The Swamp (Part 25)

Rodriguez lolled his head in a slow rhythm, as if he were listening to some sexy bolero. The blood flowed freely down his chin from what remained of his cheek, which hung down like the open flap of a tent, revealing glistening blue-purple muscle and nerves.

He probably thinks he’s going to die soon, thought Ignacio Rosella as he sat on a stool in the corner and held his nose.

That there would inevitably be an end to the pain was the misguided hope of all who had sat over the years in this same chair, or chairs just like it. But this was not a tattoo parlor or a laser vein removal clinic.

The pain here had no end until Rosella (or El Patron) allowed it to end, and at this particular moment, Rosella was getting physically ill from the stench coming off the prisoner’s body in waves.

At that moment, Rodriguez let loose a long, wheezing fart.

“Oh, man, that is horrible. What the hell did you eat today, cabron?” complained Rosella, waving his cowboy hat in the air.

Rosella thought he was about ready to call it quits for the night. He was tired, but he also knew that he would not leave and he sighed. He was old-school. Sixty-five years old and fit as a fiddle, loyal to the marrow. Too many years in Noriega’s army, first leading troops as a Lieutenant, and then going on to work for the man himself.

He remembered the day he first met El Presidente, General Manuel Noriega. They were standing on the parade grounds, all three hundred fifty of them, waiting in the scorching mid-day sun for the General to come by and, presumably, inspect them, which he did ever three months or so, usually on special occasions.

This particular day was November 4th, Flag Day, he remembered clearly. Most of the young men had never seen the General in person and there was an anticipatory buzz as they awaited his arrival, though usually all he did was drive by quickly in his open top jeep and wave a few times, pose for a few pictures, then leave as quickly as he had arrived.

Young Lieutenant Ignacio Rosella was angry, but would not show it. Noriega had a habit of showing up whenever he felt like it. Damn the soldiers, they could wait in that furnace forever for all he cared. Several of the men were already starting to sway back and forth and the possibility of heat stroke was not out of the question. Rosella made his way up and down the ranks, straightening soldiers with nothing more than a glance or sharp word.

Finally, in the distance, Rosella could see the dust cloud kicking up. The General and his small entourage appeared, driving across the field to the parade ground in two beige military jeeps.

Rosella turned, focusing on a flash of light coming from one of the buildings to his right, just past the parade grounds. He quickly raised the binoculars to his eyes and clearly saw the rifle scope and muzzle sticking out of an open window in one of the field houses, sighting down on the president.

The jeep was about fifty yards away when Rosella started running towards it, shouting at the top of his lungs for the president to get down.

Noriega’s men all huddled around him as the sniper started shooting. One of his elite guards was hit in the shoulder, but Noriega was untouched, shielded under the combined bulk of his two beefiest guards. The driver swerved hard away from the building and began driving in a serpentine fashion, narrowly dodging the rifle shots whizzing past.

Without thinking, Rosella ran straight into the wooden two story building. He took his shoes off, and bolted soundlessly up the stairs. He quickly found the room with the rebel in it.

The prone and surprised sniper turned just in time to see Rosella shoot him twice with his automatic pistol, once in the foot and again in the kneecap. The would-be assassin howled, ditched the rifle and clutched at his shattered leg. With no hesitation, Rosella ran straight up to the sniper and pistol whipped him unconscious.

Rosella stared down at the sniper, no more than a teenager, he thought. The rebels were recruiting them early these days, indoctrinating them to hate their leader and their country. Well, this was one teenager who would not live long enough to become an adult rebel, of that Ignacio was certain.

A few days after the shooting, Rosella was summoned to the Presidential Palace.

He waited in the marbled, opulent lobby for a few minutes, surrounded by two impeccably uniformed and sober faced Republican Guards. He was not sure why they had summoned him, and he was nervous, wondering if he had done something wrong perhaps.

The incident had been reported in the newspapers by the same reporters that were at the parade grounds for the ceremony. His superiors had whisked him away immediately after he shot the sniper and de-briefed him for several hours before turning him loose, but not before ordering him to not speak to any journalists or television people about the incident.

Minutes later the General emerged from one of the offices and walked up to him, leading a pack of reporters with cameras. Noriega, dressed in a khaki uniform bedecked with ribbons and medals, approached and extended his hand. Rosella was surprised at the strength in the little man’s grip.

“Lieutenant Ignacio Rosella. The nation owes you a debt of gratitude for your valiant and heroic service.” With that an aide appeared at his side and handed him a large medallion attached to a dark blue ribbon. He quietly placed it over the shocked Lieutenant’s head and turned to face the cameras, shaking hands with the hero and smiling broadly.

Rodriguez was two inches away from the President and could see all of the acne scars that the man was world famous for. No wonder they called him Cara de Pina, Pineapple Face.

The President whispered so that only Rosella could hear him. “You are coming to work for me personally, Rosella. Say goodbye to the army. I have better use for you here.” He winked conspiratorially.

“Si, Senor Presidente,” answered Rosella, still shaken and nervous.

That was back in 1984, and he worked for him for the next five years until the General was run out of the country by the Americans when they invaded Panama in ‘89.

Now his loyalties were to Don Federico, his patron. He would, of course, serve Don Federico the same as he had the General, fully and unquestioningly. The sense of duty, loyalty, and blind obedience that he carried with him at all times were ingrained into his being. One could no more separate him from his sense of honor than one could reverse the course of a hurricane.

If El Patron wanted this man tortured, then, by God, he would see that it was done right.

to be continued

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