Excerpt for Finding Rafael by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Finding Rafael

Richard S. Hillman

Brighton Publishing LLC

435 N. Harris Drive

Mesa, AZ 85203

www.BrightonPublishing.com

Copyright © 2018

ISBN: 978-1-62183-493-9

First Edition

SMASHWORDS EDITION

eBook

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. The characters in this book are fictitious and the creation of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to other characters or persons living or dead is purely coincidental. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher or copyright owner.

We spend our time searching for security

and hate it when we get it.

John Steinbeck

Part One: Manny

Chapter One

Professor Emmanuel “Manny” White Vidal narrowed his eyes and clenched his teeth as he scrutinized a shadowy video that revealed a policeman, or perhaps it was a soldier, shoving a bloodied woman and a hysterical infant off the end of a pier. Forced to watch the woman and child disappear beneath murky waters, a man in the background writhed and thrashed, struggling to break free from the grips of two other officers, if that’s what they were. The dead bodies floated to the surface as the scene faded into the distance.

“Jesus Christ, Adam,” Manny uttered, “why are you showing me this?” He whirled away from the monitor and jumped to his feet. The veins in his temples felt ready to explode, and he would’ve vomited had his stomach not been empty.

“It was captured on a sailor’s smartphone as he was shipping out of Guarida Municipal Marina,” Assistant Secretary of State, Adam Stark, said. “Damned thing’s going viral on social media.”

“I heard about this on Facebook. I purposely didn’t watch it.”

“Everyone else has. Let me focus in on a frame and clear it up. I have a feeling you’ll want to see this. Watch closely.”

Stark reversed the video, froze a frame of the man’s face, and telescoped in, enhancing the image. Now, Manny could recognize the distorted face with eyes appearing to burst out of their sockets and tears streaming down his cheeks. Enlarged on the screen, the man’s rugged features gave him away.

“My God. It looks like . . .” Manny could hardly believe what he was seeing.

“Sit down, Manny,” Stark said with a wave of his hand. “Look at it carefully. I just want you to confirm his identity. Is that your cousin? If it is, we’ll take care of this.”

Manny felt as if the air had been knocked out of his lungs. He collapsed into a chair facing the Assistant Secretary’s desk, with his back to the video screen. Taken aback, Manny massaged his temples and pieced things together. Liliana must’ve given birth while in hiding, he thought. He knew Stark’s position contravened U.S. policy not to intervene in individual cases. Did he have an ulterior motive?

He took a deep breath and said, “It’s Rafael.”

Stark stared at Manny as if he was attempting to penetrate his thoughts. He removed his wire-rimmed glasses, blew on the lenses, and wiped them with a tissue. As he replaced his glasses, he looked through the window. The sunshine reflected some grime on the glass. He mumbled something about calling the cleaning crew, then turned back to Manny.

“I’ll be straight with you. We have reason to believe they’re holding him in the Retén—their main jail, and there are congressmen who want to exploit this, want to embarrass the administration. They like to pontificate about how the United States of America always upholds human rights—”

Slamming his fist on the armrest of his wooden chair, Manny glared at Stark. He had a strong premonition that Stark had no concrete plan to address this issue. “What will—?”

“Don’t worry. We’re formulating a response. It will demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, the administration’s resolve to address human rights abuses anywhere in the world.”

“And if it hadn’t gone viral?”

The video appeared on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and global news networks. Already, there were hundreds of thousands of likes, shares, and comments that attributed these atrocities to the Guaridan government provoking widespread indignation throughout the world. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, among other international organizations, expressed outrage at the Roldano regime. They filed official protests.

Democrats as well as Republicans called for his removal from power in a rare demonstration of bipartisanship. The State Department issued diplomatically ambiguous statements of condemnation, while supporting the democratically-elected government of oil-producing Guarida, a long-time ally and trading partner of the United States. The Sánchez Brigade for the Liberation of Guarida (SBLG) used the video to justify a revolution.

President Ricardo Roldano stated on CNN, “Rafael Vidal is an enemy of the state, a revolutionary. If any Security Police who apprehended this criminal acted improperly in this isolated incident, those responsible will be brought to justice.” He promised an investigation.

All the disingenuous bullshit and duplicitous doubletalk made Manny want to puke. Hopefully, someone is planning something behind the scenes, he thought. He drew in dry air— Stark ran his air conditioner no matter what the temperature, said he liked clean air—and tried to bounce back. There had to be something he could do.

“It’s difficult when oil is involved.” Stark paused, adjusted his glasses. “You know all about that, professor. You’re an expert. This administration—”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just between you and me . . . can I be assured you’ll keep this secret?”

Manny nodded.

“All right. I’m thinking an independent contractor not directly involved with the U.S. government might be useful in this situation.”

“You have someone in mind?”

“Again, just between us, Jack Case might be able to get your cousin out, but I don’t know if he’s available.”

“If he goes, I’m going in with him.”

“No, you’re not. Too dangerous. There’s nothing you can do. You’re not trained for this sort of thing. Jack is.”

“I’ve got connections in Guarida.”

“You’re known there. We can’t protect you. Why the hell do you want to get involved, anyway?”

“It’s personal.” The last time I was there, Manny thought, I tried to support Sánchez’s reforms, and what did that get? The damn demagogue spewed hyperbole, accused me of espionage, tortured and jailed me. The hypocrite. Finally got out when Roldano took over. “I’ll stay undercover.”

“Well, on a personal level, Manny, if you don’t mind me saying so, it would seem that you’re grasping for something.”

“What are you saying, Adam?” Manny coughed, his throat raspy from the lack of humidity in the air.

“Last time you were down there ended in a disaster, almost killed you. But you were damned lucky. You did take a stand, though. A definitive stand. I think you’re trying to convince yourself that you can make a difference. I believe you’re seeking meaning in all this. Another big adventure, huh?”

“Rafael’s in trouble. He’d save me if the situation were reversed.”

“Pretty arrogant to think you can pull him out single-handedly. You have a plan?” He pointed to the water cooler in the corner of his office.

