Twelve hours later, aching with fatigue and sleep-deprivation, we pulled off and headed to another one of the myriad abandoned houses that we’d picked out as safe houses elsewhere in the city.
“Well, that’s interesting,” I said, looking around at the weary, grimy faces gathered in the shadowed living room. At least, I think it was supposed to have been a living room. It was just an empty space covered in dust and debris at that point. We were keeping well back from the broken front windows to avoid being easily spotted from the street. “Nobody saw any police response at all?” I looked at Derek. “I know you were monitoring their comm freqs. Even the IED wasn’t enough to stir ‘em?”
He shook his head. “They were aware of it. Several calls came in, from locals and police units. But there was no response from dispatch except to say, ‘Yeah, we know.’” He shrugged. “They knew that the wild goose chases I had them on were probably connected to it, too, judging by a couple of the responses to the bots’ 911 calls. But they still didn’t lift a finger to go into the East Side.”
“That is very interesting,” I mused, scratching my beard as I stared at the map.
“I guess the East Side is more of a ‘no-go’ zone than we thought,” Eric said. “Just like down by the border.”
“It’s more than that,” Jack said. “It’s parallel governance, just judging by what we saw last night.”
I had to nod. Parallel governance was an old concept, though it had really only started getting called that, or “shadow governance” in the aftermath of the COIN wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was essentially a situation where an irregular force established its own, parallel set of laws and public services, in direct opposition to the local, legitimate government’s institutions. We’d seen a lot of it in the Middle East. Hell, we’d been part of it in Basra, before the alliance of militias that we’d helped push out the Iranian-backed Provincial Police Force turned on us.
Jack was right. What we’d seen the night before, in the aftermath of the hit, had been textbook parallel governance. Groups of gangbangers had descended on the target shortly after we’d gotten clear, and immediately taken control of the scene before starting to patrol the neighborhoods and search nearby houses and people, looking for us. It had been characteristically brutal and sloppy, as one might expect from MS-13, but it had been crudely professional all the same.
“It might explain why the cartel reps came here,” Larry suggested. “If MS-13 has firm enough control of the East Side, the underground had to know that it was the place to go if you wanted to contract them in the States.”
“Makes me wonder how long they’ve been in control here,” Nick muttered. “If they’ve got the cops scared enough not to risk crossing them at all.”
“Doesn’t need to have been that long,” I mused. “Look at what happened down south after Gila Bend.” A very well-known—one might almost say “infamous” in certain circles—sheriff had been gruesomely murdered in the town of Gila Bend, after which local law enforcement in Arizona generally stayed out of the cartels’ way south of Phoenix. “First, they start pushing other gangs, then they start offering protection to locals against them. Then they start enforcing their own taxes and tariffs on the locals. Kill a couple cops who get nosy, along with a few locals who might stand up to them. For all we know, they deliberately staged it so that the locals called the cops, then had to watch the cops get murdered, before they killed the locals who called. I’d be willing to bet that with as much anti-cop sentiment as there is floating around that the local PD decided it was better not to risk new riots over dead gangbangers and stay out. The locals might not like having MS-13 run the show, but they’d rather that than getting gruesomely murdered for talking.”
“That would explain why we got fuck-all for intel when we first got here,” Jack said. “They’re de facto loyal to the gangs because they don’t want to rock the boat, so they’re not going to talk to a bunch of outsiders asking questions.”
“Well, that means one thing,” Bryan said. “We shouldn’t have to worry about the local cops getting in the way. Open season, motherfuckers.”
“Not for a while, anyway,” I said. “But I’d be hesitant to put too much faith in that. Bombs going off or no, last night could be put down as an isolated incident. Once we start really stacking bodies, that could very well change. Remember, we found out the hard way that there are never only one or two factions at work once this shit starts hitting the fan. We leave enough corpses in the streets, the Feds might get involved. Then it’s going to be a different ballgame.”
“Getting back to the more immediate stuff,” Ben said. “It does look like the targets just hunkered down and didn’t try to run. They must be relying on MS-13 pretty heavily for their security. We saw some extra firepower out on the porch where White Jacket’s staying, but he didn’t go anywhere.”
