Kiss of Arachne

by Kadorienne


It seemed the pain would never stop. It seemed that Carlos had been in a universe consisting of darkness and pain and himself for all eternity, and that it would remain so forever.

There was only one other thing in the darkness with him and the pain, and that was the voice. The voice, asking the same questions over and over: Where are the weapons? Who are your cohorts? Where do you meet them? When will they strike again? And Carlos would answer only, No, in a shout or a gasp or a scream. The ritual had become hypnotic, the questions and the answer, until Carlos had forgotten that any other reply might be even possible. At this stage, it was not determination that sealed his lips, but trance.

Eventually the questions stopped, and so, incredibly, did the pain, and Carlos was left alone in the darkness.

When after some indeterminate measure of time the darkness cleared for a few moments, Carlos became aware of someone standing over him. He flinched, but the touch that followed, something cool and damp on his wounds, was gentle, a relief.

Deeply ingrained habit made him mutter, with the last of his strength, “Leave me alone.”

To his secret relief, the soft touch did not cease. A voice said, “Shhh.” And after a moment, it began to sing, crooning in a low, soothing tone.

Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to
Problems that upset you, oh, don’t you know
Everything’s all right, yes, everything’s fine
And we want you to sleep well tonight;
Let the world turn without you tonight;
If we try we’ll get by so forget all about us tonight.”

With effort, he forced his eyes open a slit. He couldn’t focus properly, but he could make out a beautiful face surrounded by a glowing golden halo.

That was when he understood. When he was very small, an aeon ago, he had been assured that if he was a good boy, one day he would go to Heaven, where the angels were. He hadn’t thought that he was a very good boy, nor had he ever really believed the story, but here was an angel ministering to his wounds and singing him to sleep.

With a deep contented sigh, Carlos Echevarria allowed his eyes to close and a new darkness, this one quiet and safe, to envelop him.

Eventually Carlos regained full consciousness and remembered who and where he was. He realized even before he opened his eyes that the “angel” must be another human like himself. He opened his eyes cautiously, and saw dingy concrete walls like the ones he had lived within for months now. It was almost pitch dark; it must be late. He tried to sit up, but it still hurt. He groaned before he could stop himself.

“No, no, wait! Here, let me help you.” Next thing he knew, someone was bending over him again, lending him support as he eased into a sitting position. In the dark he could make out a lot of light curly hair and not much else. “Would you like some water?”

Carlos had made a habit of not accepting favors for most of his adult life, but he wasn’t sure he could make it to the rusty sink. “Yes.” His voice scraped against the inside of his throat.

The other person fetched some of the vile water in Carlos’s dented tin cup and pressed Carlos’s unsteady fingers around it. While Carlos was drinking, the other man busied himself over the rickety little table. He struck a match and lit two tall candles that hadn’t been there when Carlos had been removed from the cell for this latest round of questioning. Neither had he had a cellmate then; his last cellmate had been taken out two months ago and never returned. The guards had refused to tell him what had happened to the man.

Disoriented, Carlos realized as he squinted in the faint light that he was now in a different cell. He wondered what the warden was up to, moving him.

The dryness in his mouth relieved slightly, Carlos studied his new companion. A man a few years younger than himself, willowy with high cheekbones and long, very curly blond hair. No wonder he’d looked angelic during Carlos’s delirium. He was wearing a loose-fitting robe made out of some material that shone dully in the faint light.

“Are you hungry? I saved the plate they brought you.”

Carlos thought of food. He was very hungry, but the thought of eating made his gorge rise. “Later.” He frowned and added awkwardly, “You cared for me while I was…. It was kind of you.”

The other man shook his head, leaning back against the wall next to his cot, folding his arms casually as he regarded Carlos. “No need to thank me. How could I help taking pity on you, in that condition? I'm not made of stone!”

Casting about for a distraction from the subject of his own pitiability, Carlos asked, “That song you were singing… was it a lullaby your mother sang to you?”

“Heavens, no!” The other man tossed his hair. “It was a show tune. Dear old Andrew Lloyd; not quite Sondheim, but he has his moments. What would we do without Broadway? How bleak life would be!”

Whereupon, to Carlos’s horror, the man struck a pose and started singing, full voice, flourishing his hands, fluttering his lashes and smiling theatrically.

I feel pretty,
Oh, so pretty,
I feel pretty and witty and bright!
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me tonight.

I feel charming,
Oh, so charming,
It's alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I'm real.”

He then swept the sort of bow that really required a wide-brimmed hat with a long plume to work properly. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dorio Rojo de Gloria, also known as Eroica, art thief extraordinaire.”

Carlos could only stare at the alien creature that was sharing his cell.

Dorio, however, needed no encouragement to continue chattering. “I had, if I might say, perhaps the greatest illegal collection of art in all of South America,” he announced proudly. “I admit, some things I had to steal to pay the bills. Just before I got caught there was a millionaire who wanted a truly vile Monet- redundant, I know. Impressionism!” He shuddered dramatically. “Nonetheless, I was hardly stealing for money. In order to steal, I must be inspired! I liberated beautiful objects from people who didn’t appreciate them and gave them a good home where they were loved and cared for.” As if to illustrate, he tenderly caressed one of the numerous postcards taped to the wall over his cot. The light was dim, but they appeared to all be of paintings. “Of course, the police returned a lot of them, but no matter! They can all be stolen again. And between you, me and the iron bars,” he gave Carlos a conspiratorial sidelong glance and leaned nearer, as though having his mouth four inches closer to Carlos gave them greater privacy, “they never did find all of it.

“That’s the one that got me collared,” he confided, pointing to another of the postcards. A florid, sensuous painting of a young man, apparently intended to be a Greek god, lolling uselessly amid a lot of overblown flowers. The deity's garment was made out of approximately ten billowing yards of purple fabric, only a few inches of which were actually engaged in covering his body. “I was attempting to rescue that from a dreary museum where hardly anyone ever saw it. Just look at the warm jewel tones, and the juxtaposition of the branches and the lad’s figure. Can’t you just feel how silky that rosy skin of his must be? Almost as if you were seeing it with the palms of your hands. Such artistry it must have taken to—“

“SHUT UP!” Carlos could bear it no longer.

Dorio jumped and looked at him, shocked. Outside the cell, there was a brief hubbub of other inmates yelling at them to be quiet. When it died down, Dorio spoke again, bewilderment evident in his whisper.

“What on earth is the matter? The guards don’t care if we talk after hours, and they—“

“Fuck the guards! You’re making me sick with that prissy whine!” Carlos snarled, keeping his voice low this time so as not to disturb the other cells.

The other man pushed himself away from the wall and stood straight. His arms were still folded in front of him, but now they were taut, tense. “I was only trying to be friendly,” he said coldly. “Since we’re going to be cooped up here together, I thought we ought to get to know each other.”

Now the move made sense. “This must be a new torture technique. They’ve locked me up with an idiot who will prattle about art and stupid songs until I crack!”

There was something more than anger in the thief’s face. He glared at Carlos for a moment before speaking. “You're a criminal but you're too good to share a cell with a fairy?"

The blood drained from Carlos’s face. He hadn’t realized that. He pressed back against the wall. “Stay away from me!”

Dorio took one step to the table, and the candlelight illuminated his contemptuous face more fully. “Don't worry. I don’t care for a man who’s like a wire rope,” he announced before blowing out the candles. Carlos remained tense until he heard the creak of Dorio’s cot. He could just make out the thief’s shape under the blanket.

