For All Nails #229: The Tailor of Panama

by Noel Maurer and Johnny Pez

Ciudad Balboa, Provincia de Panamá, Reino de Nueva Granada
22 January 1976

Sebo Quezadas was a happy man, but that was only because he had just had sex. Within a few minutes, he knew, the guilt would set in and his happiness would disappear.

The woman wasn't a prostitute, not exactly. Even after three months here, with three more to go, Sebo couldn't quite bring himself to flat-out pay someone for sex. No, she was one of the women who hung around the bars here in Ciudad Balboa, hoping to find a Mexican "boyfriend" who would pay for her meals, buy her little gifts and, eventually, use his combat pay to support her in style. Which wasn't hard. Dólares went far in Panamá Province, what with the Neogranadian peso inflating itself out of existance. Hell, dólares had always gone far here.

The problem wasn't the nature of the relationship. Sebo had done far crasser things. The problem was that the woman wasn't Lucia. There was something about Lucia. He'd thought about her constantly in Cuba. When he got back to Mexico, after the Christmas Bombing, she'd continuously infuriated and delighted him. It drove him crazy. But he couldn't imagine leaving her, and when he moved to California he asked her to follow. They'd moved in together, living in a small apartment among the tenements that crowded downtown San José. FN1 He tried not to think about her day -- well, night -- job.

Within a year, though, he was back on active duty. California was a gung-ho kind of place, far more than progressive Mexico City. The damn state motto was "God and Mexico," and too many Californios for Sebo's taste tried to live up to it. So when Sebo's new unit was called up for a six-month tour of duty in an "undisclosed location," his dean made it clear that not only wasn't a year off a problem, it might actually help him when tenure time came along. More importantly, Sebo had a Top Secret clearance, and Sebo's commanding officer made it clear that this mission was indeed Top Secret, and not going was not an option for anyone with that security rating.

Only that wasn't the real reason. The real reason was that is was time to "cagar o salir del baño" with Lucia, and he wasn't ready to do either. An indefinite deployment to an undisclosed location was much easier.

Which is how he found himself in bed with Silvia in this hot room on the second floor of a decayed hotel in Balboa City. Slim (almost-but-not-quite flaca), tall, small-breasted and dark skinned, Silvia looked nothing like Lucia. He couldn't decide whether that was good or bad.

"I've got to go," he said. "Sorry." He leaned over and kissed her, ignoring her protestations. They sounded real, but Sebo had no idea if they were. He also had no idea whether he wanted them to be.

Dressing rapidly, he pulled on his camouflage fatigues. They were identical to those worn by the FANG. Sebo wore the bear patch of the 45th Troop Command on the left shoulder, but there was no Mexican flag on his right. In theory, he wasn't "overseas."

Well, hell, Panamá was attached to Mexico by land, so he wasn't really overseas, was he?

Silvia watched him, the sheets pulled up to cover her small breasts. It was utterly unlike Lucia. Again, he couldn't decide if that was good or bad. Buttoning his top, he leaned over to kiss her. He was aiming for the cheek, but she turned her head and it ended on her lips. "I'll be back soon, beautiful," he said, in Spanish. No one in Panamá spoke English. Schools had never been a big priority of the Hermión dynasty in this country.

Sebo left the hotel room. The hallway was dimly lit, with a single flickering incandescent bulb. The sun was rising, but there was no natural light in the hall, or the rickety staircase. He descended into the lobby, where the hotel clerk was fast asleep at his desk. A ceiling fan slowly turned overhead, moving the stagnant air around.

He strode outside to where his teeby was stationed. FN2 He popped open the hood and screwed the distributor cap back on -- the locals probably wouldn't be stupid enough to steal a military vehicle, but you couldn't be too careful with these people. The engine started right up when Sebo turned the switch. He put it in gear and rode off down the dirt street, blowing up a cloud of dust in his wake. He had a thirty mile drive ahead of him, and with these crappy roads that could take at least an hour.

Sebo's post-coital depression was already setting in. He wished, not for the first time, that teebies were equipped with tocacintas. FN3 He had a radio, of course, but what with there being a war on, there were no more commercial stations operating on the isthmus of Panamá. All he could pick up would be short-range FANG chatter or the London Lolita's propaganda broadcasts.

The teeby rattled and rolled down the roads, tropical foliage piled high on either side. Occasionally it passed through a "settlement." They were so impoverished and so small, a few wooden shacks with thatched roofs on the side of the road, that Sebo hestitated to dignify them with the word "village." The sight of them, and the scrawny little children playing, did nothing to improve his mood.

No wonder these people aren't fond of Bogotá, he thought to himself. But thank God they're too damn lazy to cause any real trouble. Otherwise the limones could create us some serious headaches. FN4

Halfway to Camp Acerero, the road linked up with the Carretera Panamericana and turned to gravel. Recently laid gravel. Sebo knew this, because he worked with the engineering units that had laid it. Not that there were officially any Mexican army engineers in Panamá, of course.