“Thanks.” Manny walked over to the cooler, slid down a paper cup from the holder on the side, and filled it while watching a bubble rise to the top of the glass container. He took a sip. “Do I have a plan?” He drained the cup, crushed it into a ball, and dumped it into Stark’s paper basket. “I guess I’d have to sneak in under their radar. I’ll go with Case. We’ll use our contacts. I’m assuming he has some. I’ve got Ray. He’ll hide me. Come on. I know people think I’m arrogant, but—” I’m really driven by self-doubt, he thought. No need for a protracted debate with Stark. He’d figure something out.

“What about Dee? NYU? Just going to disappear for a while? Haven’t you learned anything from your previous escapade?”

“I need to believe in something, Adam.” Escapade? Did he say escapade? “Of course, there’s a lot at risk, but I’ve got to play this out.”

“This isn’t a Shakespearean theater we’re talking about here!”

“Put me in touch with Case, okay? That’s all I ask.” Shakespearean theater?

“This is bullshit and you know it. Simply put, you’d be putting your life on the line. The Department of State will not authorize an operation of this nature.” Stark paused and appeared to be deep in thought. He adjusted his glasses, then continued. “However, you’re both private citizens . . .” Stark spun his chair toward the window and gazed through. Then he swiveled back and looked at Manny as if waiting for him to respond.

Stark did seem to have an ulterior motive, but Manny was more interested in his own agenda.

“Don’t worry about me, Adam. You know what I’ve been through.” An escapade, Stark had said. Manny shuddered. He resented the term. No. It was a harrowing ordeal, a trial by fire, not some kind of extravaganza.

“I’m worried, my friend. You were extremely lucky last time you went down there.”

Manny was worried as well. Did he really want to risk his current situation? He was well-positioned at NYU, had returned from Guarida relatively unscathed, although the waterboarding damaged his left eye, and had managed to hold together his relationship with Dee despite his indiscretions. Yet he seemed to be falling once again into the maelstrom, as if drawn by forces he didn’t understand.

The currents are building, he thought. He knew he needed to sort things out, yet time was of the essence. How long will they keep Rafael alive? Maybe I am like Hamlet, he thought. But what’s happening isn’t theater.

***

Traffic came to a standstill. Horns blasted. The air stunk of exhaust fumes. As vehicles inched forward, Manny weaved his Raleigh 21-speed between a Penske truck and a Yellow cab. He hopped the curb and pedaled down the sidewalk on MacDougal Street.

Indirect sunlight lit up the quaint façades on a row of brownstones. Yellowing leaves sparkled on spindly trees lining the street. Indian summer in Greenwich Village seemed a bit surreal.

He coasted to a stop, jumped off his bike, and chained it to the railing on his porch. Unhooking the oversized Prince tennis bag from his shoulders, he bounded up the steps and scooped up the New York Times that was perched at Dee’s feet.

She was waiting for him, arms folded across her chest. He could feel her eyes scrutinizing him. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

Adam Stark’s similar remark flashed in his mind. Then he smiled and gave Dee a peck on her cheek. “More of a chance crashing in a taxi, you know? New York cabbies—”

“You’re delusional. How was your match?” she asked as he walked through the front door. She followed him in.

He flipped the paper onto the bar in their kitchenette and carefully placed his tennis gear in the closet.

Manny knew Dee would’ve preferred if he spent less time on the courts. He’d tried to explain that tennis was like meditation, allowing respite from more demanding issues, like whether he’d accompany Jack Case to Guarida. He wasn’t sure about what to do even as he felt himself being sucked into a stream of events and forces that pulled like a tornado toward an inevitable, yet unknown ending. Maybe I am delusional, he thought.

“My match?” He refocused. “Good. We split, and I took the third. All we could get in. You can only stay on for an hour and a half. Playing under the Williamsburg Bridge isn’t like the Campo Alegre Tennis Club, but I enjoy the hardcourts, and players creep out of the pavement in the Big Apple.”

As soon as Dee heard Manny utter the words Campo Alegre, a worried expression distorted her face. The reference sent shudders down her spine. He was thinking about Guarida again. Manny knew she feared he’d return to that horrible place.

“Professor—Emmanuel—White—Vidal! You’re not going back to Campo Alegre . . . not to Guarida . . . for tennis or for anything else!”

Dee addressed him with mock formality when she was upset. She hated Guarida, and he knew why. The country—or really, what’d happened there—almost tore them apart. He knew she’d try to dissuade him.

Yet thoughts about his cousin frequently floated through his memory. Some great times together when we were kids. Camping in the hills, snorkeling out on the reef. Guarida seemed more hospitable back then. He was daydreaming. Rafael is alive. He felt it as surely as he knew the sun would rise the next morning. Stark knows. He knit his brow and took a deep breath, fantasized a scenario in which he and Case extricated Rafael from the throes of disaster.

“Hey, snap out of it. Want some lunch?” Dee offered.

Manny turned abruptly toward Dee. “Sorry. What were you saying?”

“Are you hungry?”

“Yeah, I’ll shower, and then let’s go out.”

“We don’t have to.”

There were plenty of bistros in Greenwich Village, but Manny knew it’d make Dee happy to return to The Excelsior, where he’d asked her to marry him when he returned from Guarida almost a year ago.

He ruminated about their wedding near the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park. It took place six months after his proposal. It was a bright day. The sun shone almost as intense as in the islands. He wished his parents could’ve attended. Their untimely deaths in a car accident still plagued him.

Dee’s parents flew up from Texas, and a few close friends were present for the civil ceremony as well as the reception at the Top of the Sixes that evening.

Manny didn’t invite Dean Rhoades, who’d unsuccessfully opposed his tenure at NYU and made advances on Dee while he was away. Ray, his tennis partner and son of the Guaridan president who’d declared him persona non grata, said he’d fly up, but at the last minute, had to attend to the Roldano businesses on the island.

It would’ve been wonderful if Rafael could’ve been there, Manny thought.

Dee was a beautiful bride. Her long, blond hair fell onto bare shoulders above a simple pastel blue dress that matched her eyes. She beamed contentment. Everyone could see they were in love. He’d learned the hard way how much he needed her. “What did you say?”

“Look at me, Manny. I said we don’t have to go out. I can whip up something here.”

“Nah, let’s go over to our little Jamaican restaurant on Waverly Place.”

“The Excelsior? Fine. What’s the occasion?”

“Nothing special, Dee. Just want to talk.”

