Tequila and Mickey Finn.
A hell of a bachelor party guest list.
A jackhammer morning-after headache.
José Cuervo might be a sumbitch, but the bottle didn’t
deserve the blame for the hangover that had Jackson Briggs pressing the
heels of his palms to his eye sockets.
His spinning head was all about waking on a cold, concrete prison floor,
an AK-47 five inches from his nose jumpstarting his day with a jolt.
The stumbling trip he’d taken at gunpoint—from his cell,
down a dark corridor, into a military command center—had added
the tang of terror to his nausea.
And now here he was, stuck holding his tongue because
so backwater that he didn’t know not to piss off his host country.
He didn’t care that the charity-based Smithson
Engineering crew had just signed on for another back-breaking, year-long
stint in the
jungles of San Torisco.
He didn’t care that the contentious nature
of the military dictatorship characterized a nation on the brink of
He didn’t care that he was the only chopper pilot on site. He
was ready to go home. To the States. And as soon as he was outta here,
he was outta here. It couldn’t happen soon enough.
Irritation spilled down his back along with his body’s physical
response to San Torisco’s tropical climate. Ninety-eight percent
humidity and a new sheen of sweat drenched his khaki shirt.
He didn’t want to know what had dried in his hair, matting it
in a crust to his skull. He didn’t want to know what constituted
the brown stains on his green fatigues. He especially didn’t want
to consider when or how his boot laces had been chewed through. All he
wanted was out.
The coat of puke green paint slapped across the floor
in El Comandante’s
headquarters did little for his mood. Rocked back on two legs of a rickety
chair, he eyed the machine gun five feet away on the battered metal desk.
The additional distance gave the weapon a new perspective, one no less
From here, however, he could see the eyes of the uniformed man behind
it. They were as cold as the floor he had slept on, as black as the darkness
summoning him down.
He refused to look at the woman sitting in the chair three feet from
Twisting the tight gold band around his left ring
finger, Jack released a sigh at odds with the chemical churning in
his gut. The burn up his
throat told him there’d been more in his glass than the shot of
tequila he’d sloshed there sometime before midnight. His buddy’s
bachelor party had been in full swing at the time, and Jack had been
lucid, sober, and still the best man.
Six hours later he’d come awake to find himself
And the groom.
He wondered who’d slipped him the Mickey, who’d
added the wife.
Most of all he wondered why.
“Once more, Señor Briggs. And this time be warned. My patience
grows thin.” Comandante Mosquera pushed the parchment document
across the scratched and dented desk then sat back and swiveled his tattered
vinyl chair side to side. “Is this, or is this not, your signature?”
Jack brought his own chair down hard and snatched
up the paper. Elbows on his knees, he forced himself not to sway to
the maddening squeak-squeal,
squeak-squeal of the Latino’s chair for fear he’d tumble
to the floor.
Instead, he focused one bleary eye on the Partida
de Matrimonio. Certificate of Marriage. The real McCoy. One-hundred
percent. Eighteen karat. Sure
“Yeah, it’s mine,” Jack bit off. With a flick of his
wrist, he spun the parchment back onto the desk. No one did that backward
left-handed scrawl like J. Jackson Briggs. He’d recognize it in
“Bueño. Muy Bueño.” Comandante
Mosquera dried his forehead in the crook of an elbow, the sweat stain
one more service
medal decorating his olive-drab uniform. Adjusting his beret over his
slick black hair, he tapped his desk with a length of bamboo cane.
A sharpened length of cane, Jack ruefully noticed.
“You . . . you . . . Americanos.” El Comandante spit out
the word with great disgust, gesturing in the air with the crude weapon. “You
come to our country. You treat our homeland like your own. Selfishly,
you take what you want. Never do you give thought to the burdens you
leave behind when you go.”
“Look.” Jack raised his palms in a gesture of false concession. “You’ve
got the wrong guy. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here to do
a job at the request of the Sabastiano government. Your government. Carlos
Sabastiano himself is picking up the tab. The way I figure, you owe me?”
Bamboo cane hit metal desk and snapped. Three inches
of pointed stick landed at Jack’s feet. He glanced up. The lethal looking blade
now protruding from the hollow rod wasn’t crude at all, and only
slightly more intimidating than the malevolence in the Latino commander’s
Comandante Mosquera spiked the blade into the desk’s
wooden top. The cane quivered with the backlash. Jack swallowed hard.
“Why you are here does not concern me, Señor
Briggs. What you do while you are here you will answer for.”
“Look. Sir,” Jack forced himself to add, when the commander’s
nostrils flared. “All I’m doing here is working on the road
the Smithson crew is cutting from Ciudad Torisco into the mountains.”
The Latino’s eyes narrowed dangerously. He eased to his feet,
skirted the desk, stopped directly in front of Jack’s chair. With
his feet planted shoulder width apart, the commander made an intimidating
“You deny that you American men find our San Toriscan women to
your liking?” Mosquera asked, smoothing down his thick mustache
with forefinger and thumb.
At the change in conversational direction, Jack hooked
his thumbs in the belt loops of his fatigues and leaned back. “The scenery’s
been great, yeah. Why do you ask?”
A keening sob rose into the air, a sound so awful
Jack wondered whose grave he’d stepped on. Before he could so much as turn toward the
screeching woman—his screeching wife—the AK-47 gouged the
bridge of his nose.