He passed a continual stream of FANG-marked camionetas heading south, bringing water and ammunition and (ironically) vulcazine south to Camp Acerero, where Sebo's logistical operation was based. There was no way that the British could miss this, or the transport flights from Guatemala into the hastily constructed jungle airstrip that the North Americans had constructed and the Mexicans operated. Most Alliance surveillance flights over the area were shot down by FANG surface-to-air-missiles, but not all. And the Taiwanese certainly had orbital satellites photographing the area. Thus far, however, the Alliance had refrained from bombing the roads or the camps, probably for fear of drawing Mexico into the war.

Sebo pulled into the outskirts of Camp Acerero, an endless expanse of tents and tanks and huts and camionetas, a makeshift air traffic control tower looming above it all. They moved 3000 tons of supplies through here every day. FN5 The FANG camionetas -- mostly North American made nowadays -- trundled off into the jungle, along paths that Mexican bulldozers had laboriously chopped through the selva. More supplies were moved by through the coffee route along the exclusion zone, protected by NUSM warships patrolling three miles offshore. The Navy had unilaterally defined "Panamá" as ending about 100 kilometers south of La Palma, and that's where the coffeeships pulled ashore and unloaded. FN6

"Hey! Sebo!" Frank Calva spotted him pulling into camp. Quezadas slowed the teeby as Calva jogged over. "You boffin' that cosita from Balboa, vato?" Quezadas didn't say anything, but he was surprised to find himself smiling. Macho dies hard. "You are! Da-amn. Hey, dame a ride."

"Y'know, Frank, I am your superior officer."

"Yeah, yeah. Move over." Calva hopped into the front passenger seat of the teeby. "The relojito, chofér." FN7 He grinned as Sebo put the vehicle in gear.

"Can do, sir. Too easy." Sebo was still in a bad mood, but he'd be damned if he'd show that to Calva. Friendly sarcasm was easier. The relojito was where he was headed anyway, and Calva probably knew that. "How are things?" He had been gone all weekend.

"Same ol' shit. Move this. Check that. Make sure we got enough of the other thing. And more fucking Tories every day."

"More?" The teeby hit a rough patch.

"Yeah," responded Calva, less loquacious for a moment, with the wind knocked out of him.

"Chinga." said Quezadas. "I'm gonna hafta hold their fucking hands, tu sabes."

"Yeah, well, it beats filling oil tanks all day."

Quezadas grunted. "Like you would know."

"Paper pusher."

"Hose jockey." It went on like this until they reached the relojito, which was really nothing more than a large tent loaded with desks, whiteboards, map displays, and radio equipment.

Calva hopped out and off in his own direction, with a slap on Quezadas's back. Quezadas lifted the tent flap and stepped in. He had about a minute before he was scheduled to report for duty.

The relojito was crowded with radio equipment, teledactyls, and maps. Loads of maps. The really large scale one went from the ironically-named Puerto Limón in Guatemala, where the Tory ships unloaded their stuff, with the road and rail lines to Camp Acerero marked in red as "codos." FN8 Also marked were the multiple trails that made up the Sendero Fernandino from Camp Acerero all the way to the Andes. Limón intelligence would pay a lot of money and blood to get a copy of that map. For political reasons they couldn't invade Panamá, or even carpet bomb, but small-scale infiltration might work wonders if they could just pinpoint the heavily camouflaged routes.

That was why it made Sebastian nervous that the Tory officers sounded just like limones to him.

And speaking of Tory officers ... there were three of them, talking to LTC Donaldson. They looked about 12 years old. The average age of the AUSM reservists stationed here was around 40. At a mere 32, Sebastian was one of the unit's younger members. The FANG soldiers were much younger, but none of them looked it. Having your homeland invaded and bombed aged a man. These "officers," though. They reminded Quezadas of his students back in Mexico.

"Elty! Glad to see you," said the Colonel. FN9 "These three officers will be shipping out down the Sendero in a few days. They'll be taking some specialized equipment with them. I want you to familiarize them with the environment here, show them our operation, and get them anything they need. Me explico?"

"Yessir. Not a problem." He'd much rather be updating maps and writing reports than babysitting a bunch of overenthusiastic Tories, but he couldn't say that.

"Good man. Gentlemen, I leave you Quezadas's capable hands. Díos bendiga." And with that, Colonel Donaldson was out of the tent.

"Okay, fel ... uh, people. I'm Lieutenant Quezadas." He pointed at the little brown bar at his collar. Tories had trouble recognizing the subdued rank insignia the AUSM used. The North American lieutenants all had big fat gold bands around their uniform wrists and on their shoulder tabs: impossible to miss. And a clear indication that nobody had thought much about snipers in designing 'em. "Welcome to Pendejama."

One of the male Tories asked, "Pendejama?" but Sebo just smiled. The only woman in the group, short with her brown hair tightly pulled back, extended her hand. "A pleasure, lieutenant."

"Please. Call me Quezadas, okay? And your name is?" For some unknown reason, the Tories didn't put name patches on their uniforms.

"I'm Lieutenant Holmes," said the woman. "This is Lieutenant Stanford, and that's Lieutenant Rupert." The former had dark hair, the latter was a freckled redhead. Neither of them looked old enough to shave.

