In the first novel in the Kids of The Greatest Generation series, There is a Generation, best friends Tim and Hect pulled a dumb-kid prank and set an abandoned junkyard shack on fire. The stunt went badly awry when they saw what they believed to be a drifter covered in flames in the window of the burning building. Who knew why a hobo or whatever had been inside the dilapidated shanty, maybe sleeping it off. Fearing their stunt would land them a seat on “Sparky,” Huntsville’s death-row electric chair, the two fled into the West Texas desert on their way to Mexico to escape prosecution. At the end of the first narrative, it turned out there was no drifter at all in the hut but a mannequin, or actually one of many dummies dressed in expensive women’s clothes, that had been hidden there by the owner of a dress shop. She had set her business in town on fire for the insurance money and stored her inventory in the shack. None of that being known to the two young fugitives, however, they crossed over the southern border of Texas and eventually got separated in the wilds of Mexico. After several close-calls, Tim managed to make it back home to find out the truth about their mischief, and ended up collecting an award from a grateful insurance company who was saved from paying damages. Hect, meanwhile, disappeared somewhere into the barren Mexican desert on his way to a mysterious destination known only as “The Camp.”
In the next novel in the Kids of The Greatest Generation series, There is a Generation II, Tim, having returned home, for his arson in the junkyard and other misbehavior got banished by his mother and her “advisor” to a fate worse than death, to him at least: he had been registered to begin the fall semester at George S. Patton Military Academy. The private school in central Texas was renowned for its strict discipline and no-nonsense teachers out of the ranks of World War II. Dreading the punishment almost as much as Huntsville’s “Sparky,” and tormented by worry over what became of his poor lost best friend in the backcountry of Mexico, Tim fled his home once again, this time to go find Hect. The two eventually reunite in the Chihuahuan Desert in Northern Mexico at a secret militia training camp facility known as “The Camp,” only Hect no longer resembled his best friend. Instead, the onetime carefree playmate had converted to a true believer of the camp’s rigid doctrine and become a fanatic. The change in personality of his onetime best friend caused no small amount of conflict between the two, but a catastrophe forced them to reconcile. The camp of young recruits, who had been kidnapped from off the streets and out of jails, was attacked and destroyed by Mexican Federales. The two boys managed to escape at the last moment and were smuggled aboard an escaping WWII Russian transport along with some camp bigwigs. Had the boys known where exactly the plane was headed they might have thought twice before scrambling aboard.
Once on the airplane and at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Tim discovered their destination to be Bogotá Colombia, South America, although why he was being taken to such a foreign sounding metropolis and what to expect upon arrival, who knew? However, having been shanghaied into a militia camp system in the first place, and after enduring rigorous training and indoctrination under a psychopathic sadist authority figure, he had become accustomed to the idea of not knowing what catastrophe might arrive next. One thing he did know was that he and Hect had gotten themselves entangled in a worldwide network of shadowy figures whose money and power must be beyond measure. For the time being, they would just have to play along and hope for a miracle that would allow them passage back home.
Chapter 1: Colonel Bonaparte
Elevation 10,000 feet | Airspeed 135 knots | Above Puebla, Mexico | Mid-1950s
The Russian transport—which, when I first heard it called a Lisunov Li-2 in the Mexican desert reminded me of another plane I’d flown on, the TWA Douglas DC-3—dropped, bucked, shuddered, and pitched like at any second we’d come apart in midair. I kept a nervous watch out a square, porthole-sized window into a black, cave-like opening. When lightning flashed, foothill peaks appeared so jagged there would be no chance of ever finding a spot to crash-land. I overheard one passenger describe the snowcapped crag towering above us as the volcano El Popo. Our plane tossed up and down in the storm worse than being in the hands of some deranged juggler. Who cared anymore about going to the city of Bogotá? Nor did I worry about what might await us once we got to Colombia, South America or even how Hect and I would ever get back home. None of that mattered at the moment. I only wanted to get down on the ground in one piece.
