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HIS VOICE WAS HER HEARTBEAT
Malnutrition, cruelty, and blazing heat were the unbearable realities of the South American prison. All that stood between newscaster M.J. Blake and the madness of despair was a stranger’s voice.
As the days turned into weeks, the unseen reporter in the adjoining cell gave M.J. courage when she needed it, replaced her apathy with anger, and even made her laugh. They shared whispered memories, hopes, secrets, regrets…
Eighteen months after winning her freedom, M.J. was pretending that her life, her work, and her psyche weren’t ravaged by a season in the darkest corner of hell. And then M.J. heard the voice…
Tuesday, September 15, 11:36 a.m.
“Get your paws off me, you big ape! I’ll have you know I’m an American citizen and a journalist. When this gets out you’re going to be in a lot of trouble!”
The woman’s loud protests rudely invaded Jake’s semi¬conscious state. He groaned and rolled onto his back, which he realized was a big mistake when his tender skin touched the rocky floor. “Hey, turn down the TV, will ya?” he begged under his breath. “Or do I have to call the man¬ager?”
He edged closer to the right wall, listening to the stri¬dent sounds of the guard he affectionately called King Kong. He had to give the woman credit. She was able to loudly inform the guard of his dubious genealogy in flaw¬less Spanish. She also mentioned how he could spend his time for the next hundred years and what he could do to himself during that time.
Funny, Jake had never thought that the position she’d mentioned was physically possible. “She must know something I don’t,” he muttered, closing his eyes against the fiery pain that raced through his body. He lay there lis-tening as the adjoining cell door slammed shut and the guard’s heavyset footsteps gradually disappeared. Now all he could hear was soft curses mingled with what sounded suspiciously like tears. “Hey,” he spoke up, wincing when the barely healed cut on his lower lip opened. “You okay?”
Silence was heavy for a moment. “Who are you?” Her voice was muffled from crying.
“Just another valued guest of the country,” he said wryly. “You know, when I checked in at this resort, I asked for a suite, but all they had available was this single. I sure hope you had better luck with your accommodations. By the way, welcome to South America’s version of Alcatraz.”
“They’re not going to get away with treating me like a common criminal,” she announced, defiance strong in her voice.
Jake smiled, picturing a feisty woman to go with the voice. He only hoped she could handle what went on in this hellhole. “Yeah, I couldn’t help hearing your little tirade. You’re an American and a journalist. Honey, they don’t give a damn who you are. Right now, we’re considered enemies of the country’s esteemed leader, Luis Mendoza. And the best place for a dictator’s enemy is the local prison.”
“How long have you been here?” Her voice sounded closer. Apparently, she’d figured out which wall he was behind and seated herself near it.
He calculated in his head. “What day is it?”
“Tuesday the fifteenth.”
“Do you have a name?”
“That’s a name? Oh, I get it. You’re a secret agent who only goes by a number. I guess you don’t have a license to kill with a number like that.”
He smiled. She had a sense of humor along with a tem¬per. Good, she was going to need it here. “In old prison movies, most prisoners went by numbers, so I figured I should, too. To be part of the gang, you understand. If you want to be more formal, the name’s Jake Palmer.”
“I’ve heard about you. You’re with News View maga¬zine.”
“Guilty as charged.”
“I guess numbers are easier to dispose of than names.” She sounded resigned to her possible fate. “All right, then I guess I’ll be 1180, a.k.a. M. J. Blake. Don’t bother ask¬ing what M.J. stands for, because it’s a trade secret. By the way, where did you happen to come up with that particu¬lar number?”
“I figured it was the year this dungeon was built. You’re a reporter with one of the big television networks, aren’t you? I’ve heard your name. I’m afraid I don’t watch all that much TV and your network doesn’t reach my part of the world.”
“That’s right. I pushed hard for this assignment. I re¬minded my boss I could speak Spanish fluently and that I’d researched Mendoza and his politics. I’d been here for all of six days when his henchmen arrested me. I’m accused of being an enemy of the government.” Her voice wobbled. “My boss is going to be furious at me, and my fiancé is going to kill me.” She ended on a note of black humor. “He didn’t want me to come down here and he’s going to enjoy saying ‘I told you so.'”
“Hey, it’s not so bad here.” Jake tried to cheer her up. “One inedible meal a day, nonexistent plumbing and goons at your beck and call. We’ve got more than the comforts of home.”
“How about you? Where are you based now?” she asked.
“For the last eight years, Sydney. Before that, New York.” He explained, “After eight years of hearing Aus¬sie, you tend to pick up the accent.” He shifted his posi¬tion, unable to hold back a pain-filled groan.