"I will go mad alone in this cell with this person!" he muttered to himself.

But before long exhaustion put him back to sleep.

He woke rather late the following day. Dorio pointedly ignored him as he painfully stood and fetched the tin plate the guards had left before he woke. Carlos’s stomach was still shaky, and the food (it was best not to think too hard about exactly what it was) disgusting, but he methodically ate every spoonful. If he was to be fit for more fighting, he had to keep his strength up.

Finished, he walked up and down the small cell a few times, assessing the damage. He moved stiffly, and the various wounds the warden and his goons had inflicted hurt insistently. But not as much as they would have if Dorio hadn’t cleaned them up while he was asleep.

Carlos shuddered, still not looking at his new cellmate. What else had the sick pervert done while he was asleep? What could he have done? The thought made his skin crawl. He tried to put it out of his mind.

He gave Dorio’s postcards a cursory glance. They were all of paintings, florid scenes with half-naked people with billowing robes and overgrown foliage and bowls of fruit all over the place. And he had gotten someone on the outside to bring him an array of fancy-looking shampoo, lotion, shaving cream and God knew what else.

“Humph,” Carlos muttered, and proceeded to shave without soap. It scraped his skin, but so what?

Dorio was looking firmly at a book. From the tension of his posture Carlos doubted he was actually reading it, but at least he wasn’t bothering him with any more foppish talk about paintings.

Putting down the disposable razor, whose best days were far behind it, he looked out the tiny barred window for a minute, even though all he could see was the high concrete wall around the prison yard and a patch of sky. He wondered how the others were doing. It had been a very long time since they had gotten any word to him. This was as he had instructed them, before he’d been caught; it was too risky, too dangerous. But not knowing if they were all still alive, if their work was making progress, nothing, tore at him inside. And there was that matter he had discovered, just before he was arrested....

He turned from the window abruptly. Shaving had used up all of the energy he had left, and he spent the rest of the day lying in bed, hurting. Neither man spoke a word.

Late that night, Carlos was jerked from sleep by a sound that had become too familiar of late: screaming. Not his own, this time. He jumped out of bed and went to the small barred window of the door to the cell. In the darkness, he couldn’t tell what was going on, but the dull thuds sounded like a couple of the guards were beating up one of the prisoners. And it must be a bad beating, to make any man hardened by this prison cry out like that.

“Fascists,” Carlos muttered to himself. Then he shouted through the tiny barred window. “Fascists! Murdering fascists! Murdering fascists!

He gripped the bars as other prisoners took up the chant, and in less than a minute every inmate was shouting the words, over and over. Well, except for Dorio, who was lying on his cot, his arms under his head, staring at the ceiling. The rest were all shouting it, almost drowning out the screams of the beaten man. Almost.

Two of the guards emerged and trudged down the corridors, almost lazily striking the bars with their nightsticks, bruising fingers not removed quickly enough. The inmates did not stop their shouting, and the guards did not stop beating their victim.

Carlos kept on shouting until his throat, still raw from the days of screaming, was too hoarse to make a sound. The other prisoners were still keeping it up, though. Carlos leaned against the heavy door of his cell as a wave of dizziness swept over him. He hadn’t recovered from his latest stint in the torture chamber. Pride battled with common sense. Common sense won; he had to rest and regain his strength if he was to withstand the next assault.

Eventually the screams stopped. Carlos wondered, lying exhausted on his cot, if the beating had stopped or the victim was just unconscious. Or dead. The following day, rumors would be flying around the prison, but the truth might never be known.

Without the impetus of the screams, the chant lost its force, and in a while the prison was quiet again. Carlos was too tired to move, but he couldn’t sleep; he was still hearing the screams in his head, and chafing at his helplessness. That had been going on, just a few dozen yards away from him, and he hadn’t been able to do a thing about it, hadn’t been able to help….

After a long time, a voice spoke quietly from the other cot.

"Five years ago I acquired a landscape by Bierstadt. He was born in Germany but moved to the Estados Unidos, to the West, back in the days of cowboys, when it was still mostly wilderness."

Carlos's throat was too raw to tell the thief to shut up.

"The landscape I stole was of a sunset over the Yosemite mountains. Not one of those flashy sunsets full of cotton-candy clouds, you understand. Instead the sunset is a soft gold, radiating over the clouds and the rocks of the mountains, reflected on the water. There are a few trees, and one can almost see the gentle breeze rustling their leaves. There are no people in the scene, no animals, only the serenity of mountains and trees and sky.

“Bierstadt always seems serene. He once painted a gathering storm, and the deep blue hues and the perfection of the composition makes even a storm seem peaceful....”

Something about the cadence of Dorio’s voice was soothing. Carlos told himself his throat was too sore to interrupt anyway. He listened until he fell asleep.

Jupiter and Callisto by Boucher

Dorio got a postcard with mail call the next day. The message was just a brief note – "Wish you were here. –Boniel" – but he sat on his bunk with his knees pulled up to his chest, beaming at the picture. When he saw the curious glance Carlos could not quite restrain, he held it up. It was two womenmaking out, of all things, surrounded by flowers and cherubim. "This is one of mine! One of the greatest heists of my career. I was magnificent! Do you know, it took me two months to figure out how to get past that security system, but Jaime found-"

"Being a thief is nothing to brag about, you idiot!" Carlos snapped.

"And murder is?"

"Murder?"

"Isn't that what you're in for? Big macho man like you? Or was it rape? Not that I imagine a charmer like you would need to-"

"I'm a political prisoner, you perverted thief!"

Dorio widened his eyes in feigned awe. "Apparently no one informed the guards of this prison caste system. So political prisoners like yourself are the Brahmins, and the very shadow of a mere thief is not worthy to touch you."

"I don't expect a selfish crook like you to understand. You're in here because you couldn't control your self-indulgent greed. I'm in here because I stood up to tyranny!"

Dorio snorted. "What did you do, draw a moustache on a portrait of El Presidente?" Since Presidente Hector Lopez actually had a moustache, this would have been a pointless gesture.

Carlos's eyes blazed. "If the people of this nation – including worthless scum like you – ever live in freedom and safety, it will be because of the brave men who have risked and sacrificed to make it so!"

"Thank you so much, on behalf of the worthless scum of the world. We do so appreciate sacrifices." Dorio looked him up and down derisively. "Your daring subversive activities, running around thumbing your nose at the State Police or whatever it is, are they really helping the country? Or do you do it to feed your own ego, to play at being heroes?”

"You just don't believe that anyone could be any better than you."

"At last! Something we have in common!"

Carlos snarled before rising, stiffly, and beginning an exercise routine that made him groan with every move of his stiff, bruised limbs.

"Why do you bother? Can you really take on armed guards if you do enough pushups?"

Not answering, Carlos continued his workout.

"Are you keeping in shape for when you resume the gallant fight? They'll never let you out of here. I'll be stealing paintings again in a few years, but for you, they've thrown away the key."

"So I should sit and stare at the wall for the rest of my life?"

Dorio paused. "You could tell them whatever it is they want to know. Offer to work for them, say that you'll spy on your accomplices for-" Dorio stopped abruptly as Carlos's hand gathered Dorio's shirt around his throat, the cloth gathered hard in hist fist.

Carlos's blazing green eyes were only a few inches away. "SHUT. UP."

Dorio held his gaze warily, making no attempt to struggle, silent.

