“Damn, these guys ain’t even trying to blend in, are they?” Jack muttered.
“No, they aren’t,” I replied from the back of the van, where I was already snapping pictures. We’d done a few recon passes just by driving through the neighborhood, with the passenger looking like he was texting while he took pictures with his phone, but the bigger Nikon provided better quality, and the van meant that we could get better pictures in general. Trying to be discreet with the phone usually meant that the angles were poor. Sitting in the back seat of the panel van, I had a lot more freedom of movement.
Right at the moment, my viewfinder was filled with a relatively fit young man with a pencil mustache and immaculately gelled hair, wearing shiny pants, an equally shiny black shirt open nearly to his sternum, and a short, white jacket. A thick gold chain around his neck and mirrored aviator sunglasses completed the image. I couldn’t see from our vantage point, but I was sure there was a pistol in his waistband. The handful of other young men around him weren’t as fancily dressed, though they were still wearing that sort of northern Mexican, garish, semi-formal attire that, to someone looking closely, screamed “sicario.” These guys weren’t the baggy-clothed local hoods, any more than the other groups we’d picked out over the last few days.
We’d been in Pueblo for a week. It had been a week of long days, longer nights, and not much sleep.
We’d had very little to go on, initially. I knew a few guys who had done some work down around Pueblo in the past, and they’d offered a little bit of general atmospheric information, the most useful being the fact that the gangs were mostly centered on the East Side. They hadn’t been kidding; it hadn’t taken long to see that the East Side was essentially a no-go zone for anyone who wanted to avoid trouble. Even the local cops steered clear.
As we had cautiously ventured into the East Side, generally either driving through in the beater vehicles we’d bought with cash up in Wyoming, or shuffling through on foot, disguised as one of the numerous derelicts haunting the town’s street corners, we’d started to build a picture. It was, necessarily, incomplete. There’s only so much you can put together by observation over a week. Really getting down into the nitty-gritty of an area’s human terrain takes months. We didn’t figure we had months.
Every city has gangs. They’re part of the wildlife of any urban area, regardless of ethnic makeup. Even the Middle East has gangs, though with the way that part of the world has been going for the last few decades, it’s often hard to pick them out from the Islamist insurgents—often because they’re the same people.
Different cities, of course, depending on local culture and law enforcement, have differing levels of gang problems. Pueblo had a bad one. There were dozens of local gangs, apparently into all sorts of narco trafficking, extortion, car theft, or just plain young, belligerent assholes being violent for the sake of being violent.
But the landscape had changed recently. The out-of-towners, who, even those less flashy than White Jacket out there, stood out if you were paying attention, were only part of the equation.
It was becoming harder, at least in the States, to pick out who was Mara Salvatrucha. The leadership network of MS-13 had, in recent years, started to urge downplaying the extensive tattooing and distinctive clothing—usually with the number “13” plastered all over it—in favor of a lower profile. It was a matter of practicality and an expanding capability. Mara Salvatrucha wasn’t just a gang. It was an international criminal empire, though more of a cellular, corporate one than a hierarchical one. There was still plenty of room for violence and intimidation, but they were finding that the violence was, if anything, more effective when the victims couldn’t see it coming from a mile away.
There were still indicators, though. And if we were reading them right, MS-13 was taking over Pueblo. Big time.
They were everywhere, and we had observed numerous examples of local gangs taking their orders and offering a cut of their take to the MS-13 guys. It was subtle enough to probably be invisible to anyone who wasn’t looking—and a lot of the locals didn’t want to look—but after a while you could pick out the tax collectors and enforcers making their rounds. Sometimes there was some posturing, but it was usually violently quashed by the MS-13 enforcers. There had been five shootings and six stabbings that we knew of within a half-mile radius of where Jack and I were presently parked, just in the last few days.
But if MS-13 was enforcing its rule in Pueblo, even they appeared to defer to the outsiders. We didn’t know exactly which cartels were represented, though I had a feeling that White Jacket was tied in with Guzman-Loera. He had that northern Mexico hilljack flashiness about him. The Sinaloans had been poor Mexican rednecks until they had gotten filthy rich off a combination of narcotics, extortion, and bloody violence, and it still showed.