The week before he proposed to Dee, Manny received the tenure letter that allowed him to continue teaching Latin American and Caribbean Politics at NYU. His exposé of American involvement in the assassination attempt against Sánchez, Operation Empty Nest, had gone into a second printing and was being translated. The Spanish version sold almost as many copies as the English. He was in demand on the lecture circuit and he’d been invited to several State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research meetings in Washington.

The INR meetings offered stimulating discussions, and he spoke his mind. But until he viewed the video, there was no way he would’ve gone back to Guarida, despite Stark’s frequent innuendos that he should return to UG one of these days. After seeing the freeze frame on that ghastly clip, however, his gut told him it was just a matter of time. He’d seek proof of life for Rafael and insist that Stark connect him with Jack Case.

Of course, he’d discuss with Dee the possibility of another trip there; see how bad her reaction would be. To smooth it over, he’d purchased a heart-shaped, gold pendant that was inscribed, Yours forever, Manny. Despite the ostensible marital bliss, he knew Dee still harbored insecurity deriving from his unfaithful tryst in Guarida. And she was well-aware of the perilous situation down there. He’d have to convince her and himself at the same time that he was doing the right thing.

***

The aroma of spices, coffee, and rum permeated the restaurant. Wood carvings adorned the walls along with a flag displaying the Jamaican motto, Out of many, one people. They sipped colorful rum punches adorned with fruits and ordered spicy jerk chicken with rice and peas. Callaloo was served as a side, and dessert was fried plantain. After the meal, they drank pungent cups of Blue Mountain.

Then Manny pulled from his pocket a small box containing the pendant. “This is for you, Dee.” He gazed at her, attempting to read her body language.

She swept back her blonde mane, and her face looked healthy without cosmetics. She was sporting one of her floral dresses. She opened the box and smiled. Her face flushed. She leaned across the small table, kissed Manny, and then sat back. “I hope you mean it.”

“What do you think?” He gazed into her eyes, feeling sad and a bit peeved that she’d still raise the question.

“I think you feel guilty about what happened.” Her eyes moistened.

He looked down and drained his coffee cup. Then he looked up and said, “It was before we were married, Dee. I’ve learned my lesson. Come on now.”

“Just don’t forget it,” she said.

“I thought we were beyond all that.” His face contrite, he shook his head. “That was the past. We’ve got so much to live for.”

“I love you, but it’s hard sometimes.” She swept her hair over her shoulders in a nervous reflex.

“Please don’t hold it over me. We’ll never be truly happy that way. You can trust me now.” He looked back at her with a hopeful smile.

She took his hand in hers. “I know. It’s just that sometimes it all comes back. I’m trying. It takes time, I suppose.”

“I’m sure we can put it behind us. I love you. Just accept that and watch how I behave . . . how I have behaved. Do you like the heart?”

“Of course, Manny, and I do love you. Let’s not argue.” She leaned toward him, and they kissed.

Then Manny eased away and said, “No arguing.” He smiled. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered. Then he helped clasp the thin gold chain around her neck.

The heart fell into place on her chest. They sat for a few minutes. The waiter sauntered over and stood there for a moment with a smile on his face. Then he said, “Anyting else, mon?”

“We’re all set,” Manny said, smiling. The sing-song patois reminded him of the pleasant atmosphere of island life.

Everyting aaright?”

“Yeah, mon,” Manny said.

No prob-lem.”

Manny paid the bill, left a large gratuity, and smiled at the waiter. The Jamaican showed large white teeth and shook back dreads that reached his waist.

Irie,” the waiter said.

Manny wondered if the laid-back islander style was merely a performance. Had this Rastaman, like so many immigrants, become jaded by the venality of American life? The pressures to assimilate and compete in the tough workplace had converted many a gentle soul into aggressive seekers of the American Dream. Yet their Caribbean essence always seemed to remain.

Manny smiled at Dee. She smiled back, looking content.

“Listen, honey, I think I’m going to have to go back to Guarida for a little while . . . to look for Rafael. What do you think?”

Her smile disappeared. “You know what I think, Manny. I’m as troubled by Rafael’s disappearance as you are, and I understand what you’re going through. I really do. But you don’t have to go back. You wouldn’t be able to save him even if you could find him. He might not even be alive. Please—” She stopped mid-sentence as if she were fighting a lost cause.

“Okay, I’ll think about it,” Manny said. “I respect your opinion, Dee.”

“If you really respected my opinion . . . damnit, I’m not sure you do . . . you wouldn’t be running off again.” Dee slammed her hand on the table.

The patrons at nearby tables were watching.

“I’ll find out more information. Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re trying to con me into saying yes. Buying me with food and a trinket, huh?”

“No, that’s not it, Dee. Really. I—”

“Just don’t go.”

“I’ll give it more thought.”

“You better.”

“Yeah. Guess we should get back to the apartment. I’ve got some notes I have to put together for class tomorrow.”

Torn between his loyalty to Dee and the safety of their home on one hand and the agonizing decision to search for Rafael in Guarida on the other hand, Manny felt desperate and paralyzed.

How can I not do something after seeing that damn video, he thought. To go or not to go? That’s the question.

Chapter Two

One week after their lunch at the Excelsior, Manny returned to Washington. Despite Dee’s admonitions, he had to at least feel out Stark about his predicament. Were there other options?

He watched Stark gaze out his office window, as was his custom when contemplating difficult issues. People were strolling on the Mall’s walkways surrounded by cherry trees that had long since lost their blossoms. The air conditioner hummed above the ubiquitous whining of sirens in the background, giving the impression that something dramatic was always about to happen in the nation’s capital. What was Stark thinking?

Stark turned away from the window and looked at Manny. “One thing I want to make very clear,” he said, “is that this time we’re not sending you back to Guarida. Not under these conditions. We believe your cousin is in jail, that rotten Retén, for crying out loud.”

“I can’t let Rafael rot in that pathetic dungeon they call a jail. I know what it’s like in there. We need to do something, Adam. I’ve got to do something.”

Stark removed his glasses. “I argued against the general U.S. policy regarding individual cases, attempted to put something in motion . . . get him out of the country,” he said, although his motivation was more political than moral.