Passengers all over the plane were throwing up into flight bags. Although I had so far resisted airsickness, a feeling of queasiness had gripped my stomach, and for the first time, I felt glad I’d not eaten a meal in two days. Nevertheless, a chilled sweat broke out along my hairline, and I became lightheaded and dizzy. To try and take my mind off the sudden drops and abrupt rises, I rested my head on the seat cushion, closed my eyes, breathed deep, and wondered how Hect and I had had the incredibly bad fortune to end up in such a fix—all because of one thoughtless decision of whether to turn right or left.
If only we’d had a chance to consider which way to go! Instead, in our panic to escape the madman Acey Elu who, at the time, had been shooting his pistol at us, we’d unthinkingly turned right toward camp, not left, back toward Juarez. With
there being no way to U-turn without giving him a clear shot at us, we’d kept driving. Otherwise, we might very well be on our way back home to West Texas instead of to Bogotá. But that was not the worst of it. The Mexican Federales had picked up our trail and followed us back to the training camp, which they’d promptly attacked and destroyed, slaughtering or capturing all the recruits. The thought of so many bullet-ridden young bodies sent a chill down my spine. Hect and I would’ve been among them had Ju not thrown himself into our Dodge wagon amid all the gunfire and directed us to the Russian transport as it was taking off from its camouflaged hanger. At least one thing had worked in our favor—so far none of the passengers on the flight had any idea that Hect and I had brought about the camp’s destruction. If they’d had a suspicion then he and I would have no doubt been escorted to the exit and shoved out minus any parachutes—not that they’d do any good in these mountains.
At the thought of my friend, I turned and craned my neck to look over the seat back. Hect lay curled up and asleep on a half sofa, a bandage wrapped around his head. Luckily, the bullet he’d taken back at the camp only grazed him. The two men on either side of him, who had helped pull us aboard the plane while it taxied down the runway, had medic training, fortunately. Other than his head wound, I envied Hect being knocked out during this bucking-bronco plane ride.
Relieved by the sight of my friend, I turned back around and, preparing for the inevitable, took a barf bag out from a pocket under my seat. With all the retching sounds throughout the plane, and especially the smells, I couldn’t hold out much longer. Adding to my misery, I felt dirty from jumping out of the transport and rolling in the desert on my way to rescue Hect. Slivers of stickers embedded in my skin from tumbling among cactus still pricked me. Tomorrow, I had a feeling, the aches and pains would really kick in.
A cold, clammy sweat broke out on my face as I felt whatever contents in my stomach rising. Just as I thought, “Here goes,” we flew out of the storm, and the plane leveled off. I sank back in my seat while wiping sweat off my face, thinking, “Saved by the bell.”
How the turbaned fellow seated next to me had slept through all that, I had no idea. He may have made this trip so many times that he was used to the roller coaster ride. His goateed assistant across from me, who earlier bored me to death with his boasting, now fixed me with such an unwavering stare that I squirmed inside. From his squinty eyes, he suspected I was not really high up in security, like I’d let him believe. Who knew how much longer he’d be too cowed by the prospect to openly confront me. I frantically wished for an excuse to trade seats with one of the men beside Hect.
At that moment our plane began a descent, thankfully. Once we landed, I’d never been so glad to feel the sensation of motion stop. It felt like I had come to rest on a soft sandy beach after tumbling down a terraced cliff. Ju—or rather Commander, I should say—came back from the cockpit and told me we were refueling and that this would be our one chance to get out and stretch. I woke Hect up and helped him to the door and down the rollaway stairs. The more he walked the steadier on his feet he got, though he complained of a headache with every step. Breathing the fresh air and moving around seemed to do him good.
I purposely boarded early, dragging Hect along so we could sit together. Not only did I want to escape my two previous passengers, but I also couldn’t wait to tell him everything I’d learned on the first leg of our journey about Bogotá and the organization he and I had been shanghaied into.
Once we got settled on the half sofa at the back of the plane, it felt unbelievably good to be next to my best friend and away from the strangers. Before the other passengers boarded, I hurriedly explained to Hect what I learned on the first leg of our flight—how we were on the way to Bogotá, which was the headquarters of whatever organization had shanghaied us in the Mexican desert, and how that Hect and I were smack-dab in the middle of a conspiracy. Powerful, behind-the-scenes forces intended to remake the West, including Europe and America, and from what I could gather, not for the better.
