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SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM
By KURT MUSE JOHN GILSTRAP
Copyright © 2006
Kurt Muse and Associates LLC and John Gilstrap, Inc.
All right reserved.
The American Airlines jet banked hard to the left, revealing
the lush jungle landscape below. Still too high to make out individual
people on the ground, Kurt Muse could nonetheless make out the
major landmarks of the Panamanian countryside. Over there, the island
of Taboga rose out of the murky waters of the Pacific. If he squinted
and used a little imagination, he thought he could see the ranch his father
had cut by hand from the dense tangle of undergrowth. That body
of water he could see in the far distance-actually, it looked more like
an extension of the overcast sky, but Kurt knew it was there-was the
Atlantic Ocean. It was the rare visitor to his adopted home who didn't
find it thrilling to swim in two oceans on a single afternoon.
The floorboards rumbled as the pilot lowered flaps and slats, marking
the beginning of their final approach to Panama City's Omar Torrijos
International Airport. Kurt looked away from the window and
scanned the faces around him. He'd made this trip dozens of times,
and over the past couple of years, it seemed that each approach brought
a deepening sense of dread among the passengers. What little conversation
existed on the flight-one never knew the true identity of one's
seat mate-all butceased.
The flight had originated in Miami, the home of shopping malls and
the kind of freedom once known in Panama. Ahead lay a regime of
daily oppression and humiliation. Yet, here they all were, drawn back
to misery by the simple pull of home.
Kurt had lived in Panama since he was five, the son of Charlie and
Peggy Muse, whose pioneer spirit had brought Kurt and his brother
and sister to Central America in pursuit of a simpler lifestyle and warmer
climate. They'd found all of that, plus remarkable success in business.
It helped, Kurt supposed, that the country teemed with Americans,
thanks to the Canal Zone, but Charlie Muse had wanted more for his
kids than a little slice of the United States relocated a thousand miles
to the south. Whereas the Canal Zone kids kept mostly with other
Americans and attended American schools staffed by American teachers,
the Muses had always lived on the local economy. Kurt and his siblings
spent their childhoods in Panamanian classrooms, learning and
playing Panamanian games with Panamanian children, easily identified
in any crowd as the only fair-haired gringos in a sea of brunettes. Now,
at age thirty-eight, Kurt's towering frame made him easily identifiable
from a hundred yards away.
Kurt so wished that he could spin the clock back to those simpler
times, back to the days before Noriega's rise to power, when you could
say what was on your mind without fear of arrest and torture, when
people who killed others were few, and those who dared to do so were
punished for their crimes. Panamanians were by nature so nonaggressive
and polite that they made easy pickings for a brutal dictator's rise
Here on his return flight, with feet dry on Panamanian soil, the PDF
sapos-Panamanian Defence Force snitches-no longer needed to keep
their profiles low. Even without the uniform, you could tell who they
were the instant they stood from their seats, strutting like thugs, pushing
their way down the aisles while the other passengers hurried to get
out of the way. The passengers' fearful deference reminded Kurt of little
kids on the playground. Bullies versus victims, with no referees.
In a month, Kurt thought, it would all be over. In just over thirty
days, the people of Panama would go to the polls, and when that time
came, Kurt and his La Voz de la Libertad-Voice of Liberty-would be
ready for them. The transmitters were in place-cold ones, tuned to
frequencies they'd never used-and poised to override the commercial
stations with messages from Guillermo Ford, Roderick Esquivel, and
Bosco Vallarino, reassuring the people that their leaders were ready to
lead again. Caught flat-footed, there was no way that the regime would
be able to stop the broadcast in time. With that kind of encouragement,
maybe the population would flood to the polls. If they did, there
could be no stopping the results. The PDF could intimidate a hundred
people, or maybe a thousand, but if ten thousand, fifty thousand citizens
stormed each polling place, the military and the police would be
And once the people had spoken, the United States would have no
choice but to protect the voters from Noriega's retribution.
Kurt's dreams harbored fantasies of La Piña-the Pineapple, so
named for his acne-cratered complexion-being strung up by his heels
and ravaged in the manner of Il Duce in the waning days of World War
II. If the citizens could cut his flesh just one time for every murder he'd
committed and every life he'd ruined, even the bones would be gone by
the time it was all done.
Kurt waited for the aisle to clear before he stood. Ten rows ahead,
he saw his friend, Tomás Muñoz, self-consciously avoiding his gaze.
They were too close to the finish line to blow the race through some
stupid security breach. In a perfect world, they would have taken different
flights; but a perfect world would have provided more flights
from Miami to Panama City.
It was nearly eight o'clock, and Kurt was anxious to get home. He'd
left his wife, Annie, back in West Palm, caring for her cancer-riddled
grandmother, which meant that their fifteen-year-old daughter, Kimberly,
was home in Panama City by herself, no doubt celebrating the
absence of little brother Erik, who was spending the week with his best
friend. Kurt made a mental note to give her a call as soon as he got
through Immigration, before he headed for the car.