Those holier-than-thou congressional wonks wouldn’t use that video against any administration in which they served, even if it meant going outside of channels.

“Two of my colleagues—one is in our Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and the other is with the Department of Homeland Security’s Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Directorate—tried to set up an escape. So I do feel a sense of responsibility. We’re working on it.” Stark cleaned his lenses with a handkerchief, then put his glasses back on. “But State will not endorse—”

“I’ve got to get down there. Ray will help. He’ll convince his father to let me take Rafael out of Guarida.”

“You must be dreaming. You’re not exactly welcomed there. And it’s Guerrero who’s running the Security Police, not Roldano.”

“Ricardo’s the president, though.”

“Look, Manny. This is a very dangerous situation. We cannot allow this sort of thing. How the hell would you get in, anyway?”

“I’ll think of something. All I’m asking for is an armed bodyguard—someone to accompany me. Why not Jack Case? You mentioned him the last time I was here.”

“Listen,” Stark shot Manny a conspiratorial glance, “if someone like Case were to team up with you, I wouldn’t know about it. We need to maintain plausible,” he waved two fingers on each hand as if to make quotation marks in the air, “deniability. Case doesn’t work for us, you know.” Stark smiled, adjusted his glasses, and then stared at Manny. “This is how it would have to play out,” Stark said as if he were in a confessional. He looked through the window, and with his back to Manny, said, “So let’s say he could get you in, and let’s say somehow you got your cousin. All three of you would have to get out on your own.”

“Is that a yes, then?” Manny said to Stark’s back.

“It’s a beginning.”

Manny couldn’t help but think of himself standing behind a rising curtain to reveal a hushed and unidentifiable audience under dimmed lights. He felt himself nod. Hamlet enters stage right.

***

Dee shook her head and reached for a box of tissues. She grabbed one, blew her nose, then pulled out another to dry her eyes. “You can’t go back, Emmanuel. Damnit. This is crazy,” she implored. She got up from the couch in their living room, walked into the kitchenette, poured a cup of coffee, and returned to the couch. She blew on the coffee. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know. When I was a kid, my friend Tom and I used to play spy games in Central Park. Maybe that’s it. Who knows? We would hide behind hills and watch people pass by. Some were Russians, you know, KGB agents, and others were from SPECTRE. Sometimes I’d be James Bond. Often, we’d get on our bikes and trail the suspects. Intricate plots like CIA versus the enemies, whoever they might be, formed the basis of our games.”

“Once, we spotted a suspicious-looking guy meeting an attractive woman. He was dressed in a business suit, she in a floral dress. It didn’t appear likely that they should be together. The guy looked around as if to make sure no one was watching. Then the two took seats on one of the benches on the side of the path over near the reservoir. Joggers passed by, checking their watches, intent on maintaining their pace.”

“Tom and I stood with our bikes on the other side of the path. The couple under surveillance paid no attention to us, but we observed them pull out sandwiches, as a cover of course, and engage in guarded conversation. We imagined them planning something awful, a heist or a scam of some sort. We had to act without blowing our cover, had to save the city. So we chained our bikes together behind a clump of trees and crept in behind the bench. We came close enough to hear some of what they were saying. It was shocking to hear that they’d meet the next day at the Plaza Hotel. Maybe they were going to blow up the plaza!”

“So early the next day, we took the subway to the hotel, walked through the revolving doors, and stationed ourselves behind the wall surrounding the Palm Court. We waited all day, watched people come through the main entrance and go to the elevators. Many just milled about. At lunchtime, the Palm Court filled up. A line formed to get in, but there was no sign of our suspects. Tom and I postulated that we’d been identified, thus thwarting the disaster. We were heroes.”

Dee placed her cup on an end table and shook her head. “You’re still playing games, Manny, but you’re not a kid anymore. You’ve got to leave your dream world behind. You want to be a spy? Really!” Again, she pleaded with Manny not to leave.

“I’ll be home before you know it,” he said. He put his arms around her shoulders, tried to comfort her.

“I don’t want you to go.” She pounded her fist on the table. The coffee cup shook but remained standing. “They’ll kill you this time. Let the government do its job. Stark will get your cousin released. We’re married now. You can’t do this.”

Manny felt sorry for Dee. He understood her concern yet felt compelled to return to Guarida. He could sense his emotions were reigning over his intellect, yet it was as if he were magnetized or in the flow of currents over which he had no control. Not acting didn’t seem an option for him, although he wasn’t entirely sure why.

“Please understand,” he begged, knowing he was acting impulsively, perhaps irrationally. But he felt there was no choice in the matter. “Rafael would’ve tried to save me in a similar predicament.” And I’ll feel safe with Case at my side, he thought.

“You think you’re going to sneak in and break him out like in a cowboy movie? Give me a break.” She fiddled with the gold pendant Manny had given her.

“What am I supposed to do, just go on with my routine as if my cousin, my only living relative, weren’t locked up in a cell for no reason, on trumped-up charges? They murdered his family, for godsakes. There’s no justice down there, and our government’s not going to do anything. Not one damned thing. I’ll get Ray to talk to his father. It’s our only hope.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“That’s out of the question, Dee. A week, maybe two, that’s all. Hold down the fort while I’m gone.”

Dee burst into a fit of sobs and tears. Manny tried to hug her, pull her close, but she pushed him away. Her warm body shook. They sat for a few minutes.

He deeply cared for Dee, loved her. But somehow thought he could rescue Rafael without jeopardizing his marriage. Was he thinking clearly or rationalizing? Was it the sense of adventure that was driving him? Did he still live in a dream world, or did he feel a moral responsibility to extricate a family member who might be languishing in a Guaridan prison? Was his previous experience in Guarida motivating him to seek redemption?

No one should have to endure the indignities wrought by corrupt regimes, he thought. Someone has to right this injustice. The conflicts in his mind melted away when he spoke, as if it were necessary to appear determined. Such insistence was uncharacteristic for Manny, and he knew it.

“Come on, babe,” he said, feeling anguished and desperate.

“Please don’t go.”

He rubbed her back.

Slowly, she steadied and her crying subsided. She drew her hair into a ponytail. Her red eyes studied Manny’s unwavering expression. “I don’t like this. You don’t have to be a hero, you know?”