“Same here,” Bryan said. “Slick stayed put. There were armed men in the windows, but nobody outside.”
“Again, good news for now, but subject to change once things get hot enough,” I said. “For the moment, I think we can essentially consider the East Side to be Indian Country, and the rest of the town to be a—relatively—safe zone. That’s going to make it easier. Let’s not get too comfortable and fuck it up, though. Mara Salvatrucha might not control the rest of Pueblo, but I guaran-fucking-tee that they’ve got eyes everywhere.” I checked my watch. It was getting toward noon. “Let’s bed down and get some rest. At least five hours each. Larry, since Jim’s gone, you’re ATL. Set the watch up.” I didn’t even choke when I said that, though I did feel my throat get momentarily thick.
“We’re taking White Jacket tonight,” I said, letting the hate burn out the grief. “We’ll approach it a little differently. I’ve got some ideas, but we’ll get to that at the brief. For now, everybody get some shut-eye.”
I stayed up just long enough to work out the watch rotation with Larry. I could tell it was bothering the big guy to be taking Jim’s job. It bothered all of us. It wasn’t like replacements were new, but something about this time just felt different.
After making sure I got the middle watch, giving the rest of the guys as much uninterrupted sleep as possible, I promptly crashed in the corner.
It was stuffy as hell lying under that dusty, probably moldy, tarp in the bed of the old, rusty Duramax. I thought back to Basra, where we’d ambushed a bunch of Ansar al-Khilafah fighters in the cemetery. We’d buried ourselves under a tarp in a shallow ditch and waited. This wasn’t that much different.
I was behind my SOCOM 16, with the tarp carefully arranged to conceal me and the rifle, while still allowing enough of a peephole that I could see through the scope and shoot without too much blast giving away my position. The tarp was still going to move when I fired, but then, this wasn’t a schoolhouse stalk, either.
For the moment, I was staring down about three hundred meters of empty street, my scope dialed back to widen my field of view as I watched the house where Jack and I had observed White Jacket and his cronies. Or tried to, at least. There were trees and other houses in the way, but I could still make out the cars in the front and the street was clear. That was all I needed for this part of the hit.
“Anything moving?” Jack asked from the driver’s seat. We had a hole drilled between the cab and the bed, so we could chat without having to raise our voices.
“Nope,” I replied. “Looks like two guys in a car parked out front, but nobody seems to be moving around. I think they’re still hunkered down.”
“Guess it’s time to get them moving, then,” Jack muttered.
Almost right on cue, the radio came to life. “I’m in position whenever you guys are,” Eric announced.
I reached up carefully to dial up the scope’s magnification before tucking my off hand against the stock. The rifle’s forearm was resting on a sandbag in front of me, and I’d taken the time earlier to get it well-seated. Recoil would move it a little bit, but it was about as stable a shooting platform as I was going to get in the bed of a pickup truck.
I had to shift my position slightly to make sure as much of my body was behind the rifle as possible as I set the reticle on the first guy, the dude in the dark collared shirt buttoned all the way up sitting in the passenger’s seat. It wasn’t a long shot, not by any means. Hell, I’d killed a Somali militia leader at almost four times the distance a few years before, lying on the roof of a van. But fundamentals are fundamentals.
Letting out my breath, my finger tightened on the trigger. It broke as cleanly as ever, and the rifle boomed, painfully loud from inside the truck bed, in spite of the folds of tarp trapping some of the blast. The flapping plastic cut off my view through the scope momentarily, but I’d known right where the reticle had been when the shot had broken, so I wasn’t too worried. I just had to get my loophole back so that I could deal with the second guy.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long to get the tarp out of my way, and I focused in on the target car again. As I’d figured, the guy I’d shot was sitting slumped in the passenger seat, behind the neat, spiderwebbed hold in the windshield. He wasn’t moving. If my shot call was right, I’d put the bullet right through the top of his heart.