White Jacket and his entourage piled into a shiny, gold-chased Hummer and the equally garish Escalade parked beside it. They pulled out of the driveway and headed down the street. Jack didn’t turn around, but asked, “Do you want to follow ‘em?”
I scanned the house that they’d come out of. A one-story, orange stucco job with an open porch and a relatively large yard, it looked no different from any of a dozen residential homes. But there were faces in the windows, and though they were too far away and it was too dark inside to tell, I was sure that there were guns there, too.
“Nah,” I answered. “I think we’ve got our target house. This wasn’t just a meet; this is their safehouse. We’ll want to confirm that White Jacket and his buddies are on-site when we hit it, but if not, we can move on to another target. It’s not like we’ve got a shortage.”
Jack snorted. “True enough.” Jack was relatively new to the team; he’d joined up just before Mexico. The sandy-haired former Ranger and SF Weapons Sergeant didn’t talk all that much, and when he did, he tended to be rather acerbic. He was plenty competent, if a bit of a belligerent son of a bitch.
“I’m calling everybody in,” I said. “Time to get this show on the road.” Putting the camera down, I pulled out my phone, a burner pre-paid job, and banged out a quick mass-text. Salt Creek House. 2300. Everyone.
Jack just sat there behind the wheel, leaning back so that he wasn’t that visible, shaded by the sun visor in the windshield. We wouldn’t move for a while; if we drove away too close to White Jacket, it might raise suspicions. We didn’t want our targets to be suspicious. We wanted them fat and happy, ready for the slaughter.
I took a few more snapshots, then pulled out my notebook and got back to planning. The book was already crammed with notes, sketches, and checklists. I kept my eyes roving outside the van’s heavily tinted windows, but my focus was on what was to come.
Some of that was a self-defense mechanism. I’d had far too much time to think on the drive south, and had found my mind going down some very, very dark paths. Burying myself in the preparations, planning, and reconnaissance had helped keep me focused and somewhat even-keeled.
It would have been a little worrying, if I’d let myself think about it. What the hell was I going to do when I didn’t have a mission to focus on and an enemy to hate?
I just told myself that the way the world was going, that eventuality wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon, and shoved it to the back of my mind. Again, probably not the healthiest coping mechanism, but after decades as a gunslinger, I didn’t really have much else.
The Salt Creek safe house wasn’t much to look at, which was why we’d picked it. None of us were staying there on a long-term basis; most of us had been sleeping in cars or in a trailer just outside of town for the last week. Bryan and Derek had each spent a couple nights sleeping in the open, as part of their bum disguises.
The white walls were as dingy as anything I’d seen in the Middle East, and the roof was sagging. It looked like the front porch was about to fall off the face of the house. The front yard was nothing but bare dirt with a bent, mangled cyclone fence around it.
Most of us had parked several blocks away, and worked our way in on foot. Jack and I had actually come in the back way, past piles of junk and beater cars, to jump the fence and enter through the back door, which was barely hanging on its hinges anymore.
Some of our safe houses in the Middle East and even Mexico had been turned into op centers, with maps, laptops, and tracking boards arranged in a central room. We weren’t playing this one that way. We wanted to be able to break contact and get the hell out of Dodge at a moment’s notice, without leaving anything behind. A large part of that was because none of us really wanted to cross swords with American law enforcement, and regardless of how evil the scumbags we were planning to put in the ground were, the cops were going to have to try to look into it.
So instead, we had a couple of tablets, notebooks, and reams of photos printed out at the local Kinkos. All of it would be packed up and go with us when we left the safe house.
It was a dirty, grungy-looking bunch of peckerwoods that was gathered in the living room in the sickly light of a fluorescent Coleman lantern at midnight, and I’m including Ben, the sole black guy on the team, in that definition. We called him “Carleton” for being “the whitest black man,” which never ceased to get a rise out of him, but when the dude dressed more cowboy than any of the rest of us and listened to bluegrass all the time, it was going to happen.