Manny pulled Dee closer, kissed her, and said, “I’ll be home before you know it.”

***

As he wiped the sweat from his brow, Manny wondered why Case had insisted on meeting in Florida. It’s always so hot in September, he thought. Couldn’t we have gotten together in Washington or New York and departed from there?

He ordered a chilled café latte, stretched out his legs, and observed the meanderings in Clearwater Beach from his strategic position at one of the small tables on the patio of the Cork N’ Brew.

A tall man sporting dreadlocks draped his arm around a petite blonde girl who smiled up at him in reverence as they strode down the sidewalk on Mandalay Avenue, and a group of young women clad in string bikinis ambled around the corner from the Sandpearl Resort. Coffee fragrances permeated the humid air, and the constant drone of buzzing conversational chatter, clanking cups, and an eerie horn wailing through oversize speakers sounded like coffeehouses throughout the world. Miles Davis, Manny thought.

A rangy Hispanic woman, wearing running shoes, tights, and a halter top that barely contained her bouncing breasts, jogged through the middle of the street. The bohemian scene was like a beach version of Greenwich Village. He felt comfortable in the avant-garde atmosphere yet anxious about the meeting. He finished his latte, ordered a double espresso, and waited.

An indigent middle-aged woman pushed a grocery cart filled with assorted junk, and an old gentleman with a white beard peddled his bicycle past a group of French-speaking tourists.

After several minutes, the lone figure of a man, whose crewcut and military bearing belied his casual attire in jeans and t-shirt, emerged from the eclectic crowd. He angled past a group of teenage girls returning from the beach and skirted around a rickshaw pulled by a muscular young man with braided hair and no shoes. An unfiltered cigarette dangled from the side of Jack Case’s mouth. He approached the patio and walked directly to Manny’s table, sat down, and held out his hand.

“Hello, Manny. We meet again.”

Manny remembered their unexpected acquaintance at the Ambassador’s residence in Guarida a few years ago and then running into each other at a Department of State function. Case was probably the one who dealt with Sánchez, Manny thought.

An independent contractor involved with Blackwater and implicated in Operation Empty Nest. Not the type with whom he’d ordinarily consort. Manny had hooked up with one of the principal characters in his exposé. The irony wasn’t lost on the idealist-turned-realist professor. Plausible deniability, Stark had said.

“Hello, Jack.” They shook hands. Each sized up the other. Manny sensed in Case a quiet composure that reeked of arrogance. He wondered what Case thought about his exposé of Operation Empty Nest but wouldn’t broach the subject. No need to upset the apple cart before anything got started.

A couple guys in leather motorcycle vests, with tattoos covering their arms locked-stepped across the crowded street into the park.

“This is the real America,” Case said. “Anything goes. That’s freedom, huh? A bit decadent, don’t you think? But what can you do?”

“With freedom comes responsibility and tolerance, Jack.”

“Of course, but there must be limits as well. Don’t you agree?”

“The question is how to define them. Opinions differ, right?”

“Sure, sure. Listen,” he said, “I’m here to hold your hand.” His expression was serious.

Manny ignored the barb.

“I get you in and out. We rescue your cousin in the process.”

“You make it sound easy.”

“Piece of cake,” Case replied. He smiled, then took a long drag and exhaled a cloud of smoke.

“How will we proceed?” Manny held his breath until the smoke dissipated.

“Leave everything to me. Once down there, you’ll have to contact your friend Raimundo Roldano. Can we count on him?”

“Ray? I sent him an email that I’m coming. Can’t risk exposing his help. I sure as hell hope he can. If not—”

“We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

“What do you have in mind to get us into the country?”

“We’ll go by sea. I’ve already set up a yacht with a captain who’s made the trip a thousand times. Show up at the Clearwater Marina on Monday at 5:00 a.m. sharp, go to Charter One Fishing Tours, ask for Pedro. He’ll be on the Island Queen. It’s a Krogan Trawler, slow but steady. It’s slipped about halfway down the main dock before you get to the Starlite Cruise ship next to the Bait Shop. I’ll meet you there. And just so you know, there’ll be no questions asked when he takes his usual slip at Guarida City Municipal Marina.”

“So that’s why we’re in Florida, huh? How long will it take on that kind of rig?”

“Four or five days at sea. Depends on the winds and currents. I hope you don’t get seasick.”

Manny sighed. “Will I be able to sneak off the docks down there? I’m persona non-grata, you know?”

“Why do you think, we’re taking the slow boat to China, eh? No one will bother Pedro. He takes this route all the time, runs merchandise back and forth. Get my drift?”

“Should I be worried about that?”

“Hell, no. As I said, this is routine . . . understand?”

Manny just nodded like he understood even if he didn’t agree.

Case must’ve sensed his trepidation. “I’ve got it all set up, don’t worry. Nothing to get all worked up about. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Thanks. I appreciate your help. And once we’re there, I’ll need to count on you. The Security Police don’t like me for some inexplicable reason, and I don’t want to have anything to do with them, that’s for sure.”

“Take it easy. You’re with me. Roldano cleared you, didn’t he?”

“Officially, yeah. But I’m still persona non-grata. What if Ray can’t convince his father? How do we get Rafael out?”

“I told you . . . you can count on me,” Case said. “We have a plan. I’ve got some friends south of the border, as they say, and Pedro’s gonna help. But we’ve got to find Rafael first. That’s priority.” He pulled out a crushed pack of Marlboros from the back pocket of his jeans, straightened out a cigarette, and lit up.

“Those things will kill you, Jack.”

Case chuckled. “You really think I’m gonna to die in a hospital bed?”

Manny scoffed but at the same time realized he was about to risk his own life. He hadn’t had a cigarette since his undergraduate days and still craved the taste every once in a while.

What the hell. “Mind if I have one of those?”

Chapter Three

As the Island Queen drew closer to the cluster of what looked to Manny like toothpicks oscillating on the horizon, the mastheads came into focus. Their clanking and jangling grew louder. Seagulls screeched their greetings. Welcome sights and sounds to all aboard.

“Guarida City Municipal Marina!” Pedro shouted. Then he sounded the horn to announce their arrival and headed his vessel into the horseshoe-shaped cove lined with slips. Once inside the protected, no-wake area, he ran at idle speed to the end of a stationary pier that split the cove. He threw the screws into reverse for a moment to cut speed, then steered in neutral to drift gently, cross current to dockside.