There was no sign of the second gangbanger. The driver’s seat was empty. They must have been jumpy after the night before; old boy had bailed out as soon as his buddy got schwacked.
For a long moment, nothing else happened. There was no immediate response to the killing, though I had no doubt that the surviving sentry had low-crawled his ass inside and was at that moment screaming at the rest of his eses that they were under attack. They were probably arming up and getting ready to shoot back when the drive-by started.
But we weren’t playing the same game we had the night before.
My shot had been the signal to Eric, who had been crouched in an alley not far from the target house. As soon as I’d fired, he would have started moving.
A flash was followed by a heavy, window-rattling thud and a boiling cloud of smoke rising into the evening air. Eric had just tossed a grenade into the target’s back yard, and, if he was following the plan, was even then booking his ass away from the scene, hopefully in a different direction than he’d used on approach.
At first, there was still no response. They had to be hunkered down, ears ringing from the blast, wondering just what direction the attack was really coming from.
I heard the rear window slide open, as Jack got himself positioned. I’d initially wanted him to stay behind the wheel. The driver drives. If we needed to get clear in a hurry, the seconds it could take him to get turned back around could be the difference between life and death. But he’d pointed out that I might be a good shot, but one rifle against however many vatos came pouring out of that house was probably not a good set of odds.
The quiet, broken only by barking dogs and surprisingly few people shouting, stretched out. MS-13 must have really had that part of the city cowed, if that kind of violence went relatively unremarked and unresisted. Of course, the other possibility was that we’d misread the situation, and these people were just too shocked by explosives going off in their neighborhoods to have the presence of mind to do much more than keep their heads down.
From what I’d seen, my money was on the first option. I’d seen Mara Salvatrucha in action, more than once, and if they were operating this openly, without police interference, then they had to have spilled quite a bit of blood to make sure nobody got in their way.
The stillness dragged on, as the cloud of smoke and dust from the grenade detonation drifted down the street. The local dogs were still barking furiously, but the neighborhood had otherwise gone silent, as the more vocal inquirers were hushed by the more cautious of their families, friends, or neighbors. Whatever was going on out on the street, it wasn’t their concern. Let the gangsters and narcos fight it out.
Finally, there was movement. Half a dozen figures ran out into the street, scrambling into cars. We were close enough that even in the low light, I could make out White Jacket, though he wasn’t dressed as fancily as he had been before.
Jack and I opened fire at almost the same instant, without saying a word of coordination. The targets were there, it wasn’t a hard shot, and we went to town.
I started on the right side of the street, killing White Jacket’s driver with the first shot. The tarp flapped with the muzzle blast again, covering the scope, and I hastily ripped it back so that I could see. I could worry about concealment later. Right at the moment, I wanted to make sure that we didn’t let any of these bastards get away.
White Jacket had ducked down below the seat backs, though he hadn’t gone down far enough. I could just make out movement through the shattered windshield. I pumped three more rounds through the seats before moving on.
Jack had already dropped the three who had crossed the street to the lowrider pickup parked there, so that just left one, and I couldn’t see him.
“Where’s the last one?” I asked.
“I think he’s hiding behind White Jacket’s car,” Jack answered. He hadn’t had his visibility cut off by the tarp. “I can’t hit him from here.” He paused. “You want to close and finish him off?’
I thought about it for a second. After the night before, MS-13 was going to be descending on this neighborhood pretty quick. And letting one guy survive to tell the tale might not be a bad thing. “Nah, let’s get gone.”
“Roger.” I heard him slide the back window shut. A moment later, as I rearranged the tarp to conceal myself, he fired up the truck and started to pull away from the curb.
Another one down. One more to go before morning. There was still plenty of darkness to work with.
I hadn’t been wrong about MS-13 responding more quickly. We’d hardly gone a block before I heard engines roaring and tires squealing. I couldn’t see shit until they were past, but I tensed up. If we were spotted, they were going to come after us, and we were going to have to fight our way out. We could expect none of the niceties of even Middle Eastern cops, not here. These were bad guys, and we would either go undetected, or we were going to have to kill them all.