A jangle of keys at the door surprised them both. Releasing Dorio, Carlos turned and planted his feet apart, fists ready. He didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of evading whatever they had in mind for him, but that didn’t mean he was going down without a fight. A pansy couldn't be expected to understand that.

Dorio glanced at him, bemused. Then the door swung open. The guard sneered at Carlos before saying to Dorio, “Hey, faggot. The warden wants to see you.”

Dorio obediently walked out, eyes on the ground. After the door was locked again, Carlos watched him go despite himself. Dorio hadn’t seemed surprised at the summons. Maybe he knew what it was about. Maybe it wasn’t going to be anything too bad. They had no reason to torture an art thief, did they?

"What have you found out?"

Dorio forced himself to meet the warden's gaze calmly. It would have been less disconcerting if Misael had ever taken off those dark glasses, but Dorio didn't think he ever removed them. Probably showered in them. Slept in them. Misael el Cachorro. How this giant of a man had ever gotten nicknamed "the Cub" was beyond him. Perhaps there was some kind of story behind it. He wasn't going to ask.

"We haven't even been in the same cell for three days," he pointed out evenly. "He wouldn't tell you where the weapons are hidden after months of torture, it's going to take me more than a couple of days to win his trust."

"Are you off to a good start?" Misael was leaning back in his chair, feet up on his desk, while Dorio stood before him, handcuffed. Not that Dorio was even slightly dangerous. The handcuffs were there for the psychological effect.

"I cleaned up his wounds." He wasn't about to admit that his quarry had hated him on sight. In time, surely he could bring the man around. There was an early parole at stake. Out of this hellish place. "He thanked me." Dorio tried to get a hint at the man's expression through the dark glasses and failed. "I'll get your information for you. It takes time."

Misael stood up, smirking, and Dorio forced himself not to flinch even though he could feel the blood leaving his face, the knot forming in his stomach. The warden moved with slow deliberation from behind his desk like a shark circling its prey. "Let's keep you motivated to find out, hm?" he asked silkily, and unbuckled his belt.

Dorio looked at the floor. "That won't be necessary, sir," he said, unable to keep his voice entirely steady.

Misael's smile widened. "Are you going to fight?" He sounded delighted at the prospect.

Dorio glanced briefly at the huge bulk of the man, and thought of the armed, burly guards just outside.

"No," he answered, before unzipping his pants and bending over the desk.

Carlos was more relieved that he would have thought to see his new cellmate shoved through the door again. "How did the warden treat you?" he asked as it clanged shut.

"Like always, like a faggot!" Dorio snapped, and walked stiffly to his cot. Carlos stared at him. He hadn't had the impression that Dorio was prone to fits of temper. He frowned as Dorio laid down, his back to Carlos, not saying a word.

"Did he do something to you?" Carlos couldn't keep the incredulity out of his voice. Dorio didn't know anything politically sensitive, so why would they bother to torture him?

"What do you care?" Dorio flared, not turning around. "Leave me alone!"

Suddenly Carlos understood. Hot rage filled him, making him shake with it. One day, he would beat Misael's skull in, for this along with everything else.

But for now, he said nothing. Humiliating the other man by discussing what had been done to him, that would serve no purpose.

Most of the time he did his best to ignore his new cellmate, but now, he found that he could think of nothing else. He wanted to do something, to relieve the suffering since he could not avenge the violation.

He could think of only one possible thing to do. Little as it was, he spoke quietly.

“Why don't you tell me about one of your paintings?”

Dorio's back remained to him, and became slightly more tense at Carlos's words. For a minute Carlos wondered if he had somehow made things worse, but then Dorio began to speak.

Vanitas by Jacques Grief alias de Claeuw

“I don't generally care for still lifes, yet one I was always fond of. A desk, perhaps that of the artist's patron. Quill pens, an hourglass, leather-bound quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. A silver pitcher that looks like it holds wine. And a snuffed candle, beside a skull. I don't know if they actually kept skulls on their desks during the Renaissance or if it was artistic license, but it shows up often in paintings. It was a reminder of mortality.

“Not as morbid as it might seem, for knowing life to be impermanent, that all shall pass, is vital. No matter how terrible something may be, the world, life itself, is much bigger than one catastrophe. Much greater.”

Dorio was silent for a minute, then spoke again.

“However terrible something is, it can't be important enough to devote one's life to grieving over it. That gives even more of your short life to the misfortune.”

Carlos wasn't about to say so out loud, but he was beginning to suspect that he and Dorio understood each other better than he had believed.

In Dorio's opinion, Misael would have been a failure as either a revolutionary or a criminal. For success, both professions required more patience than he possessed. Only the next day, he summoned Carlos again. Carlos fought, naturally, uselessly, and Dorio had to watch as two of the guards held him against the wall while Misael punched him, over and over. Then they dragged him away.

The whole time he was gone, Dorio found himself pacing back and forth in the cell, unable to settle to anything. Over the last two years he had grown somewhat hardened to the things that went on in this place. He had become practiced in keeping his thoughts on more pleasant matters, like paintings or musicals, while the guards were proving their manhood by beating someone senseless. Now, however, this well-honed skill had deserted him. All he could do was move restlessly about the cell, gripped by morbid speculation about what they were doing to his cellmate. If only he could be sure they wouldn't permanently maim him. If only he knew when they would send him back. It would be such a relief to have the man back here, to be able to care for him, to know that however damaged, he would be all right and heal and soon be back to his boneheadedly courageous self again.

Oh, hell, he thought suddenly. He stood frozen in the center of the cell, paralyzed with new understanding.

It was just then, perhaps two hours after they had originally come for him, that the guards returned with Carlos. Carlos was groaning, his nose bleeding and one of his eyes swollen shut. The guards dumped him onto his cot as if he were an inanimate object and left without a word.

Dorio hurried to kneel beside Carlos's cot and put a (relatively) clean handkerchief to his nose without comment. Carlos sluggishly moved his hand to hold the cloth in place while Dorio sat back on his heels, surveying him anxiously. He didn't seem to be bleeding anywhere else. There wasn't much Dorio could do to help. He held the tin cup to Carlos's mouth as he had the last time, but after one swallow Carlos choked. Dorio could only watch helplessly. Only a monster could see suffering like this without compassion. Dorio wondered how Misael was able to do his job.

Carlos stopped coughing and rolled onto his side with a groan. Dorio lifted a hand to brush the hair out of Carlos's face before he realized what he was doing. "Why don't you just tell them what they want to know? Then, soon, you can partake of the joys of freedom, the outside world. The cafes, the wines, the beautiful waiters..."

"You miserable flaming poof," Carlos growled in answer.

It would have been infuriating from a man who was less battered. It was almost impossible to be offended by a man who was clearly suffering so much. Especially after Carlos's hesitant kindness after Dorio's own visit to the warden. Dorio's reply was gentle. "If more men acted like flaming poofs, we wouldn't have torture or war or any of this."

Carlos was obviously trying to sneer, but his bruised face couldn't quite manage it. "Great. Wonderful. Go out there and explain that to Misael, not to the man who's trying to bring Misael and his kind down."

"And you think you're going to achieve that by getting yourself beaten up by the guards before they drag you to Interrogation? Maybe you should save it and live to fight another day."

"You don't understand."

"Of course not. I'm a flaming poof."

"You spend your life on pretty lies." Carlos gestured weakly to the postcards on Dorio's wall.

