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"What did he say?" the newsmen asked one another.

The van driver slammed his door shut. Water streamed from his yellow plastic hat. In the minute that he had stood outside with the Salvadoran army officer, the rain had soaked his clothing. Rain hammered on the sheet metal of the passenger van in an unrelenting, overwhelming noise.

Outside, through the sheets of water pouring over the windows, they saw only darkness and smears of light. The headlights of a truck illuminated a blur of rain, thousands of tiny points scratching against the darkness. Where a searchlight shone on the road and the hillsides, they saw smears of mud brown and gray green. At the end of the two-hour drive over washboard roads, they had expected to photograph burned trucks and bodies. But they saw only rain and mud.

The driver shouted over the rain noise. "He say we go back."

"I'm with the New York Times!Who does that beaner think he is?"

"Did you tell him the international correspondent of Peoplemagazine wanted to interview him?"

"How much money does he want?" another reporter shouted out.

"What's he trying to hide?"

"Misters!" The middle-aged, graying driver shouted them down. "He says we go, we go."

"We don't pay you to drive us around in the rain! We want copy and we want photos."

Starting the van's engine, the driver ended the argument. "Mister, I want to live. El capitansays go, I go."

A very overweight young reporter with United Press International slammed his fist into the seat. The reporter's jowls went red with anger and frustration. He slammed his fist into the seat again and again. "Another wasted day!"

"We should have gone with Jose," an older journalist said.

"To visit his girlfriend and her family?" A reporter in the next seat asked with a sneer. "You want to spend a week in some godforsaken village with mud up to your ass?"

A kilometer past the village of Lolotiquillo, the young Puerto Rican they knew as Jose Lopez had taken his backpack and stepped out. "See you next week. My amiga lives here." Then he had shouldered his pack and followed a narrow trail toward a cluster of plank and sheet-tin shacks.

"Maybe you could get exclusive interviews," the fat UPI reporter suggested, "with the pigs and flies."

Light flashed in the back window as the second van followed them down the road. Ahead, their headlights shone into a tunnel of rain and mud. Despite the rain, the air inside the van remained sultry. The reporters and photographers sweated in their seats.

They had left Gotera an hour before dark. Because the vans lacked the heavy-duty suspension and powerful engines of the army troop trucks, the road had forced the hired drivers to slow to only a few kilometers per hour to bump over the rocks and ruts. But knowing a scene of terror and murder awaited their cameras and notebooks made the ride worthwhile. Now the frustrated newsmen knew they faced another hour or two in the storm, then an uncomfortable night on the floors of an abandoned hotel. All for nothing.

Lurching and rocking, the van followed the muddy track across the hill. A lightning flash startled the group.

"This is too much rain," the driver shouted back to them. "Too late in year. Very bad for roads."

"What about the international flights?" one journalist shouted out. "Think there'll be flights out tomorrow?"

"If the rain stops," the driver answered.

"Flying out?" a photographer asked the journalist.

"Damn right. I don't get paid unless I file. I'll bounce over to Lebanon and get a story. I'm tight with the Christian militia..."

"The Druze too?"

"All of them. Depends on who I'm talking to. I'll file a story on anyone who's killing people. Maybe I'll go to Libya and see what's doing. There's got to be a war somewhere."

"There's one here. Somewhere."

Guiding the van slowly around a curve, the driver suddenly stomped on the brake.

"What's the problem?"

"What's happening?"

Flicking on the interior light, the driver raised his hands and put his palms against the windshield.

A black form stepped through the headlights.

The journalists saw a rain-soaked black-uniformed man with a rifle. The man wore a black bandana over his face to cover his features. Only his eyes showed.

In the van's second seat, an American journalist who had covered NATO maneuvers recognized the black-clad soldier's rifle as a U.S. Army weapon: an M-16 automatic rifle fitted with an M-203 grenade launcher.

And in a custom plastic and spring-steel shoulder holster, the man wore a NATO prototype weapon distinguished from all other autopistols by the extended magazine and fold-down off-hand grip-lever: a Beretta 93-R with a sound suppressor.

The journalist knew he now witnessed an international headline. This black-uniformed soldier did not represent any of the Salvadoran guerrilla factions. But the American journalist did not speak to the others. He had his own career to advance. This might get him a Pulitzer Prize. Maybe a few appearances on morning talk shows.

Slipping the lens cap off his motorized Nikon, he set the focus ring at three feet and the f-stop at 1.8. He flicked the camera's exposure-mode to automatic. He braced the camera on the seat in front of him and waited to photograph the man he knew to be an American commando illegally operating in the mountains of Morazan.

The black-clad American went to the driver's door and motioned for the driver to roll down the glass. While the rain poured through the open window, the American and the driver whispered together.

The journalist touched the camera's button. He heard the shutter click open. He held the camera absolutely still as it took an electronically metered exposure of the soldier's face in the window.

"Gracias a Dios!" the driver exclaimed. "Gracias por su ayuda! Mi esposa y mis ninos..."

"De nada," they all heard the commando say. "No es necesita a morirse ustedes en esta guerra."

Then the commando left. As he passed through the headlights, the journalist adjusted the focus and snapped two more photos.

"We stop here," the driver announced. He motioned downhill. "If we go, we die. Terroristaswait..."

The driver saw the journalist snapping photos of the departing commando.

Rounding the curve, the second van's headlights revealed another black-clad commando with an auto-weapon. Both men returned to the night and rain, suddenly gone.

Before the journalist could protect the camera, the driver got up, went to him and snatched the Nikon from his hands. The driver then turned and slammed the camera against the dash, again and again. He tore open the film door. A coil of film came out. The driver tossed the smashed camera out the window.

For a second, the journalist only stared at the driver. Then the American newsman screamed, "You know what you've done? That was a United States Army Special Forces commando! Operating in a war zone! In violation of congressional prohibitions! Those photos would have been on the front page of every newspaper in the world! You are fired! You have just lost your job. You will never work again for the news services. You are out of work!"

The driver smiled. The smile became a chuckle, then a laugh." Si, senor. Perhaps now I have no job. But except for that Yankee soldier..." the driver looked to the darkness where Rosario Blancanales and Carl Lyons had disappeared "...I would have no life."

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