I remembered Jim talking about the necessity of avoiding engagements that could be avoided, when the mission wasn’t just killing everybody. They presented more points of failure, increasing the odds that the whole mission would go pear-shaped without being accomplished.
That thought just made me want to bang on the cab and tell Jack to stop. I wanted to slaughter all those sons of bitches. But Jim, or Jim’s ghost, was right. That wasn’t the mission. Not this time. Kill the ones who gave the orders. That was the mission, and killing a bunch of cannon fodder wasn’t going to get that done. It would only tie us up and give the real assholes time to run for it.
It would probably get us all killed in the process, too, but my fixation on killing the ones who had killed Jim in our own backyard had shoved that to a secondary consideration.
If I’d had more time and inclination for self-reflection, I might have wondered why losing Jim had driven me to this point more than losing Colton, Hank, Rodrigo, Bob, Paul, Mike, or any of the others who had gone down in the years we’d been running around Third World hellholes killing people and breaking their shit. Looking back, I could only figure that having it happen Stateside, on our own turf, had been the breaking point.
None of that was going through my head as Jack slow-rolled the Duramax around the corner, the lights out, then slowly accelerated away. I just gritted my teeth, braced myself against the wheel wells, and started getting my mind on the next target.
White Jacket had been easy. He’d had a relatively small entourage, and his safe house had been equally small and in a relatively quiet, dark neighborhood.
Slick was going to be another matter.
While he was by no means the toughest nut we had to crack in Pueblo, he had taken over a garage on the south side of Highway 96 as his safe house, and had a lot of sicarios with him, close to a platoon. Deeper into the East Side, there were lots of shadows to hide in, alleys to slip through, and vehicles to cover our approach. Slick’s garage had some long sightlines and a lot of open ground around it. Getting close was not going to be easy.
Eric had nicknamed this guy “Slick” both because of his hair, which he wore longish and slicked back, and because he looked like he was more than a little wet behind the ears. None of us actually thought he was. He wouldn’t be representing a cartel this far north if he hadn’t done his bit. Baby-faced he might be, but he was a made man, and probably had a lot of blood on his hands.
If we’d had more firepower along, I’d have been more than happy to launch one of those thermobaric RPG-27 rounds we’d had in Iraq into the garage and call it good. We’d nailed an Iranian target in Basra that way. As long as we hit the garage, nobody inside would be getting out. They’d be cooked as the round mixed its fuel with the inside air and ignited it.
But we didn’t have RPGs or thermobarics, so we were going to have to approach this a little differently.
South was an open field, and Eric had spotted what looked very much like sentries on the perimeter. East and west were residential houses, and there was a gas station across the highway to the north. Our approaches were limited, and Slick’s security was going to be on the alert.
My first thought had been to do something not unlike our approach to taking White Jacket out. Considering what we’d seen of Slick’s PSD, they were a little more arrogant and aggressive than some of the other gangs in the area. My idea had been to stage a drive-by shooting, then ambush them when they came out and pursued.
Larry had pointed out the flaw in my scheme. Given the events of the previous night, and the attack on White Jacket, word of which was probably going to spread quickly as MS-13 tried to lock down the East Side, it was entirely possible that the bad guys would refuse to be cocky, and would hunker down and wait for us to either come in after them, or for reinforcements to get there. That would throw our entire plan sideways.
So, we came up with Plan B, which sort of wound up becoming Plan A. Prep had taken a bit of doing; after all, we had come south with enough firepower and explosives to fight, not to get fancy.
Which was why I looked up at the ramshackle contraption that we’d thrown together in a couple of hours that afternoon with a certain amount of skepticism.
“I am still in no way convinced that this is going to work,” I said.
“Well,” Derek said, “it either works or it doesn’t. There wasn’t exactly a good way to test it beforehand.”
“Oh, I know,” I replied. Derek, Larry, Jack, and I were presently crouched in a darkened alley just about straight across the highway from the target garage. Derek was putting the finishing touches on his latest monstrosity, while the rest of us held security and tried not to think of all the ways this plan could go very, very badly.