“All right,” I said, getting things going, “we’ve got four major targets. Any MS-13 that gets taken out in the process is an added bonus.” We had our target packages laid out on the floor in four vague groups. I pointed to the first one. “Here’s number one; Fat Boy. We don’t know for sure who this guy is, but Raoul’s fairly confident that a couple of his buddies are former Los Zetas shooters. They’ve networked with several of the local gangs, and recon has identified several possible spotter groups loitering around his safe house. At least one of those is going to need to get taken out before we make the main assault. Preferably, we’ll nail two of them; hitting one a couple minutes before the other should hopefully provide enough of a distraction to have everybody looking the wrong way when the real hit goes down.”
I pulled out the tablet with our overhead imagery on it, and got it centered on the target neighborhood. I pointed to the known spotter locations. “These kids are usually hanging out on these corners, and stay until about midnight. Groups of five or so. They do the usual gangbanger stuff, too, including intimidation, the occasional robbery, and drug dealing, but they’re definitely staying there as lookouts. This one on the north is probably going to be the easiest to hit first, so, Bryan, you’ve got that one. You’ve got the special present?”
Bryan nodded, lifting the ratty backpack packed with explosives and nails. “Right here,” he said. “And I’ve got the detonator, just to make sure none of you fuckers get any ideas.” It wasn’t much of a joke, but it got dark chuckles anyway. We were in that kind of mood.
“Just make sure you look pathetic enough that they can’t resist robbing you,” Ben said, “though that shouldn’t be too hard for you.” Bryan flipped him off.
The banter was a good sign. The rest of the team wasn’t any better balanced after what had happened than I was, and the drive south had been a quiet one, overshadowed by a quiet, murderous anger. The fact that we could still fuck with each other meant that we hadn’t gone all the way over the edge. Once things got quiet and the “dead face” started to be seen, then it would be time to worry.
And yes, there’s a difference between “dead face” and “game face.” I’d been around long enough to recognize it, though I probably wasn’t so well qualified as to judge properly which one I was wearing.
“All right, knock it off,” I said. It might have been a good sign, but we needed to get this brief done and scatter before too many people noticed that there was a light on in this house. “Coordination is going to suck, since we can’t be on comms all the time. A vagrant on a cell phone…well, it’s not impossible these days, but it’s still a possible compromise that we can’t really risk. So, Bryan, you’ll stay out of sight until we’ve confirmed that the target is there. I’ll contact you by cell, then you can move on your targets.” He nodded, his game face back on.
“Derek is going to be Drive-by Bum. He’ll be with the main strike force until it’s time to move. Again, as far as coordination goes, once I’ve given Bryan the go-ahead, Derek will close on his target group. Going hot is on Bryan. Once he gets ‘mugged,’ he’ll run away and clack off the backpack. We’ll be close enough to hear it. The boom is your go signal, Derek.” The hatchet-faced, dark-haired, former SF guy nodded. Derek was our resident computer geek, but he wasn’t your ordinary pencil-necked, soft-as-baby-shit image of a geek. The guy was just as much of a killer as any of the rest of us; he wouldn’t have been on a team if he wasn’t. That didn’t stop him from being the team’s resident oddball, but for once he didn’t decide to add one of his quips in the middle of the brief.
I traced the road up to the house we’d fingered as Fat Boy’s safe house. “Once we’ve got our hole, we roll up and execute. The plan is still to make it look like a drive-by, though we won’t be fucking around; no 9mms on this job.” More nods. We already had the two M60E4s loaded in the van. “At the risk of making it look more professional, Larry, Eric, and Jack will be flankers. As soon as we pull up, you guys are going to bail out and sprint your asses off to the back of the house to make sure we get any squirters.
“Nobody gets out of that fucking house alive,” I stressed. I didn’t need to reiterate it, either. There was a deadly glint in every eye that was looking back at me.
These assholes had fucked with the wrong guys.