"Good. Alright. First order of business is you lose the uniforms."

"Excuse me?" said Lieutenant Holmes.

"You gotta lose the uniforms. They're ridiculous. No offense, ma'am, but those pants are too tight across your nalgas. It looks good, they're nice nalgas, but they won't last a day here." The woman looked a little taken aback, but Sebo liked to mess with Tory sensibilities.

He continued. "Your service coat is much too heavy. Plus, the green color works in the temperate zone, but not here. And what the hell are those things around your necks? Touse look like you just stepped out of a historical novel. FN10 We've got FANG fatigues ready for you. You'll be wearing them anyway when you go south, so you might as well be comfortable while you're here."

The three young Tories looked like the idea of combining comfort and military service had never occurred to them. Quezadas had run into this before. What the hell must their military be like?

Holmes looked like she was ready to resist, but Stanford intervened. "This isn't Marlborough City, Emily," he told her in a quiet voice. "There's a war on, and we're going into the thick of it." Sebo noticed that Stanford had a couple of weird puckered markings on the left side of his neck.

Holmes looked uncertain, and Rupert looked nervous. "Uh, alright," she said at last. Then she turned to Quezadas and said, "Right, then, lead the way."

As he led them from the relojito, Quezadas spared Stanford another glance. He still looked twelve years old, but his eyes were not those of a young man; they reminded him more of the FANG troops he had seen. The others he was still dubious about, but he was beginning to suspect that Stanford would have no trouble making his way through New Granada.

Well, make that less trouble.

Somebody, in an unusual display of good sense, had set up the supply tent across the road from the relojito. Quezadas walked out into the road with his hand held up in the universal 'don't run me down' gesture, forcing an oncoming teeby to come to an abrupt halt. The teeby's driver showed himself to be a fellow Mexican by swearing at him in a mix of English and Spanish. Quezadas responded with another, even more universal gesture, while the three Tories hurried across the road.

Leading the three into the supply tent, Quezadas found that the duty clerk was absent from behind the waist-high partition, no doubt lost back among the metal shelves full of clothing and equipment. Waiting in front of the partition was a lanky woman with short dark hair who was dressed in a black camiseta, khaki shorts, and combat boots. He vaguely recognized her as one of the civilian pilots who flew personnel and supplies from the base to Bogotá, a Manitoban whose name he could never remember.

She gave him a casual nod as he entered, then abruptly turned away as his three charges came in after him. That was odd. Did she have some reason for wanting to avoid her fellow Tories? It wouldn't have surprised Quezadas if she did -- the war had attracted all sorts of people with shady pasts.

Ignoring the pilot, Quezadas called out, "Hey, Danny, apúrate, you got clients."

"Keep your shirt on, naco," came a voice from among the shelves. "I'm taking care of the fuckin' chica, 'tabien?"

"Loquesea," said Quezadas.

Danny Sastre emerged from the shelves with half a dozen pairs of socks in his hands. He set them down in front of the pilot and began scribbling on a clipboarded form. Finally he handed the clipboard to the pilot, saying, "Sign over there on the right." Quezadas watched absently as she did so. Her penmanship was good enough for him to make out her name, Mary Smith. That was it! No wonder he could never remember.

Wordlessly, Smith stuffed the socks into a carry bag and left the tent.

"Say," came a voice from behind Quezadas, "do you know who that was?" Quezadas glanced back. It was the redhead, Rupert, and he was staring after the just-departed Mary Smith.

"Alexandra Stapleton," said Stanford matter-of-factly. Quezadas didn't recognize the name.

Rupert turned in surprise to his colleague. "You knew?"

"I saw her face before she turned around," Stanford explained.

"And you didn't say anything?" Rupert seemed torn between astonishment and outrage.

"Eldon," said Stanford, "it's none of our business."

"But she's a traitor!" Holmes objected heatedly. No astonishment there, Quezadas could tell. Pure outrage.

"We've all done things in the past that we regret," said Stanford in his quiet voice. Once more, Quezadas got the impression that there was an old man looking out through the young Tory's eyes. He suddenly realized what those puckered markings were. Scars. From cigarette burns. Hey, Zeus.

"Things we'd go back and undo, if we could," Stanford continued. "But we can't. All we can do is carry on, and try to make up for it. Miss Stapleton has her way, and we have ours."

The other two dropped their eyes to the floor. Quezadas found himself wondering just what the hell was going on between these three, but as Stanford had said, it was none of his business. Instead, he turned to Sastre and said, "Three sets of camos, Danny, with all the trimmings."

"You first, chica," said Sastre, predictably pointing at Holmes. He pulled out a tape measure from under the counter. "Any size you want, as long as its large."

Forward to FAN #230: The Last Straw.

Forward to 23 January 1976: Guy Walks Into a Bar.

Forward to New Granada/American War: A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Montagu.

Forward to Sebo Quezadas: Easter Rising - Prelude.

Forward to Ev and Alex: Be My Guest.

Return to For All Nails.

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