Plan A, or Plan B, or whatever it was called—Derek had started calling it Plan F U—was a flatbed with half a dozen 55-gallon drums of gasoline strapped down in the back, along with a few of the carefully rationed explosives that we’d brought south with us. It wasn’t pretty, and it was going to be anything but precise, but it was the best we could come up with on short notice. Call it a suicide truck bomb, hopefully without the “suicide” part.
“If this was a manual,” Derek continued, his voice muffled from where he was buried in the truck’s cab, “I don’t think this would even work at all.” He grunted as he fixed the anti-theft rod to the steering wheel. It should keep the truck from veering too significantly off course, though much of any kind of obstacle could still knock it aside. “I’m still not sure we’re going to get enough speed going quick enough.”
“It just has to get through a roller door,” I pointed out. “With as much weight as this thing is carrying, it doesn’t have to be going full speed.”
He reached up next to the steering column and turned the key. The engine coughed to life with a roar. “I hope those boys are ready,” he said, just audible over the noise. “Thumbs up, let’s do this.”
Holding down the brake with all the weight he could put on it, he proceeded to wedge a brick against the gas pedal. The engine roared even louder, and the truck started to inch forward, despite his pressure on the brake.
I reached up and grabbed him by the back of his chest rig, yanking him out of the cab as hard as I could. I did not want Derek getting dragged along with that thing. He still got a little banged up as the truck surged forward, catching his side with the door column as it rolled out onto the highway.
I barely caught him as he was knocked sideways by the impact, both of us staggering against the wall of the bicycle shop that flanked the alley. “Ow,” he muttered.
The truck was trundling across the highway by then. As Derek had expected, it was not picking up a great deal of speed, but at least it was still moving in a more or less straight line. It drifted to the left just enough to hit the curb at the entrance to the alley that Derek had aimed it at, but bumped over it and kept going. If anything, instead of getting hung up, the curb had actually corrected its course a little.
It continued to accelerate, smashing through a signboard before hitting the garage. It wasn’t quite centered on the rollup door, but by that time it was moving fast enough that it didn’t really matter. It pulverized the wall and the doorframe as it plunged inside the garage.
I hoped that it would run up against something solid enough in there to stop it, but I was careful with my timing, just in case. Jack was still watching our six, down the alley, but Derek, Larry and I had spread out to cover the open parking lot between us and the garage, though only Derek and Larry had their guns up. I had a small burner cell phone in my hand.
As the truck smashed its way inside the garage, I mashed the “call” button.
A lot of the pyrotechnics at air shows and in Hollywood movies are created by putting a small amount of explosive, usually TNT, in a barrel of gasoline and setting it off. It produces a nice, big, impressive fireball, without a lot of frag or blast. Given the nearness of residential houses, and our own relative lack of explosives, we made it work.
With a rolling boom, a roiling orange fireball blasted through the inside of the garage, licking out of every opening. In seconds, the entire building was fully involved, a thick cloud of black smoke rising into the night sky.
Dropping the cell phone into a side pocket of my trousers, I brought my rifle up and watched for squirters. A few shots cracked off in the distance; Ben, Eric, Nick, and Bryan were set up in pairs along a couple more avenues to pick off anyone who got out, or any sentries who were outside the building when the VBIED hit. They were doing their work, but it didn’t sound like they had many targets. I doubted anybody had gotten out of there, at least not in any condition to need a bullet.
It was a hell of a way to go, but war is hell. They shouldn’t have come north.
In the distance, for the first time that night, I heard sirens. I looked west, but couldn’t see anything. Still, it sounded like they might be coming closer. Maybe we’d crossed the line where law enforcement couldn’t look the other way anymore.
That was not a good sign. I keyed the radio. “Everybody pull off, regroup at One Two Seven.” As always, we’d gridded out the city and set numerical reference and rally points to use over the radio. We were encrypted, but there were a lot of EM sniffers out there.
The four of us turned and hustled down the alley. We’d hit our targets for the night, but I didn’t think we were done.
I had a nasty suspicion that we were about to have to pull some cops’ asses out of the fire.