Once everyone got back on board—the medic-trained guys took my seat and the empty one across from me—the Russian transport took off. After reaching cruising altitude, cups of thick soup were passed around, along with a basketful of tortillas. By the time the menudo, as someone called it, got to us, a layer of grease had hardened on top. The picked-over tortillas were reduced to broken chips at the bottom. There was one good thing, though—after the outbreak of airsickness, Hect and I had all we wanted. The menudo tasted spicy, and it had an oily texture. Regarding the chunks at the bottom of the bowl, judging by the way the mushy meat slipped around my teeth, I didn’t want to know which part of the animal they came from, but my hunger overcame any qualms.
With a full stomach and the turbulence over, I fell asleep against Hect, awakening only briefly at our next fuel stop in Honduras. Who cared about stretching again? From there on, I didn’t open my eyes until our final descent toward Bogotá. A newly risen sun peeked between mountain peaks. The spread of scattered lights below us indicated the approaching city was no tiny burg.
The commander came back and motioned me toward the cockpit. His reason for trading seats at this late date was anybody’s guess, but he nevertheless took my place next to Hect, while I hurried up the aisle and squeezed into the copilot’s seat. Surrounded by gauges, dials, and colored lights, I took one look out the front window, and all interest in the instrument panel vanished. We flew above a broad, rushing river in a valley between two mountains, and so low we could have been a flat rock skipping along. There were sandbanks on either side, heavy brush after that, white-capped rapids below, and not a landing strip in sight. I clutched the arms of the seat for dear life. My legs straightened, locking my knees, until I was all but standing on the floorboard as I braced for the plunge into what had to be ice cold waters off melted snow. So this was the commander’s reason for switching seats—so I’d take the brunt of the crash, while he sat in safety next to the rear exit.
The plane’s wings tilted slightly, the lower wingtip almost touching water, angling for the base of a mountain rising next to the river. I thought our better chance would be the water, but no one asked. At the last second, a narrow strip of grass opened up in the brush; it looked as wide and long as the five-par fairway back home I’d used as a shortcut to downtown. My breath, which I’d been holding ever since taking the copilot’s seat, came out in a rush. I cursed the commander and that unfunny sense of humor of his. Would his practical jokes never end?
We touched down, bounced twice, and slowed as the plane angled toward a line of cars parked bumper to bumper. I looked at the pilot for the first time. A bearded, sea captain type whose thick whiskers couldn’t hide a wide grin, he no doubt enjoyed what must have been my stricken expression. At least I hadn’t cried out, which Ju would have relished hearing in back of the plane no doubt, but it was only because I’d been holding my breath. This was the second time I’d ever been this glad to have a plane ride over with.
I walked back to Hect on shaky knees. The commander wore that ever-present rascally grin of his. “Enjoy the landing, laddie?” he asked with a smug smirk.
I shrugged, not wanting to give him the satisfaction, but judging by his chuckle, he didn’t buy it. Between the two of us, we got Hect to the opened hatch.
Down below, two men wore horse blankets with slits for their heads—at least, that’s how the garments appeared to me. Later, I found out that most everyone wore ponchos in this part of the world. A stair ramp had been rolled to the plane and beyond that, a line of black cars had the doors open. The commander, after a wink and a wave, went toward the front of the caravan, while the men in horse blankets guided Hect and me to the last car, which couldn’t have looked more peculiar. The body of the car had been lowered so close to the ground that I seriously doubted any object taller than a can could pass underneath. Only why? Was the car that heavy or had the springs collapsed? Our guards wore grim, just-try-something faces.
The body style of the car we were ushered to reminded me of the ’48 Chevy that had picked up me and Hect in the desert back in West Texas after we set the shack on fire, except that this one had no chrome on the outside. As plain Jane a ride as ever I’d seen, the single decoration was an emblem on the hood that formed the word “Pobeda,” whatever that meant. Once I got inside, though, the change could not have been more dramatic. The steering wheel had pink sheepskin around it. Along the top edge of the windshield, there hung colored bobbles and tassels, and the dashboard had been covered in green shag carpet. From the rearview mirror hung strings of beads and a heart on a ribbon with a framed picture of an unsmiling girl.