"Au contraire! You haven't understood the first thing about it." Maybe if he kept talking, it would distract Carlos from his pain. For a while. "Art isn't about prettiness. It is about truth! The most vital truths of life."

"Truths!" Carlos snorted, then groaned.

"Truths. And some are not pretty at all. One painting always frightened me. I could have stolen it, but I never did, though it fascinates me. It is the transformation of Arachne."

"Who?"

"Are you a good shot?"

Carlos opened his good eye a slit at the non sequitur. "Yes."

"Very good?"

"I've only met two men who were as good." Even now, imprisoned and beaten, there was a hint of boastfulness in the man's slurred tone. “At least, almost as good.”

"Suppose the warden challenged you to a shooting contest. Would you let him win?"

"Of course not!"

"Even knowing that beating him would make him lose face, and that he has the power of life and death over you?"

"Yes!"

Arachne by Doré

"So would Arachne. She beat Athena at a weaving contest, and Athena turned her into a spider in retaliation." Dorio was gazing at nothing, absorbed in his mental vision. "So many artists have depicted it – Rubens, Tintoretto, Velazquez – but Doré is the one who got it right. He drew her for Dante's Puragatorio." Dorio's gaze became distant as he described it, intent on his inner vision. "Still partly a beautiful young woman, she is bent backward over her eight hideous legs with the pain of the metamorphosis." He shivered. "All around her are the damned, ignoring her, intent on their own torment. Only the goddess who condemned her bears witness, 'grey-eyed Athena' coldly watching her agony."

To his surprise, Carlos found that he was visualizing the scene. In his mind he could see the young woman writhing, and the goddess watching her with a chilly gaze. Only the eyes weren't grey, they were hidden behind dark glasses, and the head was a bald dome over a thick neck….

To distract himself, he spoke aloud. "I suppose you would have let the goddess win."

"Of course. And I would never be turned into a spider, or killed, or tortured."

"You're just a-" Carlos stopped. His cellmate was the closest thing he had here to an ally. Why waste insults on him?

"A survivor," Dorio finished. When Carlos said nothing, Dorio returned to his cot and picked up the book he'd been reading earlier.

After a couple of minutes, Carlos broke the silence. "Winning the fight isn't the point."

Dorio looked up from his book, raising his eyebrows.

"Not letting anyone humiliate you or anyone around you – that is what being a man is."

Dorio was still chewing on that when a guard came by, shoving an envelope through the bars. Dorio went to pick it up.

"Cheer up! You finally got a letter." Dorio tossed the envelope in Carlos's direction. It landed on his stomach.

The guards had already helpfully opened the envelope, the bastards. Carlos pulled a single sheet of notebook paper out and tried to focus his right eye on it. The left one wouldn't open at all.

"Do you want me to read it aloud for you?" Dorio's voice was surprisingly matter-of-fact. The usual taunting and the original pity were both absent. "Unless it's from your girlfriend."

"Why do you say girlfriend?" Carlos demanded.

"It's the usual thing."

For a long minute, Carlos hesitated. "Yes," he finally said.

Dorio took the sheet and went to the window for the stronger light. The handwriting was rough and the pencil wasn't dark enough to be read easily. "'Dear Carlos, I haven't written to you in a long time because I didn't want to tell you the news about Uncle Agustin. They told me his wife already sent you a letter. I know how much you don't like to dwell on this type of thing.'"

Dorio stopped reading and looked up from the letter and stared at Carlos, surprised. One of Carlos's hands was covering his eyes, the other was clenched into a fist. "Carlos?"

"I didn't know. They must not have let me see the other letter they wrote."

"The one from your Uncle Agustin's wife?"

"The letter's in code. Agustin was only twenty-five years old. He was… one of my partners in the Resistance. I didn't know anything about his getting killed."

"I'm sorry."

Carlos sighed heavily.

"Was he… a friend?"

"He was a good fighter. He would have been in charge of our group since I was arrested."

Dorio tried to think of something to say.

"I don't even know his real name. We used code names, the letters of the alphabet. Agustin is 'A'. If we reveal names under torture, it won't do them any good."

"What was your letter?"

"They had a different code name for me. Hierro."

"'Iron'? It suits you." Dorio's tone was not complimentary, but Carlos took no notice.

"Read me the rest of the letter."

Dorio held it up to the light again. "'Because life has to go on somehow, and well, we all need the strength to cope with life's trials. But as far as I'm concerned that's the worst part about growing old.' You have old men in your guerilla squad?"

"That's code for joining the resistance. Go on."

"'Still, at least you've still got lots of strength. I wish I was that way. For me, the worst of it is how much I miss Uncle Agustin. Because he kind of left the family in my hands, and that's some responsibility. But I always keep in mind the stuff we used to talk about. Above all about not letting ourselves get down in the dumps over personal stuff. Fortunately things are going well now. And we all feel optimistic that someday soon our house will turn out to prosper after all. Yours truly, Zavier.'"

He folded the letter and returned it to Carlos. After a minute, Carlos muttered, "The worst of it is I can't write to them about… about what they need to know, because the slightest move on my part would compromise them. Or even worse, identify them."

"Can't you write a letter to your 'uncle', telling him in code to be more careful? It could be written to sound just like an innocent letter to your family."

"I don't have any family, and the police know that. They'd never believe it. Besides, they shouldn't be careful, they should win."

"Do you really want them to die for your cause?"

"Everyone must die of something. Your death should at least mean something."

"Don't you care about anyone?" Dorio demanded, exasperated. Also, inappropriately enough, hurt. "Not as a portion of the oppressed masses, but as a human being?"

"I can't afford to."

The words were spoken with such simplicity that Dorio could find no answer. He sat on his cot again and picked up his book, but he gazed at the pages without taking in any of the words. For the first time, he was beginning to doubt that his charm would succeed where Misael's tortures had failed.

Worse, even aside from what he had felt while Carlos was in Interrogation, he was beginning to actually like the ironclad numbskull, in spite of the man's sparkling personality.

Dorio shook his head at himself. He would do well to take Hierro's own advice. He couldn't afford to care about him.

But he knew that it was already too late.

El Hombre De Hierro spent the next two days lying immobile on his cot without deigning to say a word to his cellmate. Said cellmate, unlike the warden, was prudent enough not to press matters. When their meals were left at the door he took Carlos's to him, and fetched him water when he coughed, and did not pester him for conversation. The rest of the time he occupied himself as best he could with the few diversions available to him, and bided his time.

He was repaid the morning Carlos woke, found that he could stand up and open his eyes, and started moving about the cell in what passed in him for cheerfulness. After shaving and doing careful stretching exercises, Carlos turned to him and hesitated, clasping his hands awkwardly behind his back.

Dorio regarded him, curious. After a minute, Carlos spoke, still groping for words.

"I have always had to be the strong one," he began.

This wasn't what Dorio had expected. He waited.

"In my family, when I had one, I had to do most of the work, support them. They couldn't work, they were… never mind." He swallowed. He seemed to be forcing himself to hold Dorio's gaze. "When they… were gone and I joined the Resistance, I became the leader of my section early on, simply because there wasn't anyone else who could do it."

Dorio nodded, still uncomprehending.

"What I am trying to say is,” he lifted his chin as if expecting to be punched, “I have never formed the habit of, of accepting kindness from others. I do not really know how to do it. I almost prefer to be fought with. I know how to fight back. Other things...."

Dorio searched his face, then slowly smiled. "Are you trying to say 'thank you'?"

"That is what I am trying to do."