If he ever cleared Immigration. With three flights arriving at the
same time, the three customs booths were completely swamped. The
lines looked more like a crowd, a group of strangers awaiting their
turn under the not-so-watchful eyes of a dozen machine-gun-toting
PDF guards in olive-drab fatigues. Most kept their M-16s slung on
their shoulders, but a few held them locked and loaded at a loose port
arms. Be it ever so humble.
Kurt tried to spot Tomás again, but the crowd had swallowed him.
Something jumped in his gut. It was the proximity of their final
goal, he was sure. After being so clandestine for such a long period, it
was hard not to worry about anything that seemed even slightly out of
the ordinary. Noriega had to know that the elections were their final
prize, and now was the time when he would sell his soul to stop them.
Tomás was fine, Kurt told himself. Even if something went terribly
wrong, he'd be fine. Tomás was nothing if not a survivor.
Kurt's mind drifted back to the ominous conversation he'd had the
night before with Richard Dotson. A lifer with the State Department,
Richard had been carrying Kurt's flag through every corridor in Foggy
Bottom, and now that they were getting down to the wire, Richard
was getting jumpy, too.
Last night, in the safety of Richard's Silver Spring, Maryland, home,
the two men had tipped a few drinks and settled into the ritual of self-congratulation.
They were so close to winning. Everything was in place.
The old interagency rivalries had dried up in the face of a clear directive
from the Oval Office that Noriega was no longer a friend to the
United States, and it looked for all the world that a home-grown coup
was about to topple one of the world's most brutal dictators.
As the two old friends stood outside in the April chill last night,
sipping scotch and smoking an early victory cigar, Kurt had asked, a
propos of nothing, "So what happens if things go badly and we're discovered?"
He'd meant the question as a throw-away, a rhetorical musing
fueled by a swelled head and a loosened tongue. He'd expected to
hear Richard scoff and say that it was nothing to worry about, that
things were too far advanced for that to be even a remote concern.
What he got instead was an unsettling downshift in mood. "If that
happens," Richard said, "you're on your own."
It was all about politics. The Voice of Liberty had originated in Kurt's
head, not in the halls of any U.S. agency, and no one in power wanted
any confusion on that point. The money and equipment Kurt had received
from Uncle Sam was all off the books, and they'd accomplished
more with it as amateurs than anyone had a right to expect. Uncle was
pleased, but he was not responsible. That's what "on your own" meant,
and Kurt was sorry he asked the question. They'd always been on their
own, for God's sake. Why would it be any different now?
Kurt shook the fearful thoughts away. Of all the complications inherent
to a conspirator's life, paranoia could be the most crippling if it
wasn't kept under control. Kurt longed for the day when he could stop
living the charade and return to a normal life. He was tired of driving
circuitous routes to make sure that he wasn't being followed-lessons
in tradecraft learned by watching James Bond films. He was tired of
fearing the day when the PDF would crash his front door and brutalize
More than that, he longed to be released from the burden of living
so many lies simultaneously, constantly second-guessing every comment
to make sure it was consistent with last week's cover story. It was
the stuff of ulcers.
Most hurtful were the lies he'd told to his family. He told himself
that the lies were for their benefit-to keep them out of harm's way if
things went wrong-but even he knew that it was empty rationalization.
Truth was, his father (who was also his boss and the old-school
family patriarch) never would have approved of La Voz de la Libertad,
and by keeping him out of the loop, Kurt simply made his own difficult
life a little easier. In his father's mind, the Muses were guests in a
foreign land; internal Panamanian politics was none of their concern.
What was their concern, he believed, were the livelihoods of the forty-two
employees who depended on the Muses for their income. For Kurt
to risk any of that on a naive patriotic whim would have been unconscionable.
Annie knew the truth, of course, and Kimberly probably suspected
something (you don't come home from school to find the exiled vice
president of Panama hiding in your living room and not suspect something),
but they were fine with it. Kimberly knew not to ask, and Annie
knew how to help.
At last, Kurt found himself at the head of the Immigration line. He
cast his gaze down, avoiding eye contact like a good Panamanian, and
prepared himself to answer the questions he'd been asked a thousand
times. The trip was personal in nature, to visit his wife's sick grandmother.
No, he had nothing to declare.
Two men occupied the cramped Immigration booth. The first man,
from the Immigration Bureau, took care of the basic paperwork, which
he then handed to the second, a soldier who matched the passport
against a thick dot matrix printout of undesirables.
Kurt craned his neck in one last futile search for Tomás, and the instant
he looked back, he knew that something had gone terribly
wrong. It was the way the Immigration guy was holding the passport.