None of that compared to what came next. Our driver not only had to sit on a cushion to get his head above the steering wheel, but he couldn’t be anywhere near the age to own a driver’s license. His thick black hair was swept back on the sides into oily ducktails, with spit curls in the center of his forehead and in front of both ears. A few black whiskers at the corners of his upper lip, rather than making him appear older, if that had been his intent, made him look like he’d just taken a swig of chocolate milk. Judging by his eager expression and the way he kept twisting his hands on the fuzzy steering wheel while revving the motor over and over, he couldn’t wait to get underway.
Hect and the taller guard squeezed into the back seat of the car’s cramped interior, while I got squashed between the driver and the other guard. My feet straddled the transmission hump with a curved shifting lever that looked recently installed in between my knees. Somebody had sawed the lever off the steering column, leaving an ugly nub, and cut a gaping hole in the floorboard. This type of floor-shift lever with a cue ball grip was all the rage among the drag racing crowd back home, but it surprised me to see one here.
“You likee hot rod, man?” the young driver asked me, his brown eyes gleaming as he jiggled the curved-steel shifter back and forth, while fondling the cue ball grip. “Ees cool, man, eh? Lowrider, you dig?”
Surprised by his English, such as it was, I couldn’t be sure I understood him completely. “‘Lowrider?’”
“Si, si. Very cool, no? Chopped springs, souped-up motor, stick shift, jazzed inside. I Pachuco. From Juarez. Smooth ride, eh? Only Russki car een Bogotá.”
I began to understand. “A Russian car, you say.” Sensing an opportunity to engage him, I wondered if he might be helpful later on. “And it’s called a ‘lowrider,’ yes, I see, very, um, cool. Very cool.”
“The latest, man,” he crowed. “Zoot suits, lowrider, pachuco, you dig?”
“Oh, sure, I, um, dig.” Unless I missed my guess, a relationship had started to develop and I determined to do what I could to encourage it. “It’s just that, I’m surprised to find anything so, well, American all the way down here?”
“I boy in Juarez. Go to school over border in El Paso. Watch ’mericun movies.”
“Oh, Juarez. Yes, yes, I’ve been there.”
“Mi mama come here to her brother. He mayor. He give me car so I no stay in casa. I soup up. Muy cool, eh?”
“Oh, yes, er, cool.” Now, I got it. Despite his age, he’d been given the Russian car, evidently a Pobeda, which he turned into his own version of a hot rod, or “lowrider”, as he termed it. Evidently, he’d gotten his ideas from the movies in El Paso, but who was this kid besides the mayor’s nephew, and what did he want from me—other than approval? Since he’d singled me out, this might be my one chance to develop a common interest that could end up beneficial, and I’d better take advantage.
“Muy cool, man,” the driver continued. “Like ’mericun, only mas rapido, dig? No lowrider matches dees one. Nothing ‘mericun comes close; mine tops.”
What I needed was some way to keep the conversation going, to egg him on, so to speak, but how? That I could tell only two subjects interested him: himself and cars. In that case, my one hope to spur things on was to express a contrary opinion, but I’d have to be careful. Such an approach could have a reverse effect. Anyway, it was worth a try, so I shrugged, made a face, and rolled my eyes. Sure enough, he flinched.
“No?” he asked, giving me the eagle eye. “Pobeda make me numero uno hombre around here. I big pachuco, you must see dees?”
I smiled one-sided in a humoring sort of way.
“You no thinkee so? Oh, you bad mistaken. You no hip at all. I think you hip cat at first, but I wrong. You know nothing, man, that’s what. Nothing!”
I pretended to yawn, not wanting to push things too far. After all, I was a foreigner in this country and unused to the customs. It’d be easy to overstep my bounds and end up on his bad side.
“You still no thinkee so, eh?” The driver squared his shoulders. “Dees car muy mas rapido than ‘mericun. Zoom-zoom, man, you bet’cha.”
Despite worrying that I might have gone overboard already, I couldn’t very well change now. Besides, baiting him had at least kept us talking. This time I went further than I had so far and actually scoffed out loud.
“Ayii!” he gasped, releasing the steering wheel to smooth his ducktails back agitatedly and adjust the spit curls in front of his ears. “I see! You say gringo cars fastest? Oh, what you know? Dees motor mucho robusto, you see, you see.”