Dorio almost laughed, but stopped himself. "You're welcome."

Carlos nodded once, as if a task had been completed, and returned to his side of the cell.

"Hierro?"

Carlos almost flinched. "Don't say that here!"

"I'm sorry, I'm not up on guerilla etiquette. Carlos, then. May I ask you a question?"

"What is it?"

"Who is your biggest hero?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Who did you want to be, when you were a little boy? Who did you pretend you were when you played?"

"I didn't."

"I don't believe it." Dorio regarded him, appraising. "Did you want to be Superman? I can just see you jumping off of things, trying to fly."

"I did not."

"Spiderman, then, perhaps, or-"

"Who did you pretend to be? Some Yank superhero?"

Dorio laughed. "That would have been something, wouldn't it? A bright red skintight costume and a swashbuckling cape. They could've called me Fabulousman." He struck a dramatic pose and grinned as Carlos snorted. "No, I wanted to be Zorro, of course! His costume was so dashing, and fencing is such an elegant method of fighting. I'd have a stick and would run around thrusting and parrying with it." He tilted his head to one side. "Now tell me yours. I promise I won't laugh."

Carlos frowned, but after a moment, he admitted, "David. I wanted to kill Goliath."

Dorio smiled gently. "And you're still trying to."

"Perhaps."

David and Goliath, artist unknown

Dorio considered for a moment. "Every artist had to create a David, once. Most of them made him victorious, holding the giant's severed head. The juxtaposition between his cherubic boyish face with his grisly trophy, I imagine. My favorite was painted by an unknown, more recently. His skill was nothing compared to the Old Masters, I admit. But his vision of the scene….” He leaned back against the wall, clasping his knees to his chest. "He painted David with his sling raised, about to strike the blow. Goliath and the Philistines loomed before him, and you could see his fear as well as his determination. The tension of his body, the desperate courage. He had just begun to shave and the fate of his people lay in his hands! He knew how slim his chances were, you could see it. Something about the way he held his head. And yet, he faced the giant anyway." Dorio was quiet for a minute, then gave a rueful laugh. "Like you. Always picking fights with someone bigger than you."

It was nearly a full minute before Carlos said thoughtfully, "Maybe art isn't completely worthless." Then he added forcefully, "But there are real Goliaths to be killed!”

"I know." A slow smile spread over Dorio's face. "That's why." Then he shut his mouth abruptly, as if trying to stop the words which had already escaped.

“What do you mean?"

He looked away. "Nothing"

"Tell me."

Dorio hesitated. "Maybe I shouldn't tell you. You won't like it."

Suspicious, Carlos demanded, "If it concerns me, then you'd damned well better tell me!"

Dorio paled. Drew a deep breath.

"Why I've fallen in love with you," he said softly.

Carlos could only stare at him, thunderstruck. He was too shocked to even think of a reaction.

That was when the lock turned. Both men tensed, waiting to see which one of them the guards had come for. The answer was clear when only one guard entered. Had Carlos been the one summoned, there would have been at least three. Dorio, they knew, would cooperate.

The large man glanced at them both with the stolid indifference of an ox, jerking his head at the thief. "You, Gloria. Come."

His stomach already knotting, Dorio rose and followed obediently, pretending not to feel Carlos's gaze on him. At least the other man didn't look contemptuous. He didn't despise Dorio for not uselessly resisting. His face was grim, angry that he could do nothing.

As Dorio was led past the other cells, the other prisoners made their usual catcalls and idiot invitations. He ignored it; at least they couldn't get at him. Thank God the warden hadn't assigned him to win the confidence of one of those louts. Carlos was a grouch, but he was nothing like those animals.

"Well?" el Cachorro demanded when Dorio was shown into his office.

Dorio tried to sound businesslike. "He's not very trusting, but I've made real progress. We're becoming friends. He's been telling me about his accomplices – nothing useful yet, but he's talking about them."

"I will be the judge of what is useful."

"Let's see. It seems Agustin, the one who became the leader when you lot arrested Carlos, has been killed. He was twenty-five years old. Now someone else is in the lead, called Zavier. I don't think those are their real names. He said he didn't know their real names." Dorio thought. "That was all."

"Not very much to go on, is it?"

"He just started talking about them the other day. Give me some time! And it would help if you lot wouldn't come in and beat him up every other day. It makes him more paranoid. If you want him to talk, give him some time to recover."

"I shall take that under advisement." Misael stood, and Dorio's stomach clenched. "Drop your pants."

Dorio's mouth went dry and his chest constricted. But to his own surprise, he was able to stand straight and look his jailer in the eye.

"No."

Halfway around his desk, his hands already on his belt buckle, Misael paused. It was actually gratifying to see the pure surprise on the man's face, as if one of the vases had refused to play its part.

Recovering his composure, Misael waited. When Dorio managed, barely, to not wilt under that patiently malevolent gaze, Misael spoke, his voice full of joyful menace.

"Do you imagine I am going to just send you back to your cell?"

"No." Dorio's voice was low and not altogether steady.

"You understand that your only choices are to comply or to comply after a beating?"

Dorio's skin was turning cold. "Yes."

Misael's mouth tightened. A second later, he had grabbed Dorio and was forcing him down on the desk. Dorio struggled, but the man was as strong as the bear he resembled. It was useless. He had known it would be. He could feel the man's large hands pulling at the waistband of his trousers. In sudden fury, Dorio seized the only weapon to hand, the phone on Misael's desk, and slammed it with all the force he could muster into Misael's face.

Misael reared back with an indignant roar, blood spurting from his nose. Two guards, every bit as amazed as the warden, ran in.

The three of them stood glowering at Dorio for a long minute.

El Cachorro pulled out a handkerchief and held it to his nose. He took a step back. "The faggot's getting uppity," he announced. "Teach him a lesson."

Dorio managed to hit one of them on the side of the head with the phone before they snatched it away from him. It was the last point he scored.

A battered and only half-conscious Dorio was dragged back to the cell. Carlos looked up and at once sprang to his feet, appalled. "What have you bastards done to him?"

One of the guards sneered at him, the other ignored him entirely. They dropped Dorio on his cot, Misael watching grimly from the corridor. Carlos stared, incredulous, at the bandage on Misael's nose. Then he moved swiftly to punch one of the guards. The guard casually struck him across the face with his nightstick. Carlos fell to the floor. By the time he had regained his feet, the guards were outside and the door locked again.

Carlos and Misael glared at each other through the bars. After a moment, el Cachorro said coldly, "You've been a good influence on him. Too bad for him."

Carlos only glowered. When Misael turned and walked away, Carlos swiftly moved to Dorio's side. "How badly are you hurt?" he asked urgently, gently probing the man's skull for fractures. There was nothing, but the side of Dorio's face had a terrible bruise.

"My face," Dorio said sadly, gingerly touching it.

Carlos found himself grinning in relief. "You'll be as pretty as ever in a couple of weeks, you vain fop. Where else does it hurt?"

Dorio groaned. "Everywhere."

"Let's see." There were no broken ribs, no cuts that Carlos could find. Dorio winced with every move. Carlos pretended not to know why.

"Did you bust el Cachorro's snout?"

"Well, yes."

"Good." Carlos did not try to hide the admiration in his voice. Dorio managed the ghost of a smile.

"It wasn't that big a deal. He wasn't expecting any defiance from me."

"More than I've ever managed." He put a hand on Dorio's shoulder with surprising gentleness. "That's something."