“After the initial fires, we’ll have no more than five minutes to sweep the house and clean up anybody still breathing,” I went on. “There won’t be any SSE; at this point I don’t give a shit about additional intel, and we don’t want to get caught in Blackhawk Down in Pueblo at one in the morning. We’ll sweep the house, make sure the job’s done, and get the fuck out. Questions?” Nobody raised a hand. We had, after all, been hashing out the vague outline of this plan all the way south from The Ranch. We’d just needed the specifics to fill in the blanks.
“While the East Side is apparently a no-go zone for the cops, we don’t want to take chances on crossing them. I don’t want any dead cops on our hands. So, Derek’s going to set up a rash of 911 calls to draw just about every cop in the city off to the west.”
“Already done,” Derek put in. “It’s just waiting for me to send the command. And there might be a couple other nasty little surprises built in.” He grinned evilly, though when I raised an eyebrow at him—the “extra surprises” had not been in the plan—he spread his hands innocently. “Nothing too destructive,” he said, “but they need to stay tied up for a while. I’ve got a couple contingencies worked up for it. Their comms are going to be fucked for a while, and I’ve got several bots that should have them chasing ‘assault in progress’ for a couple of hours.”
“At least until they figure out that they’re chasing ghosts, while there’s audible gunfire and explosions coming from the East Side,” Eric pointed out, rubbing his shaved head.
“But there’s always gunfire coming from the East Side,” Derek pointed out. As if to punctuate his statement, we heard three pistol shots in the distance. “The cops are already wary about investigating any of it. If they do come in after us, they’ll be inclined to come in force, and that’s going to take time to organize. All I’ve got to buy us is a few minutes.”
“Fine,” I said. “It sounds like a good idea. We’ll roll with it.” I’d learned a while ago to let Derek do his magic when it came to computers. I wasn’t a Luddite, but I wasn’t any kind of code geek, either. Derek knew that sorcery and I didn’t. I deferred to his expertise. “Make sure you take one of Logan’s party favors,” I added, “just in case you’ve got to drop it and run.”
“Already planning on it,” he replied. Logan Try was our aging, thoroughly cantankerous gear guy. He hadn’t deployed since East Africa, but had instead ensconced himself in the machine shop behind the barn. He’d sent a duffel bag full of scratch-built 9mm bullet-hose submachine guns with us. They were of considerably higher quality than most of the homemade firearms that cropped up on gun blogs every once in a while, and more durable than the polymer 3D printed jobs. They were also completely without serial numbers, and completely untraceable if we had to dump them.
“All right,” I said, checking my watch. “I’ve got 2320. Let’s aim for Time on Target of 0100. Final go time is situation dependent.” I looked around the dim room. “Last chance. Did I forget anything?”
A few guys shook their heads. We gathered up what we’d brought and slipped out in ones and twos, careful to leave the house looking as dilapidated and abandoned as it had been when we’d arrived.
Even with the back seats all stripped out, the van was crowded. None of us were especially small guys, and we’d brought a lot of firepower. And since the flanker team was poised to go out the back doors as soon as we stopped, they weren’t exactly sitting comfortably, but crouched in the back, weapons held ready, holding on to the walls as best they could as the van swayed down the street. Ben was braced across from the sliding door, one of the 60s across his knees. Nick was driving, and I was in the right seat. I’d considered using one of Logan’s toys, but had stuck with my SOCOM 16. Derek had one of the cheap little bullet hoses because he was getting to bad-breath distance, and might have to break off in a hurry. I had wheels, and was probably going to be shooting through walls and windows. I wanted a rifle.
We were waiting in the shadows, under a burned-out streetlight, a few blocks from the target house. We could actually see Derek’s targets, a group of four vatos lounging under another streetlight on the corner a couple blocks ahead. Derek was already out and shuffling toward them. I’d just gotten off the phone with Bryan, and we were going hot.
At least, we were supposed to be. Derek had needed to slow his roll, stumbling and sitting down in the gutter for a moment, because the expected boom hadn’t come yet.
Then we heard a series of four loud pops to the north. Nick and I looked at each other. That wasn’t good.