Our caravan started to move as we drove out of the makeshift airport, leaving the grass runway behind. A partially paved road followed the river, although potholes jarred our springless “lowrider” like one fender bender after another. The driver, not content with his place in line, lagged the Russian car back until almost out of sight of the two ahead; then tromped the pedal, snapping back our heads, and sped up until we nearly touched the next bumper. Over and over, he’d drop behind and repeat the same maneuver. On corners, he’d slow down until a sizable gap developed and then shove the accelerator to the floorboard, spinning the tires and fishtailing. If our winding mountain road, with its hairpin curves and no guard rails, wasn’t dangerous enough, the hotrod wannabe had one hand on the steering wheel, while the other patted the dashboard in time to blaring Spanish music over the radio. By now slightly carsick, I avoided looking over the steep drop-off to what had become a silver thread of a river below.
As the sun cleared the tops of the mountain peaks, we passed houses, every one of which reminded me of the tiny farms I witnessed outside Juarez, Mexico. Little could I have known at the time that those scruffy dust farms would actually be considered upper middle class compared with what was to come around the next bend.
Once we reached the outskirts of Bogotá, an unbroken honeycomb of shanties climbed the foothills that fronted a mountain. Because of the steep incline, the huts appeared stacked on top of one another in a fragile, house-of-cards formation. Since no roads, sidewalks, or alleys separated the shanties, how someone got from the top to the bottom other than going through the back and front doors of the next level, was a mystery. From the looks of the huts, if the top layer collapsed, a major lean-to avalanche would result.
Ahead traffic blocked the road. Men and women, all dressed alike in ponchos and fedoras, pushed handcarts overloaded with coffee bean sacks, caged chickens, banana bunches, and a curious fruit the size of an orange but with knobby, warty skins. Everyone headed the same direction, probably to an open-air market. The sight of fresh food reminded me how long ago it had been since my last sit-down meal. The next time I got the chance to have a family dinner, if I ever again got so lucky, there’d be no complaints this time about finishing my vegetables.
Our caravan of cars stopped. Up ahead a horse-drawn trolley had a broken axle. Peons stood around and visited, blocking anyone from passing. The stranded passengers acted not the least bit inconvenienced, as if this happened so often that they may as well take the opportunity to socialize. A man pushed a two-wheeled cart beside us and yelled the same slogan over and over: “Quieres botellas frescas? Quieres botellas frescas?”
That shouted phrase became my first memorized Spanish expression, which, judging by his cartful of empty glass jars, meant, “Who wants a fresh bottle?” or something close. How anyone earned a living selling an item that we Americans throw away with hardly a thought was beyond me. The sight reminded me of an incident involving another bottle that never entirely left my mind—the gasoline-filled Molotov cocktail that Hect and I threw at the shack in the abandoned junkyard so long ago, and which began all our troubles. How could one senseless, careless, stupid act so ruin two lives?
Our juvenile driver gunned the engine over and over and blew the horn at the traffic jam, all to no effect. Not one of the milling trolley passengers even bothered to turn around. The gossiping gathering paid our honking no more mind than if they thought it just another normal part of life.
Once we’d inched our way past the congestion and arrived downtown, Bogotá reminded me of most big cities, except for the Spanish architecture and trolley tracks with electric cables overhead dividing the main streets. Otherwise, four lanes of traffic crawled as slowly as ever, while people milled two and three deep on the sidewalks. When directed by a safari-helmeted cop in an intersection, they herded uniformly across the streets.
We parked in front of a four-story building. Its architecture looked the same as the other structures around it, only more rundown. Slabs of stucco exterior had fallen off in places, exposing board slats underneath. On closer examination, though, the place took on a sinister feel. The windows and doors had iron cages, which were not unlike other businesses downtown, except for the fact that the barred windows went all the way to the fourth floor. That could only mean one thing: instead of wanting to prevent robbers from breaking in like the rest of the buildings, these bars were in place to keep occupants inside. But why? Only one reason I could think of—either the place was a jail, or worse, a prison?