A minute later, Dorio said, "Carlos. What I said, before they took me away. We can forget about that, can't we?"

"Yes, of course, right. Forget it."

The silence stretched.

At last, Carlos sat back on his heels. "Tell me about a painting."

Back in his office, el Cachorro was grim. "We're losing control of the pansy. We need to move before he gets heroic." He opened his desk and pulled out a form, began to fill it out. "I believe it is time for a change of strategy."

Misael waited until Dorio had recovered from the beating before summoning him again. Dorio stood before his desk, silent, head high in quiet dignity. El Cachorro noticed this, and adjusted his plan accordingly.

"You've had weeks with him now. What have you learned?" he demanded.

"Nothing." Dorio lifted his chin, bracing himself for whatever was to follow.

Misael slammed his fist onto the desk. "Nothing? You incompetent faggot, I give you all this time and you've learned nothing?"

Before, Dorio would have made excuses, explanations, promises that he only needed a little more time. "Not a thing."

The warden's lip curled. "You want to stay here for your full sentence? Do you have any idea how uncomfortable I can make life for a faggot here?"

Dorio's shoulders squared. "There's nothing I can do about that."

Misael glared at him. Then he made a little noise of disgust and turned to speak to one of the guards. "Now what the hell are we going to do?"

Dorio waited tensely. The guard held up his hands, hit his palm with his fist. "Give me a few hours with the rebel. I'll get it out of him."

"Oh, yes, you'll succeed where we've been failing for months." El Cachorro looked at Dorio as if he were an insect on his dinner plate. "You've been paroled. "

Dorio almost fell over. "What?"

"The decision came from above. I told them not to, but they've paroled you. You're being released tomorrow."

Dorio's knees threatened to collapse under him. "I'm getting out?"

"Yes."

He searched the man's face suspiciously. "You're kidding, aren't you?"

Misael shoved an official-looking paper at him with a scowl. "I only wish I were." Dorio took the paper and read it. It was true, with tomorrow's date and a bunch of tedious conditions for his parole. "Now get out of my sight."

It was the first time he'd left this room without being abused. He walked back to his cell in a daze.

With the prisoner gone, Misael smiled with satisfaction. "Have a team ready to tail him tomorrow," he ordered.

"Tomorrow?" Carlos was surprised at the disappointment he felt. Ruthlessly he dismissed the feeling. He was just used to having someone to clean his wounds, he told himself.

"Yes. I thought I'd blown my chances for early parole, but apparently not." Distractedly, Dorio started pulling his postcards down from the walls, putting them in a little stack.

Carlos sat on his cot, watching Dorio bundle up his few possessions. He had always been a decisive man. He only took a moment to make his decision now.

"This is wonderful!"

Dorio glanced up at him in mild surprise. "It isn't like you to be happy on someone else's account." He paused. “It isn't like you to be happy at all.”

"It isn't. I have another reason.”

"Which is?"

Carlos arranged his face into a confident smile. He wished his man T were there; he was their team charmer. He tried to think of what T would say at a moment like this. T always said to talk as if the target had already agreed. "Dorio, you are going to do me an enormous favor, and it will not put you in the slightest danger."

Dorio's hands stopped in the middle of folding one of his foppish shirts. "What is it?" he asked tensely. Belatedly Carlos realized that mentioning danger, even by denying it, might not have been the best tactic.

Carlos crossed to the other man and put his hands on his shoulders. T said that this pose made people feel as if you were a close and trusted friend. "Right before they arrested me, I found out – something very important. My men must know. I've been racking my brains trying to find some solution, and now you hand it to me on a silver platter."

Dorio swallowed. "Carlos, I can't."

"You can! It won't be hard. You just memorize one sentence and one contact point, and that's all. Nothing to it."

"They'll be watching me! They'll have to guess that you might ask me that."

Carlos gave him a chiding look. "You're a thief, you can't be that risk-averse."

"Conspiring to overthrow the government is a bit different from stealing paintings."

"You will not be at risk, I swear it," Carlos lied, looking Dorio in the eye.

"Carlos, please, don't tell me anything. Not where they are, not who they are, nothing!"

Carlos shook his head dismissively, as if they were discussing something of no moment. "The sentence will be in code. You won't have any idea what it means."

The thief pulled away from him. "Carlos, you have no reason to trust me!"

Carlos looked at him seriously. "Dorio… I know I was harsh to you at first, but I think we have become friends, haven't we?" God, he was going to hate himself for this. But never mind. He had sold his soul to his cause many years ago. It was far too late to hesitate now.

Dorio pressed his lips together. "Yes," he said quietly. "When they first threw you in here, I tried to help you just out of general human feeling, but… yes, we've become… friends."

"Wouldn't you like me to get out of here someday, too?"

Dorio looked at Carlos the same way he had when he had confessed his love. “Dios, yes!”

"Then help me."

“I can't. If they caught me, I wouldn't be able to hold out, I know it. I'd tell them everything.”

“You think I don't know that? I'm asking you because I know you won't get caught. There's no risk at all.”

Dorio held Carlos's gaze. "Hierro, I know you better than that. All you care about is your cause. You admitted it yourself. You wouldn't care if every one of your men got themselves killed in your crusade. And you definitely don't care if a queer art thief gets locked up for doing you a favor."

The thief broke away and resumed putting his things together. He laid out his favorite of the few garments he had been allowed to have inside; he would look his best when he got outside. He hesitated over the shaving cream, soap and shampoo. "I'll leave these here for you. I know you don't like the rose scent, but in prison, cleanliness is a luxury."

"Thank you," Carlos said absently, fighting with himself. He looked at the other man, who was stacking all three of his books on top of the neatly folded foppish clothes, and made his decision.

"I'd offer to leave you more things, but I don't think you want them. I know you wouldn't be caught dead in any of my clothes. Would you like any of my postcards?"

"No." The answer came from right behind Dorio. The thief jumped and turned. Carlos had come up behind him very quietly. Now he was only inches away, looking into his eyes.

Dorio swallowed. He wanted to back away, but he couldn't move.

It seemed like a long time before Carlos spoke. "Did you mean it?"

"Mean what?" Dorio whispered, even though he knew.

"What you said, right before the guard took you away, that time you broke the warden's nose."

Dorio couldn't look away. "Yes."

Slowly, with great deliberation, Carlos put his hands on Dorio's hips, pulling him closer. Dorio's breath caught in his throat.

"You were wrong, you know," Carlos told him.

"Wrong?"

"I do care."

Before Dorio could think of any reply, Carlos's hands were moving over him, caressing. His inexperience was clear, but Dorio couldn't mind when those large hands stroked his arms and chest before slowly unbuttoning his shirt.

"Why are you doing this?" Dorio gasped, unable to stop his own hands from reaching out to the other man.

"Because I want to."

They undressed each other slowly, their caresses becoming more confident. Carlos tensed as each article of his clothing was removed, but did not try to stop Dorio. Once they were both stretched out on Dorio's cot, and it was plain that he was indeed able to do this, he grew more confident. The two of them grappled together, careful of each other's almost-faded bruises, until late that night.

Carlos had expected this to be difficult. The only reason he had hesitated at all was that he had thought his revulsion would show through at some point, ruining it. But as it turned out, there was no revulsion. He hadn't even been sure he could perform, but with Dorio's skin against his and Dorio's hands on him, that wasn't a problem. For long moments as they moved together, he completely forgot that he was doing this for ulterior motives. The warm silken body beside his seemed like reason enough.

