanding, and with it an adrenaline spike that revived him. The Tipitapa was home to any number of night stalkers—including the only freshwater sharks in the world. And if the bull sharks didn't get him, there was a good chance a bushmaster would. He'd never tangled with a pit viper but knew that one venomous bite from the monster snake could kill a man in minutes. He prayed to God he wouldn't have to fight the snake now. It was a battle he could never win.
He kicked for his life and managed only to become more entangled. And that's when it hit him. Brush. He'd hit a patch of brush. Which could mean a downed tree.
Which meant shoreline.
Tree branches, not a shark or a snake, had latched on to his pant legs and ended his free float down the river.
He was saved. And yet this saving grace could be the death of him as the current and the brush sucked him under one more time.
One more time, Manny surfaced, his lungs screaming for oxygen, his head pounding from the pressure. He had to figure out a way to break free, yet use the tree to keep him from floating away or sucking him under again. Each time he'd gone down, it had become harder to come up. He strongly suspected he had very few resurrections left in him.
Drawing on the last of his reservoir of strength, he dug deep and threw a leg over what felt like a stout arm of the tree. The serrated rip of tearing fabric blended with the sounds of the rushing river and his panting breath. When he felt a connection, he clamped his thighs together like a vise and heaved his weight into righting himself.
He fell face-first on the log, teetered like a tightrope walker as his St. Christopher medal clinked softly against it. Chest heaving, he used his chin, his shoulders, his forehead; he levered himself upright. The river waked around his hips, strong and determined to knock him from his perch.
But he hung on.
Gasping for breath. Fighting the pain that screamed through his arm and head. Pain that kept him clinging to consciousness. And conviction.
No way was he going back into that spin cycle. This, he understood, was his last chance. If he fell back into the river, he was done for and Poveda would have won. That fact, above all, kept Manny going.
He shook his head. The deluge of pain cleared the cobwebs. Battling for balance, he straddled the tree trunk and fought to orient himself to his position. The night was dark, but a sliver of moonlight skimmed the rippling water. Beyond, he could make out the riverbank. See the roots of the downed madrono tree that held him, the base of its trunk disappearing into the water some thirty feet away.
Thirty feet that separated him from drowning.
On a bracing breath, he leaned back, just far enough so he could reach the tree with his hands and gain a measure of balance. Now, if he could only feel his hands.
Inch by cautious inch, he pushed forward, his eyes on the bank, his mind blank of anything but reaching his goal. He didn't think of the pain. He didn't think about falling. He didn't think about the clammy night air that cooled his bare, wet skin and made him shiver. Didn't think about the dizzying rush of water beneath him or the light-headedness that made him nauseous.
Most of all, he didn't think about Lily. To think of her would make him weak. To think of her betrayal would make him want to die.
So he pressed forward at a snail's pace. It felt like years. A century passed as mosquitoes bit him incessantly and night creatures slithered along the surface and brushed against his bare feet.
Finally, his toes touched mud.
Gracias a Dios.
Relief ran as deep as the night. He was utterly exhausted, barely conscious. Muscle memory and guts propelled him as he threw his leg over the log—and sank up to his chest in thick, muddy water and muck.
He sucked in a wheezing breath when the cool water rushed over the inside of his thighs that had been scraped raw from grating across the madrono bark. His arm throbbed and burned like someone had nailed him with a branding iron. His head pounded.
He had no feeling in his hands. No conception of time as he half-stumbled, half-crawled his way out of the water. Digging with his chin, his shoulders . . . knees, toes, whatever it took . . . he worked his way up the steep, muddy bank.
Where he collapsed on the ground. Facedown. Covered in muck. The religious medal hanging from his neck slapped him in the face when he dropped.
Darkness sucked him under like the river. He passed out cold—passed out deep. And alone with his tormented body and mind, he dreamed fitful dreams of Lily.
Of the first time he'd seen her beautiful, treacherous face.
Copyright © 2006 by Cindy Gerard. All rights reserved.