Once inside the heavy iron door, the quiet was so eerie that I limped on one foot to prevent a pebble embedded in my shoe heel from clicking on the rock floor. After climbing a flight of stairs, we entered a room bare of furniture, other than a desk and three chairs, two in front and a padded one behind. A picture on the wall showed a stern-faced man whose gold-crested collar rose from star-studded shoulder boards to his ears. The man in the picture glared down with a burrowing stare that all but sapped my strength. Where were we, anyway? Actually, I’d seen similar setups in war movies. The only thing lacking to complete the interrogation room scene was a naked lightbulb on a wire hanging above the desk. And who would show up next—a burr-headed brute with a water hose or an electric cow prod? My knees shook so I could barely stand.
Our guards indicated Hect and I occupy the two straight-backed chairs, then left. We’d hardly a chance to catch our breath when the door reopened. Back on our feet in an instant, we both stood ramrod straight. A uniformed form passed by at the edge of my vision, walking a brisk stride. Once behind the desk, the sight of the figure before me caused such a flood of relief that I had to fight back the tears. Here I’d been bracing for an interrogator of no telling what sort of cruel temperament, but instead it was as if being granted a last-second reprieve. Not a twisted, sadistic bully at all, but a female! And judging by her stunning good looks, the situation had suddenly improved beyond our wildest dreams. A woman, especially one so beautiful, was an altogether different matter. A few well-timed compliments, a flattering comment or two, and Hect and my chances were bound to improve. Somewhere buried deep behind that gorgeous face there hid a soft heart, I felt sure. After pausing and shuffling some papers, the unsmiling officer cleared a long, elegant throat and looked up, her stare like darts piercing my heart.
“You shall proclaim me by name Colonel Bonaparte,” she began in a clipped, stilted accent. Not all that much older than Hect and me, her short dark hair swept back on the sides. She had an oval face with full lips and, most striking of all, eyebrows angled as sharp as wings above hazel eyes. Since everyone else around here had brown eyes, the greenish-gold flecks in hers set them off like bird eggs. In different circumstances, I would have fallen head over heels, regardless of any age difference, but as things stood, all that occupied me was to somehow win her favor.
“My function shall be an interview,” she continued, grasping her uniform jacket at the bottom and popping the fabric tight, which, whether purposely or not, highlighted all the ribbons and medals fastened to the fabric. Even the coarse, baggy uniform could not hide an hourglass figure. Grasping the cuff of one sleeve, she gave a quick polish to a star among her many medallions. “I am honored to hold the title Minister of Security, a most imperious position, you must see this before you.”
As far as I could tell, things just kept getting better and better. Because of her disjointed English, she might be vulnerable to a little subtle trickery, if it became necessary. Still, I had difficulty focusing, not only because of her English, such as it was, but because her mannerisms were equally distracting. She spoke mostly with her hands, and her long, nimble fingers kept up a constant motion, spinning a sort of trancelike web between us.
“I must inform you to be your fate,” the female officer went on. “You shall be captives of mine. It has been reported that your highly unwise actions brought on the attack of which has destroyed one of our camps in Mexico. This brings to us much unwelcome publicity. Our organization has been exposed to worldwide media, and our works are become noticed. You must answer with promptness to all my questions. Any dishonesty shall be known by my enormous mind. This shall cause to you most harsh punishment that you shall find small pleasure in, am I warning you of this.”
Because of her clumsy English, I was uncertain when the proper time would be to speak. Too soon would mean interrupting her, but too late might be taken as rude. To make a good first impression was nothing short of crucial. Above all, my first priority had to be to win her over and somehow establish a relationship.
“I see by your faces you detect my English to be of a highly admirable state, this is to be the truth, you must agree.”
Unsure if she meant it as a question, an observation, or a command, I nodded in an attempt to cover all three options. Hect did as well.
“I excel extremely at your language, this you must observe. I am awarded many degrees, also earning the momentous Doctorate of English from American mail-order university. I pay high prices to earn this award. They have proclaimed me magna cum laude.”
I didn’t speak my mind, of course, but I thought, “Mail order, that figures.”