Carlos had resolved to do this for the good of his cause. No price was too high to pay, not even his peace of mind, certainly not his chastity. But as he and Dorio lay together catching their breath, he did not feel as if he had made a sacrifice. This act, which he had believed would be perverse and which he had done out of the most machiavellian of motives, seemed to be innocence itself.

In the morning, both men were shy and awkward with each other. Dorio put on his best clothes and fussed with his hair. Carlos almost didn't bring it up, but finally he asked.

"Will you deliver that message for me?"

Dorio tensed. Carlos hoped that the other man wouldn't put into words what he had to realize, that last night had been payment, a bribe.

"You can't trust me with that. Honestly," Dorio said. "Don't ask."

Carlos could think of no further argument to make. He had made his gamble and lost. It wasn't the first time.

To his surprise, he felt relieved. He had been prepared to get Dorio put back in prison or worse for his cause, but he hadn't liked the thought at all. Now, Dorio would be safe. There would be one less thing keeping Carlos awake at night.

Dorio was staring at the tiny window, biting his lip. At last he steeled himself.

"Carlos, maybe I shouldn't ask after I just refused to do you a favor, but… there is something I want to ask you for."

"What is it?"

"Something we've never done, even though we've done so much worse."

Carlos glanced at the door. They couldn't possibly have time for whatever Dorio had in mind. "What?"

The thief's voice was wistful. "A kiss."

Carlos froze. He cast about for an excuse. All he could think of to say was, "On one condition."

Dorio's shoulders slumped. "The message – I'm sorry, I can't-"

"No. I meant, promise me this: that you will never let anyone humiliate you. You don’t deserve that.”

The thief looked at him for a long time before answering in a whisper, "I promise."

There was a sound in the corridor. Carlos looked at the door, but the guard wasn't coming to free his cellmate yet. When he looked back, Dorio was approaching him. "Carlos…."

"What? Oh, the kiss." Carlos squared his shoulders.

"No. The message."

With a mixture of gratitude, admiration and worry, Carlos stepped close and whispered to him. Dorio repeated the location. "Now, what's the message?"

"Tell them, 'Send Vado home to Alaska.'"

"'Send Vado home to Alaska.' Got it." Dorio looked at him, nervous.

It couldn't be put off any longer. Carlos gathered his courage.

He wasn't sure what he had expected. Something uncomfortable, perhaps. Not that it would feel as right as if he had been waiting to do this his entire life. Not that it would feel like the sum of everything they had done the night before.

When their lips parted, they gazed at each other for a long moment. Dorio was looking at him as if he were a da Vinci.

“I won't let you down,” Dorio whispered at last.

Carlos felt as if icy water had been thrown onto him. During the kiss, he had completely forgotten that he had asked Dorio to deliver the message.

“Stop using so much water, Juan-Pablo! Water's expensive!”

“Stuff it, Jaime,” Juan-Pablo told him, toweling his long blond hair. “A good hot shower is one of the greatest luxuries of life.”

“And one of the few we can afford, without Eroica. Simmer down, Jaime,” Boniel chided. As second in command, he was in charge while their leader and most talented gang member was in prison. But without Eroica, the Eroica gang just wasn't in the same league. “Now both of you help me plan this next heist. Just because the boss is in stir doesn't mean we don't have to work.”

“All right, all right.” Juan-Pablo took his place at the table and they bent over the plans and diagrams. They hadn't even gotten started when the door opened.

“Jaime, didn't you lock the-” Boniel stopped, his jaw dropping.

Eroica stepped inside, holding up a hairpin with a wide smile. “First lock I've picked in two years.”

Instantly they had all surrounded him, embracing him and all talking at once. “We didn't expect to see you for another three years!”

“Did you escape? We'd better get you out of the country-”

“No, no, I got early parole.”

“Why didn't you tell us? We'd have gone to meet you, and had a party ready.”

“I just found out yesterday.”

From there things transmuted into an impromptu celebration. Boniel insisted that Dorio indulge in a long soak in a hot bubble bath, and for the first time in two years, Dorio felt truly clean. While he was bathing, Juan-Pablo discreetly whisked his clothes away, no doubt for fumigation, leaving Dorio to choose from his enormous wardrobe, which was waiting for him as if he had only left the day before.

When he emerged in finery, a lavish meal was waiting for him, and champagne was opened. They all stayed up till nearly dawn, laughing, dancing, eating rich food, drinking and exchanging stories of all that had passed while Eroica had been separated from his gang. But whenever anyone mentioned future jobs, Dorio waved them aside. “Tomorrow's soon enough to talk about that, boys.”

And not once did he allow himself to think of what he would be doing tomorrow.

After Dorio left, Carlos paced in his cell for hours. His mind kept going in circles, second-guessing his decision to risk Dorio for his cause. And over and over, he found himself thinking of Dorio's stoic endurance of what he had been put through in this place, so different from his own frontal attacks. If Dorio were in the Resistance, Carlos supposed he would probably steal the Army's entire arsenal so that they couldn't fight. The man relied on cleverness and stealth rather than on courage and strength.

Carlos stopped in his pacing. Now he knew what needed to be done.

He was only able to take one minute to consider it, look it over for flaws. It was unlike any plan he had ever made; he was thinking, for a change, like a thief. Time was of the essence.

He found a pen on the rickety table, gritted his teeth, and thrust it up his left nostril. Blood spurted from the cut. He threw the pen under Dorio's cot and lay on the floor, sprawled as if he had passed out. Now and then he choked a bit on the blood.

By the time the guard came by with supper, there was quite a pool of blood on the floor. Carlos could hear the guard curse, and not long after more of them came and lifted him onto a stretcher. He wasn't surprised that they handcuffed him to it; he would have done the same in their position. He kept his eyes closed and groaned softly, as if he were barely aware of his surroundings.

The guards were very careful about cuffing him to the cot in the infirmary, despite his apparent torpor. He recognized Misael's voice soon. “Perhaps we accidentally caused some internal damage.” The warden's tone was one of irritation, not remorse.

Someone, presumably the doctor, was prodding him. “If you did, it's nothing I can diagnose. I don't have that kind of equipment here. He'll have to be taken to a hospital if you want to keep him alive.”

Misael spoke again, to one of the guards. “Break one of his fingers.”

Carlos had been prepared for such tests, at least as much as one can be. Only the torrents of adrenaline surging through him made it possible for him to control his reaction. He couldn't prevent his body from a full shudder as the bone cracked, but the only sound he made was a small moan, almost a whine, as if he were barely conscious enough to register the pain.

Misael swore. “We need him alive. Until he talks, that is. Call an ambulance. You! You'll be with him every moment. No matter what the doctors say, you are not to leave his side for one moment. I don't care if he's under anesthesia and a surgeon has his guts open, he is not to be unsupervised, do I make myself clear?”

Soon Carlos was being loaded onto an ambulance, his handcuffs transferred to something else. Only his right hand was handcuffed this time, as the medics wanted to splint his broken finger. That hurt even more than the breaking had, but Carlos continued to let his head loll back and forth while he groaned quietly.

“What did he do? Is he dangerous?” one of the medics was asking the guard who'd been sent to babysit him.

“He is a murderer.”

“Really!” The medic sounded awed. “Who did he kill?”

“His wife and their two children. With a shotgun.”

It took all of Carlos's control not to laugh out loud. It was a smart move, he had to admit, one the guard had likely been coached in. A random medic might sympathize with a dissident; a crazed murderer was another matter.

