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 and glinted off
the barrel of a Simonov carbine locked dead center on his chest.
Four Sandinista soldiers stood 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 General Jorge Poveda’s death
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. 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 mid-thigh.
Manny shifted from shock to self-preservation mode. He raised
his hands, smiled and did what he did best: He lied through his
"Traitor? Amigos. You’ve got the wrong man. I’m
one of you." He nodded toward their uniforms – they
were the same as the one he wore although his reason for wearing
it was much different from theirs. "I am Manolo Ortega. Lieutenant Ortega."
"We know who you are, Contra pig. So does the General. His
American puta, she spread her legs for you, too, eh? And you tell
Pain exploded through his head as the butt of the SKS slammed
into his temple. He fought both nausea the dizzying effect of the
blow as they dragged him from the bed then ordered him to pull
on his pants. Barefoot and shirtless, they shoved him at gunpoint
from his sister’s 3rd floor apartment where he’d
spent the last week with Lily.
The soldier’s words and the truth he’d tried to deny
hit him full in the face as he stumbled down the stairs. He’d
No torture Poveda could inflict now that the general knew Manny
was a spy for the freedom fighters would be as painful.
They could only be talking of Lily Campora of the diamond black
eyes and beautiful smile.
He didn’t want to believe it. And yet … Lily was
gone. As if she had known Poveda’s men were coming for him.
Dios, he was a fool.
And he was a dead man.
His eyes burned with 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 him a traitor? The things Manny
had told Lily in the dark of night, naked and spent, he’d
told no one else. So what other explanation could there be?
He couldn’t 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 the soldiers hauled him roughly to an open jeep then
took off down the pocked pavement.
They’d tied his hands behind his back. The rope cut into
his wrists and already he could feel the loss of circulation in
his fingers. The business end of the SKS was still aimed at his
heart. 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, with a stiletto. And Garcia had
a penchant for using 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 were telegraphs to his thoughts. For that reason, Manny kept
his eyes as blank as white paper. As 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 them take him there.
Miles and maybe an hour went by. The city grew distant. Up ahead
he saw the glimmer of moonlight bounce 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. Silent. Hunched 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, he dislodged the
SKS long enough to sway the barrel up and away from him. The rifle
discharged wildly into the air, the fire flash from the end of
the barrel like mini volcanic eruptions as he stood and leaped
from the moving vehicle.
Manny landed on the cracked pavement with a bone-jarring jolt
then rolled like a square, wooden wheel. His shoulder and hip roared
in pain. 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, threatened to burst. But finally, he surfaced
on a gasping breath. He shook the water from his eyes and for the
first time since Poveda’s men had shattered his sleep and
his illusions about Lily, he found something to smile about. It
was the rainy season, gracias Dios, or he’d more than
likely broken both ankles landing in two feet of water instead
The swift running current had already carried him fifty yards
down river from the bridge. There was no way the soldiers could
spot him in the inky black night.
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 water
logged stump – spinning him out of control. The harder he
fought, the deeper the river took him.
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 Nicaragua a hundred miles down
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,
used them as rudders and rode the river.
With concentrated effort, he let himself be a log instead of fighting
that 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 a float
took most of his concentration.
He didn’t know how long he drifted like that. Long enough
that his strength faded like fabric exposed to the sun. 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 freefalling 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 fight it. Slowly let himself surface and grabbed the
breath he desperately needed. He fought for his life to stay conscious.
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 adrenalin spike
that revived him. The Tipitapa was home to any number of night
stalkers – including bull sharks, the only freshwater sharks
in the world. And if the sharks didn’t get him, there was
a good chance a bushmaster would. He’d never tangled with
the large pit viper but knew that one venomous bite 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. Shoreline.
It was a tree he decided. Branches, not a shark or a snake had
latched onto 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.