Rather than the cursory glance followed by the whack of the entry
stamp, he held the little book in both hands, vertically, as if it were a
Playboy centerfold. He seemed to be studying it. And then he smiled.
As he handed the tiny book back to the soldier, Kurt followed the
clerk's gaze to a piece of paper someone had taped to the reinforced
glass of his partition. At first, Kurt was confused.
Then his guts dissolved. The sign was hand written in Spanish. He
had to read it backward:
His life was over.
They came at him slowly-calmly, even. With a glance from the two
men in the booth, two more soldiers sauntered over from their positions
near the wall to close off any escape route. "Excuse me, Mr. Muse,"
said the Immigration man, "but there seems to be a slight problem.
Would you mind coming with us, please?"
Kurt's mind raced. This was the nightmare. This was the impossible
scenario. After all the fumbling and close calls at the beginning of
their adventure, he'd talked himself into believing that he was invincible.
This simply could not be happening.
For an insane moment, he considered making a run for it, dashing
back onto the airplane and asking for asylum, but he knew it was
hopeless. Even if they didn't shoot him down in the terminal, they'd
just come on board and drag him off. He almost didn't notice that he
was going along with them peacefully.
The first leg of his trip was all of fifty feet, just around the corner to
a tiny office with a couple of chairs and a desk. "Please have a seat here,"
a soldier said. "We'll get this straightened out as soon as possible."
They closed the door and left him sitting there in a hardback chair.
Staring down at him from his perch over the door was a portrait of
General Manuel Antonio Noriega.
The bastard had won.
Out on the concourse, beyond the baggage carousels, Tomás Muñoz
fought the urge to pace. It had been over an hour since he'd cleared Immigration,
and there still was no sign of Kurt. Something was definitely
The word "shopette" rolled around in his mind. He and Kurt had
devised the evacuation code together over a year ago-a simple word
to be transmitted if one of them was ever arrested. The Noriega prisons
were famous for their tortures, and under those circumstances
none of the conspirators harbored any doubt that even the strongest
among them would break and reveal the names of their partners. They
needed a word that would never be used on the radio except in the
direst of circumstances, and at the very moment that Kurt and Tomás
had been discussing the issue, they happened to have been passing in
front of the small base exchange on Albrook Air Force Station near the
Canal Zone-the Shopette.
If ever that word were broadcast, the instructions were clear: they
were each to drop whatever they were doing, gather their families, and
head to Fort Clayton, home of the U.S. Army Southern Command,
where they would seek asylum and protection with the U.S. government.
Even as he considered that maybe this was the time, Tomás found
himself putting the brakes on his imagination. There were a hundred
reasons why Kurt could have been delayed an hour. So how come he
couldn't think of any of them right now?
It was not a signal to be broadcast lightly. When the panic button
was pressed, there was no turning back; it meant a one-way trip out of
the country, never to return. The U.S. intelligence community in Panama
was so riddled with moles that the instant any of them showed up at
the gate, Noriega would know each of their names. They might as well
come wearing "We Are Fugitives" sweatshirts.
There was time, Tomás told himself. It was too early to panic.
Perhaps it could all be settled with a phone call. He knew that
Kurt's daughter, Kimberly, was waiting at the house by herself. He'd
never met the girl, but Kurt talked about her all the time. She had a
good head on her shoulders. All he had to do was call over there and
see if Kurt had arrived home. If the answer was yes, then Tomás could
relax and have a little laugh. If the answer was no ...
Perhaps the question should come from a voice she would recognize.
The ceiling fan churned the air, stirring the humidity without
cooling a thing. As music from the Arosemena's party down the
street filled the night, Kimberly Muse desperately wanted to go to bed,
biology beckoned. The midterm was coming, and if something
didn't click soon, she'd be in big trouble. Her notes lay strewn across
desk, the corners curled by the tropical moisture.
She scooted forward in her chair, hoping to find a cool spot on the
seat, but they'd all been turned hot a long time ago. Here it was going
midnight, and she was still sweating, wearing nothing more than
cutoffs and a T-shirt. It was the pink Esprit T-shirt that always ticked
her dad. He was so out of touch. What was wrong with showing
a little midriff, for crying out loud?
Daddy had become a real grouch recently. Everybody noticed it, even
cousin, Joanna. Aunt Carol and Uncle David were pissed at him,
so were Nana and Papi, and between that and the politics that
made him such a madman, she wondered when he might just explode.
He should have been home hours ago. Navigating customs was
always an adventure at Torrijos Airport, and she should know better
than to worry just because he was running late. But honestly, it
shouldn't ever take this long. Kimberly tried to tell herself that there
were a thousand things that might have gone wrong to delay him and
he was probably just stuck on the plane on some tarmac where he
couldn't get to a phone.
Excerpted from SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM
by KURT MUSE JOHN GILSTRAP
Copyright © 2006 by Kurt Muse and Associates LLC and John Gilstrap, Inc..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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