Just as the vessel was about to brush against the pier, the crew dropped fenders and secured mooring lines to the tie-downs. Then Pedro cut power.

After six and a half days at sea, Manny was sure he and Jack were more than ready to tread on solid ground. Although the trip from Clearwater was uneventful—there were no storms or especially rough seas—they weren’t able to get off the trawler for more than twenty minutes or so on the short fueling stops in Marco Island, Key West and Grand Cayman. Even when off the boat, they remained on the floating docks. To pass time at sea, they’d tried their hand at fishing and managed to pull in innumerable grunts, a few Spanish mackerel, Red Snapper, a Wahoo, and a Lemon Shark. The men applauded each catch—fresh fish for dinner.

Pedro’s crew consisted of five rough-and-tumble seamen, whose camaraderie with the two passengers belied their menacing appearances. The men—one brought to Manny’s mind Ishmael, and another’s tattoos reminded him of Queequeg—worked without pause. There was always something to be done to the deck, doors, hatches, engines, fittings, trolling lines, nets, and hull. They sang in Creole and Papiamento as well as Portuguese and Spanish. Their English was very limited.

***

Pedro captained the vessel with dexterity and affection. The trawler was his home. He looked comfortable at the helm, although he could’ve passed for a fútbol player, with a wiry build, dark curly hair, powerful legs, and bright brown eyes. He was nothing like Ahab.

Pedro was born in Cali, Colombia. He loved the fiestas and street festivals there but reluctantly moved to Medellín when his family refused to cooperate with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionárias Colombianas—the FARC. Then after a short stay in the teeming capital city of Bogotá, he fled to Cartagena, where the illicit narcotics cartels caught up with him, and provided unsolicited protection from the revolutionaries.

Pedro was always eager to explain that Cartagena’s strategic location was of historical significance. The Spanish fought the British and pirates from its fort, while expanding their colonial empire. The city, which became the home of Spanish sailors, awakened a maritime compulsion in Pedro. He studied navigation at the Universidad de Cartagena, but the drug dealers wouldn’t leave him alone.

Once he attained his captain’s certification, they saw a perfect opportunity to use Pedro’s affinity for the sea. They provided him with the Island Queen and launched his new, very lucrative career.

He’d made this trip countless times. Overall, it was an enjoyable cruise were it not for the passengers’ lack of sea legs and the emotional burden of the unspoken missions they were carrying out. Guarida had become a waypoint for narcotics trafficking and the trans-shipment of illegal arms. The Guaridan mob, known as la hampa or the mafia, took care of that part of the business. The hidden cargo wasn’t a topic of discussion on deck or at the captain’s table. Nor did Pedro or any of the crew seem to care about the passengers’ motives for making the voyage. The task of navigating toward a destination surpassed other considerations.

***

Manny and Jack peaked out at the marina. Beyond the masts and upper decks was a white building with the Guaridan colors flying above. The black, green, red, and yellow banner flapped in the breeze like a warning or a welcoming sign, depending on who was approaching the sovereign nation and with what purpose.

A skiff headed in their direction. Must be a customs officer, Manny thought. The Island Queen was already tied-in and needed no pilot.

“It’s time for you guys to go down to the engine room,” Pedro said.

Jack signaled Manny to follow him. They disappeared below deck. From the confines of the engine room, they could catch a glimpse of the deck through a crack in the hatch, which remained open for air flow. They could hear someone, presumably the official from the skiff, step on board and greet Pedro. By the sound of their conversation, they knew each other.

“Hey, Captain. Nice to see you again. How was your voyage?”

“My dear friend, you’re still guarding the port. How nice. Smooth sailing all the way.”

“I’ll be here until I die, you know. It’s a tough life.”

“Well, we have a little something for you. It’ll make your life a little easier.” One of the crew dragged a crate or heavy box across the deck. It contained caches of automatic rifles. Someone pounded on it a few times.

“Oh, that’s very nice of you, Captain. Now you know I’m supposed to ask for your papers and inspect the cargo you carry into Guarida.”

“Nothing much, my friend. Just some fishing tackle, and of course, our catch. Nice fresh fish for market.” Pedro winked at the official.

“Very well. I know you.” He smiled at Pedro. “No need for the damned papeleo, and no need to waste time searching, eh? Make your delivery. There’s a load in the warehouse for pickup.”

“Well, on behalf of my crew and myself, I appreciate your understanding. We’re all weary from the long trip and look forward to enjoying the various establishments in port tonight. Tomorrow we’ll be back at sea.”

“We’re through,” Manny rasped. “We made it.”

“Keep it down,” Jack whispered. He put his index finger on his lips. “Shoosh—”

The official turned and walked toward the side of the vessel. He then stopped, spun around, and stared at Pedro. “What was that?” he said.

“What?” Pedro raised his hands.

“Thought I heard something. Your men speak English?”

“No new recruits. My men don’t have much English. A few phrases now and then to practice. Maybe that’s what you heard?”

“Tell them to practice their Spanish. Beautiful language. English is coarse, don’t you agree?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll institute a new rule. English is not permitted aboard the Island Queen.”

The official smiled and said, “I thank you for your generosity and wish you luck, Captain. You’re always welcomed here in the glorious nation of Guarida.”

Manny looked at Jack and nodded. They let out sighs and exchanged a bump of clenched fists. Then after hearing the box being dragged onto the pier, feet shuffling, and farewells, they dislodged themselves from uncomfortable positions within the engine room and stepped up to the deck.

“Close call,” Manny said.

“My people will be in touch,” Jack told Pedro in English. “We’ll have to get out in a few days. At least, I’m hoping things don’t drag on for much more than that.”

“I’ll be waiting on Margarita Island,” Pedro said. “Nueva regla—aquí se habla español.” He let out a raucous laugh.

Then they exchanged abrazos, and the captain turned to attend to his vessel. He ordered his crew to retrieve the bales of marijuana and bricks of cocaine stored in the warehouse.

The contraband was destined for the insatiable American market.

***

Pastel blue, pink, yellow, and tan houses perched on a hill beyond the marina. They reminded Manny of Willemstad’s port in Curaçao, the Dutch island on which he’d vacationed years ago.