“Are you all right?” Concern touched her voice, then sharpened. “They tortured you, didn’t they?”
He closed his eyes, willing the pain to disappear. “Let’s call it a meeting of the minds. They’re a little paranoid around here. You see, they’re convinced we’re all mem¬bers of the CIA out to slow up the country. Look, sweet¬heart, do yourself a favor and go easy on King Kong. He may look dumb, but he has a mean backhand. That you’re a woman wouldn’t bother him a bit. In fact, he likes to play rough and will use any excuse he can get. Don’t give him a reason to get angry with you.”
“No problem there—How can we hear each other if these are stone?”
“The stone is really porous. Somehow, that doesn’t di¬minish its strength. I’d only heard rumors about this place. That was before I was one of the lucky ones to see it from the inside. It was once used strictly for political prisoners and so it has state-of-the-art interrogation rooms and turn-of-the-century cells.” His voice began to fade with weari¬ness.
He heard her sigh, reluctant to lose her only human con¬tact. She was probably afraid she’d never hear from him again. “Okay. I, ah, I guess I should let you rest,” she said finally. He knew she didn’t want to be left alone in her cell, which belonged in a horror movie.
Jake would have smiled if the action didn’t hurt so much. She sounded so forlorn. “Don’t worry, 1180, a.k.a. M.J., I’ll still be here. Just take it easy. We’ll be out of here soon.”
“Yeah, I’m sure the Count of Monte Cristo thought the same thing.”
M.J. felt the heavy silence surround her like a suffo¬cating blanket. It was definitely more than the humid air that made it difficult for her to breathe. She had been in tight situations during her years of international news re-porting, but nothing had prepared her for this.
In her last sane memory, she had been finishing her breakfast. Several members of Mendoza’s personal guard had approached her and two other journalists. The guards insisted the three journalists were enemies of the state and said they would have to be detained. As their passports were confiscated, one of the journalists arrested fought with a guard. A gun suddenly appeared and went off. There were no more arguments.
M.J. and the remaining male journalist were trans¬ported to the city prison, just outside the city limits. The prison was a T-shaped stone building with a tall, stone wall surrounding it. They didn’t need to see the deadly machine guns of the guards in the towers and at the gate to know this was not a game. Barred doors had clanged heavily, slam¬ming behind them, as they were curtly escorted to their cells. The sound rang in M.J.’s ears, as did the sounds of men moaning in pain. Others begged for mercy and even worse, some guards laughed at the impassioned pleas. She thought of the film Midnight Express. Whether in Turkey or South America, this kind of prison brought grim thoughts to mind. Death was an easy commodity. Her own guard, who she decided closely resembled a lowland go¬rilla, merely leered when he pushed her roughly into the dank cell. The small space gave off smells she didn’t even dare identify.
Death during a war wasn’t pretty, but it was a fact. Cold¬blooded murder was even more senseless to M.J. For that reason, she had fought with her captors when she was first arrested. Then she saw what happened to those who resisted. She didn’t put up any more resistance.
Now she grimaced at the feel of the slippery stones un¬der her fingertips. She pushed herself against the wall and scrambled to her feet so that she could explore her sur¬roundings further. She could barely see anything because there was no light, but she could tell that her cell was about the size of a walk-in closet. In one corner there was a bun¬dle of dirty straw for a bed. In another, a bucket. A nar¬row slit was set high in the door. She was positive she could hear rats running through cracks in the walls. She won¬dered how long it would take before she got used to the in¬describable smell, or if she ever would.
She thought again that no deplorable conditions from her previous travels had prepared her for the frightening sight she was now forced to call home. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to sink down and indulge in a good cry. The side of her face still hurt. It was too bad her neighbor’s warning about the guard’s backhand had come too late. She laced her fingers together to stop their trem¬bling but only found another reminder of her circum¬stances. Her engagement ring had been torn from her finger along with her watch and gold necklace. She was told that this was a necessary precaution, so the other prisoners wouldn’t try to steal them.
“Bull,” she said out loud. She raked her fingers through her hair. The natural curls were already so snarled that she had trouble putting them in order. A sleeve of her camp shirt was torn and her tan twill slacks were smudged with dirt.
She ached to call out to her neighbor, but resisted. He had sounded as if he needed rest, not casual conversation with a woman who seriously thought hysteria was a good idea. She resisted thinking about his pain. All-too-vivid pictures of torture flashed before her eyes, and she regret¬ted seeing movies about foreign prisons. She feared a moviemaker’s idea of prison was tame compared to the real thing.