“Did he kill anyone else, or just his family?” the medic asked. Clearly the man didn't have enough excitement in his life. Carlos could tell he was going to be telling the story of how he once rode in an ambulance with a real live murderer for the rest of his life.

While the guard, who was also clearly enjoying having his every word hung onto, was saying, “Nothing that we could prove, but we had our suspicions,” Carlos shifted on the gurney, as if he were merely restless in his half-conscious suffering. With his face now turned away from the direction of the voices, he dared to open one eye a slit.

His right wrist was cuffed to the rail of the gurney. The rail was made of a thin hollow metal tube, but it looked like stainless steel, not easy to break.

The ambulance rounded a corner, and all its occupants rocked slightly with it. The motion gave Carlos an excuse to crane his neck forward for a moment, where he saw that his luck had at long last returned. Scarcely a foot away was an oxygen tank, large and heavy but not at all too much for a grown man to heft.

The guard was explaining how Carlos was also suspected of poisoning his wife's lover when Carlos made his move. He went from bonelessly limp to every muscle straining in the space of one instant. He sat up, seized the oxygen tank (his broken finger sent hot waves of pain all through him), and hurled it at the guard's head with all his strength.

The man crumpled instantly. The inquisitive medic's eyes and mouth were three perfect O's.

Carlos's hand shot out and seized the medic's shirt. “I know a hundred ways to kill a man with one unarmed hand,” he said in a menacing voice. That wasn't strictly true; it was closer to fifty. “Get the keys out of his pocket if you want to live.”

Shaking and pale, the medic obeyed. The other called from the driver's seat, “Everything okay back there?”

Carlos gave the medic a warning shake. “Fine,” the man answered, his voice strangled.

“What was that noise?”

“Oh, um... I didn't secure the oxygen tank and it fell over. It's all right now.”

“Uncuff me,” Carlos hissed. With trembling hands, the medic obeyed. Carlos felt guilty about scaring the man so much, but it couldn't be helped. With his hands free, Carlos cuffed the medic to the gurney, pocketed the keys, then relieved the guard of his firearm.

The ambulance stopped for a red light. Carlos opened the door and jumped out. Then he ran for all he was worth.

He was free.

The next day, Dorio convinced his gang that it was best if he “consulted his parole officer” without them. “They didn't have anything on you, but they have to have a pretty good idea that you're my accomplices,” he told them. “It'll be better if I'm not seen consorting with known criminals.”

They had reluctantly agreed, and Dorio had made his way to the dive where Hierro's men made their weekly liaison. A lot of men came here for lunch and to leer at the curvaceous and overpainted waitresses, which Dorio gathered were the place's main selling point; it sure as hell wasn't the food.

Dorio had thought about how to cover his tracks. He kept getting up to go to the men's room, put money in the jukebox, or any other excuse he could think of to move about the place, and he talked to everyone who he could find any excuse to speak to. He exchanged opinions with numerous strangers on popular music, sports teams he had never heard of, and the charms of the various floozies slinging hash. If someone were watching, maybe they wouldn't be able to identify the correct contact.

He watched, and soon he saw the signal Carlos had told him about. At precisely noon, a pudgy, curly-haired man rose from his table, went to the pay phone, dialed a number, and then hung up a moment later without saying anything, as if the person he was calling hadn't answered.

Dorio had risen and headed for the phone as soon as the man had picked it up, and waited as if he wanted to make a call. When the man hung up and turned away, Dorio remarked casually, “Hierro sent me.”

“What?” the other man said, also casually.

Dorio put a coin in the phone. “Send Vado home to Alaska.”

The man's eyes widened. “Vado?”

Dorio shrugged as he dialed the number of Time & Temperature. “That's what Hierro said.”

The pudgy man regained his composure, but there was a glint of anger in his eyes. “Thanks. We'll give him a nice farewell party.” He went back to his table and continued eating while Dorio listened to the recording, spoke into the receiver for a few minutes as if he were having a conversation, and returned to his table.

Dorio found a few more excuses to talk to random strangers over the next half hour. When he had finished his hamburger, he decided he had covered himself as best he could and stood up to leave.

That was when Misael came in. With two of his goons close behind.

Dorio continued towards the door as if he hadn't seen them, but one of the goons clamped a huge hand on his elbow. Dorio gave the man an urbane smile. “How good to see you again! It's been ages. Buy you a tequila?”

The trouble with prison guards was, none of them had any sense of humor. The goon yanked Dorio by the arm. The next thing he knew, he was completely surrounded. All conversation and activity in the dive had stopped while everyone watched, curious, wary.

A rather thin weasel of a man stood up from one of the tables. “I noted down every man the faggot spoke to!” he informed Misael. The onlookers exchanged glances and murmurs, now worried that they would be embroiled in whatever this was.

Dorio drew a long breath and looked at the warden steadily. He hadn't really expected to get out of this. He just hoped his gang could forgive him.

Misael thrust his face into Dorio's. “Which of those men was your contact?” he demanded.

Dorio just smiled.

Misael seized him by the front of his shirt. “What was the message?”

“'The dog barks at midnight',” Dorio said.

Misael cuffed him and turned on his heel. “Bring him,” he ordered, striding out. The guards followed, one gripping each of Dorio's arms.

Dorio stumbled, trying to keep up. He was surprised at how serene he felt. He had walked into this with his eyes open – he hadn't believed Carlos's assurances for a minute, and he didn't think Carlos had thought he did – and was certain, down to his bones, that it had been worth it. Whoever Vado was, he no doubt belonged in Alaska.

Misael shoved the door open and stepped out. Just outside, he stopped abruptly. There was a thump as something from above collided with his head. Then he crumpled to the ground.

One of the guards held onto Dorio while the other rushed to their superior's aid. The next thing Dorio knew, five uniformed policemen were on the guard, wrestling him to the ground, taking his weapon. Policemen? Dorio's stomach clenched. Whatever was going on, it wasn't likely to end well for him.

The other guard had yanked Dorio closer to him and was drawing his gun when he froze. Dorio heard the click of a safety being released. Then he heard a wonderfully familiar voice.

“Drop the gun and you might have more than two seconds to live.”

The guard dropped his gun. Carlos, also dressed in a policeman's uniform that looked wonderfully dashing on him, thumbed the safety back on, then clocked the guard's head with the butt of his gun. The man joined his comrades on the ground.

The pudgy man had emerged from the dive, followed by several nervously curious spectators. “Hierro!” he cried joyfully. “You're back!”

“Carlos!” Dorio wanted to fling his arms around the man, but he restrained himself; he couldn't do that in front of Carlos's men.

To his amazement, Carlos put his arm around Dorio, pulling him close. Right in front of his men, the alleged “policemen”. Even though Dorio had already done what Carlos had been bribing him for, that night. Not that his men, who were enthusiastically trussing their captives up, seemed to care. “You all right?”

“…Why did you save me?” Dorio asked, dazed. “Why did you take the risk?”

Carlos scowled. “I told you in prison. I care.”

The “policemen” were dragging the unconscious prison guards into a van. The dive's customers were crowding around the door, watching, none even thinking of interfering with the process of law and order.

Dorio looked into Carlos's deep green eyes. “Yes, but... I thought you were lying.”

Carlos dropped his eyes for a moment, then met Dorio's again as he tightened his arm around Dorio's waist.

“So did I.”

 

Eroica