She expanded on her accomplishments. Hect and I encouraged her with soft hums and by glancing at each other with raised eyebrows. Who cared if we understood barely half of what she said? As long as she talked about herself she ignored us. Actually, the longer she went on, the better I began to understand. Her wording wasn’t all that bad. The problem lay mostly with her sentence construction. She’d memorized the words well enough, but as far as learning how to string them together, somehow she’d done a Rip Van Winkle. Either that, or else those classes got lost in the mail. Who knew?
“My conclusion being,” she continued, spinning those long fingers, “is that because of my possessing such learning of magnificent superiority, it is of no purpose that you reveal my ignorance.”
I kept a straight face, barely. Without knowing it, she just stated the exact opposite of what she’d meant. Judging by her serious expression, she had not a clue. “With no amount of effort on your part, you shall deceive my intelligence.”
There! She’d done it again. That was twice in a matter of a few sentences. I began to wonder if this woman was the brainshe took herself to be? Because of it, an idea began forming in the back of my mind.
“You!” she cried, her flashing eyes fastening on me. “Yes, you! Now, you shall speak for the change.”
Her paralyzing stare with those greenish-gold-flecked eyes drove all thought from my mind. I could think of not one response.
“Speak, I tell you! This instant!” She snapped her fingers. “I perceive by my gigantic mind that you have opinions at this moment. Tell me your thoughts. Quick, quick! Speak now!”
Nothing! My mind was a blank. All except for my mother’s repeated training on manners—compliment a woman and ask a man about his work. “W-Well,” I stumbled. “That is, um, your hair. It, well, looks nice…, ma’am.”
Her abrupt change of expression caused doubts to creep in, but I had nothing else, so I pushed ahead regardless. “Or, I mean to say, your hairdo. It, well, it makes, um, you look younger.”
No etiquette expert had to tell me my intro had flopped, but instead of backpedaling, I pressed on anyway. “Your hairstyle, I mean. Or its cut. That is, it’s very, well, fashionable, I guess you could, er—
Something in the way those wing-like eyebrows crumpled into a frown stopped me. Slowly, almost absent-mindedly, the woman lifted a hand and felt the cropped ends of her hair; then she quickly let go and stiffened. “Attencion!”
Hect and I stiffened, but as we already stood at attention, this meant that we both bowed in back-dive postures.
Colonel Bonaparte came around the desk, standing so close that her nose ended up inches from my chin. A soapy, clean smell enveloped me that was mildly intoxicating. “What is this trivial thing you say with such idiocy?”
From the bottoms of my eyes, I saw two golden-flecked pupils staring up, her winged eyebrows knitted tight together. “Well, that is, um…”
“Have you belief a soldier’s hair has importance? Answer now!”
“Er, no. My mistake. I apolog—
“Wrong!” Her eyebrows lifted as the wings took flight, or seemed to. “Hair has importance—to be combed neat, to be kept trim, to be within regulation—never fashionable.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I lost my head.”
Her minty breath hit my face in a puff. “More triviality! What is ‘lost the head’?”
Since all my attempts so far had only made matters worse, I kept quiet.
“Speak! You have lost, what is this—a head? What meaning has this? A jest, dare you say? Insolence? Answer now!”
“Oh, no!’ I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper. “I’d never do that! It was a figure of speech—from America. ‘I lost my head.’ It means to forget oneself or, in this case, to speak without first thinking.”
She stepped back and sat on the edge of her desk. Unless I misjudged, something had caught her off balance, but what? Had I gone too far? Would I never avoid making such stupid missteps? Instead of forming a bond with the woman, like I’d hoped, everything out of my mouth so far had accomplished the opposite.
“American figure of speech—is this what you tell to me?” Her face relaxed, restoring her prior beauty.
I dared to lower my eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”
“By my enormous mind, I have understanding of this. Slang! Am I accurate?”
“That’s it,” I added. “Slang. I’m afraid I use it far too much.”
“Yes, yes.” She appeared thoughtful. “Only the curriculum from the mail-order university has no instruction in this slang.” She put a finger to a puffy bottom lip, denting it invitingly. “And yet, if one day I shall visit your America, hmm…” Her voice trailed off.
I had an odd sensation that something important had happened, but what?