Jack pointed to the house with a yellow stucco façade. A widow’s walk rose from near the peak of its orange tile roof.

“That’s one of our safe houses,” Jack said. “We’ve got friends there. Come with me.” He led Manny up a steep cobblestone street toward the colorful place, stopping only once to look back over the cove.

The sea loomed beyond like a never-ending separation from the rest of the world. Mounted on the polished jacaranda front door was a brass facsimile of an anchor. Manny was relieved. He hadn’t anticipated such a pleasant-looking home. Now it seemed he could breathe easier, at least for the moment.

The wooden door opened as soon as they entered through the gate in the front yard. A large heavyset man, must’ve been six-four or five, walked out. He was balding and sported a thick reddish beard. His khaki fishing clothes with hooks and sinkers in the lapels, along with the distinctive odor of recently-caught fish, left no doubt as to his pastime.

“Hello, Jack. Come on in, I’ve been expecting you,” he said, gesturing with his hands to move quickly.

Jack introduced Manny. He said they needed to stay for a day or two. The man welcomed them and led them to a room with two beds.

After settling in, Jack asked Manny how he was doing. Manny replied that he still felt the ground rolling like a deck on a swelling sea. Otherwise, he was ready to see Ray, with whom he’d been in contact via email.

“My friend told me he’d be glad to see me. Couldn’t say much more than that. We’ve got to move fast.”

“You’ll feel the rocking for a while,” Jack said. “Something to do with the inner ear. Then it goes away. He’s not going to tip his hand on email. Don’t worry so much, eh?”

Manny shook his head, looked down, and asked what he thought of the video. Jack commiserated. “Heck of a thing.”

“We’re dealing with a bunch of animals down here. They’re evil incarnate. We need a backup plan.”

“Of course, that’s where my friends come in. But first, let’s see what Ray can do for us, Manny. I’m hoping he’ll be able to help somehow. We’ll see. Now, just try to relax a bit, eh?”

***

The big man with the reddish beard was Moisés Verger Sans. Manny liked his gregarious nature. After dinner, served by Moisés' wife, Sarita, a plump, dark-skinned Guaridan with a winsome personality, they engaged in far-reaching discussions of literature, philosophy, and politics.

“The lower classes,” Moisés said, “are no better off today than the serfs in the Middle Ages. Nothing really changes unless there’s a revolution. We’ve seen fundamental redistribution of wealth in a very few cases—France, Russia, and Cuba. But that’s not what we want here. Not at the cost of tremendous bloodshed. We advocate reform.”

“It’s not an existential question,” Sarita said. “Read your Marx. It all boils down to economic power . . . who controls the resources and all that.”

Manny didn’t want to offend his genial hosts by not participating and found the discussion a good distraction from his more immediate concerns. He said, “I think it’s about politics . . . you know, who controls things. Power.”

Moisés wasn’t a typical fisherman to be sure. He and Sarita were well-read, alluding to works by Melville, Sartre, García Márquez, and Homer. Jack didn’t contribute much to the tertulia until the topic inevitably turned to the political situation in Guarida.

“How long do you think Roldano can hold on?” Jack asked.

“Last week, the Brigade freed prisoners from an entire wing of the Retén,” Moisés replied.

“But Roldano’s got the firepower, no? He has the Security Police and the armed forces behind him, right?”

“Not so clear cut. The odds are becoming more balanced. Half the guards are with la hampa, and some defected, the ones who sympathized with the Brigade. They went along with them into the hills. They’re up there where the Freedom Front used to be. A kind of ironic reversal, isn’t it?”

“We’ve seen this pattern before. The more repressive the government, the more the opposition increases, Jack said. “How many in the Brigade?”

“Hard to say,” Moisés replied. “Popular support for the Brigade grows daily, and they attack the government forces almost at will. One of the rebels has become known as El Picador, like the men who stick swords into bulls to weaken them for the matador. He’s become a folk hero overnight. His reputation for brutality against the army has spread like wildfire. El Picador weakens his victims for the kill, and the Brigade finishes them off before retreating to their encampment.”

“I’ve been up there,” Manny said. “Do you know if a prisoner named Rafael Vidal was able to escape? He’s my cousin.”

“I’m not sure if your cousin was among those liberated by the Brigade.”

“Have you seen the video?”

Moisés shook his head. “Everyone’s seen it, Manny.”

“I have to get him out of the country.”

“I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

“First, we’ve got to locate him,” Jack said.

***

The next morning, Manny and Jack sat at a breakfast table stacked with fried fish, eggs, bread, guayabada, and white cheese. Moisés and Sarita are excellent hosts and sophisticated conversationalists, Manny thought, surprised that a family like theirs, in a small fishing village would be working with Case.

Moisés had been undercover for over twenty years. He spent most of the time fishing. When called upon, he enabled covert operations, usually successfully. “We bungled Operation Empty Nest,” he said. “But as you well know, Manny, Sánchez took the bait you delivered so resourcefully. Our friend here,” he looked at Jack and smiled, “knows what ultimately happened to that ruthless bastard.”

“What did happen, Jack?” Manny asked.

Case thought for a moment. He flipped a cigarette between his lips and smirked. “You won’t be hearing from him anytime soon.”

“You and Sarita must be considered great assets,” Manny said to Moisés.

“As independent operatives,” he winked, “we provide the plausible deniability so often sought by your American politicians.”

“I see,” Manny said. “But what is your interest in all this?”

“Oh, I’m just one of many who’d like to see justice in Guarida. Sarita and I have friends and relatives who’ve been hounded by one regime or another . . . just for speaking freely. And some have disappeared. Now Roldano’s Security Police shoot into crowds. They murder innocent civilians whenever they feel threatened or just to show who’s in control. A couple weeks ago, they killed a student who was protesting, along with his girlfriend and around fifty others outside the Presidential Palace. All they wanted was for the government to unfreeze university funds.”

“The Corrupt Ones have run this country for centuries, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be change. Factions have sprung up everywhere. They demand new leadership, legitimate elections, and reforms. The kind I was talking about last night. Sure, the Americans have their own interests. They want a secure trading partner. We’ve got the oil here. But at least they recognize the human rights abuses.”