He gagged back the bile shooting up his throat, closed his streaming
eyes, and tried to pray. Now I lay me down to sleep . . .
“Your wife seems to find your little . . .
what do we say . . . disregard for the situation most inappropriate.”
Jack licked his dry lips and managed to croak out, “What
situation are we talking about here?”
El Comandante answered with a growl and a sharp twist of the gun barrel.
Searing heat shot to the top of Jack’s head.
He bit his tongue; the metallic tang of fresh blood seeped into his
mouth. His face beat
like a tom-tom, burning hotter with each pulse of blood. And then, just
like that, the pressure vanished.
Jack pitched forward. He caught himself before hitting the floor, then
blinked, blinked again and sneezed.
He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, then dried it on his pants,
leaving behind equal parts mucous and blood as he focused a furious gaze
on the man across the room.
Comandante Mosquera sat on the edge of his desk.
The gun dangled from his fingers like an extension of his arm. “In our country, Señor
Briggs, when a man takes pleasure with a woman he is no longer a free
He picked up the marriage certificate and studied
Jack’s scrawl. “Our
women are taught their obligations from the day they are born. They are
instructed by their own mothers to care for their future mate. To provide
him children. To provide him a home. To provide him loyalty and service.
In doing so, they honor our ancestors.
“They know nothing of the choices your American women have.” El
Comandante ended his lecture with a snort.
Jack gingerly tested the split skin on the bridge
of his nose. “Yeah,
well, it’s not called the land of the free for nothing.”
He heard a tiny snuffle at his side, then a chuckle, no, a cough. Knowing
he could avoid the bad news no longer, he peered between two fingers
to get a good look at his wife.
From the look of things, he’d bagged himself
Worn brown fabric, drab and inclusive, enveloped
the woman, from the top of her head, down her shapeless form, to the
pink toenails at the
end of ragged rope sandals. A tendril of dark hair peeked from beneath
the head covering, giving him a clue that she was—
Wait a minute. Wait just the hell a minute. Pink
toenails? Pink toenails? Uh-uh. No way was he sitting still for this
scam. Jack pushed to his
feet. “Whatever’s going on here isn’t going any further
until I talk to someone from the American Embassy.”
“Señor Briggs. I am not taking orders here.” El Comandante
raised his gun-toting arm. “You, on the other hand, will do exactly
as I say. Unless you wish to face the consequences.”
He released the safety, flexed his trigger finger,
and sighted Jack’s
throat. The barrel loomed closer. Tasting gunpowder and metal and his
own mortality, Jack considered his options only for the length of time
it took the other man to pick up the caned blade with his free hand.
“What is it I’m supposed to do?” Jack
“First, you will sit down.”
Jack was slow to respond, slow enough in fact that
he caught a brief flare of indecision in the other man’s eyes before the cold blackness
returned. Good. He’d made his point. The chair he sat in might
be unstable, but he wasn’t.
Comandante Mosquera arched one thick brow then gave
a brief nod of approval. “Muy
bueño. Now, Señor Briggs. Your wife is in need of your
escort. She must journey to her family home in a mountain village.”
Jack straightened. The chair swayed. “I’m the only chopper
pilot Smithson’s crew has. We’re laying fifteen hundred feet—”
El Comandante brandished the cane point and cut off
Jack’s sentence. “Once
you are there, your wife and her family will make the final decision
on whether or not you will be a worthy husband. Because of this questionable
course of events, if she wishes an annulment she will be granted one.”
Jack perked up. A quick trip up the road might not
be a bad idea. Especially if he came back a free man. He pretended
to ponder El Comandante’s
proposition when, in truth, he wondered why the San Toriscan military
was meddling in personal matters.
How much backup did this guy have? Or was he an elite
member of the Sabastiano private Policía, answering to no one
but the big man himself?
Jack swore succinctly, but silently. Everything about
this deal stank of hidden agendas. “I don’t have any say
in the matter?”
“You have a say in nothing.”
His palms pressed to his thighs, Jack stood, wincing
at the dizzying rush of blood that swept through his skull to the center
of his face. “Then,
One corner of Mosquera’s mustache lifted. “Señor
Briggs. What is your hurry?”
“I’m under deadline. Hank Smithson doesn’t
have time to waste looking for me.”
“Do not worry. We will inform your . . . how
is it you say . . . your foreman at the Smithson compound where you
will be for the next
Jack needed a shovel to pick up his jaw. “The
“Of course, Señor Briggs.” A sneer greased the Latino’s
lips. “You cannot return until the baby is born.”
The baby? The baby? Jack’s heartbeat signaled
a situational slip from bad to worse. He whooshed in a serious breath
and slanted a glance
to the side . . . and his wife.
She stood then, his burlap sack, and turned his way. Jack never saw
her face. He never got past her figure. Past her belly that had to be
at least eight months gone.
He remembered well the changes that developed between
seven and nine months. He’d measured Mandy’s waistline every week until
Justin had been born. But that was forever ago. In a limbo sort of time
and space he’d tried to forget.
All he knew right now was that playing handball didn’t make a
baby, and that was as close to getting any as he’d come the last
Stunned, Jack sat. His butt cracked hard against
the wooden chair. The legs cracked out from beneath him. His head cracked
against a piece of
standing concrete block, and the last image that lingered as he fell
to the ground was Comandante Mosquera’s smug crack of a smile.