She waggled a long finger in the air, still appearing self-absorbed. “Even if I shall speak your language with expertness and have so many university degrees and am proclaimed the honorable doctorate of English, yet if I am ignorant of slang, I am to American citizens a foreigner, no? Aha, so then!” she exclaimed, returning her attention to me. “You shall instruct me in this slang.” She pushed away from the desk and, once again, moved uncomfortably close. “‘To lose the head’ means to speak with little thought. Yes, yes, more slang. Teach now!”
Of all the bum luck, my mind went blank again. Here, I’d happened upon a golden opportunity and I could not think of even one fresh figure of speech. “L-let me see,” I stammered, hoping for an inspiration. “Um, I’m thinking, I’m thinking. Maybe I can come up with something offhand.”
“Offhand!” she gasped. “What is this term you have spoken? Say to me more of this ‘offhand.’”
“Oh, sure—without much effort, easily.” Relieved, I breathed a sigh at having stumbled upon one so readily. It struck me that my everyday speech must be chock-full of them. As if to confirm this, another came to mind. “I know! ‘By the skin of my teeth.’Thatmeans a narrow escape.”
The woman cupped her chin in hand. “What sense has this? Teeth with skin? Enamel, yes, tartar, yes, skin, no.”
“I never thought of that before. I guess some expressions don’t bear close examination.”
After that, the figures of speech came fast and furious. Hect even added some West Texas countrified sayings that even I hadn’t heard before. However many she remembered—who cared? More importantly, a relationship between the three of us had begun.
Just as things seemed to be going along so well, a rooster crowed outside the building, and the colonel sprang upright in her chair and grasped a desk clock. Her front teeth caught the edge of a plump bottom lip, pinching it briefly. “Our time is extinguished, and my purpose I have neglected.” She sounded as if she were scolding herself as much as her two captives. “I must proceed with all haste. Be informed, your acts of small wisdom have greatly damaged our organization. Your careless Mexico travels resulted in our enemy destroying an important camp. Media worldwide shall broadcast our existence that we have for many years concealed. We must counter this most rapidly. To begin, all Latin countries will soon hear our version of what happened first before the worldwide media does.”
“Beat them to the punch,” I added, not about to pass up the chance for another figure of speech. Once I had begun, the expressions came nonstop.
The colonel betrayed a quick smile. “Yes, yes, as you say, ‘beat them to the punch.’ Very excellent! And it shall be the honor of you both to be our ‘punches.’ A right and then a left—oh, well said, well said by me. Your confessions will be broadcast on radios from Mexico to Argentina and from Chile to Brazil, even as far as Spanish stations in your Southern United States. Newspapers shall print also.”
“Us!” I could only hope I misheard. “You mean, us? Our confessions?”
“This excites you. I can see this by my great wisdom.”
It was the exact opposite, actually, but I couldn’t show it. “You mean it’s your plan we make these confessions publicly—over the radio?”
“This shall result in fame for you. In time, even in the United States they shall hear of you. You have pride in this, am I not correct?”
Far from it. In fact, I couldn’t think of anything worse, but what other choice was there but to play along? “Oh, well, sure. Who, um, wouldn’t be?”
“Very acceptable. Our own minister of information is even now connecting with major stations throughout Central and South America. Such a sensation shall result! We shall blame the United States, of course. In your confessions, you must admit the camp was CIA, and you two spies are our proof. Before this week has been completed, no place shall not become familiar with your names, along with photographs.”
I reeled inside. Hect and I would become famous, all right—famous traitors, famous liars, famous Benedict Arnolds. We might even lose our citizenship and never be able to return home.
“You are pleased by my plan, I can see this by my keen insight,” she said, misreading me completely. “And yet, perhaps some anxiety, but do not fear. Even though the audience will be so vast, you shall first prepare written statements to read aloud. Here now, observe my abundant genius.” Her innocent face shined beautifully. “Insert slang into your speeches. This shall give your words realism. You must appear to speak offhead.”
After an awkward pause, it hit me. She had gotten the terms “offhand” and “out of your head” mixed up. Despite her knockout good looks, her military rank at so young an age, and her educating herself in English, I had the feeling the woman’s conceit made her a pushover. She seemed almost begging to have the wool pulled over her eyes. Because of it, the idea that came to mind earlier now seemed to have more possibilities than ever.