“What about the Brigade?”

“They’re full name is the Sánchez Brigade for the Liberation of Guarida, Manny. It’s the old regime attempting to retake power . . . a coup. We can’t let that happen.”

“What’s the alternative?” Manny said.

“Listen, Sarita and I go way back. We met at university. UG’s a unique place, strong tradition of autonomy. Police rarely come on campus. We were involved in all sorts of social causes. We were young and very idealistic, but when we graduated, there didn’t seem to be a place for us in Guaridan society. I’d trained as an historian, and Sarita studied the performing arts. Only jobs available in those days were in computers and oil. So we launched a political party of sorts. Didn’t have much backing, but there were many like us. We wanted governmental reform. That’s all. Well, to make a long story short, they made threats and just about ran us out of the country, so I became a fisherman. That’s when the CIA contacted me.”

“Excuse me, Moisés,” Manny said as he redialed Ray’s number and moved to the other side of the room. He made the connection in a few minutes. Holding his hand over the phone, he said, “Just got through to Ray.”

“That’s good,” Moisés said.

Manny was still speaking to Ray when Case said, “Where and when?”

Manny ended the call and looked first at Moisés, then at Case. “Here’s the deal. Ray wanted it to be at Campo Alegre, but I didn’t think the tennis club would be particularly appropriate, you know. No cover there, and I’d be recognized. So he’s agreed to come out here to the coast. We’re not going to blow any covers, so I told him to meet us at El Faro. He agreed and said he’d keep it quiet. You coming?” Manny felt secure around Case.

“No need for me to be there. You meet with him, see what he can do. And you’ll be with Moisés. I’ll poke around the marina.” Case wanted to minimize his exposure.

“Ray’s a good friend, Jack. We can count on him. He’ll know where Rafael is.”

“Right now, he’s the key, Manny.”

“I know the owner of El Faro quite well,” Moisés said. “His name is Nicolás Mendoza. What should I tell him?”

“Maybe he can close the restaurant for the day?” Jack suggested.

Chapter Four

Señor Mendoza, a retired sailor, was invariably one of the first on the docks when the boats came in with their catch. After selling their bounty, the fishermen’s first stop would be El Faro, their proverbial lighthouse. They ate, drank, and told stories before returning home to their wives and lovers. On that day, however, Mendoza had hung the cerrado sign around the mermaid’s neck on the front door.

Moisés led Manny to the backdoor. He knocked three times and waited.

In a few minutes, Mendoza cracked open the door, peered through, and let them in. “Hola, amigo,” Mendoza said. He gave Moisés an abrazo. “And you must be Manny.” They shook hands. “Can I get you guys a beer?” Mendoza offered.

A large anchor hung behind the bar at El Faro. Crab traps dangled from the ceiling. An old net covered one of the walls, and the place reeked of garlic and fish. Mendoza always had fresh grouper and snapper and red fish, cobia, and bass whenever they were running.

Moisés accepted the beer. He was parched. The drive from his village on the malecón along the seacoast took only an hour. But the heat was fierce in a truck without air conditioning.

“I’ll just have a glass of water or a cup of coffee if you have some made,” Manny said. He wanted to be sharp for the meeting.

The three chatted for a while, mainly about the political situation in Guarida. Mendoza sympathized with the Brigade. The stability of his business in the restaurant depended on a contented populace, not one that lived in fear of the Security Police.

“Roldano’s interested in the oil industry and doesn’t give a shit about the plight of the average person.”

“I understand—” Manny began.

Then three knocks on the front door captured their attention.

Mendoza sprang to his feet and peaked through the peephole embedded in the mermaid’s eye. “Come over here, Manny,” he said.

Manny looked through and instantly said, “It’s Ray. You can let him in.”

Once inside, Ray gave Manny a strong abrazo. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you down here again, my friend,” Ray said. “Dee kicked you out already?”

Manny smiled. Ignoring the gibe, he introduced Ray to Moisés and Nicolás Mendoza. Ray readily accepted a beer, took a few sips, and joked, “You came back for some tennis, eh? Well, I’m ready for you this time.”

They took seats at a small table near the bar.

“You know why I’m here,” Manny said. “You read my emails.”

He felt at ease with Ray. Their mutual respect surpassed serious disagreement on many issues. They’d long ago agreed to disagree about politics. Maybe their tennis rivalry contributed in some way. So despite being the president’s son, Ray could at least understand Manny’s perspective and sympathize with his desire to extricate his cousin from the mess he was in.

“We need to get Rafael out of the damned Retén. Case and I will take him back to the States.”

“Well, there’s a problem, Manny.” Ray paused, looked around the room, and then turned back to face Manny. He gazed into his eyes and said, “Rafael isn’t in jail.”

“What? Where is he? Is he alive?”

“Yesterday, the Brigade liberated prisoners from the maximum-security area. Rafael was in there. Now he’s gone.”

“Do you know what happened to him?” Stark must’ve been briefed about this but couldn’t have warned me if it happened only yesterday, he thought.

“I’m afraid he’s up in the hills . . . with the Brigade.”

Manny was caught off guard, shocked, uncertain as to the meaning of this development. His mind raced. The original plan was to ask Ray to appeal to his father. Now the plan had to be changed. He felt as if the air had been knocked out of his lungs.

“How’s the Brigade treating him? Are they holding him prisoner?” The video flashed in Manny’s mind—the horror of Rafael’s family being murdered before his eyes.

Ray looked at Manny for a prolonged moment. His expression appeared grave, as if he were deciding whether to reveal a dark truth or become the purveyor of bitter news. He looked away, took a deep breath, and spoke slowly. “I don’t know.”

Manny could tell he was hiding something. He knew him too well. Such caution wasn’t typical of his friend.

“Come on, Ray, what is it? Talk to me.”

“You’re my friend, Manny. We go way back. And although I’m with my dad, I decided to try to help you. He’d disown me if he knew.”

“Well?” Manny stared at his tennis buddy. He couldn’t imagine what Ray’s hesitancy was all about, but he knew it must be a serious matter.

Ray looked around the room, then guardedly at Moisés and Mendoza, who he’d just met. He breathed slowly, consciously, looked Manny directly in his eyes